On 2015 Niu Jun-Qiang Solo Exhibition
Narcissus charmed all Greek women with his unrivaled good looks. However, he was so aloof and indifferent to all women/goddesses that even led to the physical perishing of goddess Echo who left only echoes reverberating through the valley due to overwhelming sadness. As a response, Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, guided Narcissus to a pool where he saw the beauty of his reflection and became infatuated with it on the way home after hunting. The person in the pool disappeared as soon as Narcissus tried to embrace him. Narcissus could do nothing but stay by the pool, gazing at the handsome face on the pool surface all day long. In the end, he died from his languishment on the ground by the pool where a narcissus bloomed afterwards…
2015 Niu Jun-Qiang Solo Exhibition was held at Michael Ku Gallery in Taipei. The exhibition was based on the artist’s experience as a volunteer in an institution for the blind and inspired by a vintage erotic film featuring homosexuals. Utilizing the tactile quality of the creative materials through his delicate sensibility, the artist ingeniously blended the two fundamentally distinct dimensions into an intriguing and thought-provoking private diary.
At the bright entrance of the exhibition venue was the work titled Foresee. It was composed of a round mirror and a flickering candle held respectively by the two pans of a brassy scale. The difference in weight between the candle and the mirror tilted the scale to the side of the candle. It was not until the candle burned out that the beam reached balance. At that point of time, however, the mirror could no longer reflect the candle since the latter had burnt out. This work represented a seesaw game that sealed the fate of invisibility for the candle. Perhaps we can make the invisible visible by virtue of the sense of touch. As a part of this exhibition, Niu invited more than ten blind people to transform their first impressions about him into braille characters and punched holes accordingly on the fuscous cowhides. The collaged pieces of cowhides with braille characters resembled a continuously expanding map that depicts the details of Niu himself.
“You are about 173 centimeters in height and weigh between sixty and seventy kilograms. You have a slightly high forehead and whitish skin, wearing collared clothes, say, a polo shirt, along with a leather belt and suit paints. You wear neither casual clothes such as a T-shirt nor accessories such as bracelets, necklaces, rings, etc. I think that a pair of glasses would make you more charming. Your hair probably reaches your shoulder. Your voice is tinged with three colors: white, black and yellow. Although I have never seen any color in my life, people told me that white color represents brightness, while black represents darkness. Withered yellow is the color of your voice. I am under the impression that you are a provincial legislator.”
Self Portrait, 2015, cowhide, dimensions variable
These descriptions are reminiscent of Sophie Calle’s work The Blind (1986). Calle invited several people who are blind by birth to this project and asked them the question as to what beauty is. Since the participants had never “learned” to connect words with colors and objects through their visual system, they could only relate specific objects to specific colors with their olfactory, tactile and auditory senses. In fact, the blind have their respective color spectrums in mind. With regard to the work Self Portrait, Niu reframed Calle’s question into the blinds’ imaginations about him. Some of them could concretely describe the artist’s appearance and the scenes that they met the artist by conjuring their memories of colors gained before they went blind. During the exhibition, Niu successively uploaded these descriptions online. We couldn’t help but admire the blinds’ amazing ability in describing the artist’s appearance. Their descriptions were little less than our observations with naked eyes. Nevertheless, Self Portrait may seem extremely arcane to those having no knowledge of the braille system. I could only identify the materials, colors and the dots scattered on the cowhides without knowing that these dots actually represented vivid imaginations of the artist’s appearance and voice. I happened to meet Niu and two blind people who participated in this project on the day I visited the exhibition. The artist guided us to admire his works piece by piece. The blinds could easily read the descriptions about the artist through the braille characters, and I could effortlessly saw the lying twins and the naked, flat-topped man who turns his back to the viewers. “The sunshine here is quite different,” the sentence was printed at the bottom of a blank scene. I wondered whether the sighted and the blind have similar feelings as mine about the spatial arrangement, composition and materials. This exhibition not only reflected the visible and the invisible through the contrast of brightness and darkness, but also provided two ways of perception, namely visual and tactile senses.
What was more riveting was the work inspired by a vintage erotic film featuring a pair of homosexual twins. “We were an integral part of each other when we were in our mother’s womb, but kept feeling fragmented and incomplete after leaving there. I believe that the outward appearances of things not only arouse our desires but also evoke our feeling of fragmentation, which is why we continue to pursue integrity, forcing ourselves to see through the disguises of things, and thereby evaluate whether they represent what we originally are. My life experience taught me that we should confront the state of fragmentation rather than replace it with integrity. We should stand in front of the chasm and carefully gaze at it, through which we see the co-existence of integrity and fragmentation, and thereby approximate the very beginning in the chaotic world rife with different appearances. The scene in which a pair of male twins has homosexual intercourse reminded me that they were originally a unity in the uterus. In the process of parturition, they went through the narrow, long vagina and saw the light from the external world. Then they were forced to separate from each other. In this image, the twins enter into each other’s body and reunite in the living room where the sunshine came streaming in on the carpet. However, such a reunification is forbidden. I took advantage of the image to describe my feelings of integrity and fragmentation reflected in the desires aroused by the appearances of things,” so stated the artist in his creative discourse. Some homosexuals tend to choose partners who are congenial to themselves, which might be interpreted as a narcissistic projection.1 The setting of twins in this work implied the obsession with one’s own reflection. This implication was connected with the above quoted statement, that is, “We should stand in front of the chasm and carefully gaze at it, through which we see the co-existence of integrity and fragmentation,” and ergo invoked a metaphor of fragmentation and self-identity. The erotic film featuring the twins reflected that homosexuals have a narcissistic or Lacanian preference regarding partners, as if they see another self in front of the mirror. They distinguish the self in the mirror from their mother through synchronized physical motions, and thereby forge a narcissistic identity towards that mirror image.
Untitled V, 2015, mixed media, dimensions variable
This solo exhibition stimulated my thinking about haptic visuality. The display of the Untitled series was prefaced by the two eponymous works Untitled V - Twins installed respectively at the left side of the entrance and on the inside wall of the venue. One was larger than the other in dimensions, while both depicted two men with similar looks lying down and embracing each other. The small one (8.3 x 7.8 cm) and the large one that covered the wall echoed each other. The artist added tangerine colors to the small one so as to create the effect of a bright flame, and applied creamy white pigment to the big one with his hands. Taking a closer look at the two works and following the striations of fire and the traces left by hands, the viewers might connect this viewing experience with their tactile sense, as if they were able to touch these tender and silky bodies with their line of sight. With regard to haptic visuality, Alois Riegl’s theory of art perception emphasized the sense of touch whose significance was embodied in two aspects. “First, the sense of touch lays the foundation for perceptual process and serves as the pillar of visual perception. Second, the sense of touch verifies the authenticity of the visually perceived objects, and therefore possesses the qualities of immediacy and authenticity, as tangible things usually imply that they are real.”2 The artist evoked our memory of tactile sense by leaving the smears of pigment and the traces of engraving on the image. Take Untitled IV as an example. A naked man was lying down sideways on the pure white floor and painting twigs and leaves on it with a pen in his right hand. It was not until I took a closer look at this work that I noticed the translucent sprout in between the fingers of his left hand that props up his head. The sprout was engraved after the photograph was printed out. The translucent sprout in Untitled IV and the braille characters on the cowhides in Self Portrait carried their respective implications. The naked oily body of the man was supposed to trigger all kinds of erotic associations for the viewers, yet these associations were dispelled by the pure white scene and the man’s composure. The carnal desire was nipped in the bud and reborn as an innocent sprout. The artist sophisticatedly stacked layers of diverse materiality in this work. The first layer was the pure white floor as the canvas for the protagonist’s act of painting. The second was the image of the painting protagonist. The third was the printed photograph which served as the basis of the last layer; to wit, the material for engraving. The viewers’ haptic visuality might vary when they focused their vision on different layers of this work. As far as I was concerned, the theme of this solo exhibition ran properly through the artist’s previous experimental videos, installations, and other artworks such as 10 Minutes Left that addressed the issues of image as a medium and the trace of image, which greatly raised our expectations for his future development after the trial of this exhibition.
1. A similar argument was developed in Chen Fei-Hao, “A Life Poem of Narcissism and Lust,” Art Plus, (Oct. 2015), p. 64.
2. Chen Ping, Alois Riegl and Art Science (The China Academy of Art Press, 2002), p. 129.