Bottom of the Heart
by Chen Haiyan

“Association between the consciousness of time and memories makes up for the breaks in causal links.”

- Black Ink


Bottom of the Heart

by Chen Haiyan

With due respect and endearment, I’ve always hailed Shen Ye as “Shenye" (Master Shen). Several years ago, I wrote a long article entitled “A Decent Bloke”, in which I examined his complete oeuvre of installation works and  human imagery. I seemed to have poured forth all my unbounded feelings and witticisms through this piece. It baffles me what more I could say about his works on the occasion of the opening of Shenye’s new solo exhibition at OFOTO Gallery, for after much contemplation it dawns on me that he is nothing less than the decent bloke I’ve always known! Throughout the years, little has he changed in his character, even less his dedication to his critical mind as he expressed in his artworks. He has made changes, if any, to include the language of photography as part of his installation art practice. I remember this banter I once had with him over tea. A sudden sadness possessed me and I moaned, “I wonder how our later generations would think of us!” Stolid as ever, Shenye soon countered in an absent voice, “They wouldn’t be thinking of you at all.” I mumbled. I couldn’t really get mad at him and I broke into laughter. Indeed, Shenye knew by heart what I was meaning to say but he just loved to be playful and pass over what can not be talked about. Such wit resembles what Oscar Wilde said in Vera; or, The Nihilists“Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.” Instead of talk, Shenye presents and expresses himself via his artworks. I bring up the fond memories in the beginning of this essay not just in reminiscence of our friendship, but also to bring about the two ways of seeing artworks: one way is to see them independently, regardless of the artist; the other way, more often seen in academic research, is to put the artworks in the context of the life and times of the artist. Either way of appreciating art, no matter how their advocates may argue or boast, relies heavily on the subjective empathizing and understanding of the spectator.

The selection of artworks in this exhibition spans about twenty years, which enables us to take stock of the topics that have caught Shenye’s attention. By interlinking works on a wide range of themes and a “hybrid” of videos, photos, and installations, in combination with lacquer (Shen’s all time favorite and specialty, on which I have elaborated in my previous essay and don’t need to repeat) and mixed media, he has managed to construct an intrinsic logic and tonality for the exhibition of what could be broadly defined as photographic installation art. With the themes and topics expressed in contemporary style, theses works would easily relate to an audience concerned with the social conscience within. Shenye majored in design in college. Besides an artist, he is also a seasoned college professor who shares certain merits with his kind. For instance, he has the keenness, conscience, and critical attitude of a traditional intellectual always on the watch for emerging social phenomena and always ready to experiment new artistic ways of expression to effectively get the message across.

With the mainline theme of “desire” running through, the exhibition outlines the real living environment and the trajectory of life by showing the intersections of the whole thing. Following the designed movement path, one takes on a journey of a condensed version of the artist’s life in the first person. Here time goes on lineally not through the conventional procedures from birth to death of an individual but through the life and death of desire as it begins, expands, gets crushed, and even gets burned, annihilated, and eventually reaches its end. The angle of desire has hit home. It portraits the collective image of individual existence and the group image of the existence of the society. Shenye did not try to have more on his plate than he could handle; instead, he focuses in the space and field of his own personal life. Starting from what he sees with his own naked eyes and what he feels through his own body in its real-time presence, he records the "fresh representation" of desire: intrinsic desires in the posed photo of Goggle-eyed recreating the setting of “eating”; social desires for group identity and segregation in The Eight Immortals; mixed desires in social connections based on marriage, kinship, and geography in the wedding in No Option; typical scenarios in flashy but alienated existence represented in Coexistence and Existence; the clashes of traditional commerce and fast-consuming modern commerce shown in Bringing Australia to China (one work in a series), Stall, and Urban Stall. These clusters of visual recordings and memory fragments merge under the giant tablet that reads "fu yun" (Fancy Clouds). The sacrifices to the dead bring one to laughter and finally to tears, through which we see how all efforts in life lead to the objectification of souls. Everything from time, space, desire, humans, to existence is objectified, draining all possibilities in one’s spiritual pursuit. Even death is not an exception! Such an absurd desire to objectify everything wouldn’t just vanish. It gets further strengthened into an endless cycle by Tomorrow will be Better and there is no way to escape the other side. Reincarnation and rebirth are no longer the meaning of the small yet great existential meaning of life; instead, they are never ending desires just like the parasitic toxoplasmosis in the brain. They induce fearlessness and make enslave the host, and renders one into a lowly work ant in the toil of constructing the palace of desire. That being said, just as Haruki Murakami said, “Without this kind of small yet certain happiness, life is but a desert in drought.” As we Indulged in the maze of desire, all we could truly call ours is the small yet certain happiness. This is our present reality. This is the world today. This is us, and is our life that cannot be talked seriously about. We need no judgement from our later generations. We could simply comment on ourselves. Even if we do, we as individuals wouldn’t transcend anything or escape from the fate of vanishing in history. We wouldn’t leave a dent in the memories of others or even those of ourselves. All documentation is made to disappear one day, just like the images of the objects shown and photographed would eventually turn into “poor image”. These objects, along their own timelines, go from happiness to boredom, constrained in the scope of their own ground, tide over a term in captivity that we call “life”.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” These are the opening lines of the long history novel The Tale of Two Cities by the 19th century writer Charles Dickens. Today, such philosophical and literary words are not only for intellectual show-off, but are also an elixir to cure all anxieties and misfortune. These words, just like all other poetic writings, profound thoughts and magnificent arts, are taken lightly as entertainment and consumer goods. Their meanings dissolve. They become the feed of a monster of desire. The insatiable and incurable has become the best and the worst examples of life. We flick away the sensible teachings like tilting the Earth’s Axis, and our entire world transforms at the tip of a finger.

In fact, we hate all strange and unknown things. All we want to do is to keep sleeping in the darkness and in sweet dreams. We need to feel that we are not living in isolation. We need the comfort from each other. The fear and weakness in the depths of our hearts are just the source of cruelty to ourselves, to others, to life, and to time. It leads to our overindulgence in greed and nihilism and makes one willing to become masochists and abusers. In conclusion, no matter what inspirations for thought Shenye brings to us, it is valiant of him face the truth and reveal it. Here I’d like to say that artists, in whatever way they create art, make their contribution not just by “producing” something nice to look at or not, but by uncovering what lies beneath our consciousness.  Oftentimes, those are the things from which we always tend to shy away. Taking off the mask off of an entertaining life, we should go easy on the rush for desire and return to the pursuit of our existential meaning. There is for sure happiness in the mundane. Last but not least, I am grateful that  art still touches me in every way, grateful that Shenye keeps an vigilant eye in the numbing darkness and shows us the bottom of his heart with an abrasive sense of humor.

Written in Shanghai

6 June, 2018

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