Left panel transcription: After the massacre: a man sits amid the debris of a deserted western Changan Avenue, two day after the army assault, impression of tank treads can be seen across broken traffic signs, one of which still reads "order." after a photograph by David Turnley.
Right panel transcription: After the liberation: Chartres, France, Aug. 18. 1944, a French woman who had collaborated with the Germans during World War II, had a baby by a German soldier and was being led marched through the street. after a photography by Robert Capa.
“To me, copying is not an imitation of other people’s language. Like the way musical instruments work, copying itself is a kind of language.” – Chen Danqingi
In the early 1990s, catalyzed by the psychic wrench of the June 4, 1989 massacre of students in Tiananmen Square, Chen Danqing forged a revolutionary new direction in his painting. In a series of diptychs and triptychs created between June 1989 and the end of 1995, Chen developed an artistic practice based upon history painting that pushed the venerable genre towards installation. By 1991 Chen was at the top of his form: it was then that he produced the powerful diptych Street Theater, which Sotheby’s is pleased to feature as Lot 29.
Although the death of painting had long been a refrain in the West, the late 80s and early 90s were a particularly difficult time, as the painterly resurgence of Neo-expressionism and Neo-geo lost their allure. Around the world in China, then still emerging from the decades-long dominance of Socialist Realism, figurative painting – often narrative-driven – held sway. Chen Danqing did not properly belong to either world: although he had been a postgraduate student at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, he had not previously trained within the Chinese system. And although he immigrated to the United States in 1982, he never assimilated into the New York art world. Already between two cultures, the experience of observing from New York the events of June 4 via mass media drove home his “in between” position and propelled him to make something new of it. Tellingly, the creation he wrought from this experience locates meaning in interstitial inferences.
The effect of Chen Danqing’s diptychs and triptychs has rightly been compared with installation art, drawing their meanings, as these works do, from juxtaposition: each work pairs an image from the massacre with one or more from popular culture, the mass media, or the history of painting. But if the large-scale, immersive format of these works suggests installation practice – to which the Western art world was increasingly turning at this time – the enigmatic charge accompanying Chen’s thought-provoking juxtapositions stand apart from standard installation practice. While seeming worlds unto themselves, Chen’s works reference ideas, prior images, and historical experiences far beyond the confines of their frames, encapsulating a vastly complex web of meanings. Furthermore, the medium of painting allows the artist to tightly control the viewer’s range of interaction with the work: he predicts where the eye will travel and when it will pause, thus orchestrating a flow of pictorial associations, however ambiguous the resulting interpretive possibilities.
Street Theater consists of two paintings, each a fastidious copy of a documentary photograph. Like other works in this series, the images have been brought together because of a mirrored motif. While some of the artist’s diptychs and triptychs repeat a gesture or pose, in Street Theater each painting depicts a street scene plunging into the distance with the vanishing point on the left side of the image, the lateral expansion at right, and the horizon lines nearly matched. But the visual resonance extends beyond these carefully selected formal similarities. Both paintings represent a scene from the streets that poignantly captures a moment of anxiety on the historical stage. On the left, a man has dismounted his bicycle to sit on a broken barricade on Chang’an Avenue, the northern border of Tiananmen Square, two days after the massacre. All is quiet, but the stillness is belied by the presence of crushed barricades and traffic signs. The empty expanses of the image, strewn with physical evidence of upheaval, leave a question mark over the future to come in this historic location. In the painting on the right, a crowd rushes down a street in Chartres on August 18, 1944, a moment caught by the famous war photographer Robert Capa. The crowd jeers at the central figure, a woman who gave birth to the baby of a German soldier and whose head has been shaved as punishment for being a Nazi collaborator. The viewer of the diptych moves back and forth between the two overpoweringly large paintings, contemplating the juxtaposition of historical images, seeking to plumb the work’s significance.
There is no precise answer to the question posed by the diptych: even the question is uncertain. But it is precisely in this manner that Chen Danqing has deployed the genre of history painting at a moment when the future that will eventually be inscribed in history’s annals is so uncertain. The legacy of history painting, with figural groupings assembled hierarchically for heroic aggrandizement and clear conveyance of a narrative’s dramatic import, is here turned on its head – and in a way diametrically opposed to the “improved” hyper-reality of the Socialist Realist painting that had until recently dominated Chinese painting. In scale and medium, Street Theater competes with Napoleonic works by David, Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, or, better yet, Rembrandt’s similarly ambiguous – and analogously set – Nightwatch, just to name a few. But Chen’s work was created in the contemporary era when appropriation had come to the fore in the art world and when mass media news dissemination had irrevocably changed the means by which contemporary history is made.
Unerringly conceived, the diptych’s composition propels the frustrated need to find an answer. Although Capa’s 1944 photograph was black and white, Chen has rendered the French flag in color, thus underscoring the role of nationalism in each of the images and drawing attention to the smashed and scattered red, blue, and white concrete blocks and metal poles along Changan Avenue. The deep plunges towards the horizon and the lateral expansions of each image propel the viewer’s eyes from one painting to the next and from historical past to historical present, seeking clues of meaning for the present – and perhaps the future. Indeed, the formal operations of the paired paintings and the historical distance bridged by the enigmatic work bring to mind the poetic image of the ‘angel of history’ as conceived by Walter Benjamin, whose works were enjoying renewed popularity at the time of Street Theater’s conception and with which Chen Danqing was familiar.ii
The original photographic images Chen Danqing selected for Street Theater were compelling as records of a moment. Magnified and joined together, they are absolutely riveting, locking the viewer into the world of circulating, open-ended meanings the work sets into motion. While the isolated instants are now safely in the past, presented together in Street Theater they have broad implications regarding human nature and the lessons of historical memory. Uniquely documenting the most cataclysmic event of recent Chinese history, Street Theater is unquestionably a history painting for our times. – Britta Erickson and Joe Martin Hill
i Chen, “An Informal Retrospective,” in Ackbar Abbas, et al., Chen Danqing: Painting after Tiananmen. Hong Kong: Department of Comparative Literature, Hong Kong University, 1996, p. 18.
ii The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress is this storm. “Theses on the Philosophy of History, IX”
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