To Labor Day: The Fruits of Unconventional Labor



“I endow a number of tangible things with value; that is the nature of is not just for thinking’s sake. However to extend thought, through the labor of two ingenious hands—such a primitive method can move in the hearts of the audience, and cut through the more unbearable moments of human pain—sickness, war, concentration camps. I am not working for the sake of symbols.” ——Joseph Beuys

The works of artists Guangxu, Han Wuzhou and Li Yonggeng all contain a hint of virtuoso genius, when in fact none of them have received any formal education or stepped foot outside of China. What’s more their exchanges with other artists of their generation are far from numerous. Their works appear to be a natural departure from the artistic temperament of conceptual art in the West during the sixties and seventies, but while this visual effect seems to have stopped over from a different time and place, it is actually homegrown and connected to local experiences. Each of these artists selects their media from whatever commodities and work tools are readily available, and in the process of shaping and re-shaping these objects each consolidates and condenses his own emotional life. This is a creative method based in consistent effort, day-in and day-out—in resignation to a stay-at-home lifestyle. It is deserving of the title of true “labor.”

These three artists all live in the capital’s urban-rural fringe. Places like these are rich with ‘Chinese characteristics’; one can find workers at the lowest rungs of society whose standard of living centers on a farmer’s economy. One can find hole-in-the-wall, forgettable restaurants, and accumulating messes unabashedly left unattended. There are street vendors, trails of garbage strewn casually across store entrances, scrap yards of all shapes and sizes. But then there are also the visible connections to city life: from time to time a luxury car will flash past through a cloud of dust on a dirt road, or members of the nouveau riche will move into an imposing courtyard guarded by high security. The choice on the part of these artists to live in a place like this comes mostly out of practical considerations: rent and space. But what they absorb along the way ends up having a tangible impact on their creations. On the one hand, they can conveniently make use of local materials, on the other hand, the kind of mashup of humanity which constitutes their environment contains a sort of incoherence that is both multi-layered and surreal and that in turn is deeply present in their works.

Guangxu's works are born out of play. In every corner of his workshop there is some little toy, gadget, or oddity that would make anyone chuckle to himself: a large wad of cotton lies against the wall in a baffling posture, a fur-like cloth that is actually made of iron threads droops from the ceiling, upon close inspection bones reveal that they are in fact only made of wood. These playthings seek and in turn achieve a kind of balance between a minimalist order and the chaos of what seems, but is not, real. Guangxu’s works, though seemingly light-hearted and simple, require a staggering amount of time and physical labor in the process from an initial idea to a material result. Guangxu's hands are strong, and he uses them and them alone to complete everyone one of his works. This is in part due to his particular brand of artist's paranoia—his high standards and tight grip on each phase of production—but more importantly the labor-intensive practice is, to him, a crucial process of re-modeling and re-sculpting the self. The artist’s iron-based series grows out of his memories as a young boy playing around with magnets in the sand, and understandings he internalized by watching the minute details of the daily lives of workers and others. Guangxu applies the laws of magnetics and converts them into organic shapes that are guided by specific principles and look as if they are indeed fur or viscera. Metal and viscera: two diametrically opposed materials, and integrated as they are constitute a new kind of near-real organism. Hard as iron, flexible and mutable as organic matter.

Han Wuzhou’s animated conversation style bounces from topic to topic; one moment he will call upon Tolstoy, the next revelatory sentences like "God said, let their be light" will hang from the corners of his mouth. But what truly impacted him is the Yuju Opera (Henan Opera) "Shiba Che," which was popular in his hometown. Han's art—his way of intermingling a whole host of unrelated elements—seems at times to give off an energy of utter rapture and exultation. Traditional opera as an art form is what informed his belief that within the scope of art, one can build any possibility. He chose art as his path, because in his view it was the only work that could give him this degree of freedom. Han's works are brimming with free-form expression; currently his two series that are more fully formed use visual art forms to express light and sound. Han has a persevering emotional connection to what is simple and elemental; among materials he uses are an abandoned flashlight, a plastic bag still ripe with the flavors of what it was once used to contain, ordinary work tools, and a discarded sofa. In his artistic transformation of commonplace objects, he effects a kind of sublimation. For instance, with Piano E Forte he disassembles the wooden handles and metal heads of a wooden hoe and a pickaxe, fashioning an elegant musical instrument modeled after the shape of an ancient tuned bell. The work retains the original shapes and color of working tools, compelling us to re-examine their beauty as objects. What was originally a stone meant to be struck now strikes back, playing would-be tools to create music: an embodiment of the wisdom inherent in reverse thinking.

Li Yonggeng often uses the appellation "the the" in his works; when asked to explain why, he says that it is because he likes foreign band names that start with the word "the." His over-all perception of western culture follows suit: it is a wholly personal reading, arising out of a full-blown mis-reading. The elements that nurture and foster his art are quite divergent from the what is popular at the moment; Li’s experience in his younger years selling “Dakou” cassette tapes—tapes dumped by the West, intended to be recycled, but instead smuggled into China—led him to a pursuit of spirituality through rock music, while later on, he was educated through reading- taught by Beuys' attitude about doing and Duchamp's attitude about living. In addition, he was kind enough to share with me his favorite land art. According to Li, his creative point of departure begins with the simplest idea: ‘Home is the warmest place in the world.’ For fifteen years, from Guangzhou to Beijing, he has been a self-styled "homemaker," working with everyday commodities and tools that he himself has used in the past, and pouring his personal experiences and emotions into everyday labor. If it can be said that his artistic practice takes its earliest origins from his emotional attachment to things, then the philosophy of ‘doing by doing’ has already become a sort of ideology, by which, through emotion, a set of principles can be established. Each item Li uses retains traces of its prior use, and through his builder bag of tricks he casts away common sense and establishes a new order. An alternative to installation art that picks a fight with the times or turns retrospectively towards traditional handicrafts, Li’s work pursues a lively combination of improvisation, minimalism, and meditation.

These three artists all care most about uncovering and unleashing the brilliance of the ordinary and everyday. Though their artistic practices are primarily a product of intuition and natural skill, through their strenuous ‘labor’ practices they gradually amass and hone their own expressive modes and creative frameworks. We hope this exhibition will encourage and further inspire their creativity, while simultaneously giving viewers a chance to appreciate their way of thinking—to re-experience the most ordinary objects imaginable as unimaginably extraordinary.