Humor has the power to neutralize every ideological stance, and in the mid 1980s, this was not only a desirable gesture, but a necessary one. As the Cultural Revolution continued to usher in its programs for urban modernization, the terrain of... [more]
Humor has the power to neutralize every ideological stance, and in the mid 1980s, this was not only a desirable gesture, but a necessary one. As the Cultural Revolution continued to usher in its programs for urban modernization, the terrain of China's cities became unfamiliar; space became progressively depersonalized, and technologies of reproduction reduced the heterogeneity of the urban landscape. The Grey Humor group met this development with a form of art that both assimilated and mocked it; with a stylized and decontextualized realism, they managed to render the reality around them comically unreal.
Reflecting on an exhibition of Chinese New Wave paintings in 1989, Chang Tsong-zung wrote "People are physically and mentally so closely herded that their repressed desires are forced to find expression in perverted attitudes and behaviors". He must have been struck in particular by the paintings of Geng Jianyi, who provided the impetus for Grey Humor.
Geng's series of screaming and laughing faces, realistically rendered but lacking any background, depict excesses of emotion within an unfamiliar, homogenous medium. Geng makes the human face appear hyperbolically expressive at the same time that the context of its expression is eliminated, leaving the individual dislocated or isolated from every social or cultural milieu. But the mood of these paintings is not exactly negative. The facial expressions themselves are thoroughly ambiguous: they might be laughing, screaming, or cringing in pain. The paintings suggest that the emotive reaction to modern developments is, despite its intensity, essentially ambivalent.
Grey Humor attempts to show the impossibility of all politics and ideology at a time when the dominant ideological positions have begun to reveal their shortcomings. Often, the tone of the work is similar to an extremely dry joke. In "Water -- The Standard Version Read from the 'Ci Hai' Dictionary" (1989), Zhang Peili enlisted the highest-ranking CCTV newscaster Xin Zhibin to read the dictionary entry for the word "water" as if it were a news broadcast. In an ironic power shift, the state-controlled T.V. station is put beneath the control of the artist, at the same time that the institution of the dictionary wields a semantic authority of its own. The artist, the state-controlled network, and the dictionary each play institutional and even ideological roles that render the cultural dominance of any one position impossible.
Confronted by modernization, over-crowded cities, and an inculcation of worn-out ideology, the Grey Humor artists react in what may be the only reasonable manner: they suspend their own beliefs, and laugh. Their humor is not, of course, black -- it is not depressive and bleak -- it is grey: in between black and white, in the uncertain, ambiguous terrain without the possibility of fixed positions. [show less]