an artist(s) quest for individuality and community

By Pinyuan Li

He's our man.

Polit-Sheer-Form: Fitness for All at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) opens with an incredibly striking image: a 61 3/10 × 47 3/10 inch portrait of a man wearing a perfectly ironed white shirt with a blue badge, awkwardly parted hair, looking straight ahead, and possibly to nowhere. Most people who see it just glance at it for two seconds, avoid eye contact and then go on. Who is he? Why is his portrait here? Why are they so disinterested? Perhaps because his face is uninspiring and seems to be as normal as you could possibly get. He is an average man of no particular note. And that’s your first mistake. You should be very interested in this boring man and everyone who sees this show should be, too. No one has ever quite looked like that, so normal and so non-noticeable. How is that possible? The answer is that he is not one man, but the amalgamation of the five artists who make the group Polit-Sheer-Form (PSF). The man’s name is Mr. Zheng (Mr.Polit).

Founded in 2005, PSF is a five artists group all of whom were born in the early-to-mid sixties (Xiao Yu b.1965, Song Dong b.1966, Leng Lin b.1965, Hong Hao b.1965 and Liu Jianhua b.1962). This is the generation of the Cultural Revolution, who grew up under Mao Zedong’s dictatorship and his most radical attempt at eradicating individuality. The idea of individualism did not return to China until Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1977, when he came up with this new and radical position, “Let some people get rich first.” To be born and grow up within these two opposing political philosophies is a recipe for cultural schizophrenia. The first one says you are merely part of a collective; the second, you’re an individual, go get rich. You couldn’t grow up under odder circumstances.

The Man, The Individual, The Artist: Western Ideals
In Western culture, there are countless art movements. Movements often coalesce around a representative individual: Abstract Expressionism has Pollock, Cubism has Picasso, and the Renaissance has Da Vinci. These movements gain in importance in relation to the importance of the individual artist. China doesn’t think about artists in the same way. A Tang dynasty (618-907) painting looks almost the same as a Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) painting because the medium, subject matter, and colors haven’t changed. Chinese culture prizes artists for their ability to recreate the work of past masters. They’re praised for their ability to extend traditions, rather than break from them. But this idea has gradually faded away during the last quarter of the 20th century and PSF is at the forefront of that change. They present themselves as an individual artist, like any Western or post-Deng artist would, but the true story is that they are a classic collective, and a classical collective somewhere along the lines of Mao’s dream of a complete and total cultural revolution. This is what, sorry for the bad pun, makes them unique.

PSF’s Chronology (2005-2014) is an installation piece that consists of wallpaper covering four sides of the exhibition hall. It presents a surprising number of scanned and printed fapiao (a taxation invoice) – fapiao is far more than an ordinary receipt; it is the only official valid proof that allows the government to monitor and administer sales tax. The colorful fapiaos printed on the wallpaper include admission to parks, boarding passes for airplanes, and restaurants receipts, all bearing the title “Zhengchunban (Polit-Sheer-Form)”. The documentation of fapiaos serves not only as evidence for the five working members of the collective, but also shows the transparency of their expenses—as a group or a person? It’s these types of games, walking the line between Maoist dreams of unity and Deng like incentives to get rich that make them so funny and provocative.

Fapiao Heaven

The video installation Do The Same Good Deed depicts a June 9, 2014 performance, where PSF got people to volunteer to clean a bus in Guangzhou, China. The video’s depiction of people throwing water in blue basins at a bus plays again and again in slow motion. The audio background is five of them repeating the word “Polit-Sheer-Form.” It feels like you’re being brainwashed, even though you’re only getting a wash. One might ask this simple question: who does PSF think is doing the brainwashing? Them or us? Who are they being brain washed by? Deng or Mao? For these artists caught between two radically different political systems, the answer is clearly both.

Perform a Good Deed!
The same performance was held on November 3rd, 2015 in New York, where they got volunteers to clean Times Square. At the beginning of the performance, the volunteers raised up photos of Mr. Zheng, their “leader” who emotionlessly monitors the action. Each volunteers use blue mops and blue buckets to clean the ground. One might ask what is the difference in meaning when PSF performs Do the Same Good Deed in China and then America? In American culture, individualism is a core value, although many Americans are questioning the cult of individuality. Ironically, the collective is supposed to be a core value in Chinese culture, but after Deng’s era, the notion of personal individuality and liberty is getting stronger. PSF examine the same action in these two opposing social contexts and come to the same answer. We are being brainwashed.

Take a good deed to New York!
Fitness for All (2007) is an installation piece about fitness. PSF lines up five different workout machines in a room, all available for public use. The room is wallpapered with fapiaos. “Fitness for all” is a slogan that the Chinese government has used for the past few decades. The goal is to build more fitness facilities for the public, such as schools, communities, and parks to improve the nations’ health. Chinese who were born in the 90’s couldn’t be more familiar with it. Luckily I am one of them, the equipment was practically a childhood companion. It was close to the only “healthy” public space that I could interact with my classmates, friends and neighbors. As a new understanding of individualism is developing in Chinese society, in past few years, I barely hang out with my fitness “companion” anymore. What is the reason? Is it because I am a grownup or collective living is losing its meaning to me?

PSF set up a mysterious maze that keep audiences circling within its game. Mr. Zheng, Chronology, Do The Same Good Deed, and Fitness for All, none of these works escape the conflict between the group and the person, the collective and the individual, artists and one artist. They create an imaginary party that respond to Chinese and American complex social system; we - the audiences and the volunteers are participants, trapped in Mr. Zheng’s game. As you leave the exhibition, Mr. Zheng is staring straight remaining the same emotion when you came in; it is his unique farewell for you.

That's all, friends

©Pinyuan and the CCA Arts Review

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