Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou
Since coming on the scene in the mid-1990s, Zheng Guogu has offered through his work a counterpoint to the Beijing- and Shanghai-based elitism at the core of contemporary Chinese art. Firmly rooted in the Southern coastal city of Yangjiang, best known as a producer of knives, he makes art that comments on the national situation by focusing on a particular and distinct local iteration of it. While other artists fled to the capital either after graduation or as the art market picked up, he never faltered from his commitment to this locale that forms the basis of his artistic world.
Zheng Guogu's first works to gain national attention were a series of photographs called The Dangerous Lives of Yangjiang Youth, in which he and his friends acted out rudimentary tableaux of social misbehavior. In one famous image, the artist and his friends confront a group of soldiers in army fatigues, a ragtag bunch of buddies with dyed hair squaring off against the equally ragtag soldiers using guns, sticks, and martial arts moves. The low production values of these snapshot photographs belied an incredible sophistication in imagemaking: the photos were at once documentary, performative, and transcendent— Brechtian in the way they turned source material from the society at large into a layered spectacle of the imagination.
Shortly after these photographic experiments, Zheng Guogu began to turn to the canvas, beginning a series that has lasted over thirteen years called Computer Controlled by Pig's Brain. The first thing that needs to be said about this series is that the Chinese name is much funnier than the English. In Chinese, of course, the word for computer consists of the characters for "electric brain," so this title reads more literally as "Pig's Brain Controls Electric Brain," setting up a triumph of absurd obstinacy.
The series began, like many things in Chinese contemporary art, with an exhibition at the China Art Archives and Warehouse—an experimental gallery in Beijing set up by Ai Weiwei and the Dutch curator Hans van Dijk. For this initial exhibition, entitled "Bermuda—Made by Zheng Guogu", Zheng stamped his own small drawings with text appropriated from the gossipy Hong Kong magazine Yes. The incredibly ordinary and banal words from the magazine's classified advertisements were rendered in the same form—the seal—that classical literati used to add their mark to great paintings. From here he quickly evolved to making paintings of his own and stamping them with these same texts.
This basic idea of a background image or element "stamped" with banal text became an ongoing concern for Zheng, and has its key precedent even two years before the CAAW show in the present series Lolitas (Lot 880), realized in collaboration with his girlfriend Luo La. For this series of twenty-four oil paintings, eventually displayed together, the couple collected imagery of young fetish-object characters from the Japanese manga Luo La was then so interested in. Remarkably, this is nearly contemporaneous with Takashi Murakami's decision to create his own anime heroine in Miss Ko2, and a careful look at the heroines Zheng has chosen to appropriate reveals a lot about the general aesthetic state of the animated Japanese heroine in the late 1990s. Oversized eyes, bare midriffs, extensive cleavage, tiny mouths, sculptural hair—these elements recur, making the women nearly indistinguishable. Zheng superimposed Hong Kong advertising language on each canvas, creating a funny juxtaposition between two kinds of Asian modernity. Yangjiang, off the beaten path of the emerging Chinese cities and yet physically close to Hong Kong and connected to the outside world by its port, was a receptacle for old books and magazines from throughout the region. A big part of the irony of these series is the way in which Zheng seems to be practicing what literary theorists might call "bricolage," assembling disparate elements to create something that did not previously exist.
Zheng Guogu was quite intrigued by the passage of the millennium. The second sub-series of the Computer Controlled by Pig's Brain project was named after his brother's online chat username, qianxi liaoshen, which translates literally as "Chat God of the Millennium." He made sets of iron bottles modelled after consumer products (soda cans, oil bottles, and other extremely ordinary goods) and titled them "Let it Rust for Another Two Thousand Years," playing on the homophone "xiu" between "rust" and "to put on a show." This playful spirit entered also into his Pig's Brain paintings, with a new series titled Embroider for Another Two Thousand Years, as "embroider" is also written "xiu" in Chinese.
It is this turn—to using embroidery and other materials against a wide range of backgrounds—that underlies the other two works presently offered, Computer Controlled by Pig's Brain No. 24 (Lot 881) and Computer Controlled by Pig's Brain No. 21 (Lot 882), both from 2002. No. 21 is set on a background of fake cowskin, the cheap plastic kind probably taken from a local textile market in Yangjiang as further proof of how the local condition was coming to inform his work even more with each year. For this piece, Zheng introduced a stencil technique in which the text is rendered in acrylic and gum, giving it an air of the three-dimensional.
For No. 24, Zheng Guogu employs a monochromatic background, as in so many classic examples from this series. Its vertical composition, combined with the clear visibility it allows to the texts, highlights the absurdity of a commercial culture in full swing across the border in Hong Kong, as Mainland China, even in 2002, still struggled with reform. Here the hues are well controlled, refined down to shades on the red-orange-yellow spectrum. The triangles, circles, and rectangles lend an added layer of reference to geometric painting, the province of a forward-thinking mid-century avant-garde already far removed from the realities of a new millennium. By giving it the slightest hint of connection to painting in the traditional sense, Zheng seems in this instance to highlight the absurdity of his entire project.
In the following years, Zheng Guogu would shift his attention to the Yangjiang Calligraphy Group, a small collective of friends not unlike those who appeared in the original Yangjiang Youths photographs, devoted to late-night drinking and impromptu poetry. Together they would create "traditional" Chinese landscapes out of wastepaper and wax, structuring environments that parodied an older aesthetic system without offering a clear programmatic alternative. Zheng would also begin to amass land from peasants on the outskirts of his hometown, piecing this land together and creating a series of buildings upon it based on characters from the video game "Age of Empires." Throughout all of these projects, Zheng has maintained the conceptual position first offered in his early photographs and most clearly articulated in his iconic painting series Computer Controlled by Pig's Brain, one in which contemporary society unknowingly provides fodder for the artist's continually evolving intellect. In this sense, Zheng Guogu is the true Chinese pop artist, the one who sees—be it through appropriating advertising language, mocking traditional Chinese culture, or taking the throwaway aesthetics of a video game or a magazine and turning them into the basis for a kind of monumentality—just how elaborate is the set of visual and psychological protocols by which contemporary Chinese society acts upon its individual members.
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