Medium and Message, Jonathan Watkins 2006

The work of Yang Zhenzhong is characterised by a stringent logic, often focusing on details of everyday life to convey bigger truths. It reflects a smart apprehension of the media involved - photography, video, performance, sculpture and installation - brilliantly fusing subject matter with the means of representation. Yang’s short-circuiting of a conventional artistic itinerary, via readymades and indexical (photographic) traces, at once bypasses and problematises any idea of picture-making. Photography and video, even in spite of darkroom/digital manipulation, convey a message of “I was there”. Readymades on the other hand assert the fact that “you are here”. In Yang’s work, each derives dramatic effect from a kind of realism, an understanding that we are not on the other side of a looking-glass, but rather dealing with something that has an impact on our actual experience.

Massage Chairs - Then Edison’s Direct Current was surrendered To the Alternating Current (2003) consists of six massage chairs of various designs - found objects, readymades - stripped of their upholstery. Still in operation, their mechanisms are clearly visible, the cogs and belts moving the various shapes intended to knead and gently pummel the backs of human bodies requiring relaxation. Without their padding and soft surfaces, the chairs themselves are skeletal, strangely anthropomorphic and not unreminiscent of electric chairs. The sounds they emit, the whirrings and rhythmical clickings echo ominously in the gallery interiors they now occupy, evoking a response that is a far cry from any of the desired effects of massage.

The relationship between the chairs and their audiences is loaded through the possibilities of identification. Not only can we imagine sitting in this furniture, also we grasp the fact that it bears our resemblance. The chairs are anthropomorphic, necessarily, due to the shapes they have to take, literally, and flayed to remind us of the loss of flesh that is our ultimate destiny. Such an emphasis on mortality lies at the heart of Yang’s artistic proposition, complemented in his work - as it has an essential bearing on all forms of life - by concern with the phenomenon of biological regeneration.

One of Yang’s earliest works is Lucky Family (1995) depicting some telling permutations of coupling. We see two chickens, a hen and a rooster, with and without progeny - no chicks, one chick, two chicks and a surfeit of chicks. These are the possibilities in life for some reproductive organism, and especially pertinent from a Chinese point of view. We can be childless, could have some or lots of children, but in China, right now, child-wise, officially one is the right number. There are so many implications (so much that might come home to roost) in the foreseeable future of this country, and in conversation Yang is very articulate about this; on the other hand, his work could hardly be described as didactic. As with the massage chairs, he could hardly have chosen a better medium for extracting a wealth of possible meanings out of his subject matter. Walter Benjamin referred to art in an age of mechanical reproduction; here, Yang reveals himself to be one of the artists most adept with digital technology. The social/genetic engineering to which he refers - with chickens standing in for human beings - finds a perfect analogy in a means of infinite and exact reproduction, with which “cloning” is common-place.

Yang’s still and moving images usually are manipulated in some way, for example with motifs cut from one photographic image and then pasted into another (Light and Easy, 2002; Cycle Aerobics II, 2005), or “drawn” through the movement of a camera with an open shutter at night time (Lightbox, 2005). Video speed is varied for emphasis on certain movements (Let’s Puff, 2002), or quick repetitive editing is used to suggest endlessness (I will die, 2000-2005; Spring Story, 2003). The camera doesn’t lie, but honestly its evidence can be tampered with, and Yang thus flirts with the truth. He is an artist that springs from a national culture now world famous for fakery, a philosophically skeptical type who enjoys the suggestion at least of authenticity Yang recently organised an exhibition, CC Gallery (2003), of works that were essentially photographic reproductions of works of art, images taken from the internet and then printed at a size to match the dimensions of the originals. There was at first glance a Cindy Sherman, a Jeff Koons, a Matthew Barney - quintessentially postmodernist works, questioning notions of authenticity by definition - and then not. Again, Yang lands on an equation which is so intellectually satisfying, with virtual reality as a constant factor, there already in the originals and then in the way they were transmitted and received. The closed loop between the art object and its subject could not have been tighter.

In 2004 Yang made a fake bus stop in the historic town of Xi An. Once an important urban centre in the first Chinese dynasty, now it is a tourist destination. Yang’s street furniture was identical to other bus stops in the city - with the same colours, shapes and sizes - but not on an official route. There was a large scale map of the city, as is customary, to indicate the direction and reaches of various journeys, but names were shuffled so that streets familiar to local people bore the names of other familiar streets. For tourists, of course, it was pure nonsense. Within days this work was removed by the municipal authority due to the chaos that it engendered - exacerbated by lots of local press coverage - so now it is the stuff of legend.

Such artistic fakery, let loose on the streets, was deemed counter-productive , spoiling the best-laid plans of individuals, and detracting from the image of the town as an efficient machine, with some imaginable financial implications. Beyond dedicated art space, such artistic conceits are unframed and an ensuing confusion could, on the other hand, be understood easily as a positive experience. Here is a gesture made by an artist, inspired by the real world, to take its place in the real world, but strongly throwing doubt on what is assumed to be real. Whilst visiting Madame Tussauds in London, that institution dedicated to meticulous simulation, it is easy to become habituated to illusion, subsequently encountering figures in the street and “seeing” them as waxworks. Likewise Yang is encouraging us to invert a conventional order of things.

A number of works by Yang Zhenzhong suggest the possibility of undermining the rigid substance of a built environment. Light and Easy, for example, is a series of videos featuring the artist himself balancing in his hands monumental buildings such as the Oriental Pearl Tower. The subject of Let’s Puff, an installation, involving two video projections screened parallel to each other, also is the city of Shanghai. On one side we see a young woman (a model with smart/casual sophistication), blowing air in sharp bursts towards the opposite wall which features footage of the Nanjing Road, a major thoroughfare which connects the Bund (with its futuristic view of Poudong) to a pedestrianised retail area, near People’s Park. With every exhalation the street scene is shifted backwards, as if we are caught in this city, now the largest in the world, famous for being always “on the move”, between an illusory cause and effect.

“Let’s Puff is a video installation - the labels etc, everything about the context informs us of this fact - but still such a cinema-like space (like Madame Tussauds) plays on our all-too-human tendency to suspend disbelief. This is the key to the effectiveness of the rhetoric of religion, of politics and of art; in other words, the desire to believe, often in spite of the most contradictory evidence.

There are certain political speeches, full of promises, that are memorised by the citizens of China, almost as if they were divinely inspired. Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Southern Campaign Speech’ (1992) was one of them, and it is the subject of Yang’s Spring Story. It is a video piece involving 1,500 workers from the newly built Siemens factory in Shanghai. Each individual has a word or a phrase from Deng’s speech to enunciate in the original order so that it makes sense ostensibly as it was intended. We see the faces of the workers in quick sequence as they tell of the wonderful things China can expect in a foreseeable future, now being lived through. The everyday lives of these people are spent concentrated on specific tasks, like many small jigsaw pieces adding up to a bigger picture of manufacturing achievement, as the small utterances amount to the articulation of some overarching vision. Yang’s editing has the relentless mechanical quality of factory activity. Again the medium and message of Yang’s work are conflated to an extent that makes them inextricable and perfectly matched. Through his collaboration with the Siemens employees, Yang raises intriguing questions about the role of the individual, and the possibility of individualism, now in a country encouraging rampant foreign (capitalist) investment, but still communist at heart.

Beyond political concerns, beyond the state of the nation and China’s extraordinary moment now in world history, there is something more poignant, more urgent, for each of us. The message is simple and irresistible, and taken as a title for Yang’s ongoing sequence of series of video pieces, I will die. Ten series so far, made in different languages (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, French, Dutch, English, German, Spanish, Italian, and Arabic), participants are simply seen turned to the camera, responding to the artist’s request that they say those words. Some are deadpan, other camp it up, some grasp the meaning of what they are saying with more or less gravitas - some, after all, are children - and some are frankly complicit in the making of an art work. Whatever, however “I will die” is said, there can be no denial. These people, seen on video, like hostages in some awful kidnapping scenario, are living proof of their liveliness (they were there), foretelling their deaths. What could be more straightforward and more profound?

Yang’s use of video in this case is a masterstroke. These are snapshots, like those in Spring Story, of people like us, who have left traces on discs or tape that would be recognized by friends and family, and to us who don’t know them, well, they could be dead by now. Video is “time-based”, and so are we, and no matter where we come from, how old we are, how much we play around with the idea, the conclusion of our mortality inevitably comes around. I will die is one of those works of art that happens every now and then and is so obvious, so elegant in its simplicity, it seems incredible that no-one has done it before. It is an ultimate video work, in more ways than one, an extraordinary distillation of an artistic practice that couldn’t be more preoccupied with the nature of what is real.

Related exhibition: Yang Zhenzhong, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, UK