The Doll:Gao Xiang’s solo exhibition
@ TCG Nordica, Kunming, China
Who is the doll?
by Anna Mellergård
Sometimes when returning home after a long journey you see the familiar with new eyes.
A couple of years ago I was standing in Gao Xiangs art studio, and my eyes came to rest on the first of his poetic yet also contemporary and socially engaging art works which today have become a collection of poems entitled “Who is the doll?” My thoughts immediately wandered towards the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsens controversial and stirring drama A Doll’s House.
At the time when “A Doll’s house” swept through theaters throughout Europe in the late 19 th century, the play provoked and created much debate, and so became an important tool in the struggle for increased equality of the sexes. Since then much has changed. Or actually, has it? The dramatic story of the “doll wife” Nora and her husband engage audiences even today. New productions are created and men and women from different social and working backgrounds can identify with the various structures, roles, and patterns within society that the play depicts. When Susan Faludi’s book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-fiction in 1992, it was on the bestseller list for six months and sold ia significant number of editions in some ten countries worldwide. Why? Because it is well and intelligently written of course, but it is also due to the topic which Faludi touches on (man/woman), which is still perceived as relevant. When the same author ten years later writes a book focusing on the dilemma of the modern man, she establishes that the classical American male ideals, security, strength, and responsibility, remain in the collective consciousness, whilst these male ideals are hard- not to say impossible- to live up to as a result of society’s structural and cultural changes. When the man no longer sees himself in control, carrying the burden of being head of the family and society and all that is associated with this position, including the responsibility of financial and social security, he experiences a crisis. Today in the USA , there is not so much talk of the attitude towards women and “woman’s power” as there is on the role of the man being subject to change, or indeed disbandment and crisis. Yet, Susan Faludi remains hopeful when she in the last chapter of Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man concludes: “If there is anything I have learnt of the two sexes it’s that the solvent of struggle, for both parts, depends on the other’s success. Men and women are at historically a suitable time period in which they may hold the keys to mutual liberation in their hands.”
It’s impossible to view Gao Xiang’s images as a private matter. What he has done, maybe involuntarily and unconsciously, is to create a basis and an additive to the global changes that are taking place between both female and male as they both discover and re-evaluate their identities in today’s world.
Who is the doll ? In spite of Ibsen’s Norwegian doll house, the expression “doll wife” is associated, at least in the west, primarily with an Asian woman ideal. The petit, brittle, quiet, beautiful porcelain doll who is to remain by her man, as an adornment, a decoration, and at the same time a source of status, respect and even power. Coming from northern Europe , I find it hard to identify historical counterparts so clearly cut out in my own culture. Due to this, the first superficial reading of the Chinese classic Book of Songs will inevitably raise an eye brow or two:
If you desire me, love me
I will hold up my lower garments, and cross the Wei..
If you do not desire me,
There are, to be true, other men
You most foolish of fools!
This poem, together with the remaining 304 poems collected in the “poetry classic”, is traditionally dated to 1000-600 B.C. A self-confident, sensual, and cheerfully ironic woman is speaking. She demands love and respect, speaks seductively of lowering her garments whilst making clear that she and she alone sets time and place for the rendezvous. It may appear as though the poem is far from the porcelain-doll ideal. Yet, attentive reading exposes how fraudulent the poems portrayal of the “strong woman” actually is. What is she searching for in her supposed lover? Not moral integrity, character, courage, strength any other definitive qualities. Her only desire is that the gentleman desires her! If he does not, he is literarily expandable. The Sinologue Martin Svensson Ekstr?m presents an interesting notion in an essay on Confucian interpretation traditions. Namely, the poetic narrator is displaced from being a strong, independent woman, with integrity and identity, to a most traditional woman striving to prove strength through arousing the desire of the man. An active feminist of today would perhaps, in light of such an interpretation comment on the poem with the following words: we are still there! Two to three thousand years later we have just begun our journey towards increased respect, equality, understanding, brother- and sisterhood! Is the woman holding up her “lower garments”, whom at a first glance might be regarded as strong, free spirited, and eager to take the initiative, in fact simply striving for attention, admiration, and passive objectification?
When I contemplate Gao Xiang’s strong poetic and spectacular images, it is clear to me that the interpretation of these images, as the interpretation of the millennia-old poetry before mentioned, in necessity should be done with humility before the non-translatable component hidden in all art worthy of its name. I feel helpless as I attempt to grasp the real meaning. As soon as I feel I’ve touched it, it can suddenly slip away again. The sought-after and delivering “meaning” politely looks away when I try to pin-point what it is I see in his art. Breakneck associations and sidetracks, familiar yet alien paradoxical, constantly emerge in my brain when I see Gao Xiang’s images and try to comment on them. The images gain momentum even as I watch them. Simultaneously, his images are “pure and unveiled poetry” and serve as a pedagogical and perhaps – in the biblical sense of the word- a prophetic purpose. Not prophetic in the sense that they lay out an account of the future. Who is the doll? is by contrast a work of art which with a loving and critical gaze expresses and points out one of the great contemporary dilemmas: how are we to live together on the earth, we men and women? We are pulled towards each other, we need each other. But what is actually “male” and what is actually “female”, and in which way can our differences and similarities inspire fellowship and create something new, something good?
We see a man and a woman on a lit up stage. We see a bride and groom. They are actors in a familiar drama. [The] love is there, but it has to be staged, the actors have to find their roles. Their experiences take place on different levels in different acts and in different planes. But we can’t be certain all is as it seems. The woman, with glazy eyes and a solemn expression, keeps her arms outstretched, carrying the “doll man” with her gently cupped hands (cupped as a bowl when trying to quench your thirst)- is it “power” and “advantage” or is it a desire for love she is expressing? Sure, she could ask in frustration: “ Do you desire me, love me? If not, there are, to be true, other men. Surely she could imitate the man and do what he has for millennia, objectify the loved and make of her an expandable doll. The question is: what energy and creativity is expressed in this gesture?
On the last page of Faludis book, an American soldier is quoted after the grave years of the Vietnam War: “All those years I tried to live up to the male stereotypes, but for what good..? I don’t feel like I can even define manliness anymore. I just see people as human beings now days.”
Sometimes when returning home after a long journey you see the familiar with new eyes. My meeting with China , my friendship with Chinese men and women, my meeting with Chinese art and culture – to me it has been like going on a long journey through something that is simultaneously familiar and alien. Every time I have returned home from The City of Eternal Spring to the familiar “Cold North” I have come to experience that the familiar here at home also somehow has alien traits – something I find easier to explain as the result of my experiences of the alien in an alien land! When Gao Xiang paints his poetically powerful works, somewhere between dream and prophetic vision, it turns out he is at the center of what is happening right now- also in Sweden . In a series of oil-paintings he expresses an entire generation’s feeling of powerlessness – but also the fascination and hope- I the difficult art of relationship, fellowship, brother- and sisterhood, mutuality, love – eroticism and passion.
The Founder of TCG Nordica
International Culture Coordinator
A Speech on the Occasion of the Opening of GaoXiao’s Solo Exhibition.
Gao Xiang’s new work “Who is the Doll?” is like a fairy tale or drama where the proportions of the main actors and actresses are tremendously imbalanced: women take up more space, but they are not in absolute control. Men and women are in a struggling, indispensable and interacting relationship. The uneasy suspense is hovering throughout the play.
Visually, Gao Xiang’s recent works are not as realistic as his earlier productions. Gao Xiang takes one step back from the surface of real life, while he takes one step forward to the psychological reality, and this is where the focus of our attention should be.
In Gao Xiang’s gray description, it is difficult to find a clear answer to the question: “Who is the Doll?” And this is what he cannot find an answer to. In real life, the drama of inner feeling is always vague, hence, it is hard for us to see it clearly and measure it by terms as gender equality, feminism, or traditional gender roles. They cannot fully explain the complicated, subtle, conflicting and dependent relationship. In Gao Xiang’s works, however, this sensitive situation is revealed clearly.
As an artist, Gao Xiang always raises questions about and challenges our daily routines. This is the mission of art – and of power.
“Who is the Doll?” is Gao Xiang’s first solo exhibition. We can all agree this is a good beginning for him. Congratulations!
Thank you all for coming!
“Who is the Doll?”: The Doubt from a Painter
by Peng Feng
In a series of oil paintings, the Painter Gao Xiang askes us, man and woman, a very serious yet with a touch of joking question: “Who is the doll?” Actually one can easily reach such a conclusion when he/she has viewed these works: the painter himself has already given a clear answer to this question. Therefore, he is suggesting his own idea rather than asking a question: in our world today in which woman seems to be the doll of man, the truth behind it is, however, man is the doll of woman! And this conclusion can obviously follow the figures of man and woman that are unbalanced in size in the painter’s works.
However, I do not think so. From my perspective, this series of works does not simply give an answer but ask a complicated question. Why does the painter keep asking the question “who is the doll?” when he has clearly asserted that man is the doll of woman? Does it mean that the painter himself is not exactly certain of the scene he had witnessed? Does he require the viewers to see the scene critically or questioningly? I cannot see any evidence in favor of this kind of doubt from the pictures. The painter even tries to tell us his idea with such a straightforward image of “man is the doll in woman’s hands”. To know why the painter has acquired such a doubt, we need somehow to look away from the pictures rather than only gaze at them.
We may assume how surprised a viewer will be and how involuntarily he/she will ask the question “who is the doll?” when he/she steps away from the pictures and finds a completely different scene in the actual world. The doubt of the painter is not originated from the equivocal of his language but from the diametrical contradiction between the actual world and the paintings’ world. It is just based on this contradiction, can we say the painter has unveiled a surrealistic world for us. The elements such as the background stage, the dreamlike colors, the figures of men and women in unbalanced size, and so on clearly characterize the surrealistic of the pictures.
In the terms of philosophy, there is a dichotomy of the phenomenon and the reality. The phenomenon is the one world that can be seen and touched, while the reality is the other that cannot be seen and touched. Many philosophical issues are originated from opposition of the two worlds. “Who is the doll?”, the doubt of the painter, can also be understood as the result of this opposition.
However, according to the principle of opposition between the phenomenon and the reality, we can only say that woman is the doll of man in the one world and man is the doll of woman in the other. The doubt of “who is the doll?” will never happen in any of these separate worlds but only happen in the meeting of them. Those who are living in any of these separate worlds will never have such a doubt. Only the painter who has to live across the boundary between the two worlds should encounter it. It is from this perspective that I would like to say that “who is the doll?” is a doubt for the painter.
In the realistic world as the phenomenon, woman is the doll of men; in the surrealistic world as the reality, man is the doll of woman; but only in the painter’s world which mediates between the phenomenon and the reality, the realistic and the surrealistic, can the question of “who is the doll” be an unsettled doubt.
We can suppose that both man and woman have two different icons, one big and one small, in the unified world. One can let his/her big icon play with the other’s small one, or let his/her small icon be played with by the other’s big one; and one can let his/her big icon not play with the other’s big one, or can let his/her small icon not be played with by the other’s small one; and one can let his/her big icon to play with his/her own small one, or can let his/her small icon be played with by his/her own big one. In the unified world, both man and woman can become the dolls of each other, or not become the dolls of each other, or become the dolls of their own, respectively.
In fact, there is no such a separate world as reality that can exist without the phenomenon, or a separate world as the phenomenon that can exist without the reality. The dichotomy of phenomenon and the reality itself is an illusion. The only true world is the oneness of the phenomenon and the reality. Thus, any affirmative answer to the question of “who is the doll?” is doomed to be illusory. The only truth is the doubt of “who is the doll?” remaining unsettled.
One can see through many illusive things, but the only truth is always hidden in the blind spot.
Professor of Aesthetics
Department of Philosophy, Peking University