On Pei Jing’s Bared at Tiananmen

By Yuanyuan Tang

Many people might think of Chinese art as not aging. However, as the times of stability were abruptly interrupted by violent political or social revolts in Chinese history, those revolts inevitably resulted in cultural changes, thus reflected in the arts. Therefore, evolved as artists’ innovative attitudes toward the established foundations of traditional Chinese art, postmodern Chinese art has gone through lots of transformation in the past thirty years.

Pei Jing’s Bared at Tiananmen is a powerful and dynamic postmodern paradigm featuring the artist’s mixture of iconic imagery and ideas. The painting depicts two nude figures standing in Tiananmen Square, where Chinese citizens used to demand more freedom against the policies of the Communist government. These two figures are wearing Red Army caps, surrounded by sunflowers – a signifier of loyalty to President Mao – and other suggestive symbols like butterflies. The vibrant colors that Pei Jin applied in the painting are also eye-catching and powerful: the gradual changing blues on both the sky and the ground adds layers of mystery, yet the bloody red Tiananmen illuminates the story behind.

The government’s violent crackdown of Tiananmen Square in 1989 was a politically significant event on a global scale. Members of the Communist Party who had sided with the protesters were violently purged, which was not allowed to be publicized in China. Even though nowadays, this painting would be prohibited from display. By portraying the tension between desiring the freedom of expression and remaining loyal to the Communist Party, the artist shows his ways of questioning contemporary cultural standards, as well as challenging authority and history.

On Bared at Tiananmen, the humiliated yet freakish postures of the two figures uncover the fragility of freedom in modern China. While they cover up the body, these two figures introduce us to take an in-depth look and contemplate their sophisticated natures. Besides, they are also staring into our eyes, sharply returning the gaze of repressive hierarchical authority. When we recall masses parading through streets, students occupying the Square and army tanks grinding down boulevards in 1989, Tiananmen Square on Pei Jin’s painting has become a global iconography of regime violence as much as a tragedy in the history of revolt.

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Bared at Tiananmen

Pei Jing

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Laylah Ali’s Greenheads at the Johnson Museum

By Daniela Pimentel

Last fall, the Johnson Museum held an exhibition of more than forty paintings from Laylah Ali’s series titled Greenheads. The precisely delineated gouache works on paper are best interpreted as a group, as each work presents different tableaux of interaction between Ali’s pared down figures of power that seem to inhabit a peculiar political universe. Cartoonish figures sport a range of costumes and signifiers, from white pope-like headpieces to black ski masks on the head or just the eyes. All are depicted with green heads (as the title would suggest) that confuse the viewer seeking to identify race, and gender or age distinctions are just as difficult to pin down. Their actions are less ambiguous than the figures’ appearance – the Greenheads engage in torture, murder, beheadings, salutes, and the mutilation of various limbs. Their bodies and faces are rendered as simply and cleanly as possible, and impart more about relationships, identities, and structures of power because they are boiled down to simple bodily and facial signifiers of conflict, war, and violence. The visage of each Greenhead features a crude expression of grief, anger, pain, or fear that grips the viewer through its fundamental rendering of the surface-face, flat and full of holes.

Upon first viewing the Greenheads, I immediately attempted to parse the circumstances and groups responsible for the obvious conflict in front of me. There was clearly some sort of revolt, though never clear for what purpose or from which set of figures to another. It soon became clear that the point of navigating through these signs and signifiers was to become aware of what we look at and look for when we see images of revolt. And because of the engrossing seriality of the Greenheads, we witness the circularity, manifestation, networking and variation of signifiers and faciality. We see expression and costume change, and with it the actions of the figures re-territorialized and redefined. It is a body of work in which power structures and the regimes of signs are laid bare for the viewer to explore which signs and signifiers we respond to in different visualizations of power and revolt.

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El sueño de la razon produce monstruos (The sleep of reason produces monsters)

By Virginia Girard

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El sueño de la razon produce monstruos (The sleep of reason produces monsters),

Plate 43 of “Los Caprichos”

Francisco José de Goya

ca. 1797; 18th century

Francisco José de Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is one print in a series that embodies several interpretations of the exhibition theme, offering the viewer psychological, political, and grotesque forms of revolt. “Los Caprichos” is a set of 80 prints created in 1797 ad 1798 as both an experiment and a rebellious act against Spanish society. The unusually large number of prints in the series can be attributed to Goya’s vast criticisms of Spain, which ranged from condemning the ignorance of the ruling class to decrying the predominance of superstition in popular culture. Goya included brief explanations of each image in a manuscript to shed light on his somewhat cryptic intentions.

This unique combination of text and illustration is a form of artistic revolt, in which the artist has found both literature and art too weak to communicate singularly. Goya’s fantastical illustrations depart from reality, making use of supernatural creatures to suggest the world he depicts is surreal, defying the laws of order in their perversity. This departure from the laws of nature is, in effect, the “Sleep of reason” Goya refers to in this print. In accordance with the ambiguous caption “The Sleep of reason produces monsters” the sleeping figure embodies Goya’s opinion of the state of humanity itself. Spain, he asserts, has lost its sense of self-awareness, having degenerated into a numbness that is blind to all faults in society. The creatures that rise behind the sleeping figure symbolize the mind’s revolt, in which the immoralities of man have overtaken the virtues and won control. The bats and birds loom over the figure, emerging from unseen depths to emphasize the mysterious nature of human evil.

Goya’s series introduces the disturbing idea that perhaps the most revolting qualities of humanity are the unseen, intangible beliefs and thoughts that reside in our subconscious. His print warns viewers that the mind has a monumental capacity for imagination; when reason is abandoned, this imagination can revolt against its beholder, and effectively become an internal form of imprisonment.

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A HAMS Update!

Hello! I am Haley Knapp, Social Media Chair of HAMS and as we are almost done with the semester, I wanted to give a little update of what our HAMS members have been up to this semester, where we are in developing our exhibition, and what our weekly meetings have been like! This week is our last week of pulling works. For the past few months, everyone has been developing ideas through works that we have pulled from not only the Johnson Museum’s own collection, but from the Rare and Manuscript Collection in Kroch as well, expanding our resources to really get in touch with what Cornell has to offer and how we, as art history students, can use those resources to develop our exhibition to its greatest potential. Pulling works and discussing them during weekly meetings has been not only fun, but really helping to develop what our exhibition theme, Revolt, really means in terms of what works we should incorporate, how we, each member, define the word, and how we want it to reach our audience.  Our decision to create an exhibitionRevolt comes at a time in our world when there has recently been so much political turmoil and we are seeking to incorporate that into the meaning of our exhibition. We are looking at revolt through an art historical, political, and cultural lens in however photographers, artists, sculptors, have chosen to identify it.

Every member has been really passionate in discussing the works that they have pulled for the meetings, and this will definitely show in our completed exhibition, not only in the display of the works, but in our catalogue as well. One meeting we were able to get a tour of the Surrealism and Magic exhibition from Andy Weislogel Two weeks ago, we were lucky enough to have a visitor during our meeting. Tameka Norris was up at Cornell for an artist’s talk about her work in the New Orleans Biennial and gave us some great insight about how we wanted to present our exhibition to the visitors that will be attending. Then, last week we were fortunate to get to go down into main storage and see works that aren’t available to the public at the current moment.

Check us out on Facebook and Instagram (@insta__hams) to see more pictures, and stay up to date on events we may be having!

Here are some pictures of some of our meetings and the different things we have been doing each week!

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On Christopher Pinney’s Lecture – “Ganga and the Cellphone: On the Civil Contract of Photography in India”

By Lara Abouhamad

How many times a day do you take a picture on your cellphone?

In a society where Snapchat and Instagram define a huge portion of social interactions, it is often hard to think about how revolutionary this mere click of a button could be – especially on a device so small and mobile. This feat of mobility was central to Christopher Pinney’s lecture in which he explained the revolutionary (!!) effects of cell phone photography in India, that arise from the newfound portability and widespread accessibility of these devices. Christopher Pinney, a Professor of Anthropology and Visual Culture at University College London, focuses many of his studies on Indian culture, especially on the peripheral villages. This particular lecture focused on what villages are doing with image and photography through the use of cell phones and other mobile devices. Pinney opened his lecture with the question: “What happens when photographic means become smaller and faster?”

Pinney argues the two sides of this coin – stating that this media incarnates both the utopia and dystopia within these societies. Firstly, in the sense of utopia, this newfound accessibility creates a certain democratization within society by including the lower classes in the modern discourse of media, who are now given a voice of sorts through their ability to create images. By calling on Ariella Azoulay’s study of photography in the Palestinian movement, Pinney advocates for the photographic citizenship of the oppressed that stands in stark juxtaposition with their lack of actual citizenship. In such, these Indian villages explore the subversive potential of photography, defying the colonial gaze that once defined them. On the other side of this phenomenon, Pinney reveals the stagnant aspects of some of these villages, in which some prohibit village girls from using mobile phones. Pinney also addresses the concept of the “myth of photographic” which takes on a new dimension in these villages. Through the new accessibility to photographic devices and photo-editing softwares, villages create “proof” or legitimate images of divine apparitions such as the Ganga – a cow how gave birth to twins (an apparently impossible occurrence) – or a mythical snake with ten heads. In other words, beyond being a tool of democratization, this type of media creates a sort of “digitally mediated encounter with the divine” that modernizes traditional belief systems.

All in all, despite the downsides this new development exposes, Pinney’s lecture is central in considering the revolutionary potential of photography. As photographic technologies become smaller and more mobile, the habitus changes as social hierarchies implode on the photographic plane.

Think of that next time you send a Snap

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The Politics of Polish Poster Art under Communism

By Piotr Pillardy

Polish Poster Art, as it has evolved into its modern form, got its start in the 1950s, after the end of World War II. During the war, the Nazis had implemented many policies of cultural extermination and suppression to effectively destroy Polish culture. Later, during the Yalta Conference of 1945, one of the agreements that were made between the leaders of the Allied Forces was that the Soviets would gain control of the Poland after the end of the war. This would greatly impact the development of Polish art going into the post-war era. After the Nazi occupying forces left Poland after the war, the Soviet forces became the new occupiers of Poland and would implement their own policies of cultural suppression and control.

One of these forms of cultural extermination was the state supported and endorsed Soviet Social Realist artistic style, which would serve to help promote and celebrate the ideological underpinnings of Communism and marginalize Polish artistic expression. This style consisted of academic paintings which was figural, representation, and contained strictly controlled messages that adhered to a promotion of Communism. After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1952, the slightly more liberal regime of Władysław Gomułka in 1956 led to looser restrictions on the type of art and poster art that could be made.

During this time, Polish poster art evolved, seeing an increase in non-academic art being incorporated into compositions such as abstracted, geometric, and minimalistic forms that were contemporaneous with the developments of similar art forms in the U.S. and Western Europe, as well as referencing other artistic movements such as Surrealism. Additionally, two schools became synonymous with the academic training of Polish poster artists: The Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts and the Warsaw Polytechnic Institute. Each school influenced the ways in which artists would realize their compositions, with the Academy of Fine Arts students favoring more of a painterly approach in their graphic arts while the artists trained at the Polytechnic Institute went with a more geometric approach.

Additionally, under Communism, there was a centralized film distribution authority which eliminated the need for competition between filmmakers for making more of a profit from their films. This greatly contributed to this blossoming of creativity during this period since posters did not have to sell a certain product but could become more centered on the actual aesthetics of the poster as well as being recognized as the work of a particular artist. The belief was that, if the film had already been approved by the censor, that the poster would most likely not be censor, allowing the poster artists slightly more freedom in what they were able to depict in their works.

The power and appeal of the posters within Communist Poland was what they symbolized for people when they would see them on them hung up along the street. Because all of the posters needed to be approved by a censor, in most case, the posters were not overtly political. In some cases, the symbolic language imbued within the posters that criticized the Communist government could be understood on a level that most Poles would understand but was not forthright enough to merit being censored or erased. With their vastly different aesthetic sensibilities, these posters would offer a focus on subjectivity through personal interpretation. The sole fact that they were on the street and were so different from previous artistic styles endorsed by the Communist state represented a type of aesthetic revolt that was legible to most people walking down the street and a call to think for themselves.

The Johnson Museum has many of these posters within its permanent collection, such as those by Henryk Tomaszewski, Waldemar Świerzy, Jan Lenica, Andrzej Pagowski, and Francszek Starowiejski. All of these artists were able to use the medium of poster to explore different artistic concepts through posters that to a few individuals seemed to only advertise a film or theatrical production, but through their aesthetics and often veiled symbolism, represented a revolt in their own right. The collection of the Johnson Museum highlights many developments in Polish poster art from the 1950s through the late 80s which greatly encapsulate the political climate of the post-war era. Building off of this artistic legacy, Polish poster art has continued to be a culturally relevant mode of artistic expression into the 21st century and is still highly regarded within the realm of contemporary Polish art.

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On Yuken Teruya’s Notice—Forest (Breakfast Street)

By Virginia Girard

“A gifted artist can make a small thing of greater value than a grand work by an artist who is not gifted…Beauty not in object but how rendered”

– Albrecht Durer

Yuken Teruya’s Notice—Forest (Breakfast Street) addresses revolt in all meanings of the word, and speaks to a timeless challenge all artists face. The paper bags placed before the viewer are a short-lived commodity in reality. Their lifetime most likely consisted of holding tantalizing pastries before being discarded in an undignified manner. A paper bag covered in grease is immediately revolting when it is no longer of use, and most can found on the pavement mixed with cigarette butts, decaying leaves, and rotting scraps. The paper bag is in object that can be categorized with all forms of detritus in the urban setting, all of which are synonymous with grime and disgust.

Teruya’s piece defies all of these lowly associations, elevating an object of simple construction into an elegant artwork and generating dissonance in the viewer’s previous notions of trash and high art. Each bag is revived from its crumpled, broken state, but evidence of its past is visible. The spoiled remains of breakfast left on each bag are cues for revulsion in any viewer; no one would be tempted to handle these objects or even acknowledge them if encountered in a heap of trash. But Teruya boldly commands the reader to Notice, to see what our eyes pass over and label as revolting before we have examined them properly.

His ability to find beauty in an object that is basic in its conception, and even more unappealing when it has been used and discarded, is a revolt against our tendency to see trash as a bottom line, a final word in the lifecycle of the objects we’ve produced. The delicate trees carved in the paper are evocative of lace, juxtaposing the blank, unassuming form of the bags. His decision to depict trees on these paper bags speaks to the irony of humanity’s tragic ability to transform timeless natural beauty into products with a lifespan that begins and ends in minutes. Our ability to see nature as beautiful in the face of our own destruction of it is a revolting notion in itself, and Teruya asks the viewer to consider redefining this materialistic conception of waste. Rather than accepting trash as a state of demise and a point of no return, the viewer can learn to see potential rather than disgust, and effectively revolt against their own preconceived notions of beauty.

Breakfast Street

Notice—Forest (Breakfast Street)

Yuken Teruya

Undated

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