Allegorical Persona

Linda Weintraub

Animal.Anima.Animus. (Helsinki: Pori Art Museum)


Art curators rarely compare "oinks" and "baas," but that opportunity has been provided by the artist Xu Bing who has transferred these sounds from the barnyard to the museum. "Oinks" are rude and irritating. "Baas" are dulcet and soothing. These contradictions are the first entries on an extensive list of traits comparing pigs and sheep. The former are commonlly considered to be slovenly, gluttonous, fat, and lazy. The latter, clean, polite, endearing, and placid. Pigs require reforming. Sheep serve as models of desirable behavior.

Bing considers animals "the most wonderful collaborators. Working with animals is my artistic process. I learn from them." This statement demonstrates how far he has deviated from the anthropomorphic approach. In his work, animals are undisguised and their behaviors are uncontrived. Bing enlists them to instruct humans about their own behavioral tendencies. They are vehicles for self-revelation because they offer both the proximity needed for identification (animal nature is part of our biological heritage) and the distance required for objectification (animals reside outside of human society). He explains, "In order to recognize the limit of mankind including myself, I started the work with other living beings so that we can fill up our deficiency and degeneration by means of their assistance. The stage of cooperation with them is that of unknown experiment concerning social science, which includes many issues."

In a work entitled "A Case Study of Transference" for example, two pigs were placed in a pen filled with books in many languages. The boar's body was printed with characters that look like the English alphabet, but which do not form meaningful words. The sow was marked with fake Chinese writing. The animals are breeder stock. Their appearance in the museum was carefully timed to coincide with the peak of their mating cycle.

The artist describes the event that was observed by the museum visitors. "Two pigs bearing 'marks of civilization' (stigmata) on their bodies in spite of no human consciousness, were 'interchanging' between each other by the most instinctive method - sex. We chose a pair of pigs in love. They mated as the audience watched." The sow was most zealous to copulate, and often nudged the exhausted male into renewed action. In their sexual frenzy, they tattered and ruined the books.

The project was repeated out of doors, but this time the sow and the boar exchanged language markings. Again the female was the protagonist in a lustful libidinous exchange. These two events are components of a video installation which presents the work from its inception by the artist through its reception by the public. The video shows Bing visiting livestock farms purchasing virgin pigs and training them for their 'art performance'. It then documents the process of printing the language characters on the pigs and records the responses by the people watching their sexual cavortings.

The artist's own intentions are not pre-defined and he welcomes viewers to indulge their inclinations to decode his art along with him, a process that continues long after the completion of each piece. Bing explains his indeterminacy by referring to (Ch'an) Buddhism in which "a disciple might ask his teacher, "What is the essence of (Ch'an)?" And the Master might say something like "three pounds of cotton." The student receives the strange answer. He will be very perplexed and this will make him think. Then one day he will suddenly be enlightened. He will realize that living - life - is (Ch'an). The method with which I communicate with the audience owes a lot to this eternal case study. Through this work the audience won't get any direct information, but they may think and understand something about the condition of their existence."

The copulating pigs provide ample opportunities to demonstrate this aspect of (Ch'an). The artist initiates the deciphering process in the video by stating that these collaborators are a new breed resulting from the crossing of an American York pig with a Chinese Changbai pig. This physical manifestation of the successful merging of the Orient and the West invites comparison to Bing's experience assimilating contrasting cultures. Culltural conflict within China provided one such occasion. His emigration to the West provided the other. Toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, a punitive government sent him to a remote region of Yan Qing to be "re-educated" in communal principles and to extinguish intellectual curiosity. He returned to receive a traditional art education at the Academy of Fine Art in Beijing and to paint in the approved social realist style. Then, Bing was swept into the cultural fever that shook China in the mid 1980s. In the upheaval, he not only questioned traditional Chinese values, he was exposed to a deluge of foreign influences. During the Tienamen Square demonstrations Bing produced a protest poster that became a symbol of that historic conflict. Then, in 1990, New York became his home. His cultural struggle assumed a new form, mastering the English language and the values imbedded in it.

But Bing suggests that his original intention was also less personal. "I decided to make this piece with pigs because pigs have a very primitive feel to them. They are like some sort of specimen in Darwin's theory of evolution. "A Case Study of Transference" juxtaposes culture and something primordial, something prehistoric, to clarify a certain aspect of culture." In fact, the pigs made a great spectacle of their dissociation from social etiquette and the codes governing propriety by abandoning themselves to their sexual drive without shame or guilt in full view of an audiencel. Bing states, "In Chinese there is a proverb which means 'as if nobody else is around'. This was the first time I had really experienced the force of this concept. The pigs demonstrated how different I am from them."

But the opposite explanation also applies. The male refused to mate with the first two female pigs that were presented to him, leading Bing to think there was something wrong with the male pig. In actuality, these sows just didn't turn him on. It was the third sow that stimulated him, leading the artist to question if the pigs, indeed, were different from people. "Before, I thought pigs were rough. But I discovered they are the same. They choose a lover. They are sensitive, just like human love-making."

But love-making is hardly an appropriate term for the pig's performance which seemed more rapacious than loving. The observers, not the pigs, were embarrassed. Their responses are an integral aspect of the video. Audience members were shocked by this confrontation with nature unmediated by social conditioning. Bing explains, "When the people watch the pigs, they think of themselves more than the pigs. This is the point of the piece. I want people to think of their human selves, not to know more about pigs. Their embarrassment demonstrates how far we are from nature."

If the impassioned performance by the pigs is interpreted to dramatize the conflict between nature/instinct and culture/reason, the former triumphs. By ravaging the books in the pen and smearing the text on their bodies, the pig's vanquished language, the tool of reasoned discourse. These signs of language-based conceptions were not as productive as the conceptions that result from mindless sexuality that propagate the next generation of piglets.

Or perhaps the metaphor suggested by the rape-like violence of the sexual act can be expanded to refer to political imperialism. Sex is an exchange of power that easily transfers to encounters between such nations as China and the West. Because the male pig was printed in faux English, this work could suggest Western cultural hegemony. But the opposite explanation is also possible because the female is the most pugnacious in this act, suggesting Chinese aggression.

Bing offers an impartial analogy. "This idea of a rape of Chinese culture by a Western or British culture is a misunderstanding. The actual act of copulation between animals is an equalizer. I feel that the relationship between two cultures is often like the relationship between two lovers. They both need each other and they both rely on each other, but one sometimes takes more than the other and then needs to back off. This work actually brings out the restrictions in people's concept of culture."

Although the pigs' actions are evidence of their uncivilized temperaments, Bing abandoned his original plan to complete the work by releasing the animals into the wild when he discovered that their survival instincts were depleted by generations of cross-breeding and domestication. The pigs were already marked by civilization before language was printed on their bodies. Thus, Bing the work did not demonstrate that "nature is a greater force than culture and culture is irrelevant to nature," as he had imagined. This change is neither a disappointment nor a failure. It fulfills the artist's intention to allow animals to become instructors and humans to be their pupils. After the exhibition the gallery sold the pigs, but not as works of art.

In sum, "A Case Study of Transference" alerts viewers to how they, like the pigs, are marked by civilization. particularly by the conditioning power of language which operates even when the words don't carry specific meaning. This theme is amplified in a work entitled "Leash and Net." This piece presents a sheep tethered by a chain in which each link is a letter in a line from a poem. It is accompanied by an other sheep enclosed in a six foot high cage created out of wire script. Each side of the cage is like a page in a book. From within comes the plaintive "baa" sound. In order to perceive the animal in the cage, the observe must look through language instead of reading it. Language becomes the literal barrier between the sheep and the museum-goers. The stituation can be applied to all human/animal exchanges which require that humans abandon their reliance on words. Even when people don't speak the same language, their communication gulf is never this imposing.

Viewers of this work actually experience the operation of a wordless form of communication. From within the cage and at the end of the chain visitors encounter the penetrating gaze of the sheep's large, doleful eyes. Bing, too, finds them captivating. "I like sheep's eyes. They look like human eyes but they are cleaner and not complicated. Like a baby's eyes, they are pure. They look like hope." The sheeps' forthright stare awakens kindly, sympathetic feelings among their observers who are invited to contemplate the significance of this powerful exchange.

Bing believes the sheep look and sound like they are earnestly "begging for help.". Several compelling insights emerge by contemplating the contrast between the sheeps' restraints and their passive natures. Observers who think the sheep are begging to be set free become aware of their roles of captives and masters. The shackling of these gentle creatures is an unsettling example of the human compulsion to dominate and control nature. But the victimization of the sheep might also suggest the victimization of humans. Both are confined by language and social constraints, and over-domestication. Bing's emigration demonstrated how culture pre-determines our ways of thinking. "When I moved to New York," Bing explains, "I began to understand human boundaries. In China I felt afraid because of the human rights problems. But now I understand that these are actually cultural problems, beyond politics. There can't be a free life. We have no choice."

Bing acknowledges that it is easy to see the sheep's boundaries, but difficult to see our own. The stimulates us see to ask if we too are impounded creatures. Are we held within a pen, corral, leash, chain, net, trap, cage or den? In any case, Bing suggestions, "we believe in culture too much." (pp. 43-49)