Again I take the practice of painting ruins, and again I put in dialogue a Chinese artist with a non-Chinese one. But this time they are performance artists, and in their work painting ruins acquire a whole different meaning. Two action-painters, who combat oblivion with their scarce human means. Both Zhan Wang (Beijing, 1962) and Lida Abdul (Kabul, 1973) try to reclaim destroyed buildings through a ritualized performance that includes cleaning and painting.
In a very interesting way, both Zhan and Abdul fight against the ruin itself, against its transformation in a privileged aesthetic object for the obscure pleasure of an—usually foreign—observer, trying to counter an over-aesthetization that deactivates its critical and political potential. In Abdul’s words: “Why can’t a ruin itself be transformed into a meditation on something other—a non-referential work of art—a visual or sculptural poem that one hopes will open up new spaces for rethinking about society, about ethics and identity itself?” (1)
Zhan Wang’s performance did not salvage the potential of rubble to become a ruin; his intervention was rather on the other direction, towards the former condition of the house, with the whitewash of a common house, and the painted windowsills of a well-kept, comfortable apartment.
Susan Buck-Morss has connected modern aesthetics with the spread of anesthetics. Taking the clue from Benjamin and his Artwork essay, Buck-Morss argues that the massive circulation of images, and the aesthetization that modern art effects over reality, contributed to the numbing of perceptions. Talking about Leni Riefenstahl’s film, Triumph of the Will (1935), Buck-Morss notes how “The aesthetics allows an anaesthetization of reception, a viewing of the ‘scene’ with disinterested pleasure, even when that scene is the preparation through ritual of a whole society for unquestioning sacrifice and ultimately, destruction, murder, and death.” (2)
The aesthetic/perceptual history of ruins has effected a similar a(n)esthetization, even if we are dealing with modern ruins of massive destruction, being human made (i.e., warfare) or natural (i.e., earthquakes). Photographic (and later on, cinematographic) technologies seemed perfect to offer unbiased, transparent accounts. However, even for such early theoreticians as those of the Frankfurt School, photography allows for different, subtle and extremely effective ways of modeling perception and reception.
For one thing, the earliest photographs of ruins adopted the Romantic-Picturesque tradition of representation. Regardless that rubble was still fresh, photographs of destruction followed previous representation modes, and thus the aesthetic implications of, say, a melancholic reflection on Roman ruins, was transferred to present-day destruction.
At one point, according to G. Roger Denson, Mathew Brady’s 1863 daguerreotype of Federal Dead on Gettysburg “made it impossible to ever again return to a serious consideration of the aesthetic and romantic valorization of war”(4). Rosa Olivares has written that “when we speak of ruin from an aesthetic perspective we avoid the presence of man; the aesthetic discourse begins after the cadavers have been removed. Otherwise it would be impossible”(3) And yet, art historian Kenneth Clark was able to say, in the middle of the German Blitz, that “Bomb damage is in itself Picturesque” (5).
Ruins have also been affected by the flooding of the senses Buck-Morss detected. Since the early days, going through the wars and disasters of the 20th century and up to our everyday newspaper, we are confronted by a continuous flow of images of destruction turned into articles for consumption, in which rubble and bodies coexist in a similar depiction of dismemberment and death. The perception of aesthetic value can precede the discourse on aesthetics.
Lida Abdul seems aware of the potential for Afghan wreck to become a pleasure object to look at via technologies of image reproduction and artistic intervention. Her performance takes the lead and short-circuits such potential, reclaiming ruins as a crude witness of history and destruction. It is in this sense that I believe painting ruins becomes a way to fresh up perceptions, to clean, not only rubble, but the way we look at it.
For his 1994 performance, Ruin Cleaning Project (Feixu qingxi jihua), Zhan Wang’s decided to clean and paint a half demolished building in the centric area of Beijing’s Wangfujing. He documented his performance with photographs and a diary, even when bulldozers arrived to finish the job. His action, which must be contextualized in the widespread programs of urban renewal in China since the 80s, became his way to commit with the great changes affecting his society, acting upon the social and urban fabric from the conviction of the worth of personal independence and his hope in the role of art. (6) He would probably subscribe Abdul’s words when, referring to Afghanistan, she says that it “is physically destroyed, yes, but the resilience to survive persists unabated.” (7)
Both actions are clearly useless, their personal endeavor being a symbolic intervention that does not affect at all the present state of their country nor future expectations. But it is in this sense that they touch upon the battle field of ruins, which is fought at the symbolic level.
(1) Indianapolis Museum of Art, on the occasion of Abdul’s exhibit. Link
(2) Susan Buck-Morss, “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered” , October, Vol. 62 (Autumn, 1992), pp. 3-41. Jstor
(3) Rosa Olivares, “The Incomprehensible Beauty of Tragedy”. EXIT, no. 24 , “Ruins”. November 2006. Link
(4) G. Roger Denson, “A Time to Gather Stones: Nomadism after War in Susanne Slavick’s Out of Rubble”. Cultural Politics, Volume 8, Number 2, 2012: 254-271. Link
(5) Cited in Christopher Woodward (2001). In Ruins. A Journey Through History, Art, and Literature, p.212
(6) Zhan Wang website (in Chinese)
(7) Lida Abdul website