Article | Shu Yong: Mediator of Bodies

  • Shu Yong, Bubble Woman I, 2006. Photo: courtesy Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne

Shu Yong: Mediator of Bodies
By Erik Bordeleau

What are theories of the media, if not propositions meant to explain the how and the means of the interconnection between different existences within a same ether?
– Peter Sloterdijk

The Bubble as Evolutionary Medium?
Born in Xupu, in the province of Hunan, in 1974, Shu Yong has developed an intensely media-oriented (and mediatized) art practice founded on direct interaction with the public. Himself the owner of an advertising agency, he treats Chinese society as a laboratory, operating either through social events or directly through the mass-media in what he, following Beuys, calls “social sculpture.” While the association with Beuys may verge on the presumptuous—Yong is light years away from Beuys’ “broader concept of art” or his search for a third way between communism and capitalism (1)—, one can nonetheless say in his defence that he does indeed seem to be particularly responsive to the social processes of “evolutionary warmth” so dear to the master from Krefeld. For several years now, Yong has been working with a powerful intuition of what Bachelard had called “the intimacy of roundness,” evinced in his most recent work by a fondness for the figure of the bubble. In the series of oil paintings titled China Mythology (2007-08), for instance, Yong revisits ancient Chinese mythology in colourful, fairy-tale-like surroundings, where mythological characters appear within soap bubbles. Soap bubbles are also in evidence in his photoperformance project Bubbles in the Office (2000-06), where Yong would show up and blow soap bubbles in the offices of rich businessmen in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong province, provoking surprised, sometimes even angry reactions. From the arcana of ancient Chinese mythology to the hyper-energetic entrepreneurial life of a region justly dubbed the “workshop of the world” (economic production in 2009 may well surpass US$512.1 billion), Yong’s bubbles seem to undo the world, to take it into an evanescent spaciotemporal continuum; they form a kind of ethereal superconductor for a world that is becoming unified as it dematerializes. One might say that the bubble is to Young what fat is to Beuys, a sculptural expression of uncondensed social existence, a transindividual quasi-body (a media?). Note that in Mandarin, the word “media” is translated as 媒体 (meiti)—literally, “mediator of bodies.” In a way, Yong’s work strives to interrogate the media phenomenon, at the confluence of the organic and the ethereal.

In view of customary denunciations of media control in China, Yong’s work provides an occasion to up-end familiar Western attitudes regarding the Chinese “mediascape.” I propose to investigate this body of work in light of Peter Sloterdijk’s theory of the media. In his three-volume Spheres trilogy, subtitled respectively “Bubbles” (Blasen), “Globes” (Globen), and “Foam” (Schäume), Sloterdijk broaches the human social fact from an immunological perspective, that is, from one in which a certain inner closure is the precondition for the possibility of any opening. (2)

Incidentally, China plays no small part in the development of Sloterdijk’s thought. His theory of media, for instance, contributes to what he himself describes as an Asian Renaissance: “...a Chinese ingredient comes through, in subtle pulsations; one can hear a barely perceptible foetal music of the spheres.” (3) And in his magnificent “Bubbles,” Sloterdijk claims to be inspired by what he calls the “Chinese continuum”—“Has China not been, right up to the threshold of our century, a monstrous artistic exercise on the theme ‘to exist in a space without exterior by closing oneself off?’” (4) His is the perfect opportunity to ask ourselves how contemporary China reconciles government censorship and hypermodern media practices, how it becomes one with its body.

Plastic Biopower and Mammary Advantages
For Sloterdijk, the social sphere is a psycho-political continuum. He seeks to produce a general theory of public space, adapted to an era of total mediatization, developing an ontology of media flow that he calls “theory of spheres.” Spheres are defined as “loci of inter-animal resonance where the manner in which living creatures are together is transformed into a plastic power.” (5) Sloterdijk often describes human spheres as “erotico-aesthetic greenhouses,” underlining their role in the production of comfortable interiors favourable to growth. In a spherical perspective, the human situation is indeed the outcome of a “fertile self-generated plastic evolution”; and Sloterdijk, unabashedly jubilant, can’t help but remark that following the favourable conditions that presided over human greenhouses, “mankind is on the road to beauty.” (6) As an example, Sloterdijk mentions human faces, which, he says, “have, one after the other, raised themselves above the animal form simply through reciprocal contemplation,” concluding that it is “in the facial commerce between mothers and children, in the field of transition between the animal and the human, that we see the first true plastic surgery among human beings.” (7)

Spherical luxuriance and its anthropogenetic (human-producing) effects obviously go beyond the face; if the realm of the sphere is where one lives to the full, it is also the place of predilection—and of selection—of formosa, of the beautiful, round form. Such is the context in which I would like to investigate what is likely Shu Yong’s best-know series of works to date: Bubble Woman (2007). The series presents a pair of blown-up breasts of extraordinary size (1.8 metres in diameter), attached to, if not born by, diminutive Barbie-sized female figures. Depending on one’s point of view and the posture given the figurines, their chest may seem like a bodily extension thrust purposefully forward, as if wielding a massive weapon of seduction, or the almost autonomous existence of these monstrous globes may have the opposite effect of casting the poor figure as a woman suspended and immobilized by her burdensome load. Either way, spectators are momentarily transfixed by the improbable mammary spheres; only afterwards do we question the role of the female figurine in the background.

Until very recently, one could see ads promoting breast implants on Chinese television networks any time of the day. Yong said how fascinated he was by these images, where “a flat chest slowly changes into round and full breasts, like blowing up balloons.”(8) In a highly competitive job market, in a society where images of Western women tend to be presented as models of prestige and beauty, plastic surgery is often considered a means of improving one’s employability. Chinese authorities estimate that around 2.4 billion dollars are spent on plastic surgery in China every year—the equivalent of more than a million operations. Besides breast implants, the relatively simple and similarly affordable operations of eyelid surgery and nasal bridge enhancing rhinoplasty have also become popular. By asking the question, “How Big Do We Want Our Breasts To Be?” (the title of one of the exhibitions in which he presented this work), Yong says he wishes to cultivate an appreciation for the natural and more discrete curves that characterize most Chinese women.

媒体 (meiti), or the Chinese Media-Body
It is no coincidence that the most mediatized of contemporary Chinese artists chose to thematize the unique situation of these sculptural outgrowths. In view of a strong theory of the media, Yong’s outlandish chests seem at once to be nearly autonomous and intrinsically relational—the 女nü as pure media element? In his production, and beyond the civic and moral values he attributes to his sculptural interventions, Yong follows an intuition that resonates silently within the very concept of media in Chinese. He seems to have managed to all but explicitly render this intuition in a recent exhibition he curated and presented at the DUOLUN museum of contemporary art in Shanghai, in April 2008: “身体媒体 shenti meiti, Body Media.” (9)

Yong’s intuition of the media-body is marked by profound ambivalence, one that echoes the ambivalence in the relationship between im-munity and com-munity. In “Body Media,” the text that introduces the exhibition catalogue, Yong advocates a liberation of corporeal potentialities through the media. After having stated that “since the beginning of human civilization, body has never acquired real freedom,” and that the media are “public tools,” Young goes on to declare: “The reason why we clearly promote the concept that body is a medium is to make the individuals and groups in this society reuse the concept of media, emphasize the new thinking of body. . . . When body is drastically developed as a cultural and spiritual resource, the powers of body will show up.” (10) (My emphasis.)

I would tend to read in this excerpt an attempt to express something like a bodily power capable of resisting and interrupting the flow of mass-media. I assume this is what Yong is trying to say when, a little further on, he declares “the coming of [a] personal medium era” (个人媒体). Yet, such an interpretation has the disadvantage of going against the eminently mass-media nature of his own practice. The solution may lie in an enigmatic passage, one imbued with the awkwardness that characterizes the concluding portions of his text: “We believe that the personal medium will become a mature medium and harmonically coexist with all kinds of mature media in the future.” To make some kind of sense from this mishmash, one should realize that when a film or a work is censored in China, it is often said to be not “mature” enough for public consumption. And the harmoniousness is doubtless the slogan of Hu Jintao’s government, as well as a key signifier traversing all Chinese tradition.

Yong may simply be trying to blur his tracks, to preempt censors’ condemnations. But one might also read in this apparent confusion the signs of a national will and feeling that has, without a doubt, been the underlying tone of Chinese life in recent years, and with which Yong, by the very nature of his work, can’t help but have deep affinities. I would tend to favour the latter interpretation, especially when considering The National Anthem, one of his latest series of public performances. Wandering into a Christian church one day, Yong was suddenly struck by the power of the religious hymns that he heard. “Once ritualized and popularized, this simple thing creates such an incredible effect and sense of power.” He then began to organize collective performances that involved no more nor less than singing the Chinese national anthem. “Many of us haven’t had a chance to sing the national anthem since we left school. . . . I wish to make the ceremony of the national hymn a daily ritual and to