Surveillance and Panorama: Pixel Existentialism

He Wenzhao

…You are not just its hostage; you are its lost tourist.
-Jean-François Lyotard

When you create a new layer in Photoshop, you need to click on “Transparent” in the background options to remove or hide existing layers. Then a uniform layer of grey and white squares will appear, showing that there are no pixels present. In other words, in the linguistic system of Photoshop, this is a vast white land that is truly clean, a piece of white paper that can be painted upon, or a tabula rasa as John Locke conceived it, but considering the above analogies, it is bound up with various modes of existence for a pixel (the earth, a white piece of paper, or a tabula rasa). Using Heidegger’s distorted view might be more appropriate: this layer of grey and white squares means something does not exist and never existed. It is nothingness—the absence of pixels.

When a uniform layer of grey and white squares is expanded into a massive space in Yang Zhenzhong’s solo show “Surveillance and Panorama”, it once again becomes a background or a pattern, or is even used directly as a wall, which are all obviously inappropriate. In Photoshop, it implies nothingness, and in this exhibition space, it is the loud announcement of nothingness in language. Wherever this pattern is, that is where language hides or even vanishes. Whether it was once some kind of solid entity, a wall, or a country, it has been reduced to nothingness; this nothingness neither engulfs nor occupies, and it certainly does not cover. It does not lead to everything solid melting into thin air as Marx prophesized, and it does not eulogize. In the language of Photoshop, it is the world.

If I am permitted to hypothesize, through the emphasis on this layer of grey and white squares, Yang Zhenzhong attempts to frankly state that this is not simply the internal logic of an exhibition called “ Surveillance and Panorama.” The beginnings, processes, and ends of many of his previous works are together embedded in simultaneous translation between a foreign language and his own.

What I mean is that, here, Yang Zhenzhong seems to tend toward finding an essential context for “ Surveillance and Panorama” in Photoshop, which is understood and used as a tool, and we know at a glance that these critiques of politics and power and their aesthetic operations are related within this essential context. This is also to say that Yang, like many other contemporary art workers, organizes his syntax within the intrinsic perceptual logic of the oppression and resistance of images. The difference is that he is more conscious and willing to admit that—compared to our natural perceptions, or our bodies and desires in the reductionist sense—it is a vision of the world that eternally contradicts and highly conforms to these tools, which allows artists to continue working and ensure that they do not become stupefied by the charm of the everyday.

What becomes a problem is that, in a construction with unclear transitive connections such as the oppression and resistance of images, whether oppression and resistance “come from” or “move toward” (or the reverse) is not always obvious at a glance. Our primary-secondary relationship with the image is always chaotically intertwined, and there is no brilliant philosophical tool that can separate them. As an artist, Yang Zhenzhong

has handled and used all of the mediums known to us, and he has not been cowed by any knotty problem or ambiguity. Time and again he freed himself from his own habits through various roles: he did not become obsessed with the world that exists in pixels, and he was not afraid of rummaging through, selecting, and studying things like a gleaner. Most of the time, he is happier tracking down the clues in what appears before his eyes and existing connections, and not another larger or equally large system or organization.

Looking back at his work prior to “Surveillance and Panorama,” I was particularly struck by his 2004 work CC Gallery. In this picture installation work presented as a gallery, Yang Zhenzhong downloaded photographic works made by noted contemporary artists from around the world. Regardless of how low the pixel count was or how grainy the image quality was, he printed them to the size of the original works, exhibited them, and sold them. CC Gallery seems to be his first direct engagement with “pixel existence,” actively responding to looking at the system, its power, and how that power is allocated. This formulation was also faintly visible in various circuitous substitutions in other works. Through these installations of pictures or paintings, he makes a series of visual investigations into pixels and their two-dimensional existences.

In his most recent solo exhibition “Surveillance and Panorama,” I saw a summary of this series of investigations, which Yang Zhenzhong situates within a work that seems much more complex. Here, there is a revolving installation of sofas, real-time surveillance, images and mirror images, and topographical constructions. He makes a series of assumptions, guides, and assignments with regard to the viewing and experience of those who enter, lengthening the time that we spend at the show, while carefully dividing our attention so that there is no effective focal point or gaze. The curatorial intent here is frank yet obscure. The frankness lies in the 33 pieces related to surveillance and panoramas that are hung at unusual heights; they do not invite us to look straight ahead, but they do not permit us to overlook the ideological implications. All adult Chinese citizens will, after a brief aesthetic distraction, very quickly realize the complex circumstances. They will reflect on these theaters of nations and powers that have been surveilled and transformed into landscape; the stalwart silhouettes and grand statements have disappeared, which is an experience more intense than when they occupied every screen and speaker. The obscurity of the curatorial intent lies in the fact that a pointless debate about the viewing subject is buried under so many mechanisms and details that I very quickly forgot the strenuousness and reality of politics. It not only determined what I saw in the exhibition hall; it also determined everything that I encountered after I left the gallery, and there is no place for the audience and aesthetic perspective in all of this.

Once again, I can only attempt to return to the beginning, to nothingness. Through the lens of nothingness in the language of Photoshop, the surveillance and panoramas truly lie in the individual theaters of the oppression and resistance of images. Because Yang chose to use another Photoshop idiom, namely showing that this layer was selected through its framing with black and white borderlines during the creation process, these 33 images seem to require the use of almost every painting technique because of the different degrees of pixel deterioration present when the images were chosen. In other places, this could be considered a painting style, but here all the different techniques are simply intended to depict and recover the corresponding pixels. Furthermore, these 33 works may not even be identified as oil paintings, and we really can’t use the word “hanging,” which is what we usually use to describe the placement of a painting on the wall.

Based on the essential context of the grey and white squares with no pixels, the works “appear” in the created layer. In the language of Photoshop, before the black and white frame that symbolizes the creation of an image disappears, this creation can, at any time, be at risk of suspension, collapse, failure, and freezing: this image is in a dangerous place, hovering within both surveillance and a panorama. After true death and before creation, it is just the potential and desire for the existence of pixels.

Why are those present here yet surprisingly not here? (Heidegger paraphrasing Leibnitz) If Yang Zhenzhong can use “Surveillance and Panorama” as an analytical tool to understand this world born of nothingness and interrogate its political reality, then we should attempt to ask a more serious question. If we can see the abyss of existence even within the tools and language of Photoshop, why should we fear the metaphysics of art?

Translated by: Bridget Noetzel