The Door to Temptation: Silhouette in Spirit behind Cui Xiuwen’s Works [Han Jing, Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, 2011.Vol.8 "Art China"]


In February, Paris, the city of romance, still presented a bleak scene and the cold current from the Atlantic was still chilly before the carnival of the Seine commenced... But such a season did not chill people’s zeal for the exhibition at the Center Pompidou, Paris, France. At the entry, visitors like me lined up there as if there were no end of them. I joined the crowds and walked in the exhibition hall, where the urinal with black handwriting “R. Mutt 1917” on it was still on display quietly in a transparent box. I thought the halo surrounding this piece of work in the history of art arrested the eyes of visitors so that no one wondered whether the transparent box was made of organic glass or something else. Of course, details about its milestone significance were unnecessary here. But an obvious fact is: every reference to Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) makes some mention of Spring. This reminds me of Chinese artist Cui Xiuwen’s video Lady’s playing in cycle with a time unit of 6'12" not far from Marcel Duchamp’s famous Spring in an exhibition called Big Bang------Destruction and Creation in 20 Century Art held here six years ago in 2005. That exhibition demonstrated the 20th-century art collection of the Pompidou Center, especially those art works forceful enough to stretch every nerve in our body and put us to rethink the definition of art as far as the exhibition planner is concerned. That year happened to be the tenth year since Cui Xiuwen formally bade farewell to college life in 1996 and began her career as an artist. Whatever destruction and creation in visual sense or concept this exhibition with a history of art covering a period of one century led to; whatever turning points Cui Xiuwen had reached in her ten-year artistic career ------ as an atom of the Big Bang, her first video Lady’s won favor and affirmation, a topic no doubt hard to be silent on in her art path, both today and even in the future. The fact is that it was because of Lady’s and the disputes it stirred up that Cui Xiuwen came into public view. But before going on to discuss this work and her art change later, maybe it is necessary for us to look at something that has nothing to do with her art. As she said in her Growth of Artistic Spirit: “My following works would inexorably lead to some kind of echo either sexually, or psychologically, socially, artistically or ideologically... an inner link with the depth of life can be felt from my works and my life path of more than 10 years.”

Up to now, the teenage Cui Xiuwen has been unfamiliar to me except for two or three stories. But the little stories that serve as a true mirror of her early-ripe, sensitive, and resolute side different from her peers, though I am not inclined to nose into her future signs of artistic creation from traces of her daily life, and I am not sure about the inevitable relationship between both, either. However, the past memories she inadvertently brought up were indeed impressive-----her junior high school age. When most of her peers were still muddled in their fearless youth, Cui Xiuwen had had her desire to voice her thoughts, though at that time she did not know how to express herself, nor aware that the door she chose to open will eventually led to art. But, she had an extremely lofty goal and self-discipline, as she put it: “That is a desire in life, that is, an ideal as we call.” The inkling came when she first read of “the lofty aims of a great man are beyond the understanding of a common person” from “Shi Ji (Historical Records) · Chen Family (HYPERLINK http://baike.baidu.com/view/4494154.htm)”, a cautionary tale for many. But for Cui Xiuwen, it was a yell from Chen Sheng whose high ambition was not understood by many but subsided within her when she was young. Another passage that influenced her was from Mencius · Teng Wengong (I) “Some work with their brains, and others work with their brawn. Those who work with their brains rule and those who work their brawn are ruled. Those who are ruled feed those who rule. She said, on reading this passage, she was determined to be an intelligent person, or a person to use her mind. I wonder whether being good at thinking, or forcing her to think in her youth is related with her metaphysical concern in her artistic creation in recent years. However, this may help us understand why Cui Xiuwen did not end up with splitting up with art in the trivial and realistic life like most women artists do. I have no intention of discussing “feminism” or “patriarchal discourse” and other such issues here. As far as the artist herself is concerned, in addition to romantic passion, the belief in idealistic perhaps sustains her. Regarding this point, we can also see herself from her early self-portrait assignments: there was no appearance commended often, or stress on gender, or painting skills worth mentioning. However, what she made contact with the audience were her unruly eyes ---- self-confident, firm, defying the outside world. She is still herself that has a deep inner belief that “the lofty aims of a great man are beyond the understanding of a common person”.

Rose and Menthe (oil painting, 1996-1997) marked the start of her first true sense of creation. She first approached sexual relations in this painting, and thus endowed the title itself Rose and Mentha with some symbolic metaphor. For example, “rose” is the symbol of the female sex in various cultures, while “menthe” contains meaning that has a special effect on the male sex, as the artist Cui Xiuwen put it in her memory: “There seems a mention of the taste of ‘menthe’ in a book entitled Critical Consciousness...” It can be seen as a flavoring for a variety of reading. But what is worth mentioning is that in Cui Xiuwen’s memory, there was at least evidence that she had done considerable reading on critical theories, and benefited much for her artistic creation in that period. Therefore, we have reasons to believe: when we, together with women in the pictures always with their backs to the audience, cast our eyes on the naked male subject in most pictures of this group of works, it is not a kind of formalistic coincidence or need. But Cui Xiuwen made a conscious choice between “see” and “seen”, a typical issue repeatedly discussed in feminist art. As a female, I tend to avoid looking at artistic creation from a single gender perspective so as not to fall into the convention of “feminism”. But, in her early art, Cui Xiuwen very clearly expressed and emphasized her standpoint as a female. It is worth mentioning that her paintings in this period were not exactly limited to “sex”, open to suspicion of “giving priority to theory”, though. I would prefer to interpret it as: In that period, either in terms of identity or feelings, she was faced with multiple worlds, saying goodbye to college, stepping into society, and falling in love that henceforth lasted for many years. “The opposite sex” was part of this multiple world in her life. Rose and Menthe also reflects the artist’s intention to communicate with this multiple world or search for a channel leading to the outside world of paintings. Among a small number of pieces with females facing the audience, there was one: the female raises her head slightly, as if her eyes travelling across the picture and gazing on us through the air. Her slightly defiant and unruly eyes impressively retained the trace in her early self-portraits. Her next painting Chuan (oil painting, 1998) seems to have slipped away from her art experience-----because almost no critics, artists or media has mentioned this period of history before she turned to video and photography. I assume maybe because this word Chuan was somewhat rare, which means disorder, defiance, perversion and misfortune. In Rose and Menthe, the gaze of women on men is largely exploratory and observational. Their body language still reveals a peaceful atmosphere, though most of them turn their backs to us and their facial expressions are out of the viewers sight. However in Chuan series, this relationship has been completely broken ----- a tea table covered with plaids, a goblet with liquid, a vase with plants and an armchair tilted-----daily breath and sentimental things in Rose and Menthe are singled out of Chuan. Women in Chuan series, either blowing whistle in rhythm or making gesture of pause, reveal their commanding strength and dominant position in the picture. Interestingly, the target that the woman faces who is issuing orders, either a little Lori with a rose in hand or others, is no longer an opposite sex at first glance in Rose and Menthe. The sex of another character in Chuan is hard for us to tell, for he or she is either baldheaded, ponytailed, or even another woman. Subtle interactions with the animal can be felt on the screen----- whether he or she and it share the erotic joy, or is suffering a crisis of castration, breathing a breath of black humor. And to the motif of gender issue, add gay, human nature, bestiality and other factors. In Chuan series, there is only one exception ----- only one woman on the screen, with a rope in her hands. The other end of the rope vanishes outside the border of the screen, so that no one knows what it is. The woman seems to run after it or tear at each other ... It is because of linking with the unknown, an idea occurs to me for Chuan: Cui Xiuwen’s “watching” problem and gender discussion from the feminist perspective have been finished in Rose and Menthe. If Rose and Menthe is indeed the artist’s attempt to open a channel with the multiple worlds through artistic creation; then Chuan turns to the inner world of the artist, where there are many different “I”s of the artist, going to an absurd nightmare.

Painting creation seemed to come to a grinding halt. Henceforth, Cui Xiuwen seldom took up paintings. She turned to photos and videos as a new way of expression. In her own words, the reason for changing was because of the fact that “painting as an art language is not enough to convey what I want to express”. And the turning point was a throat operation on her. After the surgery, she stayed at a friend’s house. As she lost her voice, since she was not able to talk right after the surgery, she had to communicate with her friend’s 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter through body language and occasionally took photos for them. But gradually she found that they were willing to present their body to the outside world, especially the difference between them although they were still so young. Then, her first picture works came out as a result of natural shots: CHENGCHENG and BEIBEI (1999). Locking targets on “young children” reflects her intention to restore her thinking about and embodiment of sexual relations or nature to the more primitive and more essential state of enlightenment of life. Although the artist later said frankly that this group of photos was not yet mature as an experimental attempt, and that it carried a foreshadowing for her later more daring creation.

The last year at the end of the century was memorable for Cui Xiuwen, for she completed her video Lady’s which was later collected and exhibited by the Pompidou Arts Center together with Marcel Duchamp’s Spring. Also, because of this work, she was invited as the first Chinese artist alive to the exhibition hall of Tate Britain four years later. Various comments have been made on this work. We brought up the matter of the past, because in Lady’s Cui Xiuwen made a scientific record of the living conditions of women engaged in erotic services from the social perspective. So, ten years later after the exhibition of Lady’s, her metaphysical thinking was expressed in her recent video works Spiritual Realm and Inner Humanity. For both Spiritual Realm of individuals, or composed of a group of the same sex, Cui Xiuwen hoped that the shooting targets, the audience and herself were able to catch the “spiritual space” erected by art: another abstract world that exists in human nature, but is covered and ignored in everyday life. It is totally unnecessary for us to get to the bottom of how the artist repeatedly stresses “spirituality”, and whether the final product has really set up the “spiritual space” or not. Either the definition of “spirit” or perception of “spirit” is not the same to everyone. What is breathtaking is: after the Lady’s, Cui Xiuwen once reinforced female temperament of her works, including TOOT (video, 2001) in which she acted personally naked to present the process of a woman from bondage to freedom and liberation; Twice (video, 2001) in which she also bared her body, and directed masturbation in a private telephone conversation; One Day in 2004 (pictures) which presents a girl who is  innocent and helpless, dressed in school uniform and hurt in varying degrees; Angel (pictures, 2006) which presents a girl in her teens but pregnant heavily, extremely unsuitable to her face and age; and After Angel (device, 2007) with color mired in a swamp and rotten; Existential Emptiness (pictures, 2009) which presents a religious tranquil scene, but still probes into the ego and the id of females...In this decade, Cui Xiuwen tried to arouse concern in female sensitivity, fragility, confusion, injury and other physical and psychological dimensions in our contemporary society. This concern is relevant to her own experience as well as universal social issues, such as violence, early pregnancy...But now, men and women naked in Spiritual Realm bare their bodies with no sexual ideas in the least. The artist tried to strip redundant ornaments that carry identity, class, knowledge background and other external factors, stressing each individual and the group to go beyond now and here and enter the “spiritual” space ----- no matter how abstract and difficult to define it is.

Therefore, I dare not assert any change in the previously stressed gender perspective or the change in creation mode, and also do not want to summarize this change with the simple “de-gendering”, but at least there is a change in the other shore that the artist hopes to attain. This is further embodied in her latest solo exhibition called Words of Inner Humanity, curated by Lv Peng. For her work Inner Humanity, she shot the process that the paper towel drifts and falls, and piles one upon another, together with the tapping of fingertips at the desktop, varying with the barrier of towel stacking. The artist told me that the idea occurred to her when she was chatting with a friend. The friend tapped his fingertip at the desktop when he was thinking. She then put a piece of paper towel between the friend’s fingertip and the desktop to muffle its knocks. This suggested a possibility to the artist to record one’s “thinking”, or “spiritual activity”. Similarly, in Inner Humanity, the artist presents an abstract concept-----“spiritual activity”, a process of thinking the artist saw by taking away the subject of spirit ---- human being, not recording the specific act ----- knock, but through the result of a certain way of thinking ---- sound, and the element that alters the sound ----- paper towel. Of course, as for Spiritual Realm, puzzles as follows may baffle us: Is this a “spiritual” landscape? Whose spiritual landscape is it? How to prove...As to Inner Humanity, we may encounter similar problems: Is the visual presentation of the above “spiritual activity” reversible? Simply speaking, that is: Does tapping the desk imply that we are thinking, though we might automatically tap the desk when we are thinking? So, there is no absolute correlation between thinking, or abstract “spiritual” representation, and paper towel and sound. However, I don’t want to solve this problem. Since art is not a mathematical formula, I hope it is Goldbach conjecture, or nothing at all before it is discriminated. Interestingly, through the work we see the ever-changing life structure of the artist in the last 15 years. After the exhibitionWords of Inner Humanity, in “Tank Library · Chongqing Contemporary Art Center”, Cui Xiuwen told me spirit is increasingly profiled when life structure is being integrated on and on.

According to Wittgenstein, “It is an enormous temptation to make clear spirit.” In my opinion, Cui Xiuwen is still striding forward into the door to temptation. Temptation is good, and will not at least put one at a standstill.