We Are The Others
Tamen (They) ( de )

Young Chinese Artists, The Next Generation, Prestel Verlag, 2008-9

Since 2005 the artist duo Ta Men have been staging hysterically exaggerated big-city scenes in a strangely furnished room featuring a huge window front. Whether set in Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong whether executed as works in oil on canvas or through the means of digital photography – Ta Men’s analysis of the state of China’s new affluence does not evoke confidence. The topics of their works reach from the lonely city dweller’s melancholy, shopping mania, prostitution, and torture, to the desire for a harmonious cooperation between humanity and nature.

Originally Lai Shengyu and Yang Xiaogang had joined with Chen Li to form Ta Men, but since 2006 they have been working as a duo. “We are called ‘they’ in the sense of ‘the others,’ because it is not our own personal stories which stand at the center of our work. Our pictures hold up a mirror to contemporary China. This mirror should not just show the outer layer of reality. We are much more concerned with the psychological effects of China’s rapid modernization on the people who live here.”

Before they paint a picture, Lai and Yang start by discussing the theme and the setting of the scene. Next they decide who will paint which parts of the picture. Each one always has the right to change or add to the work of the other. As the artists put it: “For us, it’s a new form of collectivism. But it has nothing to do with the forced obedience that was demanded of individuals in the Cultural Revolution. For our generation, that’s the past. We aim for a voluntarily chosen symbiosis of individualism and collective spirit.”

Depending on the theme, Ta Men execute their works either through the medium of painting, or they enact scenes, photograph their posing friends, and then process the pictures on the computer. What is important to them are the varying degrees of virtuality. While various glimpses of China’s past and future are more prominent in the painted pictures, the “insanity of the everyday” dominates Ta Men’s photographic works.

Yet both paintings and photographs share a similar basic arrangement: two rows of tables and a cabinet with a switched on TV standing in a room effusing an aseptic new-construction aesthetic. On the left, a huge window front offers an open view of a landscape that differs from picture to picture. In some images the wall separating inside from outside is crumbled. This type of “stage curtain” was inspired by Ta Men’s enthusiasm for René Magritte (The Listening Room, 1952) and Edward Hopper (Sunlight in a Cafeteria, 1958). Both painters worked, as Ta Men now do, with the dynamic between inside and outside space. At the same time, Magritte’s symbolism and Hopper’s portrayal of lonely cities find their echo in Ta Men’s art.

One thing that immediately stands out is the detachment of the people populating Ta Men’s scenes. The artists fit them into the scenery in an unpretentiously realistic style. Almost autistic and resembling decorative figures, they take their allotted places. The artists make it unmistakably clear that these are role-players and not real people. One recurring motif is a usually male figure who has his back turned to the viewer. “The ‘back figure’ both reflects our position as observer and makes us the director of the scene. In second instance, the figure represents the viewer.” Through this trope Ta Men’s art becomes both a projection screen and a reflective surface.

“In our work, we want to discuss social problems. As we understand it, art must stay a step ahead of real life. To make the consequences of today’s way of life visible we often reach for very drastic means of expression.”

In Freedom Leading Demos (2005), for example, a bloodred sky stretches over the heads of a mass of bloodstained people. The TV, significantly, only gives off a distorted flicker. The message is unmistakable.

While Ta Men here clearly engage the political level, the focus of most of their pictures is more critical of social conditions. The scenario in Eating Snakes (2005) is simply disgusting: in the middle of a surrealistic scene two women are depicted devouring snakes. Bank notes are flying about, snakes are taking over the furniture, and cockroaches crawl up the wall. Unidentifiable female heads and a rubber doll are suggestive of other lusts. A more crass testimony to moral decay is hardly imaginable.

Equally blatantly, Ta Men visualize what is probably the most significant characteristic of the Chinese metropolis: the simultaneousness of the contemporary and the past. Beijing Opera masks are put in a toy bank, a fire pot stands next to a McDonald’s menu, and a traditional landscape painting decorates the wall, while the Olympic stadium is visible outside. Western status symbols and folklore-laden kitsch become the two sides of a coin that makes up today’s China.

Ta Men’s pictures can be decoded like a classical still life, but most of the symbols they use are taken from a catalog of the everyday. The scenes – occupying quasi-public rooms enriched with reference symbols like the television, status symbols, known personalities, and other artworks make the separation between private sphere and society permeable. What happens outside affects the individual, and the individual is completely participatory in societal developments. In the pictures where the artists’ signature “stage curtain” is partially broken, this interdependency becomes all the clearer.

One of the most recent works of Ta Men, Jiang Shan (Mountains and Rivers (2008), shows a vision: beyond the almost completely vanished walls are houses harmoniously fitting into a hilly, green landscape that extends into the distance. A dream shortly before the completion of the CCTV towers in Beijing.

Das Interview mit den Künstlern fand im April 2008 in Peking statt. Ich danke Zhao Chong für seine Übersetzung und Beratung.

In: Young Chinese Artists. The Next Generation, Editors: Christoph Noe, Xenia Piëch und Cordelia Steiner.
Prestel Publishing September 2008
Hardcover, 296 pages
310 images

The Ministry of Art