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Chen Zhong Hao

May I substitute You While I am Away

Is Zhonghao obsessed with obstructions? Why are there so many instances in which blobs of paint obliterate the narrative? Where, is that excised triangle of canvas and what did it take with it? Perhaps it was never there in the first place. But you see there is, time and again an obstruction, an actual device that impedes the paintings. Is it then that Zhonghao intentionally sets about flummoxing his very act of painting? Surely then it must serve a purpose. Do they perhaps function as merely an ornamental décor-rite, say in the same way that we might suggest there is a vulgar ostentation in the jewellery of Karl Fritsch, the painting of  Amy Sillman or the sculpture of Dan Arps.  Which is to say that perhaps we simply take a wry aesthetic pleasure from such confrontational impositions, but really, I think we can interpret this obsession with obstructions a little better than that.

In his book on postmodern representations of the nonhuman animal in contemporary art Steve Baker spends quite a bit of time re-working Michael Fried’s objection to minimalist sculpture as theatrical. Interpreting this encounter as a confrontational moment Baker suggests that postmodern representations of the animal deploy this theatricality to concoct a direct ontological border, one that induces a corporeal experience that expands the limits through which these representations are so often consumed as something that is merely visual, even retinal (to use Duchamp’s condescending term). To use Derrida’s language Baker writes of these representations as providing an ‘abyssal encounter’, one that does not simply place “this” on one side and “that” on another, but rather opens a vast gulf of meaning by examining and cultivating the ‘edges of a limit’ so that the audience might focus on ‘what abuts onto limits but also what feeds, is fed, is cared for, raised and trained’ by this limit. Which is precisely what Baker’s reworking of Fried’s encounter enables, especially when it is teamed up with works like Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde  shark or Jordan Baseman’s skinned cat and dog,   so that what we experience is less just a personable, subjective encounter  than a radical confrontation with the “affront” such works create. That is, these awkward sculptures become obstacles we must navigate, not just discursively as emphatic objects, but as physical jetsam we are compelled to walk around, to situate in the corporal reality of an encounter that is doubled so that what we experience is not just merely awkward content (what we might call iconoclastic representations) but also a rather discomfiting situation.  Put more simply, what these encounters share in common, whether they are with Hirst’s dead shark, or Baseman’s skinned “Lassie”, is the fact that we encounter an impasse we can either chose to work through or work-around, but, and it is an important but, once we’ve encountered this obstruction there’s no turning back, no forgetting. It has entered into our corporeal gambit. It becomes part of the narrative.

We are haptic beings. We walk around with our feet on the ground. Our head bobs. We are what’s called motive beings. We breathe in oxygen, it is our furnace, it provides a motive power, an oxygenated energy that situates us temporarily, so that we are constituted by the flux of a terran atmosphere in the here and now we can’t escape.  As William Connolly points out this mode of embodiment ‘encourages the production of widespread analogies between a future “in front of us” and the past “behind us”’. Which is to say that we’re trapped in this linear conception not just of time, but of our own development. We can’t comprehend a circular narrative, nor even really the commotion where it all happens, just the before and after. In Deleuze and Guattari’s language there is what they call a haecceity, not quite a mixing ground, nor a temporal adjudication, but a flux, a tempo given over to articulations, to mixing. To use the language of Anarchitecture there is what they call a movement-pace to this flux, to this composite in which the world not only flows through us, but with us.  That at least is my idea of the co-motion of life. The articulate hybridity that isn’t just a linear outcome, that isn’t experienced in the passivity of a linear after-trace, nor the aggressive certainty of a human autonomy “in-the-mix”. No what I’m after here is precisely the realism we see in Zhonghao’s paintings, particularly in relation to his obsession with obstructions.

But enough of these framings! What indeed might they mean in relation to actual paintings? Take for instance the large painting in which a horse drawn carriage plays out a picaresque narrative. There is a kind of fleeing, a sense of urgency that only horse power in its first manifestation might orchestrate. And of course the entire organisation, the bridling of the horses, the lashing of the driver, the carriage itself, so manifest, so contained, so that the passenger is always enclosed within his/her passage, invisible to the landscape they traverse but always manifest, serenely encased in their own world, even if they are “bumped along”. Which is why, in Zhonghao’s hands we find the carriage in the midst of representation’s tempestuous whirl, an aspect no better indicated by the fact that the top left of the painting is still raw linen. This is after all not just a fracturing of the representational surface but precisely the narrative vector Zhonghao’s use of obstructions enables. That at least explains why the passage of the horse drawn carriage not only reverses the classic narrative device of left-to-right vector but that there is also what we might even call a preternatural investment to the obstructions that obliterate this picaresque journey so that what we witness is indeed the very momentarily manifestation of the ground upon which this carriage travels. To borrow Deleuze’s language we could say that this painting highlights an acute moment of virtual instantaneity, one we might grasp as a product of the narrative’s contingent temporality, so that the horse drawn carriage we witness mid-stride, is less the uncertain product of a fallible narrator the more it is the hesitant product of any form of writing, one that is haptic, that happens as it goes along. Which is to say that this obstruction is indeed a moment of total realism, less an oppressive intrusion the more it is a grasping of the sheer chaos of terran life, which is precisely why the obstructions of Zhonghao so often eclipse their picaresque narratives to become something vastly more expansive.

But it’s not enough to say that we merely witness the moment of representation’s limit in Zhonghao’s narrative. Did I not say earlier that what is important is not just what abuts the limit but what feeds it, what causes it to expand?  Take then the other thematically similar painting in which a ufo/cosmos/tornado hovers above a Midwestern prairie house. We barely need to reference the Wizard of Oz to understand the narrative at play, and yet again we witness the same tempestuous obstruction, so that what feeds the painting’s representational limit also causes it to expand.  Consequently the question posed so generally by this painting is less the crepuscular overtones of the abduction scene the cosmos/tornado/ufo induces — especially when we consider its noir overshadowing of the Arcadian pastoral light that bathes the house — but rather the very real implications of the obstruction’s intrusion into this narrative, so that this speculative even dystopian refrain is entirely foreshortened by the obliterating amelioration of speckled paint.  Which is to say that this obstruction performs what Timothy Morton calls ‘ecomimesis’, a reflexive intrusion that places the author present at a crucial junction in the work’s production, particularly in relation to representations of contemporary ideations of nature.  Such idealisation is however perhaps less obvious in Zhonghao’s painting but is everywhere prevalent as a sublimated tone. Why else do humans cling precariously to the edge of a world, grasping with their finger nails to their suburban plateau lest they fall into the tumult of a spectral absolution which would only see them tossed into another suburban hell waiting for them below. Indeed the very painting, or layering of such worlds upon worlds not only puts one in mind of the temporal dislocations and transpositions at work in Grant Morrison’s masterpiece The Invisibles (Vertigo, 1994-2000) but also recalls Dante’s tiered structure.  Which is why we also get a city riding on an elephant’s shoulders (“it’s turtles all the way down”) who is in turn travelling through a quintessential lake-distract landscape that’d make Wordsworth weep if he had the time to see it.  Which he probably does given the cosmological gambit Zhonghao’s paintings traverse. Which is to say, Zhonghao doesn’t just fracture the narrative limits of representation he also focuses on what abuts it, which is, unsurprisingly, cosmological.  That at least we might merely interpret as a moment of contemporary speculative fiction, perhaps even as the melancholic-noir that Morton suggests is so crucial to ‘an ecological situation in which the worst has already happened and in which we find ourselves…already fully implicated’. Such sentiment might simply explain Zhonghao’s paintings as dystopian retorts to realities’ seemingly arbitrary structure but the ecomimesis they perform ought to remind us that it’s a world we equally walk through. Perhaps then we might not just take melancholic solace from the imposition of these obstructions but realise the creative and indeed fertile possibilities such conjectures to the homeostasis of representation so often provoke.

Hamish Win