GUAN: Serve the People
—Reincarnation of a censored mural
What can we retain of our history when the selected memorial list is arbitrarily enforced by authoritarian censorship? Should we forget, should we ignore, or should we insist on remembering despite the risks? While our time seems to favour relativism and the idea of detachment, I decide not to let go and to assert the necessity to remember what has been erased.
In 2017, I was commissioned to paint a large mural for the Bi-City (Shenzhen-Hong Kong) Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture (UABB) on the outer wall of the Temple of Lord Guan located at the entrance of the Nantou urban village in Shenzhen, China. Because of a reference to the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo who had died in prison earlier that year — an empty blue chair, my mural entitled Time Discrepancy was covered up and then painted over the same day it was completed, while I was arrested at the opening ceremony of the biennale and detained for six days for “disturbing public order.”
Censoring in process (Internet photos)
My new project GUAN is an attempt to excavate my mural that is buried in between the temple’s wall and the coat of the censoring paint and to regenerate its motives by actualizing the architectural space of the imagined exhibition (the space with its exhibits) that was depicted in Time Discrepancy.
Time Discrepancy（2017） 2.7-5 m × 20 m
Time Discrepancy addressed the question of the relation between art and the local people. As the biennale’s visitors would invade their daily space, I wondered how they would relate to such a big international event and what would remain in their memories afterwards. Thus, I thought of literally painting an exhibition, as a souvenir to be preserved for the locals. The temple’s god, Guan Yu, the legendary warrior known for his courage and loyalty who was deified and is worshipped in Chinese folk culture and religion, became the theme of my fabricated contemporary art exhibition, like a parallel universe in connection with the life of the temple. Interestingly, since the mural was destroyed on the opening ceremony, my main audience had been the local people who watched me paint every day. That same winter, my indignation towards the violent evictions of migrant workers from urban villages in Beijing confirmed my will to reflect on artists’ responsibility towards the urban village community.
The first few lines of the mural ▲
Working in process ▼
▲ The first day of work
▼ The opening day of the UABB
The sculpture of Guan Yu inside the yard of the temple where I painted the mural
GUAN refers to Guan Yu, but also to the polysemy of the character guan/关 meaning: enclose, lock-up, or frontier pass. Indeed, this project is also closely related to my experience of detention, in particular the way I shared the enclosed time and space with other detainees — mainly migrant workers. In this sense, my project addresses the question of artists’ social responsibility as the balance between reason and emotion.
GUAN is a reflection on the social function of art and on censorship as the negation of such function. Recreating my mural by building the architectural space it depicted allows me to spatialize the audience’s experience and thus spur visitors to reflect on the role of art.
In a post-Covid time, GUAN also echoes the experience of lockdown that we all had in the recent years and confronts the way our collective will to “go back to normal” progressively erases our memory of the drama.
Part 1: The construction of the architectual space and the exhibits inside
As the first step of the project, I will construct a 1:20 scale model (100×100×30 cm), in the same vein as the video work Reportage amateur (maquette expo) by Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville (2006).
At the awarding ceremony of 2010, the Nobel committee placed an empty blue chair that symbolised Liu Xiaobo's (non)-presence.
▲▼ On the wall is a mask of Guan Yu in folk theatre.
The horse (as Guan Yu's steed), the dog and the raven are a tribute to Tarkovsky — the three animals that often appeared in his films. The space that Time Discrepancy depicted was like my ZONE, where one got lost in time and space and had to face one's deepest emotion and memory. The fact that I live a similar life in exile as Tarkovsky in the end of his life also strikes a strong chord with me.
Bars and safety cones placed in front of the traditional Chinese landscape signify man’s separation with nature and with the past.
On the wall above the landscape is a vague trace of Mao's famous slogan "Serve the people". Although my representation of the slogan into faded characters expresses a certain sarcasm, I do believe in its literal sense.
Bamboo and stone form a classical collocation in the Chinese aesthetics. I painted Mao’s calligraphy camouflaged as a bamboo painting, as I was trying to bring the legend of Guan Yu composing a poem disguised as a bamboo painting into a modern context. It is not difficult for Chinese people to identify Mao’s handwriting. It reads: “Nature has excelled herself in the Fairy Cave, On perilous peaks dwells beauty in her infinite variety.” In the piece, evidently, the “peak” referred to the strange stone in the bathtub, and the “Fairy Cave” referred to the moon gate in front of the bathtub and the stone.
▲ In the folk tradition, prints of Guan Yu are often pasted on the walls or doors in order to guard the household.
◀ In the mural, I painted a copy of a drapery study by Leonardo da Vinci in order to pay my homage to the ancient masters who painted frescoes in churches and chapels. I made it life-size and in green colour, for Guan Yu was often portraited wearing a green robe.
The blade on the floor belongs to Guan Yu.
The sculpture of Guan Yu with his blade inside the temple where I painted the mural.
The Nagaya fortune cat is a tribute to Chris Marker's Sans soleil, an essay film meditating on the nature of human memory, and showing the inability to recall the context and nuances of memory, and how, as a result, the perception of personal and global histories is affected.
An additional statuette of Guan Yu will be placed somewhere inside the space.
Statuettes of Guan Yu are a very common sight in Chinese restaurants and shops. They are omnipresent in China and other societies with Chinese influences in Asia, as well as in Chinese communities overseas.
The image on the left is a scene from Jia Zhangke's 2018 film Ash Is the Purest White.
Part 2: The creation of a painting representing the cell where I was detained with other inmates through the viewpoints of the surveillance cameras.
At the detention centre, after knowing that I was an artist, my inmates all wanted me to make portraits of them, but pencil and paper were not allowed inside. However, the idea of painting them stayed in my mind.
Before going to the detention centre, at the police station, the police examined the photo of my mural inch by inch and interrogated me about all the details in the image. They noticed the surveillance cameras depicted in the mural and asked me: “Why did you paint these cameras? Are you trying to imply that people are being watched?” And I replied: “It’s just a matter of fact. And don’t forget that what I painted is a scene of an art exhibition, and there’s supposed to be surveillance cameras at an exhibition, isn’t it?” The police looked somehow convinced. The next evening, after I had been transferred to the detention centre, I found myself inside a crowded barred chambre of more than twenty people with three surveillance cameras overhead. My inmates told me the only blind spot was the toilet, which itself was exposed to everyone’s eyes.
Scenes of detention centre (Internet photos)
I plan to create a big painting (about 160×120 cm) consisting of 12-15 small canvases. Each small canvas will depict a corner of the detention centre from the viewpoint of a surveillance camera, showing the activity of the detentionees (chatting, playing poker, watching TV, eating, washing, etc.). All the small canvases will together represent a fragmented (and slightly overlapped) interior of a cell in the detention centre with the people trapped inside, exposed to the viewers.
After the space gets built, the painting will be hung in the smallest room which was hardly visible in the mural. Otherwise it can be exhibited alongside the miniature model of the space.