Duan Jianyu: Sharp, Sharp, Smart
Notes on “Sharp Sharp Smart”
I was eating at a noodle shop in Shenzhen when I noticed a cook with a distinctive hairstyle, purple-tipped locks trailing down his cheeks like overgrown creepers, and the blond spikes on his head evoking ripened stalks of rice. I repressed the urge to ask whether he was a member of a shāmătè family. Why bring up the “shāmătè ambivalence” that has polarized the country for so many years now?
From the Baidu entry: “If the xiăo qīngxīn [small fresh] scene is increasingly cited as the mainstream urban youth culture, and the Xuri Yanggang band has been packaged by the media as a kind of grassroots culture, then the shāmătè are a veritable ‘weed culture.’ They grow where no one looks, nor does anyone care for them once they have matured. Neither respected nor valued, they face the prospect of being ridiculed, consumed and instantly forgotten.”
And, “Culturally, they all face the predicament of being viewed oddly in the villages and scornfully ridiculed in the cities. At the same time, given the monopolies of discursive power, stories from the villages and smaller cities hardly ever appear in the urban media, while even the most trivial events in the big cities can become news.”
In contrast to the shāmătè and their excessive dependence on the “wash, cut, blow,” the women of “Sharp Sharp Smart,” wearing their indigo floral-print clothes, shouldering their wicker baskets, and living by the land, probably sound like something out of a rural lament (the song already sung for so many years in modern history, played out in different variations). Watched over by their geese, they radiate a mesmerizing glow, while the geese repeatedly strain their slender necks, as though in response to some kind of enticement. Here there are also those mothers of humanity, African women bearing vessels on their heads. If the city’s temptations do not lead these women to become naked, lost souls, there is a good chance their floral prints and baskets will protect them, like amulets, and give them the confidence to dominate their homesick men – men consigned to become the urban labor reserve – raising their whips behind them, or riding on their broad, slumping backs as they view the forest.
Not for the first time, Duan Jianyu has brought her painting back to the rural world, but this rural world has already left the land behind, and has no foundation. This is precisely the origin of shāmătè, a word of such Chinese characteristics, a word marked for prejudice. Between the “Sharp Sharp Smart” series of paintings and the shāmătè as contemporary socio-cultural phenomenon, there is at most, in a refraction of the conditions of human existence, only a kind of “abstract relation,” or a relationship similar to the “sub-belief” that Xu Tan has described. They share the same rural world, but the people of this world have already left the land behind. The seductiveness of the rural world is not only repeatedly consumed, it is also deeply, inveterately rooted in the spirit of disenchantment and timidness of contemporary people.
In our rural worlds, there are “big breasts and wide hips,” and there is also the “ordinary world,” but until “Sharp Sharp Smart,” I had never seen such a portrayal of women in the history of human figuration. They are contemporary images that are regurgitated in a backwoods modernity that has endured enough humiliation, but they are entirely free of any ideological framework, nor do they adhere to the kind of artistic myth that proclaims the refinement or vulgarity of the countryside.
Maintaining an elegant performance between the abstract and the concrete, they bear such a profound tenacity and openness that not only their figures but also the plants and vessels have been infected with an exceptional vitality, a displaced vitality that seems to sparkle all the more through shanzhai-style imitation. Through “Sharp Sharp Smart,” the “rural world” is also turned into an “originary world,” from which we might appreciate why Jianyu devoted the past two years to this theme. And, having slowly taken shape, this “originary world” and its particular appearance can finally make us linger for a moment: It is not only an appropriated place, it is also a traceable place; it is both a place to settle down, and the place where the counter-attack begins.
(Translated by Andrew Maerkle from Chinese. This is an adapted version for website, please read the full text on the publication of “Duan Jianyu: Sharp Sharp Smart”, published by The Pavilion on the occasion of the exhibition.)
Duan Jianyu: Sharp, Sharp, Smart
Opening: 1pm, 20 March (Sunday), 2016
Duration: 20 March – 29 May, 2016
Venue: Mirrored Gardens
Address: Hualong Agriculture Grand View Garden, Panyu, Guangzhou, China