Into the Waste Land

Text by Zhao Jun(趙均)
Director of Oriental Art Department of Nan Kai University
1st August 2015.


Although Sun Yi has just been awarded Master of Fine Arts by Slade School of Fine Art, he has already held many exhibitions in England and Beijing. The footprints of his works are scattered across the world of contemporary art. For instance, with his drawings, he outlined various strange yet familiar images in a sea of news data, they could be it a detail from an area of the world, an expression that can be easily forgot or a plot or an action from a story. The works have a strong visual impact, often mingled with anxiety, excitement or other kinds of mixed feelings. Sun Yi breathed new life into events or information deserted in a corner of the world. In another work, in a winter, he dug a big hole in the open field of his hometown and put a huge ice block into it, as if he was burying a secret, a history or a corpse but with the knowledge that will eventually melt in the spring. Sun Yi has also wrapped parts of the chairs in the audience section with a bandage-like fabric and placed them in disorder so that the disordered and “injured” scene transformed the audience section into a stage. Once, he even wrapped the books in the library in the same way or inversed the books with the chairs, which seemed to announce his intension to prevent people from reading. As his art performance and exhibitions demonstrate, Sun Yi has stepped out of the ivory tower and become an artist, bravely walking into the scene of modern and contemporary culture and engaged with it. It has not been easy for him to be so stern and calm against the international backdrop in the scene with such cool and smart works. Now, let’s shed some light on the scene.

Human civilization has stumbled along as it has constantly been besieged and constrained by numerous idols and taken great pains to break them. Transformations of ideology in any region, culture, society and in any race are none other than the movement to subvert old idols and shape new ones, with difference only in their degree and frequency. Their common feature lies in the inevitable idolization, that is, the objectification, or vulgarization, of a spiritual goal into object of worship in real life. This is the unavoidable dilemma for human existence. The spirit wants to transcend the flesh but is always constrained by it. Fetishism is the very fundamental kind of idol worship, because others are only camouflaged reproductions. For instance, metaphysics in the West, classical aesthetics and art, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism in China, etc. have constructed and laid the foundation for human civilization, but they all share the characteristics of idolization. Therefore, their value only counts in certain stage of civilization and they cannot serve as eternal and consummate truth. Moreover, the historical constraints imposed by them must be removed. Idols are the objectification of spiritual goals by human beings and go together with the development of civilization. In the face of such an inevitable predicament, modernism emerged with the most profound motivation to eliminate all the strange constraints placed by idols. Firstly, it seeks for liberalization by eliminating idols. Secondly, to avoid the constraints imposed by idolization, all conditions for making idols must be destroyed, which means to abandon the faith in idols and dismantle the world of value and meaning built upon such faith. After that, any meaningful and valuable goals should be crushed through transformation of ideas (in the ways of modern art) so as to kill any attempt to rebuild idols. To materialize it, we will have to pay the price.

Renaissance artists created art with man as the subject and granted God a mortal body with classical aesthetic ideas and methods, and overthrew the deific idols of worldly power in the Middle Ages. Although they initiated and established a world of contemporary and modern humanistic value and meaning, achieving the greatest accomplishment in classical beauty, they fell into objects of worship a few centuries later. The movement to subvert idols continued. The religious reform where Martin Luther tried to break the rank order that Catholic Church used to idolize God and the unification of the state and the church, and the worldwide Enlightenment that proposes freedom, democracy, equality, reason and science eventually freed the world from the oppression of idols of superstition and divine right of kings.

Once the old idols were overthrown, disorder in two aspects will occur, namely, influencing social order and shaking ideas and values. Social order is related to political system, which means there are temporary solutions to it. However, as ideas and values are related to the spiritual world, its disorder will lead to serious loss of value and meaning. At the end of the 19th century, Nietzsche claimed that “God is dead”, signifying the collapse of holy idols as well as the traditional metaphysical system. The destruction of the foundation for divine right of kings and authoritarianism symbolized the progress of institution and civilization. However, with the subversion of idols, the traditional world of value and meaning was lost, which gave rise to the barbaric fetishism, as shown through the confusion of morality and ethics and the termination of classical art and aesthetics. It is never easy to prevent holy value and meaning from possible corruption while subverting idols to maintain the holiness and purity of truth.

T. S. Eliot, great poet of the 20th century, depicted in The Waste Land the world after spiritual disorder. It is a bleak, dirty wasteland with dead silence where the vulgar desire devours everything like seawater and people walk towards death full of despair. The Waste Land is a faithful portrayal of the world, with which Eliot conveyed his worry as a conscientious modern intellectual.

With Avignon Girl, Picasso shows us how a lady had turned into an ugly prostitute and became the tool of desire in the wasteland of death. In Guernica he enables us to hear the terrible howl when people were dismembered by the Nazi’s death machine. Cubism is the subversion of classical aesthetic ideas and experience from structure to the whole. Not only does it smash the idols, but presets a true picture of death imbued with spiritual disorder and loss of value.

Duchamp added moustache to Mona Lisa, mocking the solemn and holy aesthetics and historical significance of humanism. His Fountain, a urinal, is more a comprehensive and powerful slander to classical aesthetics.

Modern artists subvert classical spiritual idols at all costs and transform themselves and their works into the wasteland where value and meaning are lost. They also have a genuine taste of various sins induced by desire, which seems like they are playing the martyrs. However, they cannot abandon the will of modern intellectuals and the mission of artists. They confront the silent and desperate wasteland and choose to bear the mental stress caused by the overwhelming void due to the loss of value and meaning. Moreover, they constantly resist the inevitable dilemma of objectification and idolization with decentralized, non-value and non-meaning ideas and language—this is the scene of modern and contemporary culture and art.

The possibility for the emergence of new idol worship looms over the destruction of all idols and resistance against everything, which is the fundamental spirit of modern art. A full grasp of this point leads to a thorough understanding of modern art. In the post-war America, abstract expressionism, pop art and other artistic phenomenon were bewildering and beyond comprehension. Yet comparing them with socialist art allows us to see the power and role of modern art in the West in keeping modern civilization from objectification and idolization.

Countering objectification with non-meaning calls for the ability to bear the huge stress from spiritual void. Despite his gradual awareness of this point, Sun Yi still unswerving walks into the wasteland with modern artistic methods, which means that he is going to fulfill the mission and social responsibility of conscientious modern intellectuals and modern artists.

He is still traversing the wasteland without hesitation. As a responsible and independent thinker, he bravely and resolutely joins the modern artists. There is no doubt that his methods are modern as well as international. His art will be associated with many people in modern times, although its influence cannot be predicted. There is one thing for certain: his art will never be kidnapped by money or politics. This is shown in his performance art One Cent, which shows his clear stance against fetishism. This mirrors the spirit of a genuine modern artist or a conscientious modern intellectual, which is the basic safeguard for one to counter objectification and idolization. It is rare and commendable for a young Chinese artist to have such spirit. He deserves our attention.



文藝復興的藝術家創造了以人為主體的藝術,沿用古典的美學理念和方法將上帝變成了肉身,瓦解了中世紀神化的世俗權利的偶像,開啟並建立了近現代人文主義的價值與意義的世界,在造型藝術領域創造了古典主義之美的最高成就,之後又成為幾個世紀人們頂禮膜拜的對象。 但拆解偶像的運動一直繼續,馬丁·路德的宗教改革試圖打破天主教偶像化上帝的等級秩序和政教合一的制度,席捲世界的啟蒙主義運動宣導自由、民主、平等及理性與科學的思想,最終將世界從迷信和君權神授的偶像壓迫下解放出來……。


二十世紀偉大的詩人艾略特以《荒原(The Waste Land)》為題寫下了精神失序後的世界圖景:那是萬物蕭瑟,骯髒死寂的荒原,卑下的欲望向海水一樣吞噬著一切,人們在絕望中走向死亡……。 《荒原》是現實世界的真實寫照,艾略特表達了一位有良知的現代知識份子深切的憂慮。

畢加索的《亞威儂少女(Avignon Girl)》讓我們看到女神如何變身為醜陋的妓女成為死亡荒原上欲望的工具,《格爾尼卡(Guernica)》讓我們聽到了納粹的死亡機器肢解生命時恐怖的嚎叫。立體主義就是對古典主義審美理念和經驗從結構到整體上的破壞,它打碎了偶像,直陳了精神失序價值迷失的死亡圖景。

杜尚在“蒙娜麗莎(Mona Lisa)”的臉上畫上兩抹鬍子,重重的嘲弄了人文主義莊嚴神聖的美學與歷史意義,他用小便池製作的作品《泉(Fountain)》更是對古典美學全面有力的詆毀。




他正繼續義無反顧地在荒原中穿行,他獨立思考,有所擔當,他勇敢果斷地側身現代藝術家行列,他的方式無疑是現代的也是國際化的,他的藝術將會與我們時代的很多人相關,其作用有多大不能預測,但有一點是十分明確的,他的藝術絕不會被金錢和政治所綁架,他的《一分錢(One Cent)》行為藝術就是主動抗拒拜物教的明確表達,這一點顯示出一位真正現代藝術家或是有良知的現代知識份子的精神品質,這是一個人能夠抗擊客體化,抗拒偶像化的基本保障。這一切對於一個從中國出發的青年藝術家的確是難能可貴的,我們必須關注他。

The Wormhole Effect

Under the influence of his father, Sun Yi has been passionate about reading, engaging with Chinese and foreign classic masterpieces from ancient to modern times, since a tender age and boasts good handwriting. He was no genius, but his rich cultural genes were so engrained that he enjoyed more cultural knowledge than his peers who knew nothing but play. However, it also deprived him of his innocence and purity. His blank sheet has been packed with calligraphy, poetry, classical aesthetics of the West and modern philosophical concepts and historical images, which together integrate him into the net of different value and meaning of history and culture. As a result, his future is destined to be connected to culture and tradition. He will either be a successor or gravedigger of tradition. His study at the Department of Eastern Art of Nankai University has indicated the direction of his future development. As an independent thinker, he gives the least care to immediate interests, which saves him from being a narrow egoist. Instead, he is constantly alive with passion for looking at the stars and shows the basic quality of being a modern intellectual. He is, therefore, bound to be something in modern art. Further study at Slade School of Fine Art unlocked his potential. The study of and research into art in London, an important city in developed Western civilization, meant that he must bridge two unavoidable gaps: the one between China and the West and the other between classism and modernism. These require comparison, criticism and transition between the classical civilizations and modern societies of China and the West. These involve a great deal of academic thinking and analysis, and call for extensive reading, intuition and living cultural conscience. How to bridge the gaps has been challenges confronting modern Chinese culture for one and a half centuries and is a major historical and cultural topic. He who is able to bridge them will become the elite of our times, which will hence bring along a group of genuine international artists that transcend Chinese traditions.

Owing to his rich knowledge and keen cultural awareness, Sun Yi was able to identify the topic and made it his mission and, during his postgraduate study, he tried to put it into practice. For his first exhibition at Beijing 798 Art Zone, he coated the newspaper with white powder and reproduced the images at the back of the newspaper with drawings, which can be seen as a stately discard of the media. It is a careful presentation of the living details hidden under the white powder, that are doomed to be discarded. This process is absurd and ambiguous, but it “buries” the discourse power of the media with white powder and highlights the cheap aspects of the everyday utilized and manipulated by the media and endows it with rhythmic lines and tender care. The work aims to tell everyone that there is no definite meaning for everything and to reject the authorized or secularized definitions of and behind the media. The work, therefore, conveys humanistic care. In the exhibition he symbolically traded this work for one cent, the intention of which is self-evident—a protest against the money-driven fetishism in the Chinese art market, that is, resistance to objectification.

He never stops thinking and with thinking comes along different works. While bridging each gap, he serves as a vanguard in the modern art of the West and spares no efforts to make a difference in the scene of modern culture and art with modern methods. Sun Yi is realizing a dual traverse with his experience in art and art performance. First, as a journey through the barriers set by various idols, modern art bears the pressure from spiritual void to survive the worldly wasteland and aims to keep civilization away from the constraints of objectification. Secondly, it is through two different civilizations and histories.

There is a huge gap between the society in China and modern civilization in the West. It is a gap between barbarism and civilization, between backwardness and progressiveness. Traditional linear thinking indicates the great difficulty in getting rid of barbarism and establishing civilization and the impossibility of completing one-off transformation within a short time, whether in terms of details or the whole. It might be realized with the efforts of several generations. However, with synchronous thinking, it is possible to fulfill a one-off transformation, as simultaneously speaking the switch from one space-time to another is a kind of journey.

According to the notion of wormhole in theoretical physics, the linear space between two separate ends in the universe can be deformed to bring close the two ends and form a wormhole through which man can traverse a far distance within a short time.

So is it possible to build cultural wormholes? The deformation of space is a result of the enormous energy field and the wormholes are synchronous traverse space. For art, its reproducibility, narrative and descriptive language, which are frequently used in classical art, are diachronic. Yet for modern art, the language is conceptual and the concepts are synchronous, which can give rise to cultural wormholes. Having honesty, conscience, cultural awareness, knowledge, the wisdom and ability to transform concepts and the courage to undertake responsibility and moral strength will form the magnetic field needed for deforming cultural space.

Cultural wormhole is an interesting and positive hypothesis. While historical lessons teach us that idolization is the danger that must be eliminated in a civilization, modern art implicates that it is respectable to have courage and wisdom to traverse the barriers formed by idols with paradoxical logic. Hence, we fully support Sun Yi to walk unswervingly into the wasteland of spirit with modern art. At a time when our nation is facing different cultural challenges that must be tackled, every bit of effort on cultural transformation is the only way and only hope to bridge the gaps. Sun Yi’s experience in education and practice in art reminds me of the hypothesis of the cultural wormhole. I am more than willing to see and firmly believe that Sun Yi will complete the anticipated dual traverse with modern art, for the Sun Yi that I know is well equipped with all the necessary qualities, competence and other conditions. I am convinced that my judgment and expectation is correct, for his recent series of works, art performance, ideas and opinions have constantly proved it. It is also my sincere hope that those who pay attention to Sun Yi try to understand and judge him with the ideas mentioned above and offer him necessary criticism and support.










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