Between the years 1994 and 1998 Wang Guangyi created three series of works— Passport, Visa , and Virus Carrier —in which the figures of a newborn, a man depicted in the format of a passport photo, and a dog are accompanied by anagraphic and identificational information. On each image are the captions, in capital letters, "PASSPORT VISAS," "VISA," and "VIRUS CARRIER," like stamps affixed to documents, allowing or prohibiting individuals to cross a border. Requesting a visa involves willingly subjecting oneself to an investigation or profiling; providing photographs, digital fingerprints, and information regarding the reasons for travel. Classifying individuals through identity documents and registering characteristics for the sake of bureaucratic organization suggests that in each individual there is a hidden potential danger to the community.
Suspicion and fear have always played a decisive role in the collective unconscious, and they are instruments whose power has been used to convince the masses to agree to give up a considerable amount of liberty in exchange for protection. Raised and educated in China in the era of the Cultural Revolution, Wang Guangyi has been able to observe the effects of a society in which every individual feels under the watch of their neighbor, and his cited cycles of works certainly reveal such a climate. Viewed in the light of new geopolitical scenarios, the works in which Wang Guangyi deals with these themes remain widely applicable to present times, even when our attention is shifted to the democratic West. We might think of the restrictions and the introduction of new protocols for limiting entry into the United States to persons who have passed through or live in countries considered a threat.
In 2017 and 2018, with the cycle Popular Study on Anthropology , Wang Guangyi took on topics related to the classification of individuals or entire communities based on morphological and physiological characteristics and in reference to the concept of race. The artist concentrated on the relationship between scientific and pseudoscientific theories of social anthropology and criminal anthropology, on current research in biogenetics and biotechnology and on the consequences of their application for practical and political purposes. Wang Guangyi developed his research through three different series of works: Race, Violence and Aesthetics (2017), Veil of Ignorance (2018), and Analysis on Races (2018).
Created with gliclée printing on large sheets of paper (each measuring 160 x 320 cm) that were then mounted on aluminum, the three works of the series Race, Violence and Aesthetics present human faces whose somatic characteristics have been associated with a particular ethnicity that the artist references in the caption, both in Chinese and in English. One of these works, marked precisely by the caption "Race and Violence," appropriates several illustrations from a book by Alfred Eydt entitled, Schreibers rassenkundliche Anschauungstafel: Deutsche Rassenk?pfe , published in 1934 in Germany by Schreiber, a company in Esslingen am Neckar, known for the quality of its publications and its children’s books. The author, Eydt, was a university professor from Dresden and a member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party—the party of Hitler—was considered to be an expert in racial politics, education, and psychology. In addition to dealing with themes such as the regulation of birth, mental illness, the diffusion of criminality, consanguinity, Jewishness, and the regulation of individuals who are considered parasites in society, Eydt’s book summarizes the racial typologies that arranged the European population according to theories developed between the 1920s and the 1930s by German anthropologist Hans F. K. Günther.
Günther subdivided Europeans into Nordics, Gaelics, Westerners, Easterners, Slavs, and East Baltics and, based on physical and moral characteristics, established a hierarchy of these ethnic groups, placing the Nordics at the summit. Shifting the theories of Lamark and Darwin from biology to social anthropology, Günther reached the conclusion that, in order to obtain a population with the physical and moral characteristics of a superior race, it was necessary to increase the reproduction of individuals who, through their blood, could transmit these desirable characteristics. For the same reason, individuals whose blood was not worthy of reproduction were to be impeded.
Theories equally lacking scientific support, had developed in the two preceding centuries in other nations and led to the justification of colonial exploitation and slavery. Between the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century there was a breakthrough in the way in which the theme of race was approached: by using craniometry, anthropometry, psychometry, and tests for measuring the intelligence quotient, several scholars of various nationalities paved the path for eugenics. Günther’s pseudoscientific theories were related to this tradition and were in full harmony with the ideological view of the rising National Socialist Party, which would eventually base its own eugenics policies on them. These ideas had a devastating effect on millions of people because of the interest they elicited in those who at the time had the power to put them into practice.
In Eydt’s book, as previously mentioned, the faces published were intended to recapitulate the elements characterizing the various races present in Europe. Reintroduced by Wang Guangyi with a copy machine, enlarged, and made negative so as to accentuate the halftone effect, and portrayed with a dominating blue on a black background, the faces that we find in "Race and Violence" from Popular Study on Anthropology inspire us to contemplate the difference that is created between an individual’s exterior appearance and his intrinsic identity. In other words, according to the artist, in people just as in things, what an individual really is can be barely distinguished; it eludes rational understanding. To be more exact, in relation to the spiritual dimension and to the realm of the sacred, what truly defines the essence and the uniqueness of an individual is always shrouded by something that conceals it.
The portraits recovered for the works included in the Popular Study on Anthropology cycle are not only imbued with historical, political, social, and ideological implications, but they draw upon the theme of faith, which traverses Wang Guangyi’s entire body of work. In fact, in his various cycles of works he has emphasized the conviction that an individual cannot do without faith, even when it is founded on mythical traditions, conditioning by ideologies or the market, and on superstition. Theories on race supported by Nazi–Fascist anthropologists were presented as scientific evidence in order to consolidate the faith of an ideology in a population searching for new idols. Popular Study on Anthropology thus reconnects with an entire body of work by an artist who, from the beginning, has directed his research toward the essence of phenomena, in the direction of what Kant called "thing in itself." Wang Guangyi operates with the awareness that beyond the duality between appearance and hidden reality there is something that cannot be precisely defined insofar as it places itself outside of our possibility of understanding. Therefore, measuring man cannot restore his essence, contrary to what was believed, for instance, by Italian anthropologist Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909) who, even before Günther, was convinced that people prone to socially deviant behaviors presented physical characteristics that were scientifically traceable in the shape of the skull. This is the theme to which Wang Guangyi dedicates his cycle Analysis on Races, comprised of photos featuring faces printed as negatives and placed alongside sketches that simplify the shape of the skull and emphasize it. Subverting the conclusions of these pseudoscientific studies, Wang Guangyi remarks how the analysis of differences in faces and in skulls is a testament to the complexity and the wealth of original appearances in the human species.
Due to the negative, these portraits resemble images of x-rays. By revisiting an expressive-conceptual expedient he had used in his work since 1987, the artist superimposed a red grid onto the images, a method that is reminiscent of a technique taught in art academies in order to recreate an image in enlarged or reduced dimensions. In the Maoist period the grid was an instrument used to make gigantic enlargements of the image of the President. Once it was covered by the finished painting, the grid was concealed, along with the trickery that transformed the image of a political leader into a gigantic image of a divinity who dominates ordinary human beings.
The fact remains that nineteenth-century positivist pseudo theories according to which individuals can be divided into different races have in the last fifty years been largely dismissed on paleontological and biological grounds. Today we know to be false the notion that the color of one’s skin and one’s somatic traits can allow for human beings to be classified into homogeneous groups.
The picture that stands out in the central part of Race and Violence is a famous old photograph that shows Nazi students applying the pseudo-scientific system of measuring an individual’s face in order to determine his ethnic lineage. However, it invokes theories that have been dismissed on all scientific grounds, not only involving Nazi Germany. Nonetheless, being a well-known image, we tend to take it for granted and set it aside without scrutinizing its many implications, which are still current, or we forget that part of history that concerns us personally. When describing his works, Wang Guangyi emphasizes how, even in China, phenomena of racism were experienced during the transition of power between dynasties of different origins. The artist specifically calls to mind those of past centuries, when the government of Mongolian ethnicity replaced that of Han ethnicity and, when, subsequently, the dynasty of Manchurian ethnicity came into power.
In the other two works created for the Popular Study on Anthropology cycle, captioned "Race and Aesthetics," the focus shifts to aesthetics. These works present photographs of faces, found on Chinese websites, and accompanied by captions indicating their ethnicity or geographical place of origin. Here, too, the artist introduces them through the effect of the photographic negative, preserving the original caption while adding the English translation. The artist, hence, wishes to underscore the arbitrariness of all interpretations and classifications based on physical characteristics.
The way in which similar images are published in magazines and newspapers, or travel the Web, make them come off as neutral, without suggesting the intent to affirm one ethnicity as superior over another. Yet, more often than not, these sequences of faces offer an ideal model of beauty, often based on algorithms. These portraits carry with them a subtext that are inclined to establish parameters of identity that, presented as objective, tend to condition our collective imagination. Reintroduced by Wang Guangyi through the effect of the photographic negative, they express the way in which the mind tends to instrumentally codify the complexity of an unknowable reality—the true essence of humanity and its spirituality—a reality whose true meaning, according to Wang Guangyi’s Kantian interpretation, resides in the noumenon, which underlies the phenomenon. Human essence, therefore, is not codifiable based on somatic or cultural traits.
The photographic negative image is not a novelty in the work of Wang Guangyi, who had already experimented with it in several oil paintings from his cycles, Great Criticism (1990–2007), Shining Forever (2003) and, more recently, New Religion (2011). New Religion depicts great political and spiritual leaders (including Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Christ, and John XXIII), influential philosophers (Marx and Engels), and masterpieces of Western art (Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ and Leonardo’s Last Supper ). In this series the artist questions the fascination exerted by great utopias and why people feel the need to single out figures to whom they entrust their spiritual or material salvation.
For the artist, the use of photographic negative images in New Religion translates into impairing the spectator’s familiarity with well-known images, urging him to consider them, not as predictable, but as capable of eliciting new reflections on their meaning. Nevertheless, the images remain identifiable as they represent universally known subjects. The same cannot be said for the faces found in the works of the cycle Popular Study on Anthropology : by not featuring well-known faces, the grainy negative reproductions make of these individuals simple imprints. The captions are thus what attribute the depicted person to a geographical area, which constitutes the driving motive for the artist to appropriate the image.
Yet again, the use of the reproduction of negative images in the work of Wang Guangyi becomes a critical act toward those who allow appearance and reality to coincide. In fact, the photographic negative entirely eliminates any possibility to brand a subject: skin color is eliminated, and somatic traits lack definition. What is most impressive in the photographic film is not a defined image that corresponds to the reality of the subject, but rather the subject’s imprint. Just as in the Shroud of Turin, another theme taken on by Wang Guangyi, here the subjects transcend their appearance.
The third cycle of Popular Study on Anthropology, entitled Veil of Ignorance, is comprised of prints of faces for which the artist used acrylic paint. The image, covered by a colored veil and by spots that prevent the traits from being brought into focus, is presented as a deteriorated fresco. As the artist himself explained, the blurriness of the images does not allow for the subjects’ area of origin to be identified. Since we are unable to attribute "racial properties" to these faces we can only recognize them as what they truly are: individuals.
Here the artist embraces the concept of the "veil of ignorance": the mental experiment found in "A Theory of Justice", the most famous work of the political philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002). In a Socratic fashion, Rawls asks himself what justice is and arrives to the conclusion that justice is fairness. How, therefore, can a fair society be established ex novo? By putting legislators in a condition of ignorance regarding their future: behind a veil. If legislators did not know what position they would fill in the embryonic society that is being established, they would not assign privileges to any class or person, due to the possibility that they would not be included. In order to avoid the risk of falling into a disadvantaged class they would develop laws that treat all people fairly. According to Rawls, mental experiments (such as the ship of Theseus, the evil genius, and the veil of ignorance) can be powerful philosophical instruments if used properly.
Underlying the topic dealt with in Popular Study on Anthropology are ethical and political matters related to experiments in biogenetics and biotechnology. Though these experiments do not currently aspire to transform human intelligence into superintelligence, in a very distant future developments in this field could be aimed at enhancing the operations of the brain through selective reproduction and reproductive cloning by copying the genomes of highly talented individuals, with exceptional characteristics.
Still fresh in the minds of Europeans is Aktion T4, the scientifically cloaked Nazi program which carried out the suppression of ill individuals who were considered "lives not worth living". Nick Bostrom notes in his book "Superintelligence. Paths, Dangers, Strategies" (2014) that every reproductive practice that aimed to improve the genetic patrimony was avoided in postbelic Germany. Yet, there is always a chance that it might not be opposed in other countries which may be inclined to promote the use of genetic selection and engineering with the intention of enhancing the intelligence of their populations.
The risks involved in genetic experimentations are countless. As previously mentioned, an eerie reminisce of past eugenic practices lingers. The consequences are not always entirely predictable. Modified genes, for instance, could bring about madness, resulting in unforeseeable outcomes.
As for the enhancement of intelligence, the matter is made more complex due to the fact that there is no intelligence gene, hence it is still unknown what memory, imagination and fantasy are at a biological level. DNA can be worked on in order to modify physical traits—to make humans more resistant or immune to an illness, for instance—but cognitive processes cannot be intervened with. Wang Guangyi also reflected on this while creating the works of Popular Study on Anthropology, once again considering his work as an attempt to direct attention to the essence of the individual and to spirituality, which cannot be defined.
Art Critic and Curator
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