Difference and Distance in Yang Zhengzhong’s work,By Mariagrazia Costantino

Yang Zhenzhong has been living in Shanghai for about twenty years, but he is still a “Hangzhou ren,” a man from Hangzhou. He seems to suffer Shanghai’s frantic rhythm and crazy growth, and this form of intolerance has become fundamental in his body of work, as a distinctive signature element.

As is always the case, a place can be effectively narrated and described only by someone who is somehow detached from it, someone who does not come from there, because, I would argue, it is the juxtaposition of (at least) two different experiences that produces a real meaning, and a real meaning is something that can be validated with no need of external intervention, as in a form of automatic update. Because it holds precisely this type of “special” meanings, Yang’s works maintain throughout the years the capacity to tell people something about the city and its time. Yang evaluate Shanghai’s time through his inner “Hangzhou time,” decelerated and almost “suspended.”

Within the individual and collective perception of time, the notion of moment and simultaneity is pivotal. We are somehow seduced by the myth of simultaneity: services, facilities, connections… everything at one’s hand in the blink of an eye. In this picture waiting is not only superfluous, but harmful; yet art is all about the capacity to wait, and detect the inner meaning of waiting as a supremely creative act. Yang knows this, and puts all the implications of waiting and suspension at the core of his research. Waiting also implies the capacity to postpone and defer to a better time the aspect of winning or “gain.” Jacques Derrida has theorized the notion of différance (an intentional mispelling of “difference”) to be understood as deferral, transposition and postponement of meanings and interpretations. Communication necessarily implies a time-gap: during this lapse of time meanings can be fatally deformed. It is precisely in that conceptual space where meaning is subjected to alteration that the artist intervenes. Derrida explains why and how we cannot simultaneously experience events: for him words and signs possess multiple signifieds, continuously updated and postponed.Identity is repeatedly formed and deconstructed exactly in this way: it only exists in time, which means that its internal logic and intrinsic reason is change (within history). This explains why the notion of the present is deceitful – the sense of the present being artificially created by putting into contact different instances and co-existing realities – and what the expression “not at this moment” implies:not now, maybe later, certainly after thoughtful consideration. Once we have (re)conquered the possibility to ponder over and in time, we will also be allowed to break down the barriers that separate us from a diachronic comprehension of society, power structures and our fellow human beings. In this sense the formula “trespassing” contradicts the formula/common place “No trespassing” and sanctions the possibility of overcoming instrumental boundaries, for example those between subject and object. For Derrida “…the subject is not present, nor above all present to itself before différance… the subject is constituted only in being divided from itself, in becoming space, in temporizing, in deferral.” “Differing” means to defer, delay and postpone, which is equal to projecting ourselves and our thoughts into time, ultimately to become time.

The key notions of difference and deferral are based on the dialectical relationship between (at least) two elements: pre-modern and modern, city and countryside, creator and spectator (active and passive), man and woman, death and life, past and present, and (again) present and future. These dichotomies may not be particularly effective to define Chinese society, but can help recognize some of the issues at stake in it.

In photographic and video works like Lucky Family ( 1995), 922 Rice Corns (2000),Let’s Puff! (2002), Light and Easy ( 2002), I will die ( 2002-2005) and Exam (2012),Yang has individuated and articulated these dichotomies in a playful way, overcoming and trespassing upon cultural barriers, challenging viewers, instigating curiosity and disconcertment, stimulating comprehension and intentionally disappointing expectations.

Yang Zhenzhong’s work is modern because it entails the self -reflexive capacity to tell something about modernity: this form of inward exteriority the artist manages to create is a way to introduce a radical and anarchical reference to the “other.”Yang shows the inside through the outside. Emmanuel Levinas’ definition “seeing inwardness from the outside” can be applied to all the art forms which put at their core a form of “ethic” of the encounter with the (urban) other. For Levinas, every theory about knowledge implies an object and a subject in touch with each other; knowledge is indeed defined by this contact, but at a better look one can find out that subjectivity and objectivity are only variable depending on a subtle shift of perspective: the object is implicit and already present in the subject, as its possibility of non-presence. City is an object, and as such it can represent the “other,” but it can also be the self. As an object, the city presents something fatally extraneous and dangerous that needs to be recomposed. The “urban other”,apart from being “the man of the crowd” ( to quote the famous short story written by Edgar Allan Poe), is also an obstacle to our movement and sight: an object in the real sense, pure matter.

The essence of a place is also to be found in the “horror” of its impersonal presence.Yang knows this well, as he knows that the ultimate difference and dichotomy people are confronted with is life’s opposite – death. Radical alterity is always a threat and a scandal, and as such needs to be exorcised. This threat and the “extinction risk” it implies can be fought by invalidating the notion of alterity itself,or better reinscribing it into a dialectical context where the other and the self become interchangeable moments and phases of a process.

In Levinas words, the notions of “other”, “future” and “death” are interconnected,as they appear in Yang Zhenzhong’s work I will Die, which presents the radical“otherness” as dealt with by the “others”:

Death is never a present … The future is what is in no way grasped. The exteriority of the future is totally different from spatial exteriority precisely through the fact that the future is absolutely surprising (…)The other is the future. The very relationship with the other is the relationship with the future … How can a being enter into relation with the other without allowing its very self to be crushed by the other ? (…)Relationship with the future, the presence of the future in the present, seems all the same accomplished in the face-to-face with the Other. The situation of the face-to-face would be the very accomplishment of time; the encroachment of the present on the future is not the fear of the subject alone, but the intersubjective relationship. The condition of time lies in the relationship between humans, or in history … I do not define the other by the future, but the future by the other, for the very future of death consists in its total alterity (…) the relationship with the other, taken at the level of our civilization, is a complication of our original relationship; it is in no way a contingent complication, but one itself founded upon the inner dialectic of the relationship with the Other.

—— Sean Hand (ed.), The Levinas Reader, Blackwell, Malden, Mass., 2001, pp. 41-45.

Interestingly enough, what people are prompted to say is exactly the future tense of the verb “to die.” Shot in nine countries and ten different languages across five continents, by highlighting the reactions of addressed people, friends, acquaintances or completely unknown people accidentally met, the work also reveals the strategies they adopt to face this undeniable truth: humor, self -consciousness,drama, exasperated indifference or self-awareness. This is validated everywhere,but the modalities are different: if in Shanghai many decide to look detached or adopt a lighthearted attitude while they state in front of the camera that “they will die,” the reaction of a child-worker in Naples is instinctive and somehow primeval, in its encompassing centuries of cultural and behavioral stratifications:he takes his pants down, an apotropaic gesture aimed at denying and exorcizing the disruptive potential of the phrase he utters. Same fears, different ways to deal with them.

Yang’s recourse to the idea of death is by no means macabre, but deeply calm and sensible in its search for someone that really defines human beings as such and by doing this automatically – not traumatically – erases cultural differences in their presumed essence, bringing forward specificities. Cultural difference itself is a fictitious concept used as a pretext to cover other intentions; we actually find ourselves often recurring to this expression to justify latent intolerances, idiosyncrasies, arbitrary preferences and prejudices. Of course difference among cultures cannot be dismissed – the risk would be an overall indifference toward cultural specificities, which as a concept are nowadays more and more problematic, liable and endangered – nor is it possible to reduce them to a static entity. What is possible though is to examine how in the everyday practice and life they can be questioned or reconfirmed.

Aug. 2013