Spiritual Realms in the Material World——Cui Xiuwen's Recent Work [Patricia Karetzky]

All the more surprising then is the recent video Spiritual Realm (2011). The young beauty is gone, replaced by actors from everyday life. Instead of exquisite scenery there is an empty studio stage and a brilliant spot light takes the place of the diffuse outdoor mystical light. With no props and no clothes, each individual assumes center stage and enacts his/ her own drama. Asked to express their feelings of the spiritual realm, one by one these characters from the urban scene take the stage and move in synch with some internal vision of celestial peace and serenity. Watching them is certainly uncomfortable, the viewer is ever aware of their stark nakedness, their aloneness and vulnerability. Their movement aeromechanical and repetitive, surprisingly similar to each other’s, often their actions echo martial art tai chi exercises. Their gestures are limited consisting mostly of slowly raising their arms up over their head and looking skywards. Few explore the space around them; rather, standing erect, they shift their weight from one foot to the other, sometimes making shallow circles in the surrounding space. There is no suggestion of sexuality in their movements. But this is not the story - there were 100 applicants who were interviewed. Willingly they auditioned for the camera Cui Xiuwen Images from Spiritual Realm (2011) video installation. All photos courtesy of artist with an unlimited amount of time to explore through physical movement the feeling of being in the spiritual realm. Though most performed for 2-3 minutes, one participant lasted over half-an-hour. Shot in black and white, because color would distract the eye and add an element of entertainment and a more modern sense of time, the videos are single action pieces. At the Today Museum in Beijing, Cui projected the images on the walls, a group of four on one wall, a group of seven on the other, alternating male/female images. In a more recent exploration of the theme, Cui arranged two groups, one completely male, and the other female. These groups are obviously composed using computer programming and the results demonstrate great artistry in creating compact compositions of naked figures that elicit comparison with Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel done in 1536-1541, especially the group of the “Saved” on the right of Christ, or Rodin’s nineteenth century semi-clad Burgers of Calais. In the complex composition the figures move in counterpoint to each other, the dense grouping forms a sculptural bas-relief. From the 100 contestants, 24 were selected whose ages range from 19-57 for the women, and 16-80 for the men. Cui used what in China is called a Street Model Agency, in contrast to a professional one whose models are too well known and versed in performance. This agency which has recently become popular with artists needing subjects for their work has models from all walks of life; Cui engaged a wide range of people: students, extras for movies, a poet and a writer as well as street workers. Although it seems voyeuristic to view these subjects, and one feels the obtrusive but unseen presence of the director of the exercise, the performance of the actors is solemn, sincere and intense. In the end it is a rather touching enactment of spirituality that infuses all of our imaginings of a world beyond our pain. The participants’ response to the performance is also surprising, many felt transformed by it, and reluctant to return to their everyday activities. Like Andy Warhol’s dictum of the future when everyone will have fifteen minutes of fame, these subjects are suddenly cast in the spotlight and asked to express what is purest in their hearts. For them, the experience was transformative, they understood the rarity of this moment in their life, when they were at center stage and yet part of a larger project. Invited to the museum opening, it is interesting to note, they declined to attend, embarrassed perhaps by the public spectacle of the event. Cui says most people at first reflexively respond to the work as sexual, due no doubt to the nudity, but this soon passes into a fascination with this very personal form of trancelike movement. Their postures, like choreography, convey a special state of mind.

In conclusion these figures, naked to view, and shot in a brilliant light that exposes all of their unique physical characteristics, individually express their own ideas. Yet as a group they share the commonality of the challenge of physically expressing themselves in the nude, of being vulnerable, of being on view. Seen as a group, there is a great similarity in their physical responses. Moreover, viewed as an assembly of people of the same gender, their bodies share generically similar an atomical parts but are at the same time unique. What is more the assembly is an artificial construct for these participants did not exist as a group and therefore did not interact with each other. In sum the work is a meditation on human existence: we live within the limits of the human condition and the confines of society, as individuals who come into the world naked and exposed, and in daily life we are forced to exist in any number of groups. Within the stricture of such groups our actions are guided by the inner rhythms of our psyche. Hope drives us through despair. Cui’s recent works continue to explore the themes of human behavior, sexual identity, and the issue of the self and its relation to others and now the spiritual realm as well. 

Patricia Karetzky

1. The Beijing-based artist has had major group exhibitions including the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Tate Modern, London; International Center of Photography andAsia Society and Victoria & Albert Museum, London; and the MoMA PS1. She has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Bordeaux; Forence Museum; and the Today Art Museum in Beijing.  See http://www.artzinechina.com/display.php?a=168
2. The Sirens, a pamphlet printed in Beijing, 1998.
3. Lady's, video, 2000 (6 min 12 sec). See http:// teachartwiki.wikispaces.com/Ladies+Room+—+Cui+Xiuwen
4. http://www.jingdaily.com/en/culture/cui-xiuwen-at-eli-klein-fine-art-new-york-jan-19-feb-27/n.paradoxa Vol.29