Li Li | The Intractable Body

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By Li Li

Shi Guowei has always used cool, calm, solemn, and grand narratives about reality to highlight everyday miracles, but when we are confronted with these exquisite yet unpredictable pictures, we perceive a vague energy. It is almost as if this energy from the depths of the image gradually dissolves those distant, disingenuous, and unshakeable landscapes.

In the artist’s view, the material that supports the photograph is powerless. The range of color perceived by the human eye is much larger than the optical imaging range, but even these hand-colored images do not achieve the depth of color perceived by the naked eye; the colors subjectively perceived by the artist determine the reality of the image, even if that is not anywhere close to reality. Usually, Shi Guowei scrapes the color from the C-print until a black-and-white base is all that remains. Then, he utilizes translucent watercolors to add the colors once again. The colored images are not a return; they are more subjective than reality and they express doubt about and dissatisfaction with real scenes.

Colors become a narrator in Shi Guowei’s massive pictures. In those immensely oppressive images, the gradual addition of depth, strength, and emotion, as well as the changeable and vague relationships between colors makes the images more expressive. In Lab series (2013), green becomes less certain; green is mixed with red, blue, and purple to create a deep, emotional, and unpredictable sense of distance. When the watercolors were applied to the C-print paper, they gave the pictures a transparent uncertainty. Thus, the juxtapositions of large areas of contrasting colors (red) reduce the purity of the entire image, causing the viewer to realize that there are no absolute colors in any image. Every color has an expressive quality, a flow, and a level of tolerance, which allows them to more closely approach the colors seen by the human eye. Shi Guowei uses the figurative language of photography to create an abstract and subjective “sign language.”

The philosophy of color simply deals with the surface of an image. In those layered, leaning trees (Slant, 2016), those rows of cacti (Lab, 2013), and those bird specimens (Silent Speech, 2015), a dense continuity meshes with an imperceptible collective consciousness and the individual uncertainty within collective consciousness. Thin Pressure (2015) features the low, continuous pine forests unique to high-altitude areas. In high-pressure, low-oxygen environments, absorbing nutrients becomes more difficult and the trees cannot survive the dense snows on the mountaintops. The neat pine forests in the picture press toward the viewer, and the artist carefully cuts out these densely-packed pine trees after intense consideration, exploration, and comparison, which gives the images stability, integrity, and immovability. The pines flow outside the frame at a 45° angle, and the introduction of green reveals hidden perils and a sense of instability. Similarly, the slope of the mountain increases the visual oppression of the image. In that moment, the straight pine trees are like pieces of irrefutable evidence, coercing each one into existing postures. This is reminiscent of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, in which power and religion (collective consciousness) are gentle means of gradually instilling and correcting perceptions, transforming people into obedient bodies. But upon closer examination, we note that there are colors besides green between the pines. Dark green, light green, yellow, white, and grey are also enveloped in a layer of faint pink. The cohesion between the colors relaxes the painting and allows it to breathe. Shi Guowei utilizes conflicting yet interlocking color levels to create an oppressive yet unstable group of pictures. Color is a “fabricated” spectacle in these black-and-white pictures (realities), permeated with messages of personal rebellion.

In this body of work, we see more than an artist’s daily output. The artist was born after the Cultural Revolution and grew up in a time of systemic loosening and transformation. His consciousness and artistic ideas were formed during this period of fusion in social ideologies. After he studied photography in western Germany (Cologne and Dortmund), he returned to the Chinese context, but the relationships between the collective and the individual, between power and the system, seemed to become complex, deep, and absolute. Shi Guowei is guarding against collective consciousness, but he also leaves himself behind, so that he can extend, confirm, imagine, consider, and negate his own identity.

Coincidentally, a related theme is the wide acceptance of the concepts of the ’85 New Wave, the post-1989 era, and 1990s Cynical Realism. The art of these periods began with the imitation of Western-centric art, and this ideological alienation pushed it to the margins. Here, the artist’s examination of his awareness of his relationship to Chinese ideology decided his position. Shi Guowei utilizes hand-colored pictures to oppose the aesthetics of spectacle (the modern Western ideology of Guy Debord’s society of spectacle) and the sacredness of the image. Shi’s self-possessed spectacles are permeated with the power of individual consciousness.

Like the artist, we stand among the mountains and stones, perceiving the light, the smell, the temperature, and the breeze… Perhaps we can detect the frequency of unease that emerges from this silent landscape, which may emanate from a certain intractable body.