Published in Kaleidoscope Fall Issue 2014
By: Pablo Lariosguan
Oct 01, 2014
It’s an old truism that an image of thefuture is often also an image of the past. Walter Benjamin’s thesis that “thereis no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document ofbarbarism” was reinstantiated by Fredrick Jameson’s glowing reading of DavidMitchell’s book Cloud Atlas (2004) last year. In his most recent book, Jamesontook Mitchell’s multi-plot sci-fi novel as evidence that “for better or worse,our history, our historical past and our historical novels, must now alsoinclude our historical futures as well.” This collapse of future and past—theduality persistentinthe icon, the emblemortotem–is a favored theme of Beijing-based artist Guan Xiao. Guan, like Jameson,also nods to Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas: in her 2013 solo show, Survivors’ Hunting,at Magician Space in Beijing, she presented a five part sculpture series,“Cloud Atlas” (2012-2013), comprising tomb-like “totems” (Guan’s word) layeredwith muddy car polish and affixed with faux-Primitivist icons (of faces andbones). The sculptures were placed next to “Core Samples” (2012): hi-tech,metal tripods whose title references the samples that a geologist takes fromthe soil. The tripods, virus-like, felt post-futuristic, as if the future begotdestruction before fusing with a neo-past, or as if we were being offered someviral remnant of its DNA. Such a temporal levelling was finally evinced by theblack-and-white print Atlas (2013), which showed a grid of icons. Some of thesewere appropriated (a urinal), some self-made (the brass sculptures also onGuan’s totems), all floating between 3D-rendered columns–or were these totempoles?
Guan’s nod to totemism is apt: foranthropologists two centuries ago, the totem was an index of competition amongplurality (that is, choice) that promoted, via taboo, social cohesion. If thecollapse of real worlds through technology simultaneously offers up new ones,then it’s natural that future and past begin to compete with any number ofpossible (virtual) worlds. Despite her obvious interest in this technologicaltotem and taboo, Guan’s work eschews technological determinism: the thirty“random” found clips in her 3-channel video Cognitive Shape (2012) consist of azookeeper, a snake and footprints on the moon, among other things, crafting anAby Warburg-like set of quasi-anthropological family resemblances: a kind ofvideo atlas. Softly and associatively arranged, the video lacks the steelytechno-fetishism that Guan’s work nods to but does not succumb to.
All the while, Guan, whose exhibition“Something Happened Like Never Happened” is currently on view at Kraupa-TuskanyZeidler, Berlin, is attuned to an aestheticism that tends to formalize artobjects, to circulate, dilute and exaggerate them into the matrix of “style.”Perhaps in response to this, Guan points to a more modest metaphor for hersculptures and installations: the “core sample.”Her recourse to ascientifically objective metaphor allows her to neither celebrate nor critiquetechnology. Instead, she merely, faux-agronomically, gathers some iconicevidence and allows one result to compete with another, perhaps begetting newtotems, new taboos. In this sense, Guan’s work feels more like a cross sectionof cross sections, where particles and fragments of any number of clouds arehallucinated, fabricated and recomposed into new forms. And Guan’s results? Toquote Mitchell’s novel, “Revolution or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’sfinished, and by then it’ll be too late.”