Gong Yuebin and his Art
Gong Yuebin’s childhood was one of physical hardship and persecution. In his native China, his parents were forced to abandon their home in the city and enter a life of agricultural servitude because as educators they belonged to the intellectual class. Like other noble and intellectual families, their status later caused them to be labeled political dissidents. In 1959, in a political overthrow targeting highly educated people and government officials known as the "Anti-Right”, they were sent to work the land around the poverty stricken village of Gong Jia Yao (Gong’s Caves). It was there, in 1960, that Gong Yuebin was born.
Six years later, such political persecution turned into a widespread and violent class struggle under Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party, who sought to advance socialism and eradicate capitalism. During this turbulent time, Yuebin, and millions of children like him, starved and lived in fear. “Hunger, worry, and humiliation accompanied me,” he remembers. “As human beings, my family and I, as well as others in similar situation, completely lost our dignity and security, surviving under unbearable pressure and stress.” This childhood experience continues to inform his artistic vision to this day.
Even in the midst of such adversity, Yuebin found tranquil moments making drawings. After the Cultural Revolution ended and he was able to pursue a more normal life, he set out to fulfill his desire to become an artist. In 1978, he began his art training at Luo Yang Art College, where his work progressed rapidly and he ultimately graduated with accolades. Newly credentialed, he secured his first steady job as an art teacher in a community college and taught there for seven years, all the while participating in provincial and national art shows and frequently winning awards. In 1989, in order to further advance his knowledge and skill in painting, Yuebin enrolled in the graduate program at Guangzhou Art University, undertaking a course of study that emphasized figurative ink painting. In the year of his graduation, he held a solo exhibition of his work in Guangzhou. The paintings sold internationally, bringing his talents to the attention of the Guangzhou Radio and Television Station, which hired him as an art editor. The position provided a broad base of training in stage design and marketing and also allowed him to pursue projects for broad public benefit such as city planning and urban design. A medical crisis caused Yuebin to reconsider his priorities, and in 2004 he made a full return to fine art. He also decided to immigrate to the United States with his family. After ten years away from his own, focused art-making, he determined that he would explore new artistic styles and a variety of themes. The art that he makes today is very different from his earlier figurative ink paintings. It is conceptually based and sculptural, meant to express his beliefs, cultural heritage, and ideas about the status and future of human life. Yuebin created his first monumental installation in 2010, which he entitled Life’s Crossroad. Haunting and visionary, the piece was composed of dozens of burnt-out tree trunks, which he reclaimed from the Sierra after a forest fire. Using their charred and craggy remains to analogize the human condition, Yuebin then enhanced the trunks and branches with chains and phosphorescent red paint. Displayed under black light, the remains glowed like burning embers, confronting viewers as they appeared to burn. The result, Yuebin hoped, would make viewers ponder shared values related to life and death.
Site 2801 is Gong Yuebin’s second monumental project. In this massive installation, viewers are asked to become archaeologists of the future by confronting an incongruous and satirical juxtaposition of humanity’s past and present. Terracotta warriors from China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang (259 BC – 210 B.C.E.), are displayed rank by rank, having been “unearthed” in a site that not only includes historical warriors, but modern combat troops and nuclear missiles. To replicate the historic warriors, and also create new, present-day soldiers, Yuebin returned to his inspirational source. The clay he used is from an ancient site in Lishan Mountain Xi An China, where Qin Shi Huang’s famous Terracotta Army was excavated. Using the original warriors as models, he maintained their costumes but adjusted facial expressions and poses for this project, as well as added the contemporary soldiers, missiles, and newborns. In total, there are 200 historic warriors and ten contemporary soldiers in Yuebin’s army. Each one is fired at 1,800 degrees and finished just as they were in antiquity. The missiles and newborns, however, are made of fiberglass, a contemporary material for a contemporary theme.
Inherent in this bleak display is the artist’s consternation about the apparent lack of progress in thousands of years of human evolution and empire building. Newborn infants that lie within the missiles offer small indications of hope, yet even hope remains sealed within a capsule of time and destruction. Yuebin therefore asks not that we contemplate our behavior for ourselves, but from the perspective of our children’s children. By looking at the past from a vantage point in the future, Yuebin hopes that all who see his work might be held more accountable in the present.
Crocker Art Museum Curator
May 15, 2011
Metamorphosis and Metaphors
On April 13, 2011 some unusual art-related things were happening at the campus of California State University in Sacramento. At the art department, drum percussion emanated from the small open quad, the sounds echoing slightly passing the breezeway. In the quad, eight dancers and two musicians were improvising choreography amidst a featured sculptural installation of burnt tree trunks of up to 12 feet tall. The dancers were dressed in black , their hands painted blood red, the same color that is oozing out of the charred bodies of the ravaged trees, their wounds appearing bleeding and smothering at the same time. These multi-media artistic exploration/collaboration conjured primitive rituals of blood, death and sacrifice – expressed often through the dancers’ writhing, jerking or still motions. At the same time, rapid drumming brings energized strides to them, setting each into rhythm and motion, or rebirth and liveliness. The dozen or so burnt tree sculptures belong to an installation project call Life’s Crossroad, created by the local artist Gong Yuebin.
A few hundred yards away, in the quiet of the Student Union Ballroom, another artistic event was taking place. The middle section of the cavernous space has been transformed. In approaching what eerily resembles a giant circular lamp shade of huge translucent gauze, the viewer becomes the moth, drawn to the pink to red that glows from the center of the white maze. Red lamps cast shifting and distorted shadows and reflecting off the white curtains. Advancing with caution and trepidation, the viewer is lured by the mystery that awaits discovery. Inside the center is a large pool of red liquid, at the center lays a naked infant. This art installation, entitled Black Hole, was also created by Gong Yuebin.
Gong did not always live in Sacramento. Few people knew of his art less than a year or two ago. Yet, the two concurrent exhibitions held at CSUS were unprecedented. Never have there been simultaneous events that involved the dance department, art department and Student Union by the works of the same artist. Using this as a laudable benchmark, to trace Gong Yuebin’s artistic development through metamorphic and metaphorical phases presents an intriguing exploration.
The only constancy is change, so asserts a central tenant of Chinese philosophy. This truism aptly applies to Gong Yuebin, an artist who has undergone a creativity change similar to the caterpillar that emerges as a butterfly after a dormant pupa stage. Gong’s artistic evolution has many benchmarks and milestones, including living through childhood hunger, the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and two close brushes with death. On the positive side, these harsh conditions promoted a resurrection - his metamorphosis – beginning with his relocation from the hectic demands of a career in China to the relative calm of Sacramento, capitol of sunny California.
Gong Yuebin’s vivid memories of his youth in the ancient city of Luoyang are chronicled in Life’s Crossroads, a publication dedicated to his first project in the art series on life. The book revealed his upbringing during the political and economic nadir in China. His parents’ crime of being educators doomed them to hard labor in the countryside. He recalls severe food shortages and retains strong memories of having returned to life after a near-drowning as he tried to gather wild yams washed away by flood water. This close encounter with death imbued into him a greater feel for life and its preciousness. Decades later, at the height of his career as the art editor of a radio/TV station, he would face a second brush with mortality. Only this time, Gong was at what might be considered the zenith of his creative/financial career. The hospitalization in 2004 rudely awakened his entire being. He retired from artistic work, emigrated to America, and took a hiatus from making significant art for over five years.
After Gong Yuebin’s family returned to Luoyang, he succeeded in attending art college, became a professor, then worked at high-powered posts in government enterprises. He excelled in figure painting and was comfortable working in both western techniques as well as the meticulous style of Chinese figure painting. Gong taught at the Yanshi City College for over 8 years and followed his family profession and became an educator.
Gong’s life in the cocoon would only last so long. His years of contemplating the meaning of life and art began to morph with his cultural heritage and his background training. The creative juices started to run again, and he began to formulate the aspiration of creating works again, but in new ways, to interpret what will become his artistic mission to give artistic form to the subject of Life and topics that mattered. Gong now breaks out of the artistic pupa and morphs into the butterfly. The creature no longer appears in its previous form; he has now made installations his primary mode of expression, and the works take on new flight and height to engage participants.
In a convergence of inspirational threads, Gong’s encounter with burnt trees in the Lake Tahoe area gave him an opportunity to utilize the silent victims of a fire disaster as a metaphor of our human condition. In these group installations, the artist skillfully incorporates metal fencing and chains to impart feelings of constriction and elemental relationship, and comments on the limitation of natural resources and our wanton consumption. Gong further utilizes black light and occasional fog and shredded paper to enhance an otherworldly realm for the viewer. The effects are engaging and sometimes atmospheric; they leave a feeling of transcendence. The viewer becomes a participant in the art installation.
A similar experience confronts viewers in Gong’s second Life Series – The Black Hole. Comprised of 15 feet long white gauze curtains assembled to simulate a maze, the center contain a symbolic Black Hole of human-created destructive elements. The white translucent curtains impart a sense of mystery and purity. But when a viewer reaches the center, he encounters the blood-colored pool where the center is incongruously occupied by a naked infant, or by flag-draped crabs (G20) competing for food, resources and dominance. The Black Hole is evocative and provocative; it challenges the viewer to experience these emotional explorations. It also stimulates the participant to think deeper about what relevance the artistic messages may be, and how life conditions may be encouraged to change if we are to avoid the pitfalls of our innately destructive tendencies.
Gong Yuebin has another concurrent exhibit that will be premiered at the Crocker Art Museum next spring. Site 2801 acidly queries human conflict, the arms race and hope for human survival utilizing Chinese archaeological prototypes with juxtaposed modern missiles. The viewer of this exhibit may participate through offering of silk floral petals in ritual gestures of a farewell to arms or a farewell to our human race.
A viewer who writes has compared visiting Gong’s installation works as a religious experience that commands a viewer to reflect and take action. This is true to a large degree. After encountering elements of Gong’s artwork, one is prompted to feel and question life’s inconvenient questions regarding status quo, and how twisted our paths have become. His works truly look for life’s unanswered questions. Having heard his call, it is now part of our responsibility to respond, and to take, however small, actions which may ultimately make some difference.
California Arts Council Arts Program Specialist
May 20, 2011
|Site 2801 / Tian Wen |
|About a year ago, Gong Yuebin showed me his latest art project. I was particularly struck by the ancient warriors and the dilapidated atomic bomb shell that cradled the baby. I wondered – does this metaphorically represent the ravages of war due to nuclear holocaust? Or does it symbolize the fragility of our human body in the presence of overpowering weaponry? |
The elite troops of the Qin Emperor and the atomic bomb, created by nation-states, epitomize our most powerful instruments of war in its times. In theory, both were created for the sacred mission of ending wars, at the great expense of hundreds of thousands of lives lost.
Over two thousand years ago, the Qin Emperor’s merciless victory gave birth to the first metaphorical baby, and created the first ever unified China. The hatred festered through cruelty, however, insured the revengeful death of this infant empire a mere twenty years afterwards.
Similarly, the first “Fat Boy” atomic bomb killed hundreds of thousands of people and ushered in more than half a century of Cold War. Not only did it not stop further conflict, the creation of our doomsday bomb has escalated into the stockpile of tens of thousands of nuclear warheads worldwide. To this day, humankind is unsure whether nuclear holocaust might yet terminate our survival as a species.
The Chinese word/character for "military" or “martial” is composed of two ideograms – those of “stop/halt” and “ax-spear”. The implication is clear: the role of the military is to curtail or cease armed conflicts. Yet, the supreme irony is the creation of an endless and reoccurring loop of violence begetting violence. The result is a huge contradiction of its original intent.
The history of mankind appears nothing more than the fulfillment of our unending desires. In order to efficiently exploit our environment, we organized the greatest engineers; to subdue dissidents, we created the largest armed force; in order to accumulate and enjoy wealth, we tapped our imagination and creativity. Each time that we mobilize massive endeavors, we firmly believe that it is done in the name of progress, justice, science and civilization. We cheer and praise talented inventors, and worship the creator of magic such as the atomic theory and masters like Einstein and Oppenheimer. We stand in awe today before technological idols like Microsoft's Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs. They become models for our children and grandchildren in the pursuit of recognition and glory.
The power of today's ubiquitous Internet is certainly one of the greatest inventions in human history. The miracle of this invention effectively created greater efficiency in producing commerce and wealth. Our adoration for this new technology is comparable to the intoxicating feelings we may have had towards the orderly formation of the Qin fighting regiments, and the awesome harnessing of the destructive powers of atomic bombs. Conversely, could the creation of the Internet hold a double edge sword – one that will lead mankind into another quagmire from which we are unable to extricate ourselves, or even toward an abyss that may engulf us all?
Another recent phenomenon is the wealth accumulation in China - to the extent that some believe that it could become the financial savior of the West. There has rarely been such a miracle in the history of mankind where explosive growth in a relative short time has created unprecedented disparity of wealth within a nation’s huge population. The concentration of riches in the hands of a relative few created a society critically low on public confidence. The erosion of traditional culture and ethics led to a breakdown in our faith in institutions and in the trust of our societal and individual moral compasses. Under these circumstances, one has to question the meaning and value of material wealth. On the other side of the world, Americans are paying a heavy price for their own modern miracles of the past century. The largest industrialized nation in human history was held hostage by the energy crisis. The greatest financial system in the world is crippled by unregulated junk trading and the inflated housing market. America’s self-righteousness and military ambitions also led to the suicide bombers that are the tragedy of September 11, ten years ago. When the most intelligent Americans and the most hard-working Chinese, after decades of struggles, are confronted by fake junk bonds and junk lives, people justifiably asks: Why is that?
Eight hundred years from now, when archaeologists discover these remains of the 21st century, will they be as awed as we were when we discovered recently the remains from China 2000 years ago? We can depend on the spirit of human creativity - that another eight hundred years after the discovery of our 21st century relics, another generation of archaeologists will yet excavate and find other contemporaneous remains. Will people sixteen hundred years from today be equally surprise with what they find?
Human desire has always been the motivator of our strife, regardless of how we stumbled. Since our stray, we cannot return to our starting point. Even though there is no way out, we cannot stop. Our minds cannot cease the exhaustive pursuit of ambition. How many heroes have fermented their own bitter wine, sprung their own traps, and fallen into a hopeless abyss of their own making? It has always been this way ... but, why?
Around the time that Yuebin was completing his masterpiece, I was in a state of anxious expectations, awaiting my own child to come into the world. Like all parents, we are preparing everything to nurture him or her - we have created a sound educational system, so a child will learn organization, creativity, operational ability. Numerous companies with unlimited resources will tempt and induce him with desires for commodities and wanton materialism. He will have opportunities to fight and wage war games through video simulation, accustoming him to cheap thrills, stimulation and deluded feeling of achieving victory over imaginary enemies. Popular media and entertainment will enforce his thirst for insatiable consumer values and products. Our culture will fuel his desires, and sanctify them as an ideal and goal of life. At the end, we will release our youth into adulthood, in a society filled with injustice, unfairness, insecurity, and disharmony. It has always been that way, and we say to them: "Try and do your best, the world now belongs to you!"
However, there is a dark shadow that lingers in the hearts of my wife and mine. As much as we tried to erase it, the shadow reappears each time as our yet to be born child moves. I am gripped with the fear that my newborn baby will emerge with a frown, crying out loudly a question to which I will have no answer - "Are your preparations really correct and proper? How can you determine that this is really good for me?"
Gong Yuebin’s English title for this project is SITE 2801. On one occasion, he asked me to suggest a Chinese name. Since I believe the primary motivation of human progression is desire and ambition, I feel strongly that we should adopt a healthy dosage of skepticism as our guiding star, and to adjust accordingly our directions of travel in life. For these reasons, I suggest that the Chinese title might be “Tian Wen,” * or “Ask Heaven.”
Yun Liang/John Seto
*Tian Wen - Heaven Asks or Ask Heaven, is a work attributed to the Chinese statesman Qu Yuan (about 300 BC). In these poetic verses, Qu Yuan brings forward over 170 questions, some of which are about natural phenomena, and some about society and history. Lu Xun, one of the major Chinese writers of the 20th century, regarded Heaven Asks as "bold and fearless, speaking out what the predecessors dared not say."
|The dancers, dressed in black with red paint on their palms, slowly move in relationship to each other and the large burnt out tree trunks that are carefully placed in the courtyard. Some dancers move mechanically while others seem to have more of an organic rhythm. In the background, there is a drum playing that increases in crescendo and eventually slows to a stop. The dancers take cue from the drum. At a point, they appear to worship in the midst of the burnt out forest and at another point they drop to the ground as if they have died along with the trees. This improvisational dance continues for approximately an hour.|
Gong Yuebin visited the Department of Art at California State University, Sacramento in March 2011. He had exhibited Life’s Crossroad at his studio in town but wanted to share his work in another venue where more people would be able to see it. Within a month, Gong was able to install his work at Sacramento State. The Robert Else Gallery became the setting for Life’s Crossroad and spilled out into the adjacent courtyard and breezeway. In the courtyard, one could see the monumental remains of charred tree trunks. In the Gallery, one could see several different groupings of charred trunks under black light. Iridescent red paint highlighted areas of the trunks suggesting burning embers or dripping blood. In the breezeway, more tree trunks were cordoned off with black chain link fencing.
Not far away at the University Union, Gong also installed his piece, Black Hole. Black Hole was set in a room with long shear material hanging from the ceiling. These panels of material could not hide a brighter light at the middle of the room. Here one would find a pool of red liquid with an infant at its center.
Gong’s work is obviously about the human condition. He wants us to think about what we have done, what we are doing, and what results our actions could have. We here at the Department of Art are most happy to have hosted such thought provoking work.
Daniel J. Frye, Chair
Department of Art
California State University, Sacramento
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