Relation of Relocations Show Presentation
By Alessandro Rolandi , Beijing, June 2010
I decided to write about NanHao’s work because I find it interesting not only from the artistic point of view, but also in a larger cultural and socio-political context.
Nan Hao speaks gently but firmly about his artistic education in Holland, in New York and in China, but his gaze changes when he speaks about Taoism and the deep influence this Chinese philosophy has in his working practice and his life generally. His sentences become less sharp and more fragile, his eyes move away from reality and seem to look for something somewhere else; his thoughts are less clear but deeper and constantly betray the idea that he is searching ….that he is trying to explain something bigger than him, which he wants to share but can hardly explain to the full.
I am facing, at the same time, a professional dealing with the complexity of intellectual and practical issues in contemporary art and a man who seeks his strength in the old roots of his own culture and identity. The artist is solid and aware of the subtlety he needs to convey his own message: the man is threatened by the mercurial nature of our postmodern condition, but alive, melancholic but serene and determined.
These two natures coexist in his work. Although it is easy to locate a variety of artistic references to contextualize Nan Hao’s performances, from the pioneering experiences of John Baldessarri and Bruce Nauman to today’s situationists such as Tino Segahl, I believe that what mostly matters in these pieces transcends the realms of art and critical theory.
Let’s focus on what Nan Hao does: faced with Chinese contemporary art and life scenes dominated by derivative political pop, superficial conceptualism and powerful economical motives, he stands at cross-roads and roundabouts in NY and Beijing, at rush hour, gently practicing Tai Chi moves.
The photos of the performance are taken from a safe distance, precluding us from recognizing him. He is just one young Chinese man, dressed in very common clothes, standing there in the middle of a 6 or 8-lane boulevard, slowly going through movements whose grace and speed haven’t changed in a thousand years. Moves that belongs to his ancestors’ daily lives, but which today seem confined to recreation spaces and the parks where old people still keep them alive. This first point struck me: from the photos and from the video it was clear since the beginning that what Nan Hao is doing is not just about himself; you can’t feel a strong “ego” in these and other works of his; he does not focus on himself or what happens to him (like most performance artists still do, especially in China, using their body to test physical limits hoping to shock the public) : what appears is the action and the image this action creates. A Chinese young man practicing old martial arts in an overcrowded alley in a huge metropolitan area. The tension of the opposites reaches its apogee: speed and steadiness, old and new, idea and reality, body and architecture, urbanism and utopia, all come together in a moment of bliss.
Nan Hao’s action changes for a while the relationship between time and space in a 21st century huge city. It does that gently but firmly, combining a mysterious poetic gesture, an aesthetic intervention and a powerful philosophical and political message.
Years ago Yves Klein created the photomontage “Le saut dans le vide”; what this iconic image was hiding behind an apparent mere provocation had to be read between the lines. “Le vide” – the void, per Klein, is in reality a reference to Zen, the jump into it a message about leaving familiar intellectual and artistic territory to explore the unknown, the spontaneous, the unexpected.
This and Klein’s subsequent paintings and actions took the name of “anthropometric” pieces. Somehow Klein wanted to reassert the idea of the human body as a measure and a reference, questioning modernity and the tyranny of architecture, structures and functionalism over the individual.
In another sense Klein was indirectly trying to re-consider the importance of man in reality and his place in the universe. Renaissance and its “man at the center” was far away and dismissed, but through the experience of Zen, Klein realized that somehow an inner, powerful logic still linked man to the universe and that an important connection still needed to be found whereby man would not be at the center of the universe, but avoid being totally excluded from its sophisticated workings.
Nan Hao’s performance seems to work exactly in the same sense and seems to have similar allies in the traditions of both Taoism and martial arts. He re-appropriates the territory that the city’s architecture, modernity and functional logic have stolen from man, turning him into a puppet of progress.
With Nan Hao, the puppet is no longer hidden in those comfortable metal coffins, or confined to cold apartments and silly TV shows and other manipulative hyper-realities…. the puppet is no more a slave to production schedules, career ambitions and miserable psychologies…. and it is no longer a lonely marginal voice using its last scream to attract attention like a dressed-up monkey beckoning to its voyeuristic master. The puppet does not even retire nostalgically to a mountain-top; in fact, it is now no longer a puppet but a man: small, simple, fragile, using his body and his culture not to tame but to attempt a reconnection with the reality that surrounds him. This is a poetic and subversive act which literally “transforms” the world for everybody to see. Nothing here is artificial or new, it is about presence, sensitivity, courage and intelligence.
I imagine that seeing Nan Hao’s performance live, all of a sudden all the traffic noise would vanish from my ears and its motion would degenerate to a pure choreography around Hao’s slow concentrated sequence. For a while I would ponder the humor of all this, appreciatively, but then quickly I would be just transported away by the poetic force of this gesture, the beauty and bliss created from the everyday nightmare around him.
Probably two other actions would come to my mind, distinct from each other and not necessarily linked to the art world. One was by Philippe Petit, a French wire-walker, who having prepared illegally for many years, walked back and forth for 45 minutes on a wire suspended between the Twin Towers in NY; the whole city stopped and held its breath looking at this little figure suspended in the sky at that improbable height, doing something so beautiful and mysterious. Time froze and the huge space-gap between the people and the juggler was at once unfathomable and empathically filled up and shared by one single image everybody was part of.
In a totally different context, in 1989 in Tiananmen square a little Chinese man in everyday clothes, on his way home with some fruit and vegetables, decided to stand in front of a tank. Nobody could see his face, but we saw how calmly he moved sideways whenever the tank tried to pass him on the right or on the left. We saw how his gentle action, non-violent, serene, determined, held the army, his country and the whole world still for an unforgettable and seemingly everlasting few minutes. The actual and symbolic size of everything around him was far larger than a human body, yet a simple human being became the measure of everything.
In 1974 a late branch of astronomy, making reference to the scientist Brandon Carter, re-considered both Schroedinger ‘s and Einstein’s thoughts about the place of man and intelligence in the universe and whether “the great architect is playing dice or not”. If we think of the so-called fundamental constants of physics and how a very small numeric variation in one could affect the entire universe, we realize how precise and fragile the balance of our universe is. A planet capable of hosting life forms would need to have an atmosphere thick enough to protect from the sun’s rays, but not too thick to prevent them from getting to the surface. To have such an atmosphere, the planet would need to be big but not too big…. in quantitative terms such a planet should have a diameter of approximately 6400 km and a certain mass… in fact both identical to Earth. Its speed of rotation should not be so fast as to break all atomic and molecular bonds, and a 24-hour day would actually work. In fact a human being can grow not much taller than 2m30, because beyond this size, it would structurally disintegrate after merely jumping up and down… similarly, an elephant or giraffe could not be bigger or smaller then their actual current average size. In a universe with weaker gravity, atomic particles could not bond and form basic structures like DNA… whereas with higher gravity, all structures would be too heavy and incapable of producing the nuclear reactions in stars needed for creating galaxies….. and so on.
With such a degree of perfection and so few mistakes allowed, the position of the human being and of intelligent life in general returns to an undeniable importance.
Like Klein’s action paintings, this theory has been called “anthropometric”, because although it does not pretend to put man back at the center of the universe, it considers the possibility that every universe might be built not at random, but with a pre-existing purpose to try and create the conditions for intelligence to appear. Who knows…maybe Yves Klein, Philippe Petit and Nan Hao do have something to say about this subject,….. and maybe Lao Tze, Li Bai and Huai Su have already spoken on it long before…. in words and poems which are also paintings and symbols, and maybe the little man who stood in front of that tank in that square also has an opinion about it.