Yang Shaobin: First Steps – Last Words
MASP – Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Aug 12 – Oct 11, 2009

curated by Tereza de Arruda

Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand is presenting the exhibition First Steps - Last Words, which was designed exclusively for this museum as Yang Shaobin's first exhibition in Latin America. The focus is an overview of his work spanning the period from 1996 to 2009.

China went through a long period of international projection and recognition in the last decades, culminating in its hosting the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. The political system has not changed, but the living standards of the Chinese people have risen to an extent unprecedented in their own context - until the outbreak of the current global economic crisis. This entire scenario is viewed and reviewed by contemporary Chinese art through the work of artists such as Yang Shaobin.  A keen observer of his surroundings and the globalized world context, Yang Shaobin has become a witness of his times, leaving unpredictable marks.

Yang Shaobin was born in 1963, and was still living in the city of Handan, in Hebei province, in 1989. It was not until 1991 that he moved to Beijing after leaving the porcelain factory where he had worked as a designer for seven years. After a while he moved to the legendary Yuanmingyuan, the first artists' village. This experience gave an incisive impulse to his artistic career, but Shaobin remained a self-taught artist after his unsuccessful attempts to enroll at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

His art training arose from his own instinct and perception through the report on the metamorphosis underway, dealing as social and political manifesto. His early work from this period shows groups of uniformed police, their faces melting into broad smiles, dispelling the myth of the uniform as a symbol of power in a system that was changing and being de-mystified. This representation may also be seen as an irony of destiny, since one of Yang Shaobin's first jobs was in the police force, which gave him the experience of behaving like a bad guy monopolizing power. Through his new role as a visual artist he was able to reverse roles, visualize his own history and free himself from past habits. This diversity is only possible in a system undergoing transition, which provides an outlet for the existence of individuality after a series of disappointments with real life, as if a "realism of disillusionment" were emerging in his work.[i]

His painting quickly gained recognition and an artistic career developed at the same rapid pace as the dynamic growth of China itself in the 1990s. In 1993 Yan Shaobin started to show internationally and by 1999 his work was seen at the Venice Biennale curated by Harald Szeemann alongside Sigmar Polke, one of his heroes among contemporary Western artists.

Yan Shaobin quickly matured and condensed artistic trends in both conceptual and aesthetic aspects of his work. Due to personal issues and his globalized experience, he moved on from the prevailing sarcasm to deal with contemporary violence: as if the world around him were undergoing an unprecedented personification. The same soldiers of his previous works are no longer wearing forced smiles indicating mockery. Their outlines no longer have clearly defined features or the expression of irony, which has given way to reproduction of body mass without identity of its own but has animal-like characteristics.

Then came an unrelenting series of paintings in the same deep red as the 1917 October Revolution, emblematic of the socialism that took over in China at that time as a representative of absolute red ideologically competing with the Soviet Union. Socialist pride gave way to a new surge in purchasing power as a political strategy to hold down a people eager for change after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 had domino effect throughout the Eastern European bloc. But China further racked up the political repression of its people to underline that power remained in the same hands as before. The more China's socialist red faded and lost its freshness, vitality and intensity, the more Yang Shaobin took to vibrant and strident use of this pigment as if sounding a warning: red continues to allude to bloody struggles, to victory and unyielding power.

As an artist, he has been profoundly affected by innumerable political developments. He no longer focuses on the microcosm of his existence but looks at the global macrocosm. In this period he was increasingly relating to Western contemporary art, finding in it key figures advocating the same artistic ideology. Yang Shaobin believes in cultural symbiosis: "My view is that, in art, collaboration between cultures is just as important in the trading relations. It is a chain of mutual dependencies, in which every link is contained in the other." [ii]

Focusing on the history of contemporary art, Yang Shaobin finds many observers attuned to the same concerns, anxieties, using similar representations. The deformed figures of Francis Bacon, who led a life of endless battles on both personal and political levels, spoke of fragmentation of human beings by banal or everyday violence. Hermann Nitsch's blood-bathed performances and the dissection of animals confronted viewers with death and other symbologies that were seen as taboo in everyday life. This subject brings me to the Mexican representation at the current Venice Biennial focused on the work of Teresa Margolles, whose fabrics are dyed with blood and mud from sites in Mexico where bodies of victims of urban violence were found. Water flowing from these soaked fabrics is used to clean the floor of the building, Palazzo Rota Ivancich, in which the work is being shown.

Are the impacts and brutal aspects of the aberrations and contradictions of modern life attenuated by the effect of repetition? Or would repetition not be the only effective artifice in the battle against being forgotten? Countering absurd moralistic interventions such as denying that the Holocaust took place? Civilization needs vociferous figures acting across disciplines and transparently, denouncing violence, in the visual arts, cinema or literature, in order to gain critical mass by reaching an increasingly broader audience through their testimony. Hannah Arendt, for one, spent her life trying to warn against the monstrosities of the Holocaust. [iii]

Yang Shaobin's "red" series bears striking witness to his times and has lost none of its actuality and vitality, so it has been a key motif in his work for years, although alternating with other series of different colors. It has become his strongest hallmark, recognized and respected internationally. The liquidity of the representation of bodies, the duality between the warmth of the deep red in conflict with cool white surfaces on which blood no longer flows, and the existence of pinkish masses through the conjunction of the two effects initially prompts repugnance. Taking bodies apart reveals human frailty. But more meticulous appreciation of his work shows striking and painful expressions, and seductive torsos full of vitality. Recent works such as Who Defaced me and Profound Birthmark include contemporary ornamental items such as military aircraft in the latter, which appear to be tattooed on the skin of an individual oscillating between the scale of a Greek god and a human being mutilated by war.

War scenes or battlefields have become commonplace in cinema and television, and a constant feature of daily newscasts too, unfortunately. War is an aesthetic media spectacle. Especially after the September 11 terrorist attack, which immediately led to the war in Iraq and a broad participative discussion internationally, there was pressure on many countries to take positions. Some 2,000 American journalists, we are told, covered the war in Iraq, and almost 500 of them were on the ground before the conflict started in order to convey viewers the sensation of watching events live as they developed.[iv] Amid this political battle, Yang Shaobin feels the need to express himself. He then revisited the history of war in his country, such as the brutal Japanese occupation of 1931-1945. Violence generates violence, and Japanese forces were not expelled until atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. His images of war motifs are often taken from the media, since the latter are implacably simultaneous and authentic. His paintings revisit this scenario with contrast between light and dark, abstract and figurative. These trends eventually merge into a single work and the unclear nature of the motif represented may be seen as a result of the dynamically paced actions of the protagonists involved in this battle. Subtle use of different colors with a slight predominance of black conveys the strain experienced in war.

Yang Shaobin perhaps felt this tension and a taste of heroism when he wore his police uniform in the past. Whatever his own experience, his socialist education certainly featured gripping images of everyday heroes in party propaganda seen through the eyes of a naive child. These everyday heroes were everywhere in China, in every walk of life. As if in a silent tribute to these people, Yang Shaobin did a long series dedicated to coal miners, their features disguised by arduous marks of spending days 800 meters underground show worn smiles - spontaneous or forced - which undoubtedly raises the question of their existence and the national pride rooted in party identity.

The question of the State is also a key feature of Shaobin's work. His gaze falls on different angles, including his look at the activities of the "overlords". This gave rise to a series of paintings of heads of state. Fidel Castro, honored in a series taken from press images of his latest appearances in public, certainly has striking presence. The fragility of his advanced age raises the question of the myth of his unending power. The natural deformation of his aging body may perhaps somehow parallel the deformation of the myth of his role and his system.[v] Yang Shaobin is a keen observer of this context, since China and Cuba have the same political system. This familiarity prompts his interest in finding other shared manifestations, which would have to be analyzed meticulously given the rapid pace of sociopolitical developments. Its echo will be felt in both West and East.

Like war reporters, Yang Shaobin will continue to watch and report events undaunted by the psychic or physical marks left, or by mutilations. Indeed one of the images and episodes that most caught his attention in recent times was the attack on artist Martin Kippenberger in 1979. At the time, Kippenberger, one of the owners of the legendary SO36 club in Berlin, was attacked by a group of punks. While in hospital, he showed the deformations of his body in a work of art entitled Dialogue with Youth . Shaobin showed his painting Strong Face (Martin Kippenberger) as one of the key works at his last solo in Berlin. In this portrait, Kippenberger's head and face are covered in band-aids and some wounds are still visible. The entire composition oscillates between shades of red, black and white focusing on the intensity of the moment. The face is off-center on the canvas, with its extreme right remaining incognito. Thin washed-out brushwork in different shades of red refer to the blood that flowed in this incident.

Wherever he goes, Yang Shaobin strives to understand the local context and in his own way take new steps toward East-West dialogue. "First Steps - Last Words" is his first solo exhibition in Latin America. This new step will lay a new pathway!

Tereza de Arruda, Berlin, June 2009


[i] The term "realism of disillusionment " was used by Karl Mannheim for an intellectual trend that emerged after the First World War which has modern society seeking support in the collective as an escape route. Helmut Letben: Der Kult der Distanz und seine anthropologische Begründung. In: Harmut Eggert. Faszination des Organischen: Konjunkturen einer Kategorie der Moderne. Munich, Iudicium, 1995, 176.

[ii] In an interview for a publication on the Mahjong exhibition. Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection. Ostfildern-Ruit, Hatje Cantz, 2005, 53.

[iii]  "When I think of the past two decades since the end of the last war, feel that this moral problem is being numbed, overlaid by something for which expressing one's comprehension is in practice very difficult and almost impossible - horror itself in its bare monstrosity. When we were confronted with it for the first time, it appeared not only to me but to many others too to be something that extrapolated all moral categories, beyond all legal norms. (...) I have said that this is something that should never have happened because human beings are unable to understand it, punish it or even forgive. (my translation from the German original). Hannah Arendt. Über das Böse. Eine Vorlesung zur Frage der Ethik. Munich, Piper, 2006, 17.

[iv]  Source: Florian Rötzer. Der Krieg als ästhetisches Medienspektakel. In: Kunst und Krieg. Medienbrüche und epochale Veränderungen. Kunstforum International. Vol. 8 165, June-July 2003, 53.

[v] According to Roland Barthes: "The relationship joining the myth with its system, is one of deformation. Here there is a certain formal analogy in relation to a complex semiotic  system such as that of psychoanalysis. (my own translation). Roland Barthes. Mythen des Alltags, Suhrkamp, 1964, 103. 

MASP - Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand
Av. Paulista, 1.578 - Cerqueira César, São Paulo, Brazil
Exhibition Period: August 12 – October 11, 2009