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 Canton Flower Bridge

Installation  2018

/ Sketch: Acrylic on Canvas, 41x31.5cm


Canton Flower Bridge
Lai Chih-Sheng

The alleys of Canton Flower Housing Estate look like the most common of passageways, but after a few visits these streets have developed a faint sense of strangeness to me. I remember at the beginning of August, on my second visit here, entering a noodle restaurant for a meal with Anthony and Guangxian. It had opened for business not long ago, and looking at the interior decoration, it was clear that everything was brand-new. But it nevertheless felt entirely out-of-date, and I thought that perhaps the reason was decorations that were intended to be as low-key as possible or the use of a mass-market interior design package. Accompanying us as we ate noodles and discussed anecdotes of our last visit to The South China Botanical Garden, a more resonant sound of conversation came from behind us, a few cooks and servers near our seats were happily at ease gambling. A restaurant that had just opened for business instead had the kind of unrestrained ease of having lived there for half a generation.

This place did not have need for and did not care about new things.

Throughout the alleys, flourishing flora is visible scattered in the light, and the alternation, overlapping and interweaving of the streets at different times forms a particularly disunified pastiche. Because of their exceeding complexity and ruggedness, most people walk in the center of the roads. They have practically become habituated to these unstable and inter-opposing manifestations. There is no right and wrong, and first and last are indistinguishable. I could not help thinking, how was this place originally planned? How much longer can this kind of housing estate last? So I tried to find some clues.

The configurations that were planned decades ago when these buildings were first constructed necessarily took into account every aspect of the living spaces there, which can be glimpsed from the water and electrical conduit fittings on the walls. These walls are not entirely solid. Electrical lines and water pipes pass through a network of conduits imbedded within the space of the wall. Such that today in this space, due to use-based replacements, many of the conduit outlets are entirely buried within the walls, invisible. My work in this instance was to attempt to detect electrical current and magnetism within the walls, locate the original conduit paths, dig out a hole near the terminal ends of these paths, and then extend steel cable from within the wall into the gallery space, finally supporting a platform close to, but suspended just off of the ground. It is as if these holes create an indoor bridge, and when people walk on top, it produces a slight swaying, a little bit as if riding on a raft in the room.

[Translated by Jesse Robert Coffino.]


The Ballad of Canton Flower Housing Estate
Anthony Yung

Between 2011 and 2015, Lai Chih-Sheng made three important works: Life-Size Drawing (2011), realized at Eslite Gallery, Taipei, in which he used a marker to draw a line around the edge of every object in the gallery space; Border (2013), wherein he constructed a narrow one hundred centimeter tall passageway against the four walls of IT Park Gallery, leaving the debris from the construction of the narrow passageway in the center of the room; and Scene (2015), also realized at Eslite Gallery, consisted of a hanging and swayable “ceiling”, at a height just taller than that of the artist.

These three works share a common imagery: gap, at the edge of object and image, between emptiness and fullness...and what is the implication of this gap? Badiou says, “What is at stake is the fictionalization of the very power of fiction, in other words, the fact of regarding the efficacy of semblance as real. This is one of the reasons why the art of the twentieth century is a reflexive art, an art that wants to exhibit its own process, an art that wants to visibly idealize its own materiality. Showing the gap between the factitious and the real becomes the principal concern of facticity.” (Badiou, ‘The Passion for the Real’.) 

Throughout the 20th century, the evolution of art has consistently and increasingly concerned itself with the act of laying bare: laying bare subjectivity and the content of technique and form and institutional structure, and these acts of laying bare appear to make art more “real.” However, by reviewing the full history of 20th-century art, we can be fairly certain that even in complete nakedness, the factitious remains impossible to eradicate, and the real impossible to reach. That’s why Badiou suggested the best that art can do is only to capture this gap, that place that represents the extension of facticity and the eradication of the real. However, at the end of the 20th century, people discovered that nakedness itself (the essential quality of the object having been laid bare, the true image of a thing, the human body, the process of life, etc.) had, not without a sense of irony, been alienated into aesthetic forms. 

People certainly derive from his work a sense of nostalgia for artistic forms of the 20th century, the “naked forms.” What is more, with a quality that combines superb craftsmanship and painter’s sensitivity, Lai has made his works extremely clean and precise. People may recognize the essential qualities of his work as the absoluteness, the infinity, the sublime, and so on. 

But he often emphasizes the importance of uncertainties in his work. He expressed this doubt more than once, “I really can’t be certain why my works move people…” 

Two years ago, he requested to exhibit at Observation Society. Presumably, as, in recent years, he has often made exhibitions in venues of excellent conditions, he was taken with the unprofessional setting and poor conditions presented by Observation Society. It is here that art is naturally humbled. However, the degree to which this place is not a professional art space and to which its physical space exists in a state of disrepair, was far more serious than he imagined. He recounted to me, “from the floor to the walls to the ceiling, there is not a single part of this space that was straight…” At Eslite Gallery, it is difficult to find any point at which the slope between the floor and the walls exceeds eight centimeters, and such a defect would certainly merit a serious discussion. And Observation Society? Everything is slanted and teetering on the brink collapse. In point of fact, it is not only Observation Society, but all of Canton Flower Housing Estate that appears ready to collapse at any moment. The buildings, streets and storefronts are all decrepit; the trees are in a state of disorder, everywhere is in the midst of temporary repair. 

As an expression of apology, we took the initiative of bringing Lai Chih-Sheng on a tour of Guangzhou’s major sites. We went to Video Bureau and Borges Libreria, to Canton Gallery and Huangbin Station, to Making Space, The South China Botanical Garden and to Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall. Incredibly, it did not matter where we went, everything had the same sense of temporariness and decrepitude. And, interestingly, it did not feel like people were even doing anything to improve these conditions. Was this because they don’t have the capacity to make some changes? Or do they just think its all fine like this? 

From the outset, we emphasized to Lai Chih-Sheng that the building itself that housed Observation Society was of the least importance, and we hoped that he would not be overly concerned with the physical space. We know that if we ask Lai Chih-Sheng to improve the Observation Society Space, or if he had been asked to improve the dilapidated convenience store across the street from Observation Society, he certainly would have done a superb job, because he has attained a superb level of craftsmanship, a level approaching art. But we knew clearly that this was not what we sought to do, not in the name of art. That is exactly one kind of misunderstanding that we specifically sought to dispel. 

Finally, Lai decided to make a work to pose a question: Why does a place like this make us feel that it can nurture and maintain an idealism for art.? But the way he asks these questions is only rhetorical, because he already knew the answer, and he also knew that such answer is impossible to explain with regular logics. 

The metaphor that he poses is this: he made a bridge in Observation Society, representing a perfectly correct dimension constructed in a space that is full of errors. The bridge is suspended in mid-air, people walk across it, and it maintains just enough distance from the space itself so that neither touch. The artist has created a new perspective for seeing the space, a new sense of distance in order to manifest the imperfect, homeliness of the space itself. 

This can be compared to a photographer who uses superb technique to capture the image of an ugly person. This photograph “truthfully” represents the subject’s absurd expression, asymmetrical eyes and rough skin...in viewing this photograph we can appreciate the photographer’s superb technique, but it is worth emphasizing that this will not alter the ugliness of the subject, because the goal of taking this photograph was not to idolize the subject. What I mean is that this bridge that Lai Chih-Sheng created, despite its beauty, is certainly not intended to idolize this space. 

Then what exactly is its meaning? 

At dusk on the last day of Lai Chih-Sheng’s first visit to Guangzhou, I took him to see every corner of Canton Flower Housing Estate. Dusk is the golden hour here, mainly because in dim light is this place not so ugly, and this is also the reason why Observation Society only opens its doors when dusk approaches. Finally, we arrived Xiaogang Park, which closely abuts the Housing Esate. People were out strolling through the park, chatting, but without interrupting the tranquility of the park. 

Lai’s last exhibition was titled “Between Dog and Wolf.” The literal meaning of this title is the certain time during dusk and dawn, the moments when the dimness of the light makes it impossible to see clearly whether the animal in the distance is a dog or a wolf. During the occurrence of that exhibition, it was actually quite difficult for people to understand the connection between the title and Lai’s work — those objects, installations and projections. It was only at dusk in Xiaogang Park that I figured out the context that Lai sought to describe with that title: in the gradual sinking of day’s color, the world that we observe also gradually becomes gentle, the discrepancy between artificial and natural, between essence and appearance remains distinguishable, the material world maintains its contours, but the gap — that Badiouian gap — disappears. It is only a moment, but the moment exists. Lai’s work has always been devoted to observing and reflecting upon the truth that constitutes the outside world. But knowledge is only the first step. What is most important is transcending this truth, or being transcended by it. 

Leaving Xiaogang Park, we came upon a small cart selling oranges. In this environment of near blackness, the eerie white light of the cart shone on a small mountain of oranges, a scene at once prosaic and singular: the moment of dogs and wolves, Xiaogang Park, Canton Flower Housing Estate; people buying fruit, people returning home from work, people in idleness… thinking of the art that we were going to make but did not yet know how exactly it would be realized, humility and yearning filled our minds. Is this not a moment of the sublime? Only it is another kind of sublime, distinct from that of the church. In this moment we feel that there is no longer any need to make the world, and ourselves, any cleaner, any more sophisticated, or any more real. The hope is that art can help us to remember a moment like this. 

[Translated by Jesse Robert Coffino.] 



2018.9   “Canton Flower Bridge", Observation Society, Guangzhou, CHINA