July/August 2006

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Latin American Art In a Global Context:
Report on
Sin Tìtulo, 2006

Moths to the Flame:
Radiance and Rupture in the Work of Xie Nanxing

Text / David Spalding

Our art is a way of being dazzled by truth: the light on the grotesquely grimacing retreating face is true, and nothing else.
ųFranz Kafka

 
 
Untitled (Picture of Voice I), 2001, oil on canvas, triptych: 220 x 380 cm (each) (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne and Beijing)

Back in March, artist Xie Nanxing invited me to his Beijing studio to see a painting he had recently completed. While I had visited his studio before, and was aware that he was experimenting with new ways of working, his call caught me by surprise. Knowing that the painting would probably not stay in China for longųit had already been sold to a leading European collection whose name was near the top of a long waiting listųI rushed to hail a taxi.

For Xie, the creation of each new body of work is prefaced by a period of intense reflection and inner turmoilųabout the history and limitations of painting, the desired psychological impact of a new series, and the knowledge gained by making his previous works. After settling on his chosen subject, the artist begins assembling his preparatory materials. In addition to making sketches and studies, his process has included video since 2001. Xie plays his video footage on a monitor, and photographs the playback directly from the monitor‚s screen. Infused with a violent luminosity, these photographs are then transformed into exacting, enormous paintings through Xie‚s carefully controlled application of four thin layers of oil paintųwithout the aid of projecting the image onto the canvas. He often produces triptychs, one of which can take up to a year to finish. He had completed this new painting in just six weeks.

I met Xie at the modest apartment complex where he has worked for the last six years. His studio space is a nearly empty room with a concrete floor, a single window, and fluorescent lights overheadųthe living room of what was intended to be a two-bedroom flat. While many of his contemporaries have spacious studios teaming with assistants, Xie prefers this nearly monastic simplicity. He made me coffee and we sat on small stools facing his latest creation.

Like Xie‚s other recent paintings, the new work, Untitled, 2006,1 revealed itself slowly. This one was unlike any I had seen before, however, and I was, for a time, speechless. Leaning there against the wall, it initially seemed nearly monochromatic, a field of carmine, like lithium held over the flame of a Bunsen burner. Then, as I studied its surface more closely, dark patches began to appear, amorphous clouds on a distant horizon. Except that there was no horizon, and the smudges were refusing to assume fixed forms, generating a strange sensation of depth as they slowly receded or leapt forward. Xie finally broke our silence: „Keep looking,š he said encouragingly, „and tell me what you see.š His right leg was bouncing nervously up and down.  Then they began to take shape: the large, shadow-like bodies of two moths, seen from above, as if through an electrified red haze. They appeared to have collided head-on; one‚s antennae had been cleaved off in the scuffle.

Xie pointed to a blurred word in one of the painting‚s corners, written in a slanting, cursive script. It had begun as Kodak‚s „Royalš logo, but was now obscured by additional layers of paint. The source of the brilliant red color, he explained, was the leader on a roll of photofinishing paper, found on the floor of a film processing lab. The moths had been drawn to the same light, and crashed into each other while urgently seeking its source. Xie himself was unsettled by the painting, by what seemed to him like a complete break from his usual way of working. While excited by the prospect of painting more spontaneously, this newfound freedom was also daunting. „I feel like a kite,š he told me, „whose string has been cut.š

To me, the painting did not seem such a radical departure from Xie‚s previous works. Rather, it allegorizes a central aspect of the artist‚s practice: Xie enlists the videographic and photographic mediation of his subjects and the traffic between imaging technologies and paintingųmade tangible here by the use of photofinishing paper as the painting‚s backdropųto infuse his paintings with a strange radiance, a disorienting light that draws viewers, like moths to a flame, toward a dangerous encounter with what Lacan called „the gaze,š and „the real.š

To understand this formulation, we must review these Lacanian concepts in relation to visual arts, a process that can be expedited by considering Hal Foster‚s essay, „The Return of the Real.š2 Citing two seminars that appear in Lacan‚s The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis,3 „The Unconscious and Repetition,š and „Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a,š Foster reminds us that the realųa traumatic realųis something that defies symbolic representation. It cannot be perceived directly, but might be characterized as the „ecstasy of desire shot through with death.š4 Since the real threatens to overwhelm the subject, it must be mediated by the „image-screenš of visuality, the cultural encoding of vision that acts as a shield between the subject and the real. However, the real still lurks beneath our representations, which it occasionally ruptures. „It is a rupture less in the world,š Foster explains, „than in the subjectųbetween the perception and consciousness of a subject touched by an image.š5

In this equation, the gaze threatens to rupture the image-screen and expose the subject to the real..67 Yet, surveying contemporary art circa 1996, Foster identifies certain practicesųCindy Sherman‚s abject photographs of the early 1990s, for exampleųthat seem to court the real, to rend the image-screen, to allow us, if only for an instant, to stare directly into that obliterating gaze. „It is as if this art wanted the gaze to shine,š Foster writes, „the object to stand, the real to exist, in all the glory (or the horror) of its pulsatile desire, or at least to evoke this sublime condition.š

With his astonishing technical skill and conceptual rigor, Xie Nanxing creates paintings that stage profound confrontations between the viewer and the dazzling, vertiginous real. Taking his subjects through a complex cycle of technical mediations that abrades the surface of the image-screen, he draws out a magnetic, devouring light that seems to pulse across the surfaces of his canvases. By rendering disfigured scenes in his super-realistic style, he reveals an anxiety to seal off the real, but deliberately leaves the project incomplete, so that this anxiety becomes a contagion, infecting viewers. To stand in front of one of Xie‚s paintings for any length of time takes a certain amount of courage.

As the artist explained to me,

Since the beginning of civilization, people have seen reality through the glasses of culture. Over time, the lenses in these glasses have grown thicker and thicker. Today they are as thick as long telescopes! Using video and photography in my painting, I try to make people aware of these glasses. As an artist, I cannot stand alone. I need a cane, and this cane is the light you see in my paintings. People cannot live without their glasses, but I do try to smash them with this cane!š8

Untitled (No. 5), 1998, oil on canvas,
190 x 150 cm (private collection)
Untitled (No. 9), 1999, oil on canvas,
190 x 150 cm (private collection)

While American audiences have still had no opportunity to see Xie‚s paintings without traveling abroad, curators and collectors have sought out his work ever since his breakthrough inclusion in the 1999 Venice Biennale. The four paintings presented at the Biennale depict scenes of shocking, sexualized violence and its aftermath. Appropriating the visual codes of photography, the paintings resemble crime-scene photos taken through a fish-eye lensųa technical trick that Xie developed in his earliest paintings, made in 1992, while he was still a student at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in Chengdu. In Untitled (No. 5), 1998, two men stand in an empty room whose floor is littered with toilet paper. One bends over to display his bleeding anus, while the other crouches next to him, his forehead streaked with blood, his mouth a howling smile. A Calla lily rises in the foreground, blurred as if seen through a camera‚s lens. In Untitled (No. 9), 1999, a partially opened door reveals a small bedroom with a bare, blood-stained mattress lying on the floor. Inside, a young man with jaundiced eyes and red smears around his mouth, naked from the waist up, looks out at the viewer. He stands with his pants around his ankles, massaging the pregnant belly that bulges over his penis.

The events in these paintings seem to have been expelled from the darkest corners of the artist‚s unconscious, so that they might lodge themselves indelibly in the viewer‚s mind. But beyond the abject feelings they evoke, what is fascinating about the paintings from 1998-1999 is that, while Xie uses the tropes of photography with striking exactitude to create an uneasy realism, the paintings were not based on photographs. Forging the camera‚s distorting, mechanized gaze, the series highlights photography‚s ability to lend even the most bizarre scenes an air of reality.  Xie has described these works as „theatrical,š9 and they are the last of his overtly narrative paintings.

Untitled (Liquid), 2000, oil on canvas, 220 x 380 cm (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne and Beijing)
Untitled (Flame), 2000, oil on canvas, 220 x 380 cm (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne and Beijing)

It would seem that the lesson the artist extracted from the 1998-1999 series was that the mediated image strikes closer to the essence of the subject. Thus with the following series of 1999-2000, Xie inverts his previous method, making photographs in and around his studio the basis for five remarkable paintings that imbue their banal subjects with an uncanny, predatory realism. With its slightly skewed angle and eerie lighting, Untitled (Corridor), 1999, suggests an institutional hallway, seen through the eyes of a drugged patient who is attempting an escape. Untitled (Liquid), 2000, is a pool of black fluid that appears tumescent, seductive, and toxic, moving as if by its own volition toward a flash of light reflected on the floor.  Untitled (Flame), 2000, invites viewers to stare directly into the lit burner of a gas stove, where flickers of blue, red, and white-hot fire overtake the canvas. All of the paintings from 1999-2000 reveal that our mundane surroundings mask something at once sinister and alluring: the real. Indeed, Lacan calls the screen of representation a mask, which Xie pulls at relentlessly. Were we to fall into that shimmering, oily darkness, or abandon ourselves to the heart of the flames, we might catch a glimpse of what lies beyond their perfectly painted surfaces.

Xie‚s subsequent works are marked by the introduction of the video camera as the generator of images from which his paintings gradually emerge. Photographing the video images as they appear on a monitor, Xie captures a disorienting light that he translates, as if by some dark art, into his works. In the triptych Untitled (Picture of Voice 1), 2001, which depicts a highway seen at night through the windshield of a moving car, the use of video breaks the picture into a series of minute, horizontal bands, making the image-screen of representation seem all the more fragile. In the central painting, an oncoming car rushes toward the viewer, one of its headlights transformed into the blinding flash of a solar eclipse. Assaulting viewers with this light, the painting attempts the impossible task of rendering the real symbolically, but the light is also an hypnotic abstraction, reaching out through the artificial surface of the painted video to lock the viewer in its intractable gaze.

The power of the gaze to eviscerate the subject is further explored in Xie‚s 2002-2003 series of six paintings.

Untitled (No. 4), 2003, oil on canvas, 150 x 360 cm (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne and Beijing)
Untitled (No. 5), 2003, oil on canvas, 150 x 360 cm (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne and Beijing)

Rendered in the hazy, muted hues of a weak-signaled television broadcast, these long, horizontal canvases show solitary, male and female figures lying naked on the floor of a nearly empty room. In this melancholic space, time seems to stretch on infinitely. It‚s as if these figures had always been here. Are they even alive? A small window in the background surges with a frightening light that seems to rupture them into oblivion. The series‚ later paintings show the room devoid of life, as if these figures, vulnerable and exposed, had vaporized upon contact with the real. In the final painting, even the room‚s furniture is gone, the starkness making it seem as though the previously witnessed scenes took place long ago.

Discussing his production process for this series with critic and curator Nataline Colonnelloųan authority on Xie‚s workųthe artist spoke of the incredible psychological challenges he faced, as he fell under the gaze that he conjured:

Although in my works there is light, well, that light is really driving me to death. Help! It seems as if I was forced to have this very long dream∑at the beginning I wanted to control my creations but during the pictorial process I found myself gradually dominated by them; finally, the one who was held hostage was me!!10

 

 

Untitled (No. 2), 2004, oil on canvas, 218 x 323 cm (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne and Beijing)
Untitled (No. 3), 2004, oil on canvas, 220 x 385 (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne and Beijing)

Yet Xie continues to reach toward the dazzling light that emanates from behind the screen of representation. He has recently developed a new technique to create his Untitled, 2005 triptych, which is loosely based on Van Gogh‚s depiction of a billiard hall in his famous Night Café in the Place Lamartine of 1888. Billiards is one of Xie‚s favorite hobbies. For Van Gogh, the pool hall represented a place whose pleasant exterior trappings concealed something sinister. In a letter written shortly after the painting was completed, Van Gogh explains:

I have tried to express the idea that the cafe is a place where one can ruin one's self, run mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express as it were the powers of darkness in a low drink shop...and all this in an atmosphere like a devil's furnace, of pale sulfur, all under an appearance of Japanese gaiety and the good nature of Tartarin..

 

Untitled (No.2), 2005, oil on canvas, 220 x 385 cm (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne and Beijing)

Xie started the 2005 series by making a small painting based on Van Gogh‚s work, using a visceral palette of reds. As if staging an experiment that literalizes Lacan‚s notion of the gaze in relation to representation, the artist shone a very bright lamp on the surface of the canvas, and shot video footage of its backside, where the image of the billiard table was visible in reverse, pierced and irradiated by flashes of light.  As with previous series, the video was then played and photographed, and these photographs were transformed into three huge paintings (approximately 7.2 x 12.6 feet each). The result is a photorealistic depiction of a nearly abstract image being eroded by light.

Standing before these paintings, the viewer is overwhelmed by a powerful sensation of confusion and even dizziness. The distorted depth of focus causes their surfaces to take on a three-dimensionality that lures the viewer into an explosive scene. When I saw these works at the China Art Archives and Warehouse in Beijing last fall, I had to go upstairs to the gallery‚s small landing to view them from a distance, for fear of losing myself to the fiery grasp of that „devil‚s furnace.š

A few weeks ago, I visited Xie‚s studio again. He was beginning work on a new series. Lately, he told me, he has been under a great deal of pressure: difficulties making the new work had been compounded by a stream of visits from international curators interested in Chinese art, including representatives from Documenta 12. But he had recently resolved his technical setbacks, and was feeling buoyant.

Xie began the new works by making very rough, small paintings, which he then put through the usual cycle of video and photographic mediation. It seems the painting of the moths had been an anomaly. We sat on the studio floor and looked at the materials that would inform the works. One photograph, taken from the video monitor, showed a topiary peacock in a dusky light, shimming with an iridescent glow of turquoise, cobalt, sapphire, and jade. It was both there and not there, as if materializing before the viewer‚s eyes, a ghost image composed of particles of light, rather than leaves and shrubbery.

A work-in-progress stood on one side of the studio, a painting of a mysterious night garden whose shadows would eventually brim with a muted perversityųsexually suggestive shapes that would be obscured by subsequent layers of paint. Looking at the images used to create the work, I saw small patches of red that, when photographed from the video monitor, became flashes of light, seen as if coming through the trees. „They‚re∑š he growled, searching for the word, „emergency lights.š

It made sense. The work of Xie Nanxing leads viewers into the dark forest of the unconscious. By mediating the picture-screen until it ruptures, and rendering the results with unparalleled skill, he guides us toward confrontations with the real. The flashes of light in his work may be taken as signs of a crisis, but Xie‚s paintings create psychologically profound experiences that draw viewers back, again and again.

NOTES

1. Unless otherwise noted, all of Xie Nanxing‚s paintings referred to in this essay are untitled.
2. Hal Foster, The Return of the Real, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996, 127-168.
3. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Alan Sheridan, trans., New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.
4. Foster, 146.
5. Ibid., 132.
6. For the sake of brevity, I am eliding Foster‚s complex argument about the relationship between the gaze and the real.
7. Foster, 140.
8. Author‚s conversation with Xie Nanxing, Beijing, May 16, 2006.
9. Quoted by Nataline Colonnello, „Untitled: A Garbled Visual Grammar,š in Xie Nanxing, Paintings: 1992-2004, Ai Weiwei, Nataline Colonnello and Chen Weiqun, eds., Lucerne and Beijing: Galerie Urs Meile and Time Zone 8, Ltd, 2004), 71.
10. Ibid., 75.
11. Letter from Vincent Van Gogh quoted in Meyer Schapiro, Van Gogh, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994, 69-71.

Contributing Editor David Spalding is an independent curator who divides his time between San Francisco and Beijing.

 

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