Zhou Song’s Biomorphic Art of Cyberg
By Eugene Wang, Harvard University
The art of 21st century paintings opens up a new horizon. It is ready to move on from the captivity of the previous century’s master narratives–the teleology of flat surfaces, the self-delusion of spontaneity of self expression, medium specificity, conceptual art, and intermediality, and so on. All these have receded in the rear window mirror, having either been internalized or simply made irrelevant, as we are close to the first quarter mark of the 21st century. New horizons loom large and new possibilities beckon. Just as Bauhaus had served as a catalytic agent in jump-starting modern art in the 20th century, so a new impulse–what might be called New Bauhaus–is gaining traction. Design, or the integration of design into the painterly medium, is having its second coming, with a vengeance. Unlike the old Bauhaus that was driven by the mechanist and functionalist impulse, 21st century artists like Zhou Song marry machinist aesthetics with biomorphism. In its origin, art had aspired toward the condition of biomorphic design. Over time, art has undergone stages internalizing biological forms through various means: extrapolating forms from nature or generating nature-inspired abstract or fractal patterns. Zhou Song’s art takes up a more complex set of conditions. Rather than operating within the parameters of lush organicism vs. austere machine aesthetics, he explores the nexus and entanglement of the two. Mechanic schema provides the framework for biomorphic substance; artificiality colludes with bodily texture. These works aptly capture the posthuman dynamic of cyberg, at once a body of mechanism and a mechanics of the body.
Meanwhile, an emotional line runs through the seemingly cold mechanism of cyborg. Body parts and biological texture come into a creative tension with schematic designs, thereby breaking out of the formal shackles that hold them in captivity. Palpable animation impulse powers the stillness of the painting medium. What would have been the machine “cool” is turned on its head. It is the very ground to stage animus. The visual facts thus created give rise to further play: optics (light and shadows) readily morph into the gestalt of sculpted silhouettes. This is how the medium of painting performs animation. It derives its vitalism from the visual medium of animation and freezes it on the canvas.
Zhou Song’s painting is a culmination of some previous stages contemporary Chinese art had gone through. Since the 1980s, the medium of experimental Chinese painting had experimented with incorporation of abstract design, the remediation of print and sculptural mediums, and so on. Having internalized these early phases of formal experiments, Zhou Song has taken it to a new level. A deep impulse drives his art. It comes down to the artful navigation between the distancing effect of geometric schema and the immediacy of the presence of vitalism, the palpable materiality of things and disembodied body parts. While formal attributes–such as the notable sharp angularity repeatedly staged in his paintings–contribute to the artificiality of these pictorially built or assembled forms, they also perform their vital parts. They thrust, pierce, and gesticulate, at once destructive and constructive. In the trail of some hinted narrative events or stormy actions, intimation of some tenderness rearing its head: a butterfly clinging to the side of a pair of shoes bound by prickly thorny thistles, or some roses interposed among octopus tendrils, covering the roped and clothed bodies. The visual and conceptual drama is palpable; its moral has a lasting staying power. Narrativity, at one time banished by the medium-specific purists, now comes back to the medium of painting with a vengeance. Only this round, we are learning from the morals of the last century. We–painters and critics–are better off putting medium specificity to the rest once and all. In this day and age of increased integration and domain-crossing, familiar terms such as “total art,” intermediality, or what have you, appear to fade into irrelevance. They cannot even begin to capture the new dynamics on display here. With our growing ecological consciousness, we are here witnessing the birth of biomorphic art of cyberg, at once posthuman and deeply humane.
[Eugene Wang is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art at Harvard University, and founding director of Harvard CAMLab]