No Story but Society: On Lu Zheng-yuan’s Oxymoron

Cheng Nai-Ming

Editor in Chief, CANS Chinese Contemporary Art News October,2015

Lu Zheng-yuan was born in Dalian, Liaoning in 1982, and currently works and lives in Beijing. His work offers us a different perspective on art and to reflect on the social behaviors of mankind.

Lu said, “I have realized that my work is still very visual, but my works differ from others because they do not tell any stories. That is there are no any stories behind my works… I am quite afraid when people ask me, ‘what stories do your works tell?’” After pausing for a while, he continued, “it might be a disadvantage! Lacking the narrative characteristics forces me to explain from the beginning every time when someone wants to see my works or understand my art. On top of that, I have to talk about every piece one after another because every work embodies an individual creative motif. As a result, the listener would be exhausted when I have barely finished talking about half of my works.”

This statement sounded a little distressing. However, as both of us sat face to face, we laughed out loud at the same time.
I did not mean any harm.

It was, nevertheless, quite hilarious. …

The truth is I really appreciate this kind of pure artistic language because not every artist’s works require stories to “complete” the so-called artistic creation.

Art, quite often, does not need excessive and redundant explanation.

Sometimes, art puts the mentality of audiences to test instead of asking them to accept the stories provided by artists.

When some psychologists studied young couples, they analyzed what they thought about their partners and compared their statements with how their partners view themselves. The results showed significant disparities between the lovers. The comments from the other halves were often better than what one thought about himself or herself. In the meantime, the stronger this idealization was, the longer the relationship lasted. In other words, to idealize the person one loved really helped the relationship last. The psychologists concluded that such a positive illusion created influences on one’s partner and enabled them to start realizing the idealization. This cause-and-effect was also mutual. Therefore, the psychologists stated that “we do not need to love a person for who he or she really is. Instead, we love how we think he or she should be, or how we would like them to be.”

This psychological experiment might be viewed and ridiculed as a kind of blind love. Nonetheless, the reason why such blind love exists in human minds is because of decisions made by the human brain. When our brains are stimulated by love, chemical changes incurred, causing us to make incorrect judgments about the people we love. The primary cause is that our illusions get to persist simply because our brains lack of strength to challenge them. Neuroscientists, therefore, remind us that blind love does not equal stupidity or ignorance; it is actually a physical condition that also prevents one from distinguish the rich from the poor as well as the educated from the uneducated.

Naturally, Lu’s art has nothing to do with loving a person.

However, I have found it extremely intriguing to view Lu’s art from this point of view offered by the psychologists and neurologists and from this angle of human’s social behaviors. It has also allowed one to appreciate his art from a more pellucid way.

To name an instance, Lu installed an artwork, titled Reflection, in the stairway from the first floor to the second floor of the MOCA, Taipei. On a towering wall were many neon lights, reminding visitors of a professional advertisement and neon light company

that was trying to present their various neon products without reservation so that customers could clearly see the models they needed. However, among these elaborate neon lights lay a peculiarity, which was that all the English words were “RED” and “GREEN.” Normally, texts or images would be our visual references to differentiate something. For example, reading the words RED and GREEN would trigger our brains to recognize the colors red and green; and as a result, our brains would inform our eyes that the red neon lights said red and the green neon lights green. These were the decisive messages given by our brains. Nevertheless, Lu reversed the colors and turned the green neon lights to say red, and vice versa. The work was called Reflection, and its two sections actually reflected the real colors of each other! The question was that most people would subjectively take the red neon lights to say red and the green ones to say green without much thinking because of the misleading texts they viewed in this installation. They did not realize that the two had become each other’s oxymoronic substitute.

“Oxymoron” was the title of Lu’s first large solo exhibition in Taipei.

Although Lu said his works were not narrative to tell any stories, in my opinion, his works have been extensively descriptive of the society despite the lack of specific stories.

The artist has not confined himself to individual feelings and experience, but set his eyes and mind to observe the changes of the surrounding environment. At first glance, his works might not tell any stories; in actuality, they were part of a grand narrative.

Meanwhile, Lu’s art has also been closely following the pulse of the society and the era. From another perspective, his artistic creation and expression has been a type of documentation of our time.

For instance, I was really amazed by an artwork, titled The Moon in My Room, which incorporated photography and light box.

According to Lu, this was one of the works that were relatively more narrative. It was about one particular Mid-Autumn Festival. For Chinese people, Mid-Autumn Festival means to have a family reunion and to see the beautiful full moon. It is simply the tradition. The problem was he had not realized that particular day was the holiday and had been busy throughout the day. When he suddenly found out that day was Mid-Autumn Festival, he was alone in a strange city, and could not bear to spend the night without the company of the moon. He opened the window and looked outside. The moon was nowhere to be seen due to the heavy smog in Beijing! Even the building in front of his place was blurry in the gray smog. Lu said he was madly in need of seeing the moon without any particular reason. Therefore, he had a light bulb all of a sudden. Since the weather was so bad and the full moon was gone, he would search for the moon on- line. After typing in “Mid-Autumn Festival” and hitting search, many results were presented. The disc of full moon in the exhibition was one of the them. Therefore, Lu converted this full moon on his mobile phone into the desktop picture of his computer, and befittingly spent the Mid-Autumn Festival staring at the full moon on his computer.

Carefully pondering on this piece, it might seem a little heartbreaking in an absurd and ridiculous way. Yet, it has also been heartbreaking in its own right. As a matter of fact, when our surrounding is filled with more and more choices and substitutions, possessing something seems easier and easier on the surface. However, we are also getting further and further away from the truth. In the past, we would always believe what our eyes have seen. That was why seeing would be believing. The modern environment, on the other hand, is filled with deceitful appearances that have steered us away from the truth. Perhaps, what we have seen was the “reality”—the real condition of things; but “reality” does not mean “truth”! This concept has been embodied by that bright, full moon found in the image archive. People who did not know the story would take it as the real full moon when, in fact, it was simply an image!

From a different perspective, I would not say that Lu’s solo exhibition was about issues of interpreting or confounding the real or the unreal with a dialectical approach. Contrarily, through ordinary, common materials, Lu has intentionally explored the softness and gentleness of modern people. Generally speaking, modern people have a problem of lacking self-identification, and are eager to seek the approval of people around them. Even the so-called homebodies, who appeare to like to stay at home and keep away from people, they are actually eager to seek popularity on all kinds of social media and through computer games. The moment the emptiness surfaces in mind, these people would be anxious to fill up the emptiness with something. Such behavior has revealed the incredible loneliness of modern people.

Therefore, seeking ‘substitutes’ is undoubtedly universal; but it has also blurred the line between modern man’s values about the original and the substitute.

For example, Lu’s Edge, which was installed and displayed on the plaza of the museum, was a site-specific installation created for the MOCA, Taipei. It also represented Lu’s contemplation on how the work could respond to the centennial architecture of the museum. The artist created this high ladder in stainless steel; but this glistening ladder actually could not be used for climbing because Lu has retained the appearance of a ladder and removed its practicality. The edge of each step was polished and sharpened into a cutting blade. This approach was derived from Lu’s another work, in which he employed a spoon as his material. At that time, Lu also sharpened the both sides of the spoon so that it could not be normally used. If one attempted to use the knife-like spoon, his fingers and mouth would be cut. Similarly, the high stainless steel ladder might look tempting but did not allow nearness and could not be used. On each step of the ladder, Lu has placed real and fake fruit interspersedly. As time passed and being exposed in open space, the real fruit underwent qualitative changes, decomposed and fell from the steps. It reinforced the reality that the real and the natural have been replaced by the fake and the plastic. In this work, Lu allowed time to reveal the different faces and textures of the oxymoronic substitutes. The real objects would eventually change in the passing of time and become part of the memory. On the other hand, the replaceable plastic fruit lacked real temperature and would always remain a replacement despite its ability to retain the appearance! In the work, through the contrast between the redbrick façade of the centennial building and the relentless glow of stainless steel as well as that of the real and the fake fruit, Lu slowly and subtly revealed the temperature of the things that were used as substitutes in his arrangement of the work. As the artist, he did not provide any ready answers, but allowed the work itself to respond to the audience.

Seriously speaking, in the exhibition, Oxymoron, Lu also presented his acute observations on social issues. Nonetheless, this artist who was never good at being pedantic also understood how to avoid being didactic in his work that might create a growing distance between the artworks and the audience. Therefore, Lu has chosen a very unadorned way that also allowed extensive interpretation to express his thoughts. This approach made it possible for his art to retain its purity and to sidestep the pitfall of art being in servitude to the public and catering to any specific taste, which was what traditional ideology prescribed.

A good example would be a series of painting called Untitled Series in the main gallery hall on the second floor. I have found this series of work to be the ‘sharpest’ work about the concept of substitutive ‘oxymorons’ in the entire exhibition. In this series, each set of paintings included one large painting and one small painting juxtaposed together. In fact, Lu had accidentally painted an abstract oil painting with automatic techniques in a short time. Then, he imitated the abstract image on the small painting and painted the large one. Strictly speaking, the large painting was a copy of the small painting, rendering the seemingly large abstract painting a realistic one based on the image of the small painting! On the one hand, Lu followed closely the traditional characteristics of abstract and realistic paintings; on the other hand, he has subverted our preconception of the abstract and the realistic. From this aspect, this artistic approach embodied some hypocritical actions in politics, which were righteously taken as a kind of achievement over and over again. These paintings in pairs on the wall looked like abstract paintings; however, one was an imitation of the other, which was completely deceitful to the extreme extent. In terms of the so-called substitutes as well as the accidental reality and the intended imitation, one could never know which ones were the substitutes, or which were replaced! This series was even more deceitful than another set of work that was called Lies! Yet, it also revealed the most sense of humor amongst all the artworks in the exhibition.

In this exhibition, Lu has emphasized on the idea of ‘body’ as the ‘foundation.’ Most of the artworks in the exhibition were inspired or taken from ordinary objects in real environment. In essence, these objects were all ‘bodies’ that had practical functions; but Lu has retained the original ‘bodies’ while adding new elements and messages onto these objects. This method itself was fully expressive of the meaning of the exhibition title, but also created different possible interpretations. Through his appropriation of the ready-made objects, it pointed out that modern society is filled with diverse choices. However, the vast array of choices has also created certain absurd and unrestricted situations.

When we did not have limitless communicative instruments such as wireless connection, Google, Baidu, etc., the environment with limited choices enabled us to have a more complete control and understanding of the purity and depth of things’ essence. Nowadays, with infinite choices, we have cherished things and people less and only in a shallow way. The reason is that modern people have never truly understand that technology could only help us maintain relationships, but not create relationships. Moreover, sociologists have stated that we now have more choices than any moment in the past, but our minds are not necessarily more open and welcoming than before. It is because we have limited themselves to our own preferences, and tend to fill the empty spot just for the sake of it because of our fear of being lonely, gradually

enveloping ourselves in a psychological state that is getting more and more desolate.

This is why modern society is filled with “oxymorons.”

However, when people start to look for substitutes due to anxiety, they usually cannot tell whether it is out of need or simply because of their insecurity when seeing an empty spot. On the surface, we consider ourselves to be well-informed and experienced; in fact, our vision has shrunk.

Lu Zheng-yuan’s art has pointed out the psychological issues of modern society, and has greatly surpassed the issue of narrativity in the works.