Art in the Age of Picture Reproduction

On Weng Yunpeng’s “Image Fables”

text / Yi Ying

Weng Yunpeng was interested in the television from early on, even as early as the late 90s, his paintings adopted television as their theme. This theme had two different manifestations, the first was the television environment, or precisely speaking, the surroundings of a television set, usually he situated the television set in a commonplace, even dilapidated interior. The second is the television content, or the images on the television, and these images are generally political (which is related to his later pictures). His painting technique hinted at a bit of expressionism, his paintings unrestrained, but without obvious personality. Examining his paintings in the past two years, he is still painting televisions, but his technique has changed dramatically. The televisions are not all indoors; some are set inside a room and seen through a window or door from some street in an unnamed hutong. These environments are still old and steeped in poverty. What was the reckoning behind Weng Yunpeng’s transformation? Was it intentional? Was it in accordance to market preference, or an original motivation? At the time, I criticized his unreserved realism, I thought that if he were to follow an expressionist path, he might make a stylistic breakthrough. Looking back now, I realize my criticisms were mistaken.

Absolute realism implies a lifelike imitation of nature. Plato made the distinction early on with in his discussions of imitation and simulation. Copying nature is the very manifestation of concept, and true imitation is not merely the possession of a natural appearance, but an attempt to visualize the idea of nature. Simulation is a copy of the outer appearance of nature, and is still a copy of a copy. This is like the difference between craft and art. Historically, simulation has never entered the scope of art, but today, following the wavering the reliability of the “real,” and the appearance of a large number of new visual technologies, an increasing number of simulated forms have been integrated into our everyday life, whose accompanying distorted simulations were eventually identified as “art.” Historical simulations became academicism, and classical art that lost its spirit was, at best, merely a lifelike imitation or the meaningless exercise of academic skill. I see Weng Yunpeng’s later paintings as fables, he attempts to search for simulated equivalents within lifelike realism; a realistic environment like the image on the television, both are fictional simulations. The television occupies an important place in his paintings, occasionally an image on the television will hint at something, but the real implication is still the relationship between the world in the television and the actual world. Simulated reality (and I believe his reality is also built on images) is likewise true fiction, but in most circumstances, fictional significance will be obscured by a simulated (realistic) technology. Similar to Weng Yunpeng’s paintings, perhaps audiences will be dazzled by his superb realistic technique, overlooking their inherent implications; the painter himself may become infatuated with his own technique. All of its content is realistic fiction, and the television in Weng Yunpeng’s paintings becomes a simulacrum. His later works, namely his video works, directly exhibit simulated content.

Thus, linking the images in Weng Yunpeng’s paintings to his video works is because his video works have a unique angle, and authentic reproduction. Directly confronting naturally produced pictures, called “primary images.” Primary images provide us with proof of reality, through “reproduction” of nature found in primary images, we believe in the actual existence of nature. Reality is obviously more complex than nature, through the truth presented as actuality in pictures, we similarly believe in the actual existence of truth. Just like what Weng Yunpeng’s painting hints at, the reality projected on television is not necessarily actual reality, yet people situated in real spaces easily identify the authenticity of pictures based on their own real life experiences. For example, pictures on television are primarily a strategy for promoting products, but for most people, pictures are equal to the products themselves, and thus they have sunk into the marketing trap of false reality. Weng Yunpeng’s images come precisely from this fictional imitation, and they use documentary films as a source material. Documentaries are films whose purpose is the integration and explanation of educational or entertaining facts, and these days, we find most of our documentary films on television. Documentary films provide the veracity of facts, no matter if it is historical truth or events that are still unfolding, truthfully recording and recreating realistic scenes give us cause to believe in reality. In the beginning of Weng Yunpeng’s exhibition, the phrase “this is not real” is written above an image of Christ. Primary images that directly record fact are all “not real,” what is Weng Yunpeng trying to tell us? When he says this is a “society of the spectacle,” I don’t know if it’s coincidence, or if he realizes the relationship between God and spectacle. “Similar to the kingdom of God, today’s secular-based capitalism has already separated itself, establishing a similarly illusory society of spectacle amidst the vast scene of the masses.” “This implies the existence of a deliberate reversed appearance. This appearance substitutes existence, and becomes a spectacle.” (Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle) Today’s “kingdom of God” is nature and reality, and nature has left us behind. Not only is nature itself destroyed, our experience with nature comes from pictures, transmitted in travel guides and photographs. Although nature actually exists, to us (as subjects), it is chosen and designated by the spectacle––it isn’t real. Similarly, reality is the same: if reality is the kingdom of God, then the spectacle actually manifests reality, but has shown intentional reversion.

Weng Yunpeng’s works are capable of illustrating this process. Like I assert above, his painting seeks to achieve a true reproduction, this kind of reproduction is not a direct copy of nature, but has been copied from photographs. The veracity of photos seems beyond a doubt. But he discovered something more interesting in video images, that is the very thing manifested in the televisions of his paintings; originally he wanted a contrast between the life’s reality and the illusions on the television, but what he saw on the television was pictures more plentiful, complex and stimulating than reality––furthermore, all of them indicated reality. Originally he took photos of everyday life for his paintings and used his camera to collect materials, but now he takes photographs of the television itself. His works are photographed using a camera that faces a television, just like a photographer, although he is not capturing objective images, but pictures from the television, copies of copies. Everyday he sits in front of the television, his camera in his hand, a DVD playing, anything from feature films to documentaries, from serial dramas to the news, as soon as he spies an interesting tableau, he photographs if directly off the television. As the time has passed, he’s taken more than several hundred thousand images. Weng Yunpeng says he is a photographer, but his subjects are copies of media. First of all, his is still an artist’s gaze, amidst this media, he is looking for things that are suitable to paint. Now, everyone paints from photographs, this is an open secret. Painting portraits is as easy as finding a beautiful woman and photographing a few angles, or carving with precision, like in neo-classicism. Painting landscapes is as simple as going into the wilderness and taking a few photos, or even downloading some images of some Jiangnan water scenes, or the wilds beyond the Great Wall. Reproducing a landscape through painting can also cause a landscape to exist independently, because there perfectly realistic landscapes do not exist. Weng Yunpeng’s images come primarily form “screenshots” of documentary films, and although an interest in painting inspired his search for the “painting subject,” what really attracts him is the tableaus that are linked to reality. A fact is in the process of being narrated, and because of its contextual relationship, we are guided into a space where fiction is true. His paintings always provide us with real things, real people, real scenes, real activities…. History is like that, as in one of Weng Yunpeng’s pictures exhibited here, You Should Share the Right to Freedom, in which a soldier standing next to a military vehicle helps a child retrieve his ball. The child is playing in a war zone, and the people responsible for the fighting tell him it is the right to freedom. One absolutely believes the authenticity of the painting, but fact is powerless, because something else is dominating fact. Another image, Within an Ideological World, seems to footnote the previous image, a boy with a bandage swaddling his head fixes his dejected gaze in the distance. “Within an ideological world” is a subtitle to the tableau, as if the boy is a sacrifice to ideological conflicts, but perhaps the artist’s screenshot is illustrating that this image itself is a product of ideology. We have no idea of the truth. Weng Yunpeng says that the more images you see, the more you find them frightening. Viewers gain knowledge and cognition from the media, and with the media directing, we cannot distinguish the truth. We are forced to accept their direction as truth.

There are two important paths, fictional representations of the real that dominate our perception of the truth. One, our reading of a picture becomes the primary means through which we obtain information, and becomes a habitual filter in our everyday life. A news photo, Invaded Countries Should Show Forbearance, was the topic of a speech during the last US presidential campaign; placed apposite to it is another image, The United States Never Invades Nations with McDonalds. These two images juxtaposed are humorous. The images have no relation––one is a screenshot of television news, the other is a still from a film––but their subtitles imply a similar point, namely, the legality of invasion. Louis Althusser says that mass media is “a ideological state apparatus.” Television, controlled by the state and corporate enterprise, creates a new kind of colonialism, an internal colonialism, the public is duped and controlled, but not through weapons, through flashy, falsified pictures. But the public’s recognition of images and truth doesn’t necessarily come from mass media and ideology. Conversely, it comes from images and daily life. Television has become the most common form of entertainment in contemporary society, and advertising has become the primary mode of consumption, it is precisely within this process that we engender the habit of reading and accepting pictures. In all of Weng Yunpeng’s works, documentary history, political imagery and entertainment programs (he rarely touches upon advertising) all are intersecting. Their readability as images seem to be a platform, yet it is the latter that determines the reading of the former, large corporations provide thrills and advertisements, ideology then profits from these reading habits to manipulate reality’s camouflage.

The second issue is words. When he first started, Weng Yunpeng was concerned with pictures, especially their visual effects, later he discovered that the subtitles attached to the image had a particular relationship. Words originally were meant to explain pictures, but in capturing screenshots, the words were often misplaced with the image. This is everywhere in Weng Yunpeng’s work, such as We’ve Removed Saddam…., an old woman is in the central part of the painting, it seems as if she is saying the line, but how could she have removed Saddam? We don’t know anything about the picture’s context, and seeing merely the pairing of this picture and the text makes it seem extremely absurd. In fact, if they were lacking text, his works would never be born. The text seems inlaid titles for his pictures, yet they also seem unconcerned with his image; they aren’t the meaning of the pictures, but they direct the audience’s understanding of the picture. Michel Foucault has analyzed the surrealist Magritte’s work, Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe, saying that there was a middle ground between the pipe and the text, a void where text and image find it difficult to coincide, just as the concept of human (knowledge) doesn’t accurately correspond to the facts. The shape of human knowledge has already evolved from oral traditions to the image, and then to writing… it seems to have reverted to images in our contemporary society. Are pictures able to replace the many concepts that we originally created and manifest fact? Actually, this is impossible. We still must rely on a great volume of words to elucidate pictures. The void between images and text is power. In another work, The Chinese Government has Waged a Heroic Struggle to Defend the Motherland!, two elderly people are watching television. The old woman stares in a stupor, while the old man sleeps, the subtitles are obviously the sound of the television, a serious television program that they have obviously find boring. The severity of the text and the boredom of the watchers becomes a clear contrast. The reason for boredom (the television content) is actually unseen. Actually, most of Weng Yunpeng’s images have this quality, the image and the text are in contradiction. We find his works interesting because of this contrast. A picture is either the manifestation of, or a copy of reality, and words can arbitrarily explain pictures, and used as a subtext to words, pictures become arbitrary.

Weng Yunpeng provides us with interesting pictures, and images have already become a second, objective world. Roaming in this world of his, we rediscover the meaning of images, his work not only illustrates the construct of our object, it indicates the illegitimacy of this construct, because the object itself has been constructed. However, art is to be appreciated, and even thought these are video, Weng Yunpeng’s works are not theoretical. Such a deep exploration such as his, and his easy way of communicating, is a feat that no theory could ever achieve.