Violence of Blinding Light
Interpreting Jiang Zhi’s narrative on the Light series
A brief history of the narration of light
The eye, the world and the light that illuminates the world, are the three fundamental elements for the birth of images. The ontological meaning of light, in other words the duality of bright and dim, light and darkness are filtered into the canonical teachings of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity to symbolize the eternal light, warmth, truth, righteousness and love.
Light is a positive force and also the core constituent for building utopia. As is clearly written in the Old Testament: “God says let there be light, and there was light.” – a simple narrative at the wakening of humanity. The spirit brought light to the land with supreme love. Thereafter, light became symbolic of the savior in its resistance to the darkness of the world consisting of demons, suffering and painful memories. In the New Testament, God is light. He is the supreme being and the origin of theological ontology.
Light is a key term in spiritual rhetoric. Light has always been associated with the sun and fire. The sun symbolized the origin of daylight, and fire, the origin of light at night. These two phenomena take turns to give out light, illuminating our eyes and our souls.
The narration of light governs man’s visual modes in the axial age. It floated perpetually before Van Gogh’s eyes, transforming the sun, the stars, the field and steeple churches into steeply rising flames. The last flame bearer in the Neolithic period was entangled by the golden light and its reflections However, that is not an artist’s illusion of light, but an incident of light’s uncontrollable burning of the human retina.
Neolithic firelight was revised by Walter Benjamin in a poetic description of gas lamps. Benjamin reminded us of the dim mood on the dark streets of Paris – scenes rendered by gas lamps that embody the night-time quality of the whole of Europe. The city was concealed and became ambiguous with somnolent illumination. Compared to times of the past, the Parisien night now radiates with a more feverish passion. Even though European urban areas today are lit by new light sources, they still extend the romantic aura from Benjamin’s time.
The subject of light is mostly lacking importance in traditional Chinese painting. Literati painting only focused on representing the eternal daylight and has shown an exceptional indifference to the representation of the sun or flames. This is not only due to the ineptness of ink paintings techniques when it comes to the narration of light, but is also due to a sort of ‘yin’ nature of Taoist philosophy. Such philosophy overlooks the illumination and warmth of the ‘yang’. Instead it promotes objects of softness and dimness. In Laozi’s Tao Te Ching, only one phrase indicates the existence of light (a tempered glare); its goal is to educate people to adjust and weaken the functions of light. Laozi is a keeper of ‘xuan’ (night, blackness and darkness) and its attendant states of “trance” and “ignorance”. This conservative stance from an “era before illumination” has stubbornly sustained the outmoded beliefs of our indigenous artists.
The waves of modernization of the late twentieth century completely transformed this ancient Chinese tradition. Closely responding to the late capitalism of the West, China has hurried into constructing a political myth of “the prosperous state” and “the most powerful nation of the 21st century”. The passionate nationalism, state-ism and populism has congealed into a homogenous ideology that is sounding its deafening bang to the rest of the world. As we have already seen, most postings on the internet called on all corners of the world for the relay of the Olympic torch. The flame became the most captivating political symbol, seizing the attention of the world. At a certain level, this is indeed an emotional narrative of “the system of blinding light”.
In many cases, traditional and contemporary art have omitted a narrative of light and have not engaged in reflecting on its history. The art of firecrackers, manipulated by Cai Guo-qiang, is a model “light of the nation.” Its elevating grammar can be utilized in all nationalistic celebrations, thereby decorating “the prosperous state”. Only a few are observant of the complex nature of light. Jiang Zhi’s narrative on light is evidence in this regard. In the indigenous cultural context of China, Jiang Zhi has ventured to state skeptically, “The light is already powerful enough and can definitely simulate an act of violence”. This led him to pursue the following enquiries: “Is this thing that suddenly descends upon us really happiness? Or is it a masked disaster?” This is an insightful statement on the logical relationship between light and violence. In other words, it is a type of reversed knowledge that completely negates the meaning found in the Bible, thereby revealing the reality that is omitted from it. This kind of abnormal relationship between light and violence is the beginning point of Jiang Zhi’s work.
Narration on Rainbow
“The Flame” and “The Fireworks” have both featured in the logical chronology of Jiang Zhi’s conceptual photography. Fireworks are the ultimate form of the flame in the system of agricultural civilization. They are constituted by chemical formulas, they rise to the sky according to man’s will, and transform into vivid and exuberant displays. On the snow-covered ground of winter, such a ‘flame’ could not be used for its warmth, but it is adequate for defining insignificant lives, and outlining a momentary happiness. This is a narrative similar to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Seller which uses satire to approach the actual truth. On the bitterly cold ground where the figures are curled up tight or laying flat, extended exposure pulls from the bonfire a myriad of fine lines of light that bend under the effect of wind, forming a luxuriant and yielding expression.
The bonfire in the snow is the weakest among all flames; not only is it time-sensitive, it also does not emit any heat that would provide the necessary energy resource to those in need. Its only value resides in showing a certain laughable hope. This is the Chinese version of the “Andersen effect.” It is the starting point of the criticism in Jiang Zhi’s “Light Series.” It sparkles on the anonymous snow-covered land, which is a completely fictional site, forming a seamless logical response to the cruel reality of the dark-brick factory.
Compared to the flame, the rainbow seems to play a more important role in Jiang Zhi’s spectrum of lights. It is light rays, and even more: an effect of illumination as well as a decorative imagery that comes about after a storm. As it is said in the Old Testament, the rainbow represents the reconciliation of heaven and earth. Yet, it has always been understood by the masses as a promise from the sky (God), and was further advanced as a glamorous symbol of utopia. Such scattered meanings of the rainbow open up a broad path for ideology’s mythic narration.
Jiang Zhi’s “Past Tense Rainbow” is manifested in the monochromatic Old Photograph series, as well as in the video installation of the Worldly Rainbow in 2008. In group photos taken during the Cultural Revolution to express a patriotic viewpoint, there are curved, colorful lines of explanation which look like a certain kind of naturally-occurring rainbow that are in acute dislocation with the monochromatic history (of reality), indicating the spiritual characteristics of the Chinese masses from the 1960s to the 1970s. The people in the photographs are placed in a two-dimensional monochromatic world of monotony; their attires are frugal, their expressions naïve, and their hope-filled eyes yearn after an empty sky. The rainbow Jiang Zhi added precisely filled the visual void of those photographed. These people are the happy slaves of the utopian rainbow, seized by the myth in the sky and made into young devotees of the political rhetoric. Even though both the legend and the rainbow eventually disappeared into oblivion, the masses were not enlightened. They are doomed to be perpetually held captive by other rainbows, flames, or blinding lights. In my view, Jiang Zhi is not purposefully constructing a new utopia, but a conceptual recovery of totalitarianism.
Jiang Zhi’s “Present Tense Rainbows” deal with a completely different subject. They sweep across the skies of the metropolis, and are metaphorical of both capitalist materialistic desire and emotional longing. They are illusions of the consumption era that are layered over the blue print of this “prosperous state”. Modernized areas and high-rises are sprouting rapidly, becoming the main visual focus of the urban landscape, whereas the rainbow is a political emblem, capping the sky of the city, and rendering the contours of this type of new life. In contrast to the “Past Tense Rainbow”, the “Present Tense Rainbow” consists of mixing bits and pieces of city neon lights (as a kind of electronic rainbow). They are the mathematical squaring of the rainbow, doubly deciphering the cult of consumerism. Here we are surrounded by the reality of materialistic civilization, which appears more authentic than the illusory Mao era because it is almost a reality within our reach.
Jiang Zhi’s “Rainbow over Tian’anmen” is a transcendental combination of the Tian’anmen imperial architecture with 21st century citizens. In the work entitled Rainbow No.3, the rainbow attained perfection: rising from the top of palace-style street lights, sweeping over sharp flagstaffs, hovering unassailably over the city gate in elegant hemispherical curves like a seal of God, proclaiming its grandeur, brightness and righteousness while the people below look up, cheer, snap photographs, and murmur among themselves. Remarkably, over the last century and a half, people have always been the basis for this immanent utopia.
The visual narrative of Tian’anmen has traversed the last hundred years of history. From the patriotic march of the May Fourth Movement, to Mao Zedong’s meeting with the mass red guards, to the political reassessments in the ’80s, to conceptual photography of the twenty- first century, this chain of narratives will continue to extend. Time will not dispel the narrator’s infatuation with this architecture. On the contrary, as the system extends itself, new narratives will emerge.
We have already witnessed the crimson power of utopia secretly make peace with the capitalist “Present Tense Rainbow.” This is an unquestionably satirical phenomenon. The fragments that were once signs of capitalist desires have now become metaphors for the new nationalism. They exemplify various intricate political transformations. Moreover, they underscore the duality in Chinese society: on the one hand trying to sustain its effective post-totalitarianism, and on the other, closely collaborating with global capital, hence authoring a kind of unprecedented image of the new utopia. For artists who are vigilant in their criticism, this is undoubtedly an opportunity to unveil the truth through examining the intrinsic essence of this ‘prosperous state’.
Narration on Blinding Light
Closely reverberating with the narrative of the rainbow over Tian’anmen, Jiang Zhi also relays to us the new ‘urban illumination’. The illumination on the Bund in Shanghai produced an urban capitalist illusion, and Jiang Zhi’s narrative on light shifted from the rainbow to night-time illumination. On August 8, 2007, hundreds of singers sang the theme song “We Are Ready” while beams of light emitted from the back of the gate of Tian’anmen. The scene calls to mind the rising of the red sun. According to news reports, the entire spectacle of light exhausted more than 4350 kilowatts of energy – enough annual energy provision for a small city with a population of two hundred.
As the “Beijing Olympics One Year Countdown” celebration performance proved to us, nationalism is indeed “ready” for this great light – it shines wantonly upon the face of the city, wishing to transform the latter into an enticing window to the world. The fan-shaped array of lights behind the gate of Tian’anmen is a stereotypical narrative of the sun which directs its circular radiation onto the architecture of Tian’anmen. Such creativity of the lighting engineers precisely replicates the constitution of Mao’s image during the period of the Cultural Revolution, resurfacing in the 21st century in China as a testimony of post-Cultural Revolution essence. Within this radiant symbolism are hidden the cultural secrets of Maoism.
What this blinding light fervently exaggerates is not only grand architecture, but also those insignificant individual lives. They are coerced into accepting the gospel of this light, and offer the necessary responses to such gospel. In Jiang Zhi’s video work Let There Be Light as the insistent light strikes, people respond with various emotions that are difficult to determine, such as rejection, fear, numbness and joy. Even then, these diverse emotions emanate an air of disillusionment. Faces dissolve under the strong radiation, and expressions become indistinct. Many details begin to vanish, leaving the viewers to their imaginations.
Jiang Zhi’s video has also shown that the effect of a blinding light shone on a person can be suspension or flight, as if being struck by a large bullet. Not only would his face erode, sometimes the entire head would be eradicated. Only the body maintained distinctive details – standing or flying off, it upholds man’s beautiful disposition. Moreover, this is precisely a characteristic of the body in revelry, as well as an analogy for the violence of this blinding radiance (Things Would Turn Unbelievable Once It Happens, C-Print, 2007).
Under this totalitarian era, the philosophy of the violence of this blinding light has been completely exposed: on the one hand it re-sculpts the body, on the other it obliterates the existence of the mind. These are the multiple metaphors for the Chinese circumstance. According to Jiang Zhi’s narrative images, the light has first melted away expression and facial appearance, then corroded the mind. The former is used by us to distinguish between different individuals, whereas the latter is the actual evidence that determines individual existence.
The blinding light’s erosion of the individual and individuality is the optical metaphor for this totalitarian system and accurately portrays the helplessness of people under the violence of such force. To endure the most scorching light is the most severe intellectual cruelty people need to confront. This strong light is so bright that it not only causes blinding, but also the dissolution of people’s individual awareness and their souls. The blinding light is the physical symbol of a counter-utopia, and the metaphysical relationship between the sun and people is more or less like this.
Narration on Darkness
We have already traced the ultimate origin of the sacred light. It comes from the most ancient religions, in the end evolving into the powerful weapons of totalitarianism and autocracy. It forces people to look at designated objects while preventing them from reaching for objects of truth. At the same time, the objects which light may shine on are also limited and pre-selected, concealing the rest under darkness. This is the principle of the rhetoric of light, and also the nature of floodlighting. The light is not only used to distract our vision, but it also purposefully conceals objects beyond its illumination. The floodlights popular in China’s urban landscapes have covered all ugly, old and impoverished matters while flaunting itself. Light is the most treacherous conspirator of darkness.
Without question, the most self-apparent objeacts under the light would be dust. The weightless dust floating into the path of light sets up a fantastic yet undetermined phenomenon. Dust is the lowliest object, but receives the most magnificent illumination. The most dignified light and the lowliest dust thus reach an alliance in discourse. This is an indescribable physical phenomenon. The current cultural reality can testify that the blinding light always shines first on the floating dust of culture provoked by the media, saluting meaningless matters. This is the most shameless dialogue between light and dust. They have collaboratively toppled the core values of the axial era.
However in another context, the philosophy of the violence of this blinding light exposes its own schizophrenia: on the one hand it produces violent instruments, and on the other reveals these instruments. This entirely depends on the one manipulating the power to emit the blinding light. Politicians can exercise tyranny with it, and artists can also create spiritual revolt with it. As stated in Jiang Zhi’s journals, the act of photographing itself is an incident of considerable cultural bantering. The artist takes advantage of the darkness and the guard’s negligence, spots (prospects), designs, installs, waits, works and then escapes, in order to complete the entire process of conceptual photography; this appears like a visual game between the cat and mouse. Precisely based on the birth of such antagonistic images, China’s movement on maintaining legal rights and interests has just gained a new visual text.
Jiang Zhi’s Things Would Turn Nails Once It Happens is a work in his “Light Series”. As a unique operation of the blinding light, it is not a repetition of violence, but an optical praise of resisting violence. Of course, it is but an occasion of momentary illumination that targets the darkness and selective blindness. In March 2007, when the law on property rights was passed by the People’s Congress, out of Chongqing emerged the “most courageously held-out household” in Chinese history. The couple’s insistent resistance to the government’s relocation policy caught the fervent attention of the nation. Right before the building was to be demolished, Jiang Zhi rushed to the scene and set up powerful lighting, projecting a beam of blinding light on the two-storey red brick building sunken into the pit, thereby realizing the absurd and quirky artistic illumination.
This is an illumination worthy of continual interpretation because it has transcended the boundaries of conceptual photography. This contesting story of light and darkness is the optical experiment of the artist’s interference in dark reality, and yet it is destined to be deciphered by sociologists as lauding the maintenance of citizens’ rights and interests. The crux of the matter also lies in the perpetuity of darkness, as well as the irreversibility of the corrosion by this blinding light. What the artist could achieve is to search for the fragments of light at the center of darkness, and unravel certain interpretations for them. Unlike writing or speaking, images offer the most direct enlightenment. Crossing the visual barrier, they are screaming out the truth behind the darkness.