Nerding Out Over Contemporary Chinese Art – Part III

Welcome to the third and final installment of my series on contemporary Chinese artists, featuring none other than Shu Yong!

Issues of translation are central to Shu Yong’s installation piece entitled “GuGe Brick” that was recently exhibited at the 55th Venice Biennale International Festival earlier in 2013. “GuGe” (古歌) can be interpreted as phonetic translation of “Google”, but is literally translated as “Ancient Song”. Shu Yong examined 1,500 commonly known Chinese words, phrases, and sayings, and translated them into English using Google software.

As Shu was born in 1974, he is historically informed by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in China and thus many of the sayings depicted in his work are economically oriented. Of course, the sayings also include ideological phrases, references to Chinese history and philosophy, as well as contemporary slang terms. All of the terms that Shu selected are clearly of great significance to the artist, and are perhaps representative of Chinese culture and society today.

To produce the installation, Shu wrote the original Chinese saying as well as its respective English translation according to Google on rice paper using black ink. Then, he pasted the rice paper texts onto transparent resin bricks of comparable size and shape to the bricks in the Great Wall of China, and arranged the bricks into a wall.

Shu Yong, “GuGe Brick” (2013

Shu Yong, “GuGe Brick” (2013)

Shu Yong’s piece is a humorous testament to the inaccuracy of Google translation software, but more importantly, it serves as an embodiment of the difficulties of cross-cultural communication. The artist cleverly depicts the impact of globalization and digital, real-time communication on Chinese language and Chinese culture, and the inaccurate translations reflect the international community’s skewed understanding of Chinese culture and history. Like Xu Bing and Gu Wenda (for my previous posts on them click here and here respectively), Shu is primarily concerned with meaning, and how meaning can be manipulated by text and, in some cases, completely lost in translation.

Although this piece is incredibly relevant to the digital age, Shu, like the other contemporary Chinese artists examined in this series, still makes references to Chinese tradition and history: by utilizing ink and rice paper to create the bricks, he draws upon traditional Chinese ink painting and calligraphy writing practices. By arranging the bricks into a wall, he clearly references the Great Wall of China, an iconic image and a distinctively Chinese one at that. Alternatively, the wall of bricks could be interpreted as a dividing wall between East and West, and a barrier to cross-cultural communication. In this sense, Shu Yong attempts to explore Chinese language and define Chinese identity by juxtaposing it with the “other”, much like Gu Wenda’s “Forest of Stone Steles”. The transparency of the bricks themselves creates an interesting comparison to the lack of transparency and inaccuracy in the textual translations.

However, Shu Yong is not as pessimistic about the prospects for Chinese identity in the 21st century as his colleagues are; perhaps the transparency of these bricks can be interpreted as an opportunity to see the other side of the wall and transcend the barriers of cross-cultural communication. The bilingual nature of the piece itself seems to imply that Chinese language and culture can co-exist peacefully with other cultures as China finds its place in the 21st century, provided that Chinese people maintain a sense of humor when misunderstandings occur.

I particularly like the more light-hearted tone and general sense of whimsy of this piece, especially in contrast to the slightly less hopeful, darker, more “serious” pieces I featured earlier in the series.  Shu Yong’s use of Google as means of producing artwork also seems refreshingly relevant and contemporary. “GuGe Brick” might be my personal favorite.

And that concludes my series of posts on Chinese contemporary artists (at least until I receive my newly purchased Ma Nan piece!)


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