[13 August 2008]
Witty preamble aside I am just going to come out and say that The Revolution Continues is not only a fantastically attractive and rich volume but it also provides a beautiful and subtle post-structuralist guide to reading art without ever once explicitly dipping into historical or aesthetic theory. Surely you may be saying at this point, “A philosophical treatise thoroughly and craftily sublimed into presentation of art work and history, you say? But I thought post-anything philosophy was conspicuous and abstruse, sprawling through volumes of near incomprehensible posturing or smugly saying nothing and denying everything with as many characters, allusions to pop culture, and footnotes as typographically possible.” Although I chuckle at such a characterization—I did pen it myself after all—and although I think it is often the case, I am wont to remind readers that labels such as post-_______-ism are artificial circles around schools of thought which are only tenuously related and occur within the same century (or so).
The Revolution Continues never intends, or, rather, does not seem to ever intend, the philosophical mantle which I have recently lauded upon its fair shoulders. It merely goes on its merry way in quiet profundity displaying prints and photos of modern Chinese art. The subjects range from traditional canvas media to interactive installations of life-like silica sculptures in remote controlled wheel chairs. There are several fragments of text intersperses through the displays in the first half of the book which provide historical context for the pieces and explain prominent imagery in the cultural consciousness of the society in which they were made and for whom they are largely intended. There are no references to theory whatsoever and the text reads more like a suggestion than any sort of dogma.
However, as briefly referenced the real beauty of the book comes when the text cuts off. After having placed these modern art pieces downstream from the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao, Collectivism etc. the book unceremoniously lets the reader go with only a panel of endnotes to acknowledge the conclusion of the text. Even more carefully choreographed, while the panels scattered throughout this introduction were strongly evident of the trends described and their graphic translations, the pieces after this break are far subtler. Disjointed cubisms of Mao are replaced with abstract montages and wax waterfalls. This is not to say that the Chairman disappears or that Red is not readily present in the palettes of these pieces, but, only that often these elements are downplayed for more restrained symbolisms.
“Where again is the post-ism that you were so worked up about?” Simply, the book allows one to witness both the engine of meaning and the diachronistic phenomenon of shifting meaning, both processes mirrored in the book’s form. For a reader somewhat unfamiliar with Chinese history, the first hundred pages read like a cipher key, explaining how to translate autochthonous imagery into meaning through the use of history. However, as the text abandons the reader they also witness them abstracting their own meanings and, indeed, by the book’s close the picture of Mao has splintered into a manifold of meaning. The reader is expected to look at a canvas of jagged random strokes and exclaim, “But this wasn’t included in the Chinese history-meaning primer!” At this point, meaning comes to light in pristine self-presentation as infinitely multiplied even when congealed around historical bullet points.
This is the glorious trick of the book: getting readers to watch meaning generate and evolve all between one cover and the next. Not a word of philosophy is uttered and, perhaps not even intended. Nevertheless, philosophy pours out of this book from every resplendent page.