Jane DeBevoise (JD): Thank you very much for coming. I am pleased today to introduce Ruijun Shen who will in turn introduce Polit-Sheer-Form and then moderate a conversation with the artists. Ruijun Shen is the curator of an exhibition of Polit-Sheer-Form’s work that just opened at the Queens Museum. She is also a curator at the Guangdong Times Museum in Guangzhou where she has been doing some interesting work in their small but exciting project space.
Ruijun Shen (RS): Thank you all for coming and thank you Jane for the opportunity to further discuss some questions raised by the Polit-Sheer-Form Office exhibition at the Queens Museum. Although I am sure you came here today to hear from the artists, I am going to speak first to provide a little background about their work and practice, and then we will open up the conversation to questions. Let me now introduce the four members who are here today: Song Dong, Xiao Yu, Hong Hao, and Liu Jianhua. There is another member of Polit-Sheer-Form Office, Leng Lin, but he had to go back to China yesterday. Now for a brief introduction…
Polit-Sheer-Form Office was founded in 2005 with these five members. They were all born in the late 1960s, and experienced collective life during the Cultural Revolution, although they were all very young at the time. By 2005 each of them had a successful art career in China, but they decided to found this group called Polit-Sheer-Form Office [in an attempt] to recreate the collective life they experienced in their childhood. [The Cultural Revolution ended in 1976 with the death of Mao. Then in the 1980s the Chinese government embarked on a series of reforms and opened up to the outside world.] And it was during the 1980s that individuals began to have the opportunity to pursue their own individual aspirations and the collective life style began to fade away. These artists felt that there was a valuable quality in the collective life that was missing in contemporary China, which is why they wanted to come together to practice their art. Although they were very busy and had to set aside their own projects to make this group happen, they did it anyway.
Now I want to introduce this five chair piece, which they think is very important and the starting point of their practice. It was at the very beginning of their collaboration. The artists felt an urgency to do something together. They set up for their first meeting at a room like this. They sat together on these five chairs, spending hours hoping to come up with some ideas. But because they didn’t know each other at the beginning (they might have known each other individually but not as a group) they didn’t initially have a lot to say. So they just sat there quietly for hours…
Audience Member: If they didn’t know each other so well at the beginning, how did these five guys end up together?
Song Dong: We knew each other but not very well. So at first we wanted to discuss how to develop a personality and how to develop collaborations. Much earlier, in 1996, we already had the idea of curating an exhibition called ‘New Socialism,’ but at that time it was difficult to do. We had meetings with lots of artists but in the end we weren’t able to do it. But that was the start. Later we discussed meeting again. Leng Lin was also talking with other people. Then in 2002 I went to Berlin. Leng Lin was living there at that time, and we started talking about how after the war, the Berlin Wall represented a new culture. At that time an art space asked us to do an exhibition entitled ‘After War.’ This made us think about the fact that even though our background is Socialist, when China opened up [in the 1980s] everyone wanted to own personal things, to become powerful individuals. But I think as individuals we can still think that collaborations are important. Leng Lin wanted to organize this exhibition so we invited different artists to work on the project. That’s how we came to have the first meeting.
This image of the five chairs is fake. It’s not the original. It’s a reenactment. In the beginning we were very shy because even though we knew each other, it was hard to sit down and discuss what projects to do. People can say things but the others might not feel them in their minds and in their hearts. While we were sitting there, maybe one person would start by saying something, then another would add something else, after which we would forget what we had said. But after this meeting, we went to a restaurant and realized that while eating and drinking, the discussion became more interesting. So that’s when we came up with the idea. We thought, during the first meeting we couldn’t say anything, but once we sat at the table and ate and drank, then we were able to open our hearts. This is the point, we thought. This is how we came up with the idea that we could have a group life and go into different areas. This was the start.
RS: Thank you, that’s why eating, bathing, and travelling together have become the context of this group’s practice. They have borrowed the form of, for example, a propaganda painting in the Cultural Revolution style that I found in my research. They borrow this form from the Cultural Revolution but they have inserted it into a new context by eating and drinking together. They have created a variety of artwork: photography, painting, sculpture, and also installation, video art, and performance. That’s the artwork that came out of this thinking.
Audience Member: Will your collective at some point become more activist driven? In my mind collectives often have an activist or left-leaning agenda, so I’m wondering if your collective will take that direction or will begin to have some sort of political agenda, outside of leading a collective lifestyle?
Polit-Sheer-Form Office Members: Our name is Office. We are a not a collective or group.
Audience Member: Two questions: Why is there always an expectation that a collective would have a political or a ‘left-leaning’ agenda? Could it be that Polit-Sheer-Form’s idea is to extract the politics out their activity, leaving only the form?
Hong Hao: We want to return to pure form. We also thought that a collective might suggest some sort of ‘system,’ so that’s why we wanted to use the word ‘Office.’ It’s more obscure and lacks a specific meaning.
Audience Member: Then, what is the interest in copying revolutionary style or Mao-style propaganda?
Xiao Yu: At the beginning our practice focused on form, but we also wanted to return to life, so as you can see here a lot of the joy in our practice emerges from activities in everyday life — living together, eating together. We also invented Polit-Sheer-Form Office, a combined word to imagine how we might live in the future. The structure of the Office is decentralized. We do not want a leader in this group, so while this portrait looks like an image of a leader, it’s actually the five of us combined together. We want our relationship to be more like a volunteer or community relationship, with each one of us working voluntarily for this Polit-Sheer-Form Office.
Audience Member: The question was: if you’re extracting politics from the form, why are you returning to the propaganda form that is so deeply embedded in politics?
Polit-Sheer-Form Office Member: Basically we’re trying to extract the pure form of it. We’re not imposing a certain kind of ideology. We want the audience to understand the project from a higher level and bigger perspective. This is not just about the context of China. It can apply to other contexts. We’ve brought this project to Sydney and to New York and we want to offer some kind of [alternative] view of the future. Another thing is that we were all born in the 1960s and grew up during the Cultural Revolution, so the form we are using was actually part of our life experience. We can’t pretend that this form was not part of our life.
Your question is a good one but the issue is that this is the language that we grew up on. This is the reality we lived, our visual reality…
RS: There is a big discussion about content and form in the early 1980s in China’s art scene. Some artists and critics thought that content and form could be separated; others didn’t. I believe this debate stems from Deng’s discussion of Reform and Opening Up, which justified borrowing the capitalist tools for economic reform and at the same time keeping the communist content.
Audience Member: But China is older than Mao….
Audience Member: Yes, China is older than Mao but when [these artists] were growing up they weren’t encouraged to know much more than what Mao wanted them to know. The pre-modern tradition, or the pre-Mao tradition if you want to put it that way, was not something that was very available to them. It was available to some people in an underground kind of way, but Mao did his best to eliminate vestiges of the past that did not suit him, so their life was more filled with these kinds of Socialist forms rather than pre-modern ‘traditional’ forms.
Another Audience Member: Yes, but if they question the politics of Mao, shouldn’t they also question the images of Mao.
Another Audience Member: I just wanted to know a little more about the artists’ feelings. They keep emphasizing that their intention is not about politics but at the same time they are using the language of the Mao period and the form that propaganda took in the Mao period. I’m curious if they feel they have been trapped into that kind of form. For example, regarding the performance they did in China where 100 people cleaned one bus and the cleaning performance they did in Times Square, to me these two performances perfectly represent the inefficiency and invalidity of what the form is representing, because you don’t need 100 people to wash one bus, and you don’t need 500 people to clean up a small piece of [Times Square], but these are exactly the kinds of things that Mao forced people to do during the Cultural Revolution.
Polit-Sheer-Form Office Member: I think the name of our group is somehow misleading. Many people keep focusing on questions of politics. But while we use this same language, it is important to understand that this language is being used in a different context. Going back to the 60s and 70s this language was used by Mao in a very political context. For example, what we did on Monday in Times Square used the form of a collective but the questions that we are facing today are very different than before [in Mao’s time]. Our intention is to take the functionality out of this form which may have certain [political connotations]. Yes, what we did Monday in Times Square was basically invalid, because of course you don’t need 500 people to clean such a small piece of land. But it was not supposed to be functional. What we did was give people an opportunity to enjoy the pleasure of collective life.
Another Polit-Sheer-Form Office Member: It’s not just in Socialist countries that you have icons, like the portrait of Mao. You have them in Christianity and Buddhism and in many other situations where there are different kinds of leaders. In this portrait [of Mr Zheng], the leader doesn’t exist in reality; it’s just an extraction of the form.
JD: I guess the concern is: does this practice question the meaning those forms have come to represent at the same time that they’re being adopted? On one level you could read that PFSO is trying to extract something positive out of a very negative experience and at the same time use that form to create something new, something that will make people feel good. This might sound strange, but maybe in China people are uncomfortable with or have lost the experience of coming together. So perhaps this practice is trying to bring back the experience of collectivity or a sense of lost community by borrowing the forms in which this collectivity had previously been expressed, only now the context is new.
Another Audience Member: I also think it may have something to do with revisiting bad memories from that time period. I was born during this period and feel I totally understand what they’re trying to express. By revisiting that time period you feel something very different. By bringing back that memory, you are reviewing, re-understanding it, and re-living it in a different context. We are in a different country, so it may appear amusing and entertaining, yet it is actually very sad. It’s not just entertainment; there’s something deeper here.
JD: And perhaps the artists’ work reflects a sense of loss, and so they are revisiting that loss, a lost world that maybe actually never existed, or maybe it did. My question to you is: you were very young during the Cultural Revolution. What would your parents feel about this? It was a very different experience for them.
Audience Member: We were something like three, four, five years old during the Cultural Revolution. We don’t have clear memories of this time; our memories are quite vague.
Song Dong: For my parents’ generation, the older generation, this period was very hurtful. It was a painful moment in their lives to the point that they hate the thought of it. Whereas we were less affected by it to the point that there might even be some positive memories. For example, we didn’t have to go to school for much of the time. But we learned from our parents and from the way history has been written to hate it, to be disgusted by what happened. But then, looking back we have come to question what we have learned, to ask if at some level there was anything good about it. Because in fact today there’s a huge emptiness in society in China. So this is an investigation at some level to see if there’s anything positive to recuperate from that moment, from Socialism, because Capitalism isn’t working either in China. There’s a lot of back and forth going on here.
Audience Member: I think Capitalism is working very well in China.
JD: Well, at a certain level it’s working well, but there’s a large social cost. Mao’s Communism may have worked pretty well for a while too, but this was also a huge social cost.
Audience Member: I was just thinking about what they’re saying and it seems to me that what they are proposing is like an alternative strategy. In taking out the politics, they are working towards a different way of life and a different way of seeing things, so [in the context of China] it’s still political but not in the traditional sense…
Audience Member: Could it be that a refusal of politics in a political country is political in itself?
Hong Hao: What you are witnessing here is that we have five people in the group, and every one of us has a different explanation of our practice, and that’s good because today we see that you’re all asking different questions and everyone is interpreting our work in a different way. This is probably the future that we’re looking for or hoping to construct.
Liu Jianhua: I don’t think what we do is that complicated. Four of us live in Beijing but I live in Shanghai. For me, the project is very simple. I just want to get together with these four other guys and hang out with them. So why do we always have to limit the project or the idea to something very concrete? It could be something transcendental or bigger than any single idea.
Audience Member: I am not quite sure whether what you are describing is that different from Communism. In Communism you’re looking for some kind of transcendence, and, similarly that nobody knows exactly what that entails.
Polit-Sheer-Form Office Member: The five of us maintain different perspectives on the same thing and we try to maintain our individuality. Each of us represents Polit-Sheer-Form Office and yet at the same time we don’t represent it. Each of us can validly represent human feelings and at the same time not represent them.
Audience Member: I feel like there’s a struggle here, a struggle for the artists to disassociate themselves from what they’re evoking with their work. And many of us sitting here viewing the work are struggling with seeing that separation, but it’s actually not a clear duality. I just thought of this analogy. For those of you who have read Harry Potter, the main bad guy in it, Voldemort, when he killed Harry Potter’s family, he actually created a mechanism to ensure that he lives forever, and one part of that [mechanism] lives in Harry Potter. So I think for a lot of people who suffered from the trauma of that historical period [the Cultural Revolution], it’s a very similar situation. Even though you hate it, even though you detest it, it’s still part of you and sometimes you take pleasure in it. If you saw the film at the Queens Museum, that acted out the washing of the bus, there was a kind of euphoric feeling, and it was insanely satisfying.
Audience Member: I don’t know about that. Collectivism has existed in Asia for centuries. It’s part of the continental philosophy of living. In my mind, the reason that something like Communism and Maoism was able to manifest there was because there was already a culture of collectivity across the continent. That means that the idea of collectivism was never considered bad, although the way it was practiced [during the Cultural Revolution] may not have been healthy. In other words, it was not working at that particular time, but that doesn’t take away the essence of collectivism and the way that it actually functions in societies that use it as a way of life. [Tonight] we’re giving collectivism this definition based on a particular era [the Cultural Revolution]. But collectivism is actually much bigger and has many different kinds of manifestations in different religions and different philosophies of life. Also, maybe we’re struggling with this concept because we are in the United States where this idea of individualism and collectivism has always been a duality. I’m constantly having to face the ‘me,’ the ‘I,’ and the ‘we,’ and trying to figure out how, coming from a place of ‘we’ that the ‘I’ can also be very real. I think that’s what’s so inspirational about Polit-Sheer-Form Office and their work. In a way it’s looking at and investigating what collectivism is, the empathy, the ‘we’ and the ‘I,’ and how it’s possible to stay true to the two forms simultaneously. Or can’t we? Maybe it all falls apart? So maybe this work is experimental in that sense.
RS: Now is a good time to continue, but there is at least one more thing I wanted to say and it is that the reason I became interested in working with Polit-Sheer-Form was in fact because I am from a later generation and never experienced the Cultural Revolution. So through their work, I have the opportunity to investigate this moment. But now back to the artwork.
This is Polit-Sheer-Form Blue. Polit-Sheer-Form uses this blue everywhere, on the button and on the wall. This blue comes from a photo they took during a trip. They found that this isn’t a pure blue, and actually it’s the impurity that attracts people. The artists think there’s some quality in this impurity. They used this blue in their first show to make a wall, which was called ‘Only One Wall.’ Unfortunately we were not able to exhibit this wall [at the Queens Museum], but from this earlier show came the button that represents Polit-Sheer-Form.
In answer to the question of what the ‘we’ inside ‘me’ is, this symbol has a square missing, so it sets aside a part of ‘me’ to welcome the ‘we,’ to be able to work together as a group. Working with these artists I realize that every one of them has his own personality, everyone is so different, but they’re still willing to set aside part of themselves to integrate themselves into the group. PSFO functions like an organism.
For example, Song Dong was working in Europe two months ago, and during our working process, he is the one who would answer my questions, but when he was busy, Hong Hao would replace him and answer my questions. While they all work in many different ways, they are not stuck in one role, no one is assigned specific responsibilities. This is the interesting way that these five people have found to work together even though they’re very different people.
Audience Member: Please explain the library. I think it is one of the densest works in the show.
RS: The library is a room set up in the Queens Museum where there are 10,000 books and each book is printed blue, not using blue paper but blue is printed on each page. All these books are the same. They have no content, just the same color. The only difference is the series code. There are two references for this work, as I understand: one is the Little Red Book that they read during the Cultural Revolution because at that time that was the only book they could read. Another reference is that they use this form to [pose the question] that despite there being so much information available and so much knowledge available in our time, does [anyone] have the chance to digest it and have a deeper exchange of ideas? And to add my interpretation: these books, this library gives Polit-Sheer-Form an opportunity to invite the audience to join them, to share information in a real space and experience the collective debate.
This is the wallpaper that we installed in a room at the Queens Museum. When Polit-Sheer-Form Office are experiencing collective life, they collect all of these receipts. For example, when they are having dinner together, they save the receipt. On one hand, these receipts represent financial transparency. On the other hand, they represent good memories. After nine years they see these receipts as a way to memorialize when they had dinner and where, memorialize the moments that make up their collective life.
RS: This video is called Tofu Kung Fu. Polit-Sheer-Form adopted Tofu and Kung Fu because they represent a kind of universal language. Even if you’re not Chinese, you will be familiar with them. Polit-Sheer-Form Office hopes to offer Polit-Sheer-Form as a method which allows everybody to enjoy a life of being together.
JD: This work wasn’t included at the Queens Museum, presumably because the health authorities wouldn’t have allowed it. [Instead at the opening they chopped their way through a plasterboard wall.]
Song Dong: This work was developed when we participated in the Shenzhen Architectural Biennial. We wanted to make an architectural piece, so we froze some real tofu and made an architectural structure out of it. It took us a long time to build. But frozen tofu melts, so the structure began to collapse and smell and turn into mold. In the end the museum couldn’t deal with it any more so they took the whole thing away and the space was empty again.
At the time we were all very busy and only Xiao Yu had the time to install this piece. So he went alone, installed the work, took photographs, and left. Afterwards we got a call and were told that we had received the Innovation Prize. They called us because they wanted us to go to the awards ceremony, but none of us could make it and then we forgot about it. But they called Hong Hao again and wanted to send him the prize. So they sent it to Hong Hao. A few months later we got a chance to gather everyone together in Beijing and Hong Hao remembered the package and asked ‘Should we all open it together?’ So Hong Hao brought it to the restaurant where we were having dinner and we started discussing what to do with it. It was then that we made the decision not to open it. Until today we still have no idea what is inside the package. It’s kind of an analogy, like Xiao Yu explained. We want to extract all content so that we are only left with the form. We hope with this form we can develop a new understanding.
For Polit-Sheer-Form Office the structure is really important. After nine years a lot of people have asked us why we are still together, why we haven’t yet disbanded? In these nine years we’ve grown from young men to middle aged men, and now we’re getting old. We think the best thing that could happen to us is one day when we are super old, we have the opportunity to sit together in the sun. Why is that? Because the core question we keep asking ourselves is what is the relationship between ‘I’ and ‘we,’ because there’s a ‘we’ in every single one of us, and every ‘I’ will have friends. You can go have dinner together, or like today, we can get together to listen to a talk. So in every ‘I’ there would be a ‘we’ that is about getting together. We want to formalize that part and make it visible. Some of these forms you might recognize and associate with a political period like the Cultural Revolution. But not all of them are about that specific context because in a capitalist society you will see similar forms too. You will see ads and posters that have big images and big text. These [capitalist] forms are also similar to propaganda.
I want to add something else about the library. There are 10,000 volumes in the library but these 10,000 volumes are combined to form one book. In traditional Chinese literature you see a lot of this type of big book. These big books are actually compilations of many volumes, many books. Similarly, we printed all these volumes as one book, yet extracted all the content and what was left — just the color of our spirit, this Polit-Sheer-Form blue. Polit-Sheer-Form is not just about exhibitions or a specific type of work. You will see an exhibition, you will see the performance, such as the one at Times Square, but you will also see a talk like the one tonight. All of these things are part of our work and part of our practice. To understand Polit-Sheer-Form you can’t just look at our work; you need to look at the five individuals in it. Then you will see how Polit-Sheer-Form inspired the five of us and how the five of us inspired Polit-Sheer-Form and how we developed. The last word is that ‘I’ and ‘we’ are not contradictory concepts. There is an ‘I’ within ‘we’ and a ‘we’ within ‘I.’ As you will see at Times Square, while we have initiated a collective experience, we wanted to make it more like a party.
JD: Well, thank you very much for coming Song Dong, Xiao Yu, Liu Jianhua, and Hong Hao. And thank you all in the audience for all of your questions and comments. We look forward to more of these kinds of conversations and debates. I think this evening’s interchange has been particularly interesting. Thank you.
Polit-Sheer-Form Office (PSFO) is a China-based art collective founded in 2005 by artists Hong Hao (b.1965, Beijing), Xiao Yu (b.1965, Inner Mongolia), Song Dong (b.1966, Beijing), Liu Jianhua (b.1962, Ji’an), and curator/critic Leng Lin (b.1965, Beijing). For a society that has moved far away from communal ideals, PSFO imagines a new Socialism based on the expansive possibilities of shared experiences. By eating, drinking and playing together, the PSFO members revive a collective way of life associated with the Communist era of their youth, reawakening a long-lost state of being, by which they contend with contemporary China’s ideology of consumerism. The group’s multi-disciplinary projects address the idea of ‘we’ in a ‘me’ world, and through their work they articulate politics as pure forms.
Ruijun Shen is a curator at the Guangdong Times Museum, Guangzhou, China. She has curated many successful shows including ‘Shift: Exhibition on Young American Artists Creating On-site Artwork in China’ (2011), ‘Pulse Reaction – An Exchange Project on Art Practice’ (2012), ‘Gentle Wave in Your Eye Fluid- A Pipilotti Rist Solo Exhibition’ (2013), and ‘Polit-Sheer-Form!’ (2014) at the Queens Museum in New York. Shen has also co-curated many exhibitions including ‘Landscape: the Actual, the Virtual and the Possible?’ (2014) at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and at the 6th Chengdu Biennale (2013). Shen has been influential in the Asian art scene for many years and initiated projects such as ‘Open Studio,’ which began in 2012 as an artist residency and exhibition program funding projects by three chosen national and international artists each year. Shen is also an active contributor to many art journals including LEAP, GALLERY, and ArtAsiaPacific and has been a member of various committees including the nominating committee for the Chinese Contemporary Art Award (CCAA), which celebrates Chinese artists and art critics who show outstanding achievement in terms of artistic creation, analysis, and critique. Shen studied painting at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, Guangzhou, China in 2000, at Montclair State University, Montclair, in 2004 and at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago 2007.
Image credit: all images courtesy of the artists.
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise.