[Others] Physical discipline, Self-Consistency and Escape

By 倪昆 2019-04-05

Original Author: Ni Kun      Translation

Physical discipline, Self-Consistency and Escape

Ni Kun


When talking about "Art-Body" in the contemporary context, Guy Debord's La Société du spectacle, Nelson Goodman's Ways of Worldmaking as well as his discussion of art and symbolism are the notable texts. Debord’s book reveals the fact that culture has become a commodity in the post-capitalist context that confronts the proposition of the society of the spectacle in a radical way. This is not only a manifesto but also a methodology. Nelson considers that the world is a symbol invented by us, which indicates that the system is constructed. At the same time, he proposes an argument that the world is also limited by how we describe the objects. This suggests the multiple dependency between the "World" - "Construction" - "Symbolic System", and this kind of relationship could also be further explored in the context of art. As a medium, the “body” participates in the co-construction of “Art and Action”, and in an active action that denies the circular consumption under capitalism. It is also in a “new” site where the multiple forces have arrived for the rivalry. The action and context have always constituted a direct discourse. The "correctness" and "accuracy" of the "body" are repetitively verified and explored. (Accuracy is formed by limiting the use of terminology from everyday language and by removing its ambiguity and vagueness. Therefore, it can be used in the system of establishing new constructions, which is related to the objectivity, and also directly to the validity and existence.)


“Correctness” is associated with the self-proof circle and is directed to the symbolic system. “Accuracy” and its relative “ambiguity and vagueness” are often trapped in a dynamic cycle. When talking about the “Art-Body”, at least in Chinese context since the 1980s, the definition and description of “performance art” (as a noun) in the cultural scene contains such “happenings” where the “body and behaviour” act as the core. More precisely, such definitions borrow, appropriate, and implement the conceptual and artistic language of Western performance art as the Grabbism ( Na Lai Zhuyi), but it naturally shields the important internal factors of performance art’s development in the contextual logic regarding Western art history.

For example, the "action painting" is an important driving force for this art form; a more specific case being how the Happenings have been seriously ignored in the Chinese art scene. Recalling these relationships does not mean to advocate a new round of reference, but expecting that the “body” has been fully disciplined (at the moment, “radical” and “avant-garde” have become consumers), especially when digital virtualization and new technology are added to the overall control of the body. By teasing out the multiple explorations of “Art-Body” at different stages of historical transition, we attempt to discover and search for what may still remain in the “body”. In my opinion, this is very necessary and would an essential methodology for us to dive in the origin, deducing and experimenting

under the premise of fully understanding the multi-construction of the world and in a constructive relationship between the context and contemporary society.


In 1962, in Susan Sontag’s article "Happenings: An Art of Radical Juxtaposition", she cheerfully exclaimed the emergence of a new art form in New York. It was called Happenings by the press, named by the artist Allan Kaprow. “These Happenings occurred in the building, small gallery, backyard, and small theater, with an audience of around 30 to 70 people.... It doesn’t happen on a usual stage, but in a particular site that is filled with people and objects. "

“Happenings have no plot, even though it is an action, or more of a series of actions and events. It avoids the constant rational linguistics, although it may contain some words and phrases such as 'help, one, two, three, four, etc.’ Words are still purified and concentrated by their irrelevance, and then further expanded by the lack of relationship between futileness and those who perform the Happenings."


Happenings, which excited Susan, is translated literally in our language as "Art By Chance". In fact, it is evident to see the limitation of translation when it comes to the analysis of this kind of art in depth. Happenings emphasizes the theatricality, interaction and the involvement of the audience. Through certain specific action and set of structure, it challenges people’s cognition, and provokes a shared sense of “shock” in emotion and behaviour between the artist and audience  “Happening” first time occurred in  Allan Kaprow’s article The Legacy of Jackson Pollock written in 1958 in regard to action painting. He underlined that we should forget the perpetual status and manufactuality of the medium. Instead, we should apply more perishable materials in art and so on, such as the use of temporary materials Readymade or garbage, and the emphasis on the on-site body, action and trans-medium in action painting. Once as an artist of Action Painting,  Allan Kaprow finally escaped from the pictorial plane, which was unlike Pollock's choice to stabilize action painting on the image. He regarded the entire transite site as an object itself co-constructed by the artist together with the audience.


Allan Kaprow's exciting experiment in the 1960’s indeed had a cross-influence on many avant-garde art movements that were booming at that time, such as his interaction with the Fluxus, and his work as a trigger for the performance art. Happenings quickly diffused world-wide along with the journey of the artist. In 1964, a series of Happenings by Yoko Ono and John Cage at Sogetsu Hall in Tokyo was seen as one of the landmark events in history the Japanese avant-garde art. In fact, the practice of Happenings in Asia time was much earlier than Kaprow’s practice in New York. Gutai Group, an artist group based in Osaka (specific) has taken action since the 50’s. In terms of origin,  Gutai was directly influenced by Art Informel in France on the one hand, on the other hand, Japan’s demand of postwar cultural reconstruction made the artist group being away from a realistic rendering of art in order to look for the spiritual strength in individuals and nature. Therefore,  the experiment of Gutai Group was naturally close to Kaprow’s Happenings in form and temperament. In particular, Gutai declares that the substance will not be modified by art, and the subtle interplay between mind and substance needs to be discussed through the art. Gutai also declared an obsession with a beauty when the substance is damaged or decayed. Destruction or the process of destruction is taken as a way of revealing the inner "Being" of the given material or substance. (Allan Kaprow included the work of Gutai Group in his book Assemblage, Environments and Happenings written in 1966, and thus officially incorporated Gutai into his international movement of Happenings.)


Even though the forms overlap and are close to that of Kaprow, Gutai's discussion on the body and nature is still orientalized. It emphasizes the integration of the body and nature (even in the form of fierce confrontation), responds and presents the localization of modernity (or the unfinished modernity). This context-based practice along with the discussion in an Asian perspective in a sense provides us with more valuable experience. In addition, as a place where the artistic experiment on “Body-Society” is broadly practiced, southeast Asia has many researchers work on the field of  “Body-Art” through the lens of geography and anthropology. For example, the Thai artist Rikrit Tiravanija is renowned  for his relational aesthetics in the West of the 1990’s. Also, the Singaporean art critic David Teh has proposed that the "depoliticization" tendency in artistic expression could be explained from the perspective of Thai cultural tradition (such as Buddhism or the Oriental philosophy of "Doing Nothing"), which reveals a completely different latitude from the discussion of French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud.


All of a sudden the Japanese Happening group The Play, founded in 1967, regained international attention after 2011. Nearly 50 years, the group has implemented a large number of strange and “nonsense” collective action in the natural and public field in the method of  "game, adventure, collective anonymous". One of the most famous is the 10-year plan of "Thunder" (Since 1977, they came to the mountain of Soraku district in Kyoto every summer per camping 2 to 3 months. The set up a pyramid more than 20 meters by using hundreds of log at the same position. It is said that there used to be a lot of lightning in the mountains during summer, and The Play wished that the pyramid was struck by lightning, and left with charred wood. In 1986 The Play declared that the project has failed because the pyramid had not been struck by lightning for a decade). Although The Play never expressed their political views in public, it is apparent to see their critical attitude towards modern life through their works related to the primitive labor and nomadic lifestyle. During several decades, they unceasingly caught attention (or being “teased”) by mass media owing to their unique way of purity and uncompromising attitude, but after more than 40 years,  their works were taken seriously into discussion in the global context again. At this moment, the history of the cold war has been the past. Along with the emergence of new context, such as the capital globalization under the neo-liberalism, the post-consumerism and the thorough control of human being by the internet and virtual technology, the arrival of "absolute discipline" indicated by the "super world" is just in front of the eyes. Perhaps, a kind of "meaningless" escape (game) is the most revolutionary behavior and carrier. (In 2016, The National Museum of Art in Osaka held a major retrospective exhibition for The Play, titled "The Play (since 1967) : Beyond Unknown Currents.")


Back to the exhibition, Tong Wenmin for years regarded "body - behavior" as the carrier of art practice. Frankly, this is a private, sincere and natural. Different from those with the behavior of enlightenment significance to preach in the earlier stage of our culture, Tong’s work is more actively connected to the individual perception and quotidian life. Since 2000, the world has already started the rapid development mode of global capitalism, and the comprehensive discipline of our body has become our actual landscape and daily life. (Nelson goodman's) "Ways of Worldmaking” suggests the multiple configuration (symbols) of the world. The body may become the ultimate, smallest and controllable subject of action in the current narrative and context. Of course, localized discussion of the site and context is still important. The discipline or escape connected by the body may be eternal, which is similar to the “to be or not to be” question of Mobius Band.


Tong Wenmin's performance can be roughly divided into two directions: the white cube/indoor space - in which the audience participates in her live performance; and the personal body works that occur in the public social space. The exhibited 2016 series “Factory Plan” is her most definitive work in recent years. It refers to the shift of the artist's focus – from emphasizing the individual as well as introspective physical and emotional expressions, to more proactive attempts to incite different, real social situations through her individual actions while still remaining the consistent to her poetry and honesty. A body with consciousness and warmth, and a body that is unwilling to be disciplined or classified can be considered an escape from discipline. Of course, the work has just started, and the originality (localization) of body expression, or perhaps the more ambitious active construction through Asian perspective, may be what we all hope to achieve. Let’s just talk about the cultural construction in depth next time.


[1] Debord, Guy . La Société du spectacle, translated by Zhaofeng Wang, Nanjing: Nanjing University Press, 2007. Print.

[2] Goodman, Nelson. Ways of Worldmaking, translated by Zhichuang Ji, Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 2008. Print.

[3]Ibid., 2008. Print.

[4]Sontag, Susan. “Happenings: An Art of Radical Juxtaposition”, Against Interpretation, translated by Wei Cheng (Ed., 2) , Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 2008. Print.

[5]Allan Kaprow. “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock”, ARTnews, 1958.

[6] Manifesto of Gutai Group written by Japanese artist Jiro Yoshihara at December in 1956.

[7]Teh, David. “Charisma and Withdrawal in Thai Contemporary Art”, Active Withdrawal: Weak Institutionalism and the Institutionalization of Art Practice (ed. Biljana Ciric and Nikita Yingqian Cai; in Chinese), catalogue essay for Alternatives to Ritual at Times Museum of Art, Guangdong, forthcoming, 2016. Print.

[8] Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics, translated by Jianhong Huang, Beijing: Gold Wall Press, 2017. Print.

[9]”Thunder”: since 1977, they came to the mountain of Soraku district in Kyoto every summer per camping 2 to 3 months. The set up a pyramid more than 20 meters by using hundreds of log at the same position. It is said that there used to be a lot of lightning in the mountains during summer, and The Play wished that the pyramid was struck by lightning, and left with charred wood. In 1986 The Play declared that the project has failed because the pyramid had not been struck by lightning for a decade.

[10] Kuroda, Raiji. “Art and Action in Postwar Japan: From Reportage Painting to the Expo Destruction Group”, translated by Huijun Lin (Taiwan), Volume 47, Art Critique of Taiwan, 2011. Print.