Lu Hao. A Translucent Leap in Time ( de | cn )

Galerie Urs Meile Beijing - Lucerne, 2007-04-13 - 2007-05-19

"Of course these weapons could not shoot ten thousand arrows at the same time. The installation Shooting 10000 Arrows All at Once (2007) argues at the virtual level. This is why the crossbow construction is made of acrylic glass." (Lu Hao)

Lu Hao has been active as a free-lance artist only for a short time – he created his first plexiglass model in 1997 – but already the scope of his work seems to resist easy labeling. Looking at the aplomb with which he changes his materials and artistic styles, one would think carefully before making any statement about the manner of this artist.

Lu Hao’s works have been shown in numerous international exhibitions and biennials ever since the late 1990s. A major motor of his creative output is his strong identification with his native town Beijing. With superior tenacity, Lu Hao probes the concrete and the conceptual rubble fields that have been shaping the face of the Chinese megacity, as well as the modernizing urge that so much dominates it.

His most well-known statement against oblivion, against the gradual vanishing of the traditional Beijing hutong alleyways, is the model-like installation Beijing Welcomes You (2000). However, this is in no way a mimetic representation of the real Beijing. On some 1100 square feet of floor space, Lu Hao arranges the major buildings, gardens and lakes of the capital in a way that emphasizes the artist’s own value system in preference to factual reality: through all sorts of omissions and dislocations he manages to highlight the rectangular array of the metropolitan area. The Ming-era city wall that enclosed the center until the 1950s has also been restored here. But most of all, Lu Hao’s love of old Beijing shows in one particular trick: by replicating at a scale of 1:300 all neighborhoods with the old-style gray courtyard houses that used to shape the urban form, but the more recent high-rise buildings at 1:600 or 1:700, Beijing Welcomes You acquires the status of an idealized memory landscape.

"I come from an old Manchu family in Beijing and I grew up in a traditional hutong quarter. In our courtyard, we had a pool with many fish. In the morning I would go and buy insects to feed them. Neighbors would drop by to have a chat and watch the fish. Sometimes my grandfather played the er-hu. We often sang bits from Beijing opera plays. That was old Beijing. It makes me sad to think that I won’t be able to show the place where I grew up to my kids."

In his drawings and oil studies, Lu Hao fathoms the atmosphere and the potential effect of objects and structures that will later be realized in three dimensions. Depending on the texture of the material, an object may appear massive and impenetrable or translucent and light. If the study is in color, it even acquires a dimension of playfulness.

In particular, however, it is the plexiglass sculptures that have become the unmistakable signature of this artist. On the one hand, these works are distinguished by an architect’s meticulousness in handling the aseptically cold modeling material. On the other, Lu Hao animates his transparent shapes with flowers, birds, insects and fish, all of which are also popular motifs in traditional Chinese painting. By this interaction of highly antithetical materials and forms, the artist succeeds in walking an aesthetic tightrope: he manages to do justice both to his responsibility as a witness of his time and to his strong bonds with Chinese tradition. He clearly does not condone any emulation of the examples of Western art.

Irony without Cynicism

Fastening the hook of a coat hanger to the top of the Beijing National Gallery, Lu Hao makes a bird cage out of the building that—at least until a few years ago—was the capital’s most important cultural institution. From the roofs of the Great Hall of the People, lush rosebuds sprout on sadly defoliated stems. The central headquarters of the Communist Party of China (Zhongnanhai) are turned into a cricket terrarium, and goldfish are swimming in the entrance building of the Forbidden City. Made of transparent plexiglass and converted into miniature-format vases, cages or aquariums for Lu Hao’s series Flower, Bird, Insect, Fish (1999-2001), these monuments of politico-cultural power lose their paralyzing heavyweight significance and are turned into objects of artistic play

"In democratic parliaments there is noisy debating and most voting results are split according to the various political camps. In China, the whole assembly raise their hands in unison. This always reminds me of a sea of unnatural flowers bred in a plant nursery. The bird cage comparison came to me during a conference in the Beijing National Gallery. All this ivory-tower talk there, which was so much out of touch with the problems of today and the interests of contemporary artists, sounded like sweet bird twitter to me. As for the goldfish, my main concern here is that these are completely overbred and alienated from their species. Actually, they aren’t even aquarium fish. But we want to see them glide peacefully to and fro. They make me think of the bicyclists you see on TV, drifting in droves along Tiananmen Square at sunset. That image to me symbolizes the natural disposition of the Chinese: calm, but also somewhat deformed."

Four buildings, four ages of representative Chinese architecture, four examples of ideology. What at first sight seems to be a gracious tribute to traditional Chinese painting and its genre motifs (flowers, birds, fish, insects), soon emerges as an attitude of ironic detachment toward the hypocrisy of pseudo-popular institutions. By divesting these buildings of their protective walls and turning them into translucent shells, the artist once again strips them of their omnipotence. This has nothing to do with oversimplified slogans à la "Political Pop" or the garish mockery that characterizes Cynical Realism.

Money Vision

Lu Hao’s work is hard to pin down, both in his choice of artistic medium and in reference to his aesthetic approach to his subjects.

"In 1997, I worked with acrylic glass for the first time. I wanted a modern material, sort of like a symbol of our epoch. Steel, copper, iron—all this has been around since time immemorial, but synthetics were developed maybe 100 years ago. What fascinates me about plexiglass is that it’s transparent but not permeable. You can see through it but at the same time the surface imposes clear limits. For my series Flower, Bird, Insect, Fish and some other projects this was exactly what I wanted. Between 2002 and 2006, other pieces followed which required different materials, and also more traditional techniques such as oil painting. In Shooting 10000 Arrows All at Once only some details of the installation are of plexiglass, some others are wooden."

In his installation 2006 New Visual Acuity Chart for General Use (2007), Lu Hao works with the resources of aesthetic transformation. Thus he takes ordinary eye charts—of a type that is internationally used in optometrists’ offices—as templates that are creatively modified so much that a utility item of pragmatic shape is turned into a light object with the aesthetics of fashionable design. The basic material construction of the diagnostic device and of the art object are identical, however, thus the semi-opaque fluorescent light box is held by a metal frame. The four different colors used on the chart’s front face are an essential intervention. Apart from the usual white of such charts, Lu Hao uses blue, green and magenta for his "new" optotype charts. Multiplied into scenarios of several sizes—60x25 cm (edition 4), 120x50 cm (edition 4), 240x100 cm (edition 4), all of which can be exhibited variably—these charts engender the cheerfully flashy atmosphere of a high-class nightclub.

In the original eye test, visual acuity is measured by having the patient look, from a distance of one meter, at a metal case with a white, semi-opaque front screen that is lit from the rear. Asked to identify the optotypes which become smaller with each line downward, it is possible to precisely determine the point where the eyesight fails. Using the numbers given at each line, the patient’s visual acuity can be read off for each eye. As the basic shape of the optotype used here is a simple combination of strokes where the patient is only asked to recognize and identify the opening direction, this eyesight testing instrument can be used across cultures and even with small children and illiterate persons. The system works even independent of any verbal communication: test persons in this case are handed a model of the optotype that they have to rotate into the position they are asked to recognize. When developing such chart symbols, an important aspect—next to visual qualities (such as optical contrast)—is familiarity and connotation for patients. Lu Hao chose the so-called "Snellen tumbling E" which in Chinese is read as the ideogram for "mountain" (shan), in Latin scripts for the letters W (and rotated, for E or M) and in Cyrillic for the letter Š or Sh. Three of the most important script systems are thus covered. As a module for testing visual acuity, however, Snellen’s symbol should ultimately work regardless of its function in a script character set.

Lu Hao modifies the fundamental principle of an eye test in order to turn it into a statement on the ‘money vision’ that is rampant worldwide. By creating the optotypes’ rectangular shapes out of sized-down bank notes of various currencies, fitted next to each other in mosaic fashion, he visualizes the global connection of money: the universal cash cycle that the economy ensures by controlling the mutual convertibility of the world’s currencies. The optotype symbol in 2006 New Visual Acuity Chart for General Use becomes a mere shape that is defined by changing amounts of money. By the multiplication of eye charts, their relational and optical differences (various sizes and colors), the visual acuity test proper—an act on behalf of the human body—mutates into a seemingly entertaining show, a garishly gaudy surface phenomenon that serves to cover up what is in fact a reductionist form of domination over ‘humanity-as-a-commodity’.

What in Lu Hao’s work appears as an artistically defamiliarized object of utility could hardly be a more dismal proposition when considered as a prognosis for society as a whole. Thus his diagnostic finding for mankind—regardless of nationality, age or education level—is a cultural deformation that in fact condemns us to a new form of blindness. It is a visual test explicitly for ‘general use’ and therefore not meant only for a specific target group. Thus the sense of sight to be examined is no longer the pathway to the human soul, which it has traditionally been associated with both in China and in the West. The function of the eyes here is neither to pick up information nor to contemplate or to establish human contact: vision, in the understanding of the 2006 New Visual Acuity Chart for General Use, serves nothing but the purpose of checking out reality and also other people for their practical financial value.

"2006 was the best year for China’s economy. The stock market speaks its own language. To reveal this reference quite clearly, I inserted the year into the title of the piece. What is happening in China right now is of course part of the global development. It’s only that in China, the shifting of values that goes with it is a lot more blatantly obvious because here everything happens as if in fast motion."

Conclusion: the more one recognizes the mechanisms of the cycles of international finance, the better one’s vision as tested on the 2006 New Visual Acuity Chart for General Use. Instead of the visual acuity (or blurred eyesight) attested by the optometrist, this chart determines the market value of the test person. The expression ‘human capital’ indeed represents the epitome of perversion. The question of using a vision aid to correct the problem is necessarily redundant in such a system.

Looking Back and into the Future

A ‘money vision’ is hardly tolerant of fits of nostalgia. Values such as attachment to tradition and feelings such as nostalgia have no place on a scale graded to measure maximum profit. 2006 New Visual Acuity Chart for General Use (2007) addresses this depravation of human existence at a higher level. The installation Shooting 10000 Arrows All at Once (2007) takes another line of argument but it in no way dispenses with the principles of the other work which was created around the same time. On the one hand, in this piece Lu Hao makes palpable the transition process, brought about rather violently, from a traditional value system to one that operates in the name of the future; on the other hand, the installation bestows a deep historical dimension to this transformation.

In his most recent installation, Shooting 10000 Arrows All at Once, Lu Hao takes us into a space between times. Thus he reconstructed a launching platform mounted with a crossbow, a big and bulky contraption of a type used from the early empires well into the Ming and Manchu dynasties. Emphasizing the virtual dimension of this imitation of a battle weapon, only the chassis is made of wood, while the crossbow device is of acrylic glass. It is located near the entrance of the exhibition room, and there are hundreds of wooden arrows stuck in the diagonally opposite walls. The metal arrowheads have sunk themselves into models of traditional Beijing courtyard houses.

What remains of the time-honored everyday life in Beijing if the old urban infrastructure is increasingly being obliterated, to be replaced by ‘international style’ high-rise skylines? How long can the images in our memory resist factual destruction?

"In my piece Construction Device (2002) I already had a related aspect in mind but there it was more a specific situation I was referring to: the oceans of cranes and construction vehicles that dominate the cityscape of Shanghai these days. So for the 2002 Shanghai Biennial I created this excavator shovel of plexiglass that jutted out of a glittering-pink wall into the exhibition room, like an allegory of our times. What’s important here is the color pink, which is precisely not the traditional red of ‘old China’. It is a very fashionable hue and most popular with young Chinese women right now. Chinese brothels also use this shade of pink a lot. There is no particular story connected to Shooting 10000 Arrows All at Once. I have seen this type of weaponry in museums several times and collected pictures of them. But the installation itself argues at the virtual level. This is why, for instance, the crossbow construction is of acrylic glass, because of course they could not shoot ten thousand arrows at the same time."

While in his previous works, Lu Hao focused very specifically on currently threatened relics of the traditional Chinese lifestyle, this new one opens our eyes to rather elusive historical dimensions – quite beyond China, in fact. The scenario of violent appropriation of territory, devastation of cultural assets and the ideologically conditioned development of new environments is visualized in Shooting 10000 Arrows All at Once as a phenomenon beyond all temporal and spatial limits. Lu Hao’s relational assessment in looking both back and into the future is articulated quite clearly in the title of his installation: though the today’s pioneers of so-called progress love to give the impression of humanity, the artist exposes this self-description to be clearly a fraud. Instead he ascribes to them the brutality of the 10000 arrows.

Translation: Werner Richter