Yan Lei – “I’ m not an artist, I’ m a man!”

颜磊:我不是个艺术家,我是个人!

 

颜磊用图像及其艺术颠倒与其日常生活息息相关之物:遇见的人、用过的东西、经过的风景、碰到的情形、还有报刊杂志上登载的照片。论及现实及其图画的关联,颜磊如是说:“我作品中的对象都很个人,他们出现在我作品中的原因是因为或多或少对我的实际生活有所影响。当它们激发我的思考,我就想将之入画。至于旁观者怎么看这些作品?我想肯定不会去刻意控制这预设而不可变的意义传达。”

 

按颜磊的说法,如果艺术并不给出答案,他的艺术也不过是他所认为的生活(不管客观看来重要与否),我们可以得出结论:在他眼中生活也不给出答案。也就是说,他似乎意识到人之为人,是无力把全世界的知识都融汇在握的。这也是为什么他只选择那些来自他个人经历的图像,它们更熟悉、更易掌握。此外,他也明确指出,他不想强加于作品或观众任何意义或所谓绝对真理。

 

显然颜磊没兴趣跻身那种头戴光环、名累艺术史或大噪一时的伟大艺术家。或许他对这压根就不感兴趣!也就是说,他不想成为安吉拉 瓦岱慈(Angela Vettese)所著《后天造就艺术家》书中的那位牧羊人,那个“…不只是‘领头羊’的角色,也半遮半掩地自封为超然圣贤或更有甚者、造世主上帝本身:在艺术家简历中经常读到的‘激情狂热’(enthusiasm)一词本或多或少有‘上帝入口’(entrance of God)之意,好像这些人能与神对话、好比通灵先知,可揭示凡人不可及之真相。”

 

同许多艺术家一样,图片是颜磊的创作基础。在早年的行为表演创作时期,图片更多只是行为的记录。即便是录像作品,也不过是一组连续的单帧图像。更进一步说,在替代行为、表演、装置等难以挪移或重现的创作时,图像是简单的工具,也是艺术作品(曾经)存在的证据。

 

然而自1998年底,图像在颜磊的艺术创作中扮演起更为重要的角色及不可或缺的工具,它成为其近期创作——绘画的主要构成。在颜磊目前采用的复杂工艺中,摄影作用于作品成型之前而非之后;也就是说,摄影成了图画的来源。尽管两者的秩序颠倒,但图像仍企图作为现实的“纪实摄影”而保持其原有价值。颜磊采用的所有图片都来自其日常生活、且很大一部分都是他自己拍摄的,仅有一小部分摘自报刊杂志。拍照时无疑他本人就是仲裁者,完全以他的喜好来决定图片的去留:如苏珊 桑塔格(Susan Sontag)所言“摄影会把对象变得重要起来。”

 

颜磊声称他表现的就是现实,但桑塔格还指出:“声称摄影的现实性与图像及现实之间日渐扩大的鸿沟相矛盾,图像所提供的神秘来源的知识及其浓缩预设了现实本身的先期异体或贬体。”

 

颜磊在讨论现实与其艺术之间关系时坦言:“现实是垃圾。比如在我的录像中,生活里充斥着无意义与无聊沉闷。”而当我问及他用来入画的又是他生活的哪一部分时,他回答“生活也有很大一部分非常重要。”至于他对入画的意义与重要性的评判标准,他说“重要与否我无所谓,我只画对我的存在有所影响的。”

 

如果现实是垃圾,且这片垃圾的一大组成恰是颜磊自己的生活,那笔者不禁自问:他要在这些来自现实的图片中寻找什么?为什么他以那么现实主义的画法来表现它们?只是自虐的快感吗?是沾沾自喜的自夸自累吗?还是出于面对平淡无奇生活的愤怒爆发、复仇升华?这些症状在他的早期作品中就已存在,近来更是变本加厉。鉴于其绘画根植于摄影,那我就以得自一段摄影理论的反思来开始我的调研。桑塔格说:“正如所有对自我表达的现代研究,摄影同样绕不开自我与世界激烈冲突的两条老路。你可以将之视作…在天地间找寻自己位置的方法(还是严酷或异化),并与之成功建立起疏离的关系,即克服个人化自我的尖锐宣言。”

 

然而这一观点也暗示了“…摄影带来独特启示系统的前提:它向我们彰显了前所未见的现实。”颜磊就曾描绘过几座他旅途中的机场中庭与露天空间(包括香港启德机场与巴黎鲁瓦西机场),他说:“这些绘画是对公共空间的分析。我选择它们是因为它们有潜能、潜力、一个心理上的内在动因。这是我选择它们的原因。创作它们的过程中我也用头脑思考。…这是个交换的时代…我的作品是我个人对外在世界的精神反应,我只能这么说,这是生活的需要。”

 

颜磊提到了一些重要的关键词,如“分析”、“潜能”、“内在动因”、“心理”、“交换”与“需要”等。在我看来,这些词不仅有助于我们理解他的上述诠释,也点明了其艺术研发的基本节点。颜磊尝试建立一种与世界疏离的关系、客观的交换,第一步通过摄影来很快地固定一个印象,第二步通过艺术作品来实践反思。但摄影立马就能记录眼前的现实,而绘画需要的时间则长得多。此外,绘画不用照相机,一般没有那种机械性的精确,但只有颜磊用其工艺反抄了任一机械或系统的科学本质。他就做到了!事实上,就在拍了张彩色照片之后,事实上,颜磊用一套计算机软件分析拿来的彩色照片,从而得以精确获取画面中形体的轮廓及亮度变化。这么一来,如果是单色画,那软件会针对每个颜色自动生成一个数值;对彩色画也是一样,如要使色彩在绘画中保持完全一致。然后,颜磊会放大所得图像的尺寸并直接喷绘在画布上,这样画布看起来就好像是原先那张照片的实体地图。画布白底上游走出一张数字与线条交织蜿蜒的迷网,其视效让人联想到一张半抽象的木刻画。即便是平面上的一小镊碎片都能让我们回想立体派研究。值得注意的是,颜磊的作品中,恰是材质表面的数标让画作得以完整统一;而其三维研究亦是基于光线因素而非纯粹量化。

 

颜磊是名解构主义者:他将现实的有机整体放平、放烂、放空、拆开并分解,赤条条只剩下触手可及的暗藏结构。那些白底线条不过是包装,可被用来将世界呈现得简单、清晰而平面化,从而满足他分析潜能、内在动因的欲望,或最起码能为之提供一些线索。

 

不管怎么说,还是有必要指出摄影或绘画所凝固的对象瞬间都已是过去时,因而从属于过去:颜磊通过其图像进程所获取的知识也属于过去。正如学者赛尔乔 吉冯内(Sergio Givone)在论述芬雷. 雅克·德里达(J. Jacques Derrida)观点的段落中指出:“当面临威胁或紧迫的危险时,当视线聚焦于历史人物的胸口,结构就特别清晰可见;恰因人物受到了威胁,其潜能与脆弱才得以彰显,也恰在此时,结构主义对结构的条分缕析、理性应对才能达成对结构的更佳理解…”

 

然而颜磊很明白他面对的是过往,他用绘画对过往装置/行为的照片进行重新演绎即是明证。最恰当的例子当属他1998年的装置“二手店-香港” (又名:哈利路亚)的图片记录,以及一丝不苟还原其2000年装置“红灯区-香港艺术家园区”的画作“香港艺术家园区”。在上述作品中,颜磊(用绘画)重新演绎了早已透过相机(近焦拍摄)演绎过的现实(装置)。这么一来,“…诠释的游戏被当作是与过往的对话,人们去质疑、知晓并重塑这段过往直到与之再无关系。”回到他采用的技法上来看,我们会明白在抽空现实之后他是如何重建并延伸其潜力的。

 

一旦画布上的结构与轮廓固定,颜磊就可以根据先前采集的色彩数值来选用相应的颜料上色。(他自己不调颜色,为的是最大限度地保证颜料的标准配比。)按照画布上的线框填色后,画面被还原其立体存在。作品完成后,原本画布上的黑色网格线同色彩标号都会被颜料覆盖。有趣的是,画面远看好像同照片的分辨率一样,可一旦走近,就会注意到那些单色浓稠的色块与笔触。换句话说,远观的现实整体性在近赏时分崩离析无从辨认。不识庐山真面目,只缘身在此山中…尽管这些纠缠感受也是真实的、但并非现实本身。现实另有所在,这点颜磊很明白。他断言道“谬误脱胎于真相。”他通过混淆我们通常分配给表象与现实的标签将两者隔离。万事万物及其对立面都取决于视角和立场。颜磊的艺术探讨中最基本的一项话题即因视角的主观性而造成的谬误剧。共处“存在”的舞台上,现实与谬误对话甚至互易身份,艺术家就只坐在那里静观,不时从中取出一段。颜磊用绘画告诉我们:看似清晰的实可模糊,看似简单的实可复杂,看似坚信不疑的实可虚夸浮表,反之亦然,举一反三。

 

颜磊绘画的重要元素之一是丙烯酸颜料。这种化工合成的非天然颜料被颜磊用来勾画现实。用这种光滑亮丽的材质来表现我们如今后现代的色彩着实贴切,但也十分疏离,尤其在描画人脸时。许多时候颜磊会统一画面中所有色彩的色调,这就好像为整张画罩了一层滤网。在其2002-2003年的系列作品“蓬皮杜项目”中(蓬皮杜艺术中心,展览“中国怎么样?”(Alors la Chine?),2003年6月25日-10月13日),十三幅单色肖像画一共选用了四种颜色:青、黄、红、绿。2002年的系列“国际风景”(2002年上海双年展)虽是多色绘画,但其视觉效果却同单色一样地人工化。比如该系列中描绘悉尼歌剧院的无题绘画:黄色的建筑映着碧水蓝天,感觉很假。这些画作给人的整体印象有些老派风格,比如摄影诞生之初非常流行的黑白照片手工水彩上色。 颜磊如此回答笔者关于色彩的提问“你看到的色彩是一回事,那些与我工作室及工作方法息息相关的是另一回事。我追求人眼的精确感知,因为我想画愈加现实的图景。我根据素材照片的光影定色调,并贴合色调的感觉选颜色。所以一头有技术有系统,另一头也有个人因素。毋庸置疑,我选择的色彩会为图像意义增值。”

 

颜磊的画作可能会让人联想到时尚杂志的插图,但当我们回味一番上文关于他重新演绎并丰富现实的论述,就不难猜到他对其画作与平面设计相比较的简短回应,“我的目标就是让作品尽量与平面设计拉开距离。”

 

然而他有时也的确从杂志里拿图片,且用色与沃霍有相通之处。谈到这里,他说“沃霍肯定影响了连我在内的许多艺术家。这我承认,但我不知道在我作品的最终呈现里是否能看出与他的联系。这个问题我从没认真考虑过。事实上尽管我也用广告图片,但用得最多的还是我自己拍的照片…我拍那些我认为对自己有意义和利用价值的东西,那些独属于我自己情感体验的。如果和我没什么关系,那我肯定不会拿来用。如果不这样做,那我就会在遴选素材上犯糊涂…因而我选择的所有素材都与我的个人感受息息相关。”

 

除却其审美意图外,颜磊对色彩的运用还得从其对创作观念的支持上深入研究。他说“除了色彩,对我来说最重要的就是作品背后的内容。这是我每天都在关心的事。”

 

在上文提及的“国际风景”系列中,颜磊呈现的是对全球不同城市中著名地标的透视。但这些图画所取材的照片并非是他在当地所拍的实景,而是来自深圳“世界之窗”,这座主题公园集成了全球各地历史名胜的一比一复制品。可谓“假作真时真亦假”。对观众的误导适可而止,因他描画的风景确实存在,且在三个维度中同时存在:真实的城市、真实的复制、真实的绘画,唯一不同的是各自存在的意义。颜磊采用明显失真的色彩来警告这场骗局的观众。“我根据这一系列的计划择选色调,因为我想创造一个新城市。这些色调恰好契合这一系列的创作理念,我的作品看上去就好像是一组五彩缤纷的海报招贴。”

 

颜磊的意思是,正如一张海报(通常会根据现实进行复制,但往往事实并非如此),他的城市可与真的城市一般真,亦可与真的城市一般假。其色彩无外乎是用来与当代城市的灰调子形成鲜明对比的“装饰审美”之暗喻罢了。学者马尼里奥 布鲁斯坦(Manlio Brusatin)在其论著《色彩史》(History of Colours)中提到,“当代工业时代总喜欢金属质感的流光溢彩:它们全穿着抛了光的‘永恒光彩’,到处都能见到那些刚刚出厂、涂了清漆珐琅、亮晶晶、油汪汪的‘新’玩意儿。我们只图金属材质的光鲜外表,却目睹时间概念的伪造与昂贵金属的流逝…”

 

上文只分析了色彩在“蓬皮杜项目”系列中的作用,然而观念对这一系列也极为重要。这组人物群像描绘了各国从清洁工到艺术评论人、学者、文化部官员在内所有为艺术所吸引的人。12幅画作中的人物都是2002年颜磊在巴黎蓬皮杜艺术中心认识的,并都直接参与了2003年5月举办的展览“中国怎么样?”的筹划与布置。“国际风景”系列本身即是由多幅绘画组成的一件作品,一件表达同一想法的作品。颜磊再次探讨了表象与现实之间的易变界限,如何将其对城市的思考转化到艺术的殿堂,并由此传达给殿堂的祭司、崇拜者与仆人。颜磊玩味着呈现与现实之间的微妙界限。他以该系列幽默地反思了个体的处境——并非作为一个人、而是一个人在社会中的身份问题。正如其画作告诉我们的那样:“… 一个没钱、没值钱东西的人,可以靠他的为人与地位而有钱有权。只要那个‘地位’有效(被尊敬、被欢迎、被认同…)、只要大家还想发财,个人(在社会中)就能有‘权’。”

 

同样的,如果我们在一个给定情境中拍摄贵族名流,他们一般都会积极配合、反应,尽量表现得体面、高雅、精神抖擞。社会地位之于人的价值正如价钱之于商品。

 

颜磊深谙与符号及人所默许、期待的所谓社会角色相关联的体制,颜磊揭示、表现并重建其表象的虚假或是强、弱。不论他是否乐意或本就作为演员之一,颜磊自己也是一个符号。在卡斯特弗朗兹(Castelfranchi)与柏吉(Poggi)的著作中:“一旦常规的现实被创造,它就不再虚拟或幻想,也不再有‘不真’的杂念,而只会在庸庸碌碌中迷失…在虚拟社会现实中,我们会跌落或放宽界限。表演的不同境界恰在于有多少可辨的现实。但界限时有时无。也恰出于此,因为我们身处这跌宕起伏的现场,生活就是舞台。 ”

 

观众别想从那些图画中找出颜磊来,因为在那样的距离外,他不是凡夫俗子、而是个艺术家。他在角色扮演。请务必牢记!不管他以怎样的形象出现,都不是他自己。在该系列的第十三幅、也是最大的一幅画作中,颜磊描绘了他在蓬皮杜艺术中心外遇见的街头肖像画家。他说:“为什么他的作品没被认可而我的可以?为什么他坐在蓬皮杜外边而我坐在里面?我从中国去巴黎。他也去法国画画。许多中国人在国外的处境也常常如此,同时‘里外’。我去法国的时候也有这种体会。”关于他在国际艺术界中位置的问题也同样出现在2002年的画作“国际运气”中:一张台球桌上镜头聚焦一颗黑八,静静停留在底袋口。拿着球杆的人好像要将它打入袋中,但也可能不是。我们只能凭画面的视觉元素猜测。

 

颜磊如此介绍这件作品:“黑八是留到最后打的一颗球,隐喻‘国际运气’。这也是我得走出国门、面对国际艺术界的心理状态,而我直面的艺术家对抗成功的状态又是放之四海皆准的。”

 

无独有偶,颜磊近期的另一系列“上升空间”同样是对“艺术家为成功而争”、公共空间及现状之疑的暗喻。该系列包括作品:“三里屯”,有着许多餐厅酒吧的北京使馆区;“廊坊”,颜磊自己的笔记本电脑,它作为一种工具、也是对当今中国现状的象征;还有上文已经提及的“香港艺术家园区”,画面主体貌似是红灯区;“香港上海银行”,银行立面也可看作经济繁荣的象征。在同一系列中,颜磊还拍摄了几家机场,如“香港启德机场”与“巴黎鲁瓦西机场”。颜磊说,“机场是公共空间,充满潜力。”潜力何在? 机场是优雅卓越的交换地点,是来自世界各地的旅行者擦肩而过各奔目的地的中转站。机场没有明确的身份,或许更像是一张百万种不同思想与身份所编织的大网。机场也是地位的象征,能买得起飞机票的人身处上流,即便在经济繁荣的当下,情形逐年都在变化。唯一不变的或许是中国官僚体制下出国不可避免的签证申请与材料准备。撇开花销不谈,能出国就已被视作高人一等,而颜磊因受邀参加国际展览而名列“高人”席列。

 

中国有地方会形容“那个人是家机场”(that man is an airport)形象地比喻这个人很成功、人脉很广、社交圈大。不论颜磊是否认同上述情形,他本人肯定身处其中。作为一名艺术家,他被迫挤入这一“上升梯队”。颜磊坦言:“通过创作这些作品,我面对自己作为一名艺术家存于世上的处境。承认艺术同样也有竞争,这是无可回避的问题。”当我问及是否可将其作品解读为是针对艺术世界的社论批评时,他答道:“我觉得在当下,批评是个相当复杂的差事。我怀疑艺术家或学者是否真有独立批评,因为我们如今都被锁进僵局。比如有些艺术家反对所谓商业味儿太浓的作品,但这类批评的原因很有可能是因为他自己的作品卖得不好。当然也有人确实有充分的独立自主,但毕竟只占绝少数。你在这个市场体制内就必须去直面它。所以我觉得批评毫无意义。”

 

继2001年与妻子傅洁合作装置“项目一-国际通道” (测量艺术家从北京的家到香港的家所经历的各种门框的尺寸,并按等比例于展示空间中搭建一条临时通道)、2002年合作的巨型装置“项目二”( 测量艺术家寓所房间的尺寸并按等比例用机翼制作三维模型)、2003年合作的“项目三”(由带抽屉组合柜的办公家具构成的装置,每个抽屉里都有一件飞机模型)后,他真的成了“一家机场”,却仍振振有词地说:“我不想出名”。

 

颜磊在其作品中已经玩了无数把成人符号游戏,但如今他越来越多地被直接拉进世俗约定的把戏中。用卡斯特弗朗兹(Castelfranchi)与柏吉(Poggi)的话说:“若表象成为存在,若伪装与解释即将到来,那同理,社会也迫使我们伪装:来训练我们。我们被训练得彬彬有礼,直到变成自己的假面。”

文/箫岭(Nataline Colonnello)

译/顾灵

 

Yan Lei exclusively transposes in the pictorial form -and in his art as a whole- those subjects strictly related to his own daily experience: people he meets, objects he uses, landscapes he views, situations he encounters, images he sees on newspapers and magazines. Talking about the relationship between actuality and his paintings, he explains: “The subjects of my works are highly personal. The reason for their existence in my art is due to the fact that they somehow influence my real life. When I see something that concerns me closely, it is right then that I make use of those images. What will be the feeling of the spectator when observing these works? …well…this is definitively not something I want to modify intentionally to convey an unalterable and pre-arranged significance”.

 

If, based on Yan Lei’s words, art gives no answers and his art is nothing except what he deems his life is in a certain way conditioned by (it does not matter whether it is objectively important or not), we can gather that in his view life gives no answers. Thus, he seems to be aware of his condition as a human being unable to clench the knowledge of the whole world in his fists. That’s why he selects only the images belonging to his own experience: they are more familiar as well as easier to handle. Moreover, as he explicitly maintained above, he does not want to impose by means of his works, any absolute truth to the observer.

 

Clearly Yan Lei does not seem to feel up to playing the part of the venerated artist invested with that

deifying aura which characterized many famous names along the course of Art History as well as in contemporary times. Perhaps he is not interested in it at all! In other words, he does not seem to be seeking to embody the figure of that shepherd who, using the description made by Angela Vettese in her book “Artists are Made”, evokes “(…) not only the role of the’ flock’s leader’ but also, implicitly, that of a superior being and even of God the Creator: the term ‘enthusiasm’, that one so often meets in artists’ biographies, more or less means ‘entrance of God’, as if those who experiences it were put in contact with the divine will in much the same way as prophets, in order to reveal truths unreachable by common people”.

 

In all his works Yan Lei, like the majority of artists, resorts to the support of images. In the past, when he mainly devoted himself to performances, images served as documentations of a work that otherwise would have disappeared as soon as the action had come to an end. Even if the work was a video, for example, it was nothing but a sequence of single images. Generally speaking, moreover, the pictures of performances, installations and so forth, besides being convenient tools able to substitute in a sense the real work when it is not easily movable or reproducible in a different place, are also proofs evidencing the existence (or the past existence) of the work of art itself.

 

Since the end of 1998, however, pictures started to have a much greater relevance in Yan Lei’s artistic

creation, becoming an essential constituent tool of a quite new trend that characterizes a substantial part of his recent production – the paintings. In the complex pictorial process Yan Lei now uses, the photograph no longer supports the work when the latter is already begun or completed, but even before it exists, the photo now establishes the origin of a painting. Although the time order has changed, the image, intended as a ‘photodocument’, keeps its value unaltered. All the pictures Yan Lei employs, as we said above, belong to his daily life and for the most part are taken by him -just a few are from magazines or newspapers. When he takes a picture, undoubtedly he is the arbiter who selects, through the lens, the subject he is interested in: that is to say he is the one who makes the choice between what is to be portrayed and what is to be excluded: as Susan Sontag says, “to photograph means to attach importance to something”.

 

Yan Lei states that he represents his real life, but, as Sontag points out “To claim that photography must be realistic is not incompatible with the opening of an ever-increasing gap between image and reality, in which the mysteriously acquired knowledge and its intensification provided by the picture presuppose a previous alienation from the reality itself or its depreciation”.

 

Talking about the relation between reality and his art, Yan Lei says that: “Reality is rubbish. In my videos, for example, I wanted to convey the idea that much of life is full of meaningless and dull situations”.When I ask him which is the part of his life that he uses to paint, he replies, “There is a large part that is important”. Asked about what he considers to be meaningful and important in his paintings he answers again: “I can only reply that I do not care whether a thing is intrinsically important or not, I paint only what has influence on my existence”.

If reality is rubbish, and a part of this trash conditions Yan Lei’s individual universe to a large extent, I ask myself what he is looking for in these pictures taken from actuality, and, furthermore, why he paints his subjects in such a realistic way. Is it only for the pleasure of subjecting himself to a self-torture? Is his art a smug praise to the tedium vitae? Or is it an outburst of rage, a sublimated revenge against a disappointing, uneventful life lacking in stimuli? If his past works showed in some ways all these attendant symptoms, think that in his recent ones there is even more. Since the genesis of his paintings resides in photographs, I will start my survey with a reflection drawn from a theory of photography. Sontag explains: “Like nearly all the modern forms of research into self-expression, photography takes up again the two traditional ways of radical contrast between the ego and the world. You can see it as (…) a means of finding a place in the world (again regarded as oppressive, alien), succeeding in establishing a detached relation with it, namely overcoming the acute manifestation of the individualized self”.

 

This attitude, however, implies “(…) the precondition that photography offers a unique system of revelations: that it shows the reality to us as we have never seen it”. Yan Lei, talking about those of his paintings which portray the lounges and outdoor spaces of some airports that he has visited in his travels,( for example, the Hong Kong Kaitak Airport or the Paris Roissy Airport), says: “Those paintings are an analysis of the public spaces. I choose those places because they have a latent capacity, a potentiality, an innermost reason that has to do with psychology. That’s why I take these kind of pictures. In reproducing them I use my head as well. This is an age of interchanges…my works are my personal spiritual reaction to the external world, I can say only this, it is a need of life”.

 

Yan Lei mentioned some very important keywords like “analysis”, “latent capacity”, “innermost reason”, “psychology”, “Interchange” and “need” which, in my opinion, are not merely terms suitable to the comprehension of the sentences he uttered, but the basic pivots around which his artistic research develops. Yan Lei tries to build up a detached relationship, an objective interchange with the world firstly by means of photography –to fix an impression-, and secondly by means of the real work of art –to make a reflection. Whilst a photo is a quick record of a foreshortened reality, the time needed to carry out a painting is much longer. Moreover, while a camera is a mechanical precision instrument, a painting is not. This last assertion is theoretically true unless Yan Lei, in his technique, has recourse to any machine or system of a scientific nature. And he does! In fact, after having taken a colour picture,

 

Yan Lei processes it through a computer using software which is able to measure and highlight the outline of the subjects, as well as the brightness variations inside each shape. With this method, each shade of a single colour (if the painting will be monochrome) is allocated a number computed by the information system; the same thing happens for each shade related to different colours, if Yan Lei wants to keep the polychromy of the picture unaltered in the final work. After this, Yan Lei resizes the image obtained, enlarging its dimensions and eventually prints it directly on to the canvas. At this point of the process, the canvas looks like the equivalent of a physical map of the original picture. On its white surface, black and flat winding itineraries follow one another in a maze of numbers and lines, a visual effect that is in a certain way reminiscent of a semi-abstract print from a woodcut. Even If this fragmentation of the volumes on a plane could make us think back to the researches of Cubism, it should still be remembered that in Yan Lei’s case the figure keeps its unity although it is leveled on the surface of the medium; also, its three-dimensionality is studied on the basis of a luminous factor, not form a purely volumetric point of view.

 

Yan Lei is a deconstructionist: he flattens, mortifies, empties, disassembles and splits up the organic whole of reality laying bare its hidden structure in order to capture it consciously. Those linear frameworks on the white canvas are nothing but a symbolic wrapping with which he can visualize the world in a simple, clear and fixed graphic form, so as to satisfy his need to analyze its latent capacity, its innermost reasons, or at least to provide a guideline for this.

 

Nevertheless, it is necessary to point out that a photograph, or a painting, freezes the subject in a moment that has already elapsed and thus belongs to the past: the knowledge Yan Lei obtains with his pictorial process is a knowledge of the past. As the scholar Sergio Givone says in a passage expounding Derrida’s thought:”The structure is really visible when it comes to a threat, in the imminence of danger, when the gaze is concentrated on the keystone and on the ribs of an historical figure; it is at that time that this figure shows its possibility and its fragility, exactly for its being threatened, and it is at that moment that the structuralist consciousness proceeds to treat methodically the structure to perceive it better (…)”.

 

Yan Lei, however, is perfectly aware that he is dealing with the past, and the evidence of this is given by his paintings reproducing pictures of his previous installations/performances. “Most”, for instance, is the pictorial version of his 1998’s installation “Second-Hand Store – Hong Kong”, while “Hong Kong Artists’ Commune” is a painting which depicts with extraordinary accuracy his 2000’s installation “Red-Light District – Hong Kong Artists’ Commune”. In the quoted examples, Yan Lei re-interprets (with the painting) a reality (the installation) previously interpreted (because foreshortened) through the camera. In this way “(…) the hermeneutic game (is regarded) as a dialogue with the past, (a past) that man questions, knows and re-moulds to the extent he dissociate himself from it”.Returning to the description of the technique he employs, we see next how after having impoverished reality, he reconstructs it expanding its potentialities.

 

Once the skeleton, the linear structure of reality appears on the canvas, Yan Lei is able to start applying

colours according to the respective numbers/hues, which correspond to those shown on each jar of paint he employs (He does not mix colours by himself, in order to keep as far as possible identical quantitative proportions of the pigments present in the original chemical compound he utilizes). Following the ‘isometric lines’ on the surface with the paint and the brush, he is able to give the image back its tridimensionality and reality. Once the work is finished, the black grid and the numbers become invisible under the coats of paint. It is interesting to note however, that from a distance the painting has a definition as high as that of a photograph, but the closer one gets to the canvas, the more it melts into dense and sticky chromatic blotches revealing the strokes of the brush. In other words- if from afar the overall unity of reality seems to be obvious to the observer, from close range this oneness crumbles in pieces becoming unrecognizable. It is the same thing that happens when one gets too involved in a question, and everything becomes confused, and one gets lost in the ocean of its complexity…but that skein of sensations in which one is entangled, although real, is not reality itself. Reality is something else, and Yan Lei indeed knows it. When he affirms that “falsehood is something arising from truth”, he is playing tag with the exchange of parts we generally assign to appearance and reality, but at the same time keeping these two roles apart. Everything and its opposite depends on the point of view. One of the basic topics of Yan Lei’s art is the comedy of errors around the subject of perspective. On the stage of existence, dual elements exchange their speeches, their parts, and he sits there, looking on the scene and taking part in it from time to time. With his paintings, Yan Lei shows that what is considered clear could be blurred, what is regarded as simple could be complicated, what is believed essential could be superficial and vice versa, in an interchange that could go on forever.

 

One of the main characters of Yan Lei’s pictorial play is colour – to be precise- acrylic colour. Being an industrial synthetic substance, acrylic paint is not a natural pigment, and yet he uses it to give birth to realistic compositions. This kind of material, with its bright and glassy effect is on the one hand the most apt to depict the chromatic blaze of our post-modern age but on the other is extremely estranging, especially, for example, when spread on a human face. All the more so because Yan Lei in many cases employs a single tone in all its shades to coat like a filter the entire surface of the painting. In his 2002-2003’s series called “Project Pompidou” which comprises thirteen paintings, each one is monochrome and portrays a person. The colours he chose and that alternate on the different canvases are just four: cyan, yellow, magenta and green. His 2002’s series entitled “International Landscapes”, however, consists of polychrome works but the visual outcome is equally artificial. In this series, for example, the untitled painting of a view of the Sidney’s Opera House reveals a bogus look: the building is yellowish, the water is emerald green and the sky cobalt blue. The general impression conveyed by the picture resembles, in some respects, the old practice, quite popular at the beginning of the history of photography, of touching up black and white images by hand with watercolours. Questioned about his colours, Yan Lei states: “The colours you normally see are one thing; those related to the specific conditions of my studio and to my technique, are something else. I try to pursue the same perceptive sharpness of the eye, since I want to paint more and more realistic pictures. I choose a tone according to the light measurement in the original photograph; then I select a colour that is a close match to that sensation. On the one hand there is technique, on the other my personal choice. No doubt the colour I pick out contributes to an increase of meaning of the image”.

 

Yan Lei’s pictures could somehow be related to the glossy ones found in magazines, but if we reflect on what he maintains above about the question of the re-interpretation and enrichment of reality, it is not surprising that, when asked about the relation between his paintings and graphic design, his curt reply was, “My aim is not to make my works similar to graphic design”.

 

However, he does sometimes employ images taken from magazines; also his colours are reminiscent in some ways of Warhol’s. Talking about this point, he says: “Warhol certainly influenced not only me but many artists. I admit this, but I do not know whether the final effect of my works is in any way linked to his or not. I have never investigated seriously this aspect of the question. The fact is that although I use advertisement images, more than anything else I use the pictures I take by myself…of those things I deem to have a meaning or utility for myself and that belong exclusively to my own emotional universe. If they did not somehow pertain to me, there would be no reason to employ them. I would not know what kind of criterion to use in selecting them…all the materials I choose are strictly connected with my personal feelings”.

 

Yan Lei’s colours, then, far from having only an aesthetical purpose, have to be investigated above all in their property of functioning as an extremely effective support of the other fundamental element of his creation – the concept. As Yan Lei himself confirms: “Apart from the colours, what is most important for me is the content that lies behind the work itself. I devote myself to this matter everyday”.

 

The abovementioned “International Landscapes” series represents foreshortenings of various famous monuments from different cities all around the world. Yan Lei actually did not visit all the cities he depicted, but went to one Chinese city that contained all the others, or to be precise, their scale models.

He derived all his subjects from pictures he took at Shenzhen’s “Window of the World”, a theme park where scenes and sites of historical interest throughout the world are reproduced. With these paintings, he wants to stress, as I showed above when referring to his technique, the relation between reality and illusion from an immediately visual point of view. The spectator is misled, but only to a certain extent, since the cities he sees portrayed really do exist. In fact, they exist three times and under three dissimilar facades, – as real cities, as real models and as real paintings, but what changes is their meaning. Yan Lei uses plainly deceitful colours also as a subtle warning to the observer of the trick being played.He relates: “I chose colours on the basis of the planning of this series, since I wanted to create a new city. These tones are suited to the playful idea of making my works look like multi-coloured posters”.

 

What Yan Lei wants to say, is that as in the example of a poster (that is generally reckoned to be a true reproduction of reality, but often is not), his cities could be as real as the real ones or as fake as the real ones. His colours are nothing but a metaphor of an “aesthetic of polish” that is in contrast to the grayness of contemporary cities. As the scholar Manlio Brusatin records in his book “History of Colours”:”Contemporary industrial age would like to present itself with the brilliance and glossiness of metal or of coating metallic dyes: their clothes look like a polished consciousness of progress that production soon divests of its shine (…) An “everlasting colour”, in fact, appears everywhere as a mark of brightness and glassiness of those varnishes and enamels which give to colour the roaring effect of the “new” object just came out from the factory. With the use of the sole appearance of the shiny metal and of the plastic employed at its place, we actually witness a falsification of the concept of duration and the vanishing of the most noble metals (…)”.

 

In the series entitled “Project Pompidou”, previously analyzed only from the point of view of colour, the concept is also of the utmost importance. This series portrays a gallery of international characters gravitating around the world of art, from the cleaning attendant up to art critics, scholars, Culture Department officials and so forth. Yan Lei depicts, in twelve pictures, those people he met at the Paris’ Centre Pompidou in 2002. He took pictures of each person he truly knew and who is directly involved in the mounting and organization of an exhibition to be held there in May 2003. As for “International Landscapes”, this whole series is planned as one artwork composed of different paintings, namely a unique body to express a single idea. Here Yan Lei plays again with the transient boundaries between appearance and reality, now transferring his reflections from the city to a temple of Art, and from this to its priests, worshippers and servants. In this series he offers a humorous reflection on the question of the status of the individual – that is – what a person represents by his/her role in society and not

as a human being. Just as he proved with his pictures: “(…) an individual who has no gold, no valuables of his own, can gain value and power just through his role or status. Until that status ‘works’ (is revered, sought-after, acknowledged…), until that paper currency is welcomed, the individual has ‘effective power’ (in society).

 

Similarly, it is not true that if we had photographed aristocrats or celebrities in a given situation they would correspond to a large degree or would be the expression of individual merits, qualities and abilities. The social status is to men’s value as money is to goods”.

 

Aware of the mechanisms linked with symbols and the so-called social roles everybody is tacitly supposed to respect, Yan Lei suggests, performs, re-creates their pretence, flimsiness and strength. Being a symbol himself he is conscious, whether he likes it or not, of being one of the actors as well. Again in line with the researches carried out by the scholars Castelfranchi and Poggi: “If conventional reality is created, it will not be fiction or fantasy any more, and the consciousness of this ‘not true’ characteristic, played by common consent, has to be lost (…) In the fictitious social reality we plunge, we loose the boundary. The difference with acting is exactly that in it there is a cognitive maintenance of the levels of reality. But boundary comes and goes. It’s right for this that life is a stage. It is because we, in an oscillatory motion, perceive the whole effort of the mise-en-scène”.

 

If you want to find Yan Lei’s face in one of these paintings you won’t succeed, because in this instance he is not a man but an artist. He plays with roles. Remember that! However he is present, but not with his own features. In his thirteenth and biggest picture yet Yan Lei, the artist, becomes a Chinese street portrait painter whom he met outside the doors of Centre Pompidou. He says: “Why do his works have no acceptance whilst mine do? Why was he sitting outside the Pompidou whilst I stood inside? I went to Paris from China. He also went to France to paint. Many Chinese people go abroad and are all in this condition of being at the same time both “in” and “out”. When I went to France I recognized myself in this identity as well”. This same question about his position in the international art scene is tackled by Yan Lei in his 2002’s painting called “Black 8”. The work, portraying a pool table, shows a close-up of ball number 8, which is lying just in front of the pocket. The cue, held by somebody who has been cut out of the scene, is about to hit the ball so as to pocket it, or maybe not. We can only see these elements and guess.

 

Talking about this picture, Yan Lei explains: “Black Eight is the last ball to be pocketed, it takes up the meaning of “international lot”. It is also the expression of my psychological opposition towards the world of international art where I have to go out of the country for business and face directly situations in which artists’ rivalry for success is everywhere the same”.

 

It is no accident that another recent series of Yan Lei’s paintings is called “Climbing Space”, since it is a metaphor around the questions of status, “artists’ competition for success” and public spaces. To this series belong paintings like “Sanlitun”, Beijing’s embassies district, an international area full of bars and restaurants, the favourite night destination of those who can afford amusements and can enjoy a life free from restraint; “Langfang”, representing Yan Lei’s own pc, an object that is undoubtedly a work tool, but nowadays is also a status symbol in China; “Hong Kong Artists’ Commune”, where the building shared by many artists is wrapped in a strange red light, as if it were a red-light district; “Hong Kong Shanghai Bank”, a view of the façade of a bank, symbol of economic welfare and success; and many more. In the same series Yan Lei also portrays airports, like those of “Hong Kong Kaitak Airport” and “Paris Roissy Airport” mentioned at the beginning of this text. ‘Airports are public spaces with latent potentialities’, he said. What are these potentialities? An airport is a point of exchange par excellence, a transit place where travelers coming from all over the world are passing through to reach their own destination. An airport is a place without a precise identity, perhaps because it is like a network of millions of different thoughts and identities. An airport is also a status symbol. When somebody in China can afford to take a plane, this is considered something special, even if now, with the rapid improvement in general welfare, the situation is changing year by year. What does not change is the long bureaucratic procedure a Chinese person frequently has to follow to get visas and documents to travel abroad. Costs apart, going abroad is really regarded as a privilege and Yan Lei, because of the international exhibitions he is invited to, is among the privileged ones.

 

In Chinese to say “that man is an airport” means, in a figurative sense, that he is a successful person and that his network of connections is growing as well as his social status. Regardless of his acceptance or rejection of this situation, Yan Lei is personally involved in it. He, as an artist, is forced to enter the lists, that ‘non-space’ in which social climbing takes place. “With these works I face my condition of being an artist in the world. Nobody can avoid this problem, that is to admit that art is competitive”.

When I ask him if his works have to be read as a social critique addressed to the art world, he replies: “I think that nowadays to criticize something is quite a complex matter. I doubt that people, artists and intellectuals really have this autonomy to criticize something, because now we are locked in a stalemate. There are some artists, for example, who are opposed to commercial artworks, but perhaps this is due to the fact that the market of their own works does not take off. Certainly there are also those who have this freedom, but they are really very few. To live in the market system you have necessarily to deal with it. I think that criticism is a nonsense”.

 

After having portrayed black and white foreshortenings of corridors from the ground floor to the door of his apartment; after having dissected, measured the same corridor inch by inch, and rebuilt its structure in the 2001’s installation called “Project One-International Passage”, a work made in collaboration with his wife Fu Jie; after having dissected, measured the rooms of his apartment inch by inch, and rebuilt their structure through plates of planes (presenting it in three non-communicating modules overturned on the side) in the 2002’s huge installation entitled “Project Two”, a work made in collaboration with Fu Jie; after all this, now Yan Lei participates,together with his wife, in the 2003’s edition of the Venice Biennale. At this exhibition he presents “Project Three”, an installation composed of office furniture with extractable drawers, each containing scale models of airplanes.Now that he is really becoming “an airport”, he says though clenched teeth: “I do not want to become famous”.

 

Yan Lei is aware of the adult symbolic game he amused with so many times in his works, but now he is more and more often called to come directly into play, a play of social conventions. To say it in Castelfranchi and Poggi’s way: “If appearance becomes being, if to pretend, to interpret is becoming, it is also for this reason that society compels us to pretend: to train us. And to be trained is to be well-mannered to the point that one becomes one’s own role-mask”.

by Nataline Colonnello

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