TEXT : Robin Peckham
IMAGE : Courtesy of Carlos Cruz-Diez
It isn’t easy to make an historical case for Op Art in Asia. During the mid-1960s, the heyday of the movement in the Americas, artists across China, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and parts of southeast Asia were consumed with political struggles of various sorts: the play of pure optics must have looked like pure luxury when utopian ideologies and mass struggles were worn on artists’ sleeves (think of William Kentridge’s comment on the unimaginable luxury of Bruce Nauman making art about nothing). And, earlier, classical Chinese art famously eschewed the linearity of optical perspective in exchange for an indexical spatial relationship in which the viewer was intended to inhabit various positions within the picture frame rather than beyond it. Yet, the genre of Chinese ink painting settled into its own form of modernity — in which painterly gesture was understood to carry more meaning than imagery — anyway, creating a form of viewing in which audiences were aligned with communities of artists rather than separated from them, and the physical act of viewing was more social than passive. Directly or not, this is an important background for the experience-oriented participatory art that is dominant today. We find echoes of this split in the early reception of Op Art in the Americas, too: MoMA’s 1965 Responsive Eye exhibition was a popular blockbuster, but initially critically panned. (That exhibition, we should note, included the work of Tsai Wen-Ying, the Asian-American artist who was responsible for some of the earliest contemporary new media installations to be shown in greater China.)
Global Op Art may have been consigned (or perhaps imprisoned by) a particular historical box, but its effects are everywhere, and today installations inspired by the pioneering experiments of artists like Carlos Cruz-Diez, Julio Le Parc, and Bridget Riley have become common currency in the selfie-hungry institutions of the experience economy. This is a good thing: interesting things can happen when the ideas of artists as original as these are allowed to be smuggled into popular discourse. If the spectacle is to succeed as a Trojan Horse for elemental ideas about being and perception, audiences and interpreters must learn to respect the queerness and oddness of things that otherwise look safe. We have to want to find the weird in everything. In places where the economic and educational boosts of art are celebrated at the expense of its radical potential, bodies of work that originally carried intense ideological baggage can sometimes be delivered as sanitized, minimal histories (think of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, presented in Shanghai recently as just another post-minimalist with a touch of semi-participatory liveness). We have to turn this equation around and dig up the dirt on what otherwise appears too minimal for its own good.
It would, of course, be a mistake to understand Op Art purely in the vein of relational aesthetics and the popular spectacle. Op Art was born prior to Lucy Lippard’s infamous six years in which the art object was dematerialized, and, as such the physicality of its installations — even those that contain a participatory element, like Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Environnement Chromointerférent (1964), in which the body of the spectator becomes a surface on which coloured bars are projected — still plays an important role. The art happens between the viewer and the environment or object created by the artist, not between viewers themselves. The temporality differs, too: if relational aesthetics hopes for the creation of a community intended to continue into the future, Cruz-Diez insists on the present, and its instability. But, unlike the spectacle, the Op Artist does not wish to see the viewer stunned into submission. Op Art is rarely overwhelming, even when the inclusion of the viewer is a key aspect of its operation. This tendency, fortunately or unfortunately, dovetails with the current curatorial demand for the inclusion of the viewer into the work. For this reason, Op Art finds itself newly relevant today; its enduring potential for radicality, of course, also emerges in its regard for the viewer, who is expected to remain critically engaged with the work. The sensorial geometries of Op Art, particularly in its Latin American variations, might be understood as diagrams of society; when the viewer is asked to move in a particular direction in order to activate an object, subtle forms of social control are called into being. Cruz-Diez refers to his work as “ the support for events.” This complex geometry, in which the object fulfils the responsibilities of the artist as an absent subject, precedes the current interest in objecthood as a category of competent actor without reference to a subject.
Cruz-Diez is no stranger to Asian audiences. In 2010, his Environnements Chromointerférents were exhibited at the Guangdong Museum of Art in Guangzhou, where they were presented in a way that allowed Op Art to merge with new media art: an effect without content, empty and safe. In 2012, the Ningbo Museum of Art took a turn. In 2013-2014, a longer tour of work brought his Chromosaturation, in which rooms are washed evenly with individual colours that then meet and conflict on their borders, to the Central Academy of Fine Art Museum in Beijing and other institutions in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. And, probably most visibly, his Physichromie (1959) inspired the facades of Prada’s flagship stores in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kaohsiung, Nagoya, Kuala Lumpur, Shenyang, Taiyuan, Heilongjiang, Guangzhou, and Qingdao. This degree of abstraction is simultaneously appreciated and maligned for its slippery slope into universalism, which can be utopian, flatly commercial, or a mixture of both. It makes a certain kind of sense to understand this phenomenon within a Latin American-Asian axis of understanding that has existed since the birth of the Non-Aligned Movement at the Bandung Conference of 1955, or perhaps the existence of a China presence at the Sao Paulo Biennial beginning in 1994, or the non-western curatorial movement that brought Asian artists into the Havana Biennial in 1986 and 1989. Although they are not direct bridges for Op Art, the cultural context exists.
There are, on the other hand, artists working in Hong Kong and China whose ongoing practices originated and developed with an awareness of Carlos Cruz-Diez’s and his colleagues’ contributions to Op Art. First among them, perhaps, is Liu Wei, whose foundational decision was to abandon the technical aspects of Op Art while retaining the logic of subtle audience control, not to mention colour and abstraction as devices for the reflection and production of social geometries. Initially inspired by the rapidly verticalising skyline of the Beijing cityscape, the abstract paintings that culminated in the series “ The East” quickly took on a life of their own: they read like Cruz-Diez’s classic Inductions Chromatiques (1963), but frozen and magnified and chopped up and run over by a bus. Liu Wei replaced the social diagram with the social rubble it produces, allowing the fine grids and grates of optical experimentation to fill with the grit and dust of the world around him. Other artists of his generation stick more closely to the optical history: Jiang Zhi’s variously titled paintings since 2012, for instance, have captured the after images and other illusory effects of computer screens captured in the moment that their systems crash (a diluted reference to Cruz-Diez’s Induction Chromatique series (1963), which creates the retinal after image effect synthetically). Jiang, too, is less interested in isolating the purity of the eye and its dynamics, choosing instead to frame the cyclical dynamic between machine vision and human intervention. Then there is the category of machine painting: younger artists like Xie Molin and Ou Jin have created mechanical systems to produce abstract paintings involving color and line, making more (in the case of Xie) or less (in the case of Ou) objectively perfect compositions that might be best described as false idols mimicking particular, if deadened, optical effects.
But, to take Carlos Cruz-Diez at his word and think of his objects as a “support for an event” rather than a painting or sculpture, one must turn back to the economy of art as an experience, for which there is no equally abstract analogue in our part of the world — even if the projects imported under this category have been more than welcomed by local audiences. Olafur Eliasson, for example, has proven incredibly popular in Asia. There is a direct lineage from Op Art through to his socially inflected approaches to new media and light, reflected in his 2010 Beijing exhibition “Feelings are Facts.” A collaboration with architect Ma Yansong, the installation took the form of a space filled with mist washed in various coloured lights, leaning heavily on perception and its affective responses rather than the potential intellectual aspects of realizations rooted in optical perception. With his massive 2016 exhibition at Shanghai’s Long Museum, light remained important but experiential spectacle took centre stage, as with the “Open Pyramid,” a massive, mirrored structured suspended from the ceiling that allowed for games of perception but far exceeded the scope and scale of the human body. Eliasson’s Colour Experiments, an ongoing attempt to create a pigment for every nanometre of colour visible to the human eye, was naturally less noted in this context, but this is where the real lineage with Cruz-Diez lies. Just a few short months later, the Long Museum was given over to James Turrell, another pioneer of colour and perception dynamics via the California-centric Light and Space movement. If Cruz-Diez reveals the biological and Eliasson the social, Turrell’s turn is towards the spiritual. All three artists revel in the universal, denying the demand for cultural specificity that so often accompanies the now-banal expectation of site-specificity. (The last time all three artists were in an exhibition together was The Light Show, which began at the Hayward in 2013 touring around the world and concluded in Santiago, Chile, in 2016.)
If we are to avoid the trap of abstraction as a necessarily universal lack of content, we should return to the Trojan Horse hypothesis: that spectacle is not safe, and can smuggle in destabilizing ideas about being through its reference to perception. It’s like placing a mirror in front of a sentient camera: a camera that recognizes its own mechanism can no longer be a simple tool. We can allow abstraction to present itself as a universalism in order to level the playing field—to allow everyone in. Then the fun begins. Audiences today demand experience. Museums and art fairs indulge them by, quite literally, putting mirrors in front of their cameras: the dominant contemporary aesthetic of mirrored mazes and spectacular baubles did not emerge from a background. Artists like Carlos Cruz-Diez are able to take advantage of this by doing what they have always done: his practice has become an integral part of global popular culture, and yet a considered look at it always results in the production of something new. Not everyone can inspire Prada to transform its stores into machines for erasing the concepts of past and present. Visitors to museums and malls alike make themselves subject to experiences that delight visually, inspire spiritually, and, ultimately, create new patterns for thinking. The body, after all, is shorthand for an embodied intellect, and experience—even when it is unconscious — always delivers some degree of intellectual conversion. It is only a small tragedy that an artist as thoughtful as Cruz-Diez can spend decades working on the leading edge of art and science and ultimately experienced as pure spectacle by less informed audiences, but this does not reflect poorly on the nature of art today. (It might occasionally impugn the efforts of curators who see themselves as marketers rather than thinkers.) When brilliant art dovetails with the experience economy and becomes popular, everyone wins. Suddenly, many thousands of people are exposed to elemental ideas that carry transformative consequences for being in the world — and so what if the ideas seem safe?
Carlos Cruz-Diez’s practice can be traced back to the experiments with the Couleur Additive series (1959), which he initiated in the 1950s and continues to work on today and exhibit in most of his exhibitions. The premise is simple: wherever two colours meet, a third colour appears to the eye that is not physically present in the material of the work. Cruz-Diez has produced mountains of variations on this theme, with compositions complex and simple, colourful and restrained, allusive and introspective. The challenge of coming into contact with this kind of work in the present moment lies in recognizing how it functions on multiple levels simultaneously: first, in giving oneself over to the physical experience of inhabiting the unstable moment of seeing, and, second, in recognizing that this action goes beyond entertainment, and isolating what it can actually mean. Cruz-Diez has spent a lifetime preparing a toolbox of ways to see in the world. He asks that his viewers absorb the different tools forged in each work and carry them around, pulling them out and using them whenever the time is right. As in this series, there is always more to the meeting of two bodies than the two bodies themselves. It’s fine for ideas to seem safe because there is no such thing as a safe idea; armed with these optical tools, we are free to look into the boundaries and illusions and mediations of our own lives and disentangle them for ourselves.
20.03 – 25.05. 2017
1F SOHO 189 Art Lane,189 Queen’s Road West, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
About the Artist:
Venezuelan painter and kinetic artist Carlos Cruz-Diez broke new ground in color-optics during the Kinetic art movement of the 1960s. Deeply interested in color relationships, aesthetics, and perception, his influences include Georges Seurat’s shimmering, pointillist compositions and Josef Albers’ illusionistic square paintings. His optical experiments focus on how color and line can create a sensation of movement as the viewer’s relative position to the artwork changes. In 1959, he shifted the emphasis of his work from paint to colored light.
Robin Peckham is a curator and editor living in Shanghai. Currently editor-in-chief of LEAP, the international art magazine of contemporary China, he also previously founded and operated the exhibition space Saamlung. He has organized shows for institutions including K11 Art Foundation, M Woods Museum, City University of Hong Kong, Goethe-Institut, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Long March Space, and Edouard Malingue.