A Vagabond’s Land Mass— On Tsong Pu as a “Gambler—Artist” and “Artist—Poet”

By Huang Chien-Hung for Tsong Pu (莊普)

A Vagabond’s Land Mass—

On Tsong Pu as a “Gambler—Artist” and “Artist—Poet”

Huang Chien-Hung

A white “dice-cube,” height above an average adult’s waist’s line, stands in the exhibition hall of Main Trend Gallery. Titled as “Monument of Si Ba La,” the cube comprises tens of thousands of little dices whose convergence nearly reincarnates the meaning of <Menger Sponge>. Meanwhile, the numbers, which are shown on those one-square-meter-large sides of the dices, seem to present as imprints left on this art work of Tsong’s as well. Posing itself in front of the counter, <Monument of Si Ba La> does not take up an independent, exhibited space at all; rather, it merely perches on the margin of the hall. Space wise, it is both a choreographed random existence and a key—a spatial pivot of the entire exhibition hall for its composition. A unique axis of time and space, which derives from the randomness of dice-throwing, rightly manifests a certain way of life the artist holds.

It is hard to give a thorough delineation of what Tsong’s creative work is about in one single article. This is not only because Tsong’s artistic career spans across three generations of contemporary art in Taiwan—he has spent more than three decades on producing creative art work. Moreover, it is the “frei” (freedom) exerted in the creative process—freedom beyond conceptual expressions—that makes explanation difficult. In other words, “frei”—or, more precisely, “an-sich” (in-itself) is the core value of Tsong Pu’s practice of art. This core value is not just a reference to the nature of “art as a pursuit of freedom” under a generalized conception; instead, “an-sich” is itself the central subject of Tsong’s artistic practice. We have through Tsong’s realization of art discovered several dimensions of an-sich: an-sich in terms of use of materials, of the structure and form of work, of a creative state, and of self. This, perhaps, is exactly the uniqueness of the artist that Zhu Wen-Hai intends to deal with in <From Minimalism to Nomadology—Visual Expansion in a Circumstanced Movement> by German aesthetics: that is, Tsong has run his artistic course from minimalist to open, random presentation of art. Tsong Pu’s freedom, nevertheless, is not a definite one. Rather, it is about “escape” and “uncanniness.”

To expound on this unique thought of Tsong as well as the reflection which his artistic practice brings to contemporary art in Taiwan, it is necessary to first distinguish the basic conceptual differences between “frei” and “an-sich.” The former refers to a difference-less mentality where binary standards for criticism are trespassed; it pinpoints to the artist’s mind/ will. The latter, on the other hand, is the state in which the artist produces his/her works—it is also the only way to complete an artistic presentation—“ausgleichung (equalization).” Therefore, Tsong Pu’s checked base and imprints become a return to Kantian “ohne alles interesse (without any interest),” creating a starting point where “elimination” and “ground zero” stand. In this case, however, the thinker-artist pondering in front of the platform of “ohne alles interesse” is not an observer of beauty anymore—he is, in effect, a creator. Backtracking to “ohne alles interesse,” he aims to retrieve the freedom obliviated or unable to be given by art. Moreover, the artist also adjusts himself for the right “sphere of mentality” in a bodily pursuit of this “ohne alles interesse.” However, it is exactly this trait of Tsong’s work—interpreted by Zhu as “nomadic”—that makes it impossible to categorize the artist as a successor of phenomenology which derives from Hegelian and later on, Gadamerian philosophies. Not even Heideggerian thoughts mentioned in the recently published <Listening and observing—on Tsong Pu’s Exhibition at Nagoya University, Japan> would render appropriate interpretations for Tsong Pu’s works. Unlike most of the aesthetics pursuers who are in quest of a transcendental answer—freedom, Tsong Pu, in the repetitive procedures of printing on the surface of “ohne alles interesse,” has escaped the transcendental preconception of such “freedom.” The artist, with free-flowing poetic expressions (which are in an unbound, dynamic state), attempts to run away from the conspiracies that metaphysicians secretly conduct to make them sacrifices of void metaphysics. Such free-flowing poetic expressions defy a philosophical pursuit for freedom while insisting on including freedom in the artist’s works. In this uncanny state of freedom, there comes the purity constructed among Tsong’s works, creative materials, and his artistic environment—an-sich.

In this respect, one can see that what Tsong Pu represents—or, re-presents—is a certain attitude deriving from the unique artistic environment in Taiwan: being “in-oneself” in order to pursue “freedom” and yet at the same time aspiring to get rid of the delicately dynamic “obsession with freedom (or, absoluteness).” Such an attitude is not a stance expressed visually. Rather, it is genuinely about bodily touches. With his acute sense for such touches, Tsong does not carry out any projections or re-presentations through his work at all but expresses a kind of “alienation” that gives way for space. Thus, the “limitations” expressed through Tsong Pu’s works are not about knowing where the limitations are— but to confront them. In addition, in Tsong’s confrontation with the limitations, he distinctively shows that he will eventually escape these formalized limitations. In deed, such thoughts are mostly expressed in his paintings; more precisely, if comparing the theme of “limitations” with that of “escape,” the former is evident in a series of his new works exhibited this year, such as <Reach The Star Again>, <Shining Meet>, <Inside Coordinate>, and <Spreaded Information>. In these works, the interrupting, strong straight lines seem to express the formation of the artist’s will. The numerous prints on those large canvases exude a kind of encompassingly “free-floating” power—the shattered prints look as if they were the numbers that one gets every time a dice is tossed. These numbers, on these canvases of limited spaces, converge and present themselves as a cosmological “chart”—the “chart” being a transient presentation of the interceding powers in which radiating, straight lines are not able to stay as idealized ones. On one hand, these lines become wavy, extending in a changeable visual state—they vibrate at an internalized frequency. On the other, amid overlapping layers laden with inhomogeneous breaches, a woven, rich texture is retained, enabling the lines to be printed on a certain restless, “bodily” suggestive space. Intertwined in a bodily practice, the installation of straight lines and the regular prints of checks summon out an staggering, complicated, and even obscure “spiritual representation” which continues to return to a “object—nature” concept in Chinese “free-stroke” landscape painting, reaching a silent reconciliation with the world. In Tsong Pu’s works, straight lines construct an impeccable, commanding ambiance, whereas the check prints indicate a return to the primitive fun “objects” can bring. For instance, in <Summer, Green, Wish>, <A Flood Of Tender Water>, <Gi Li Gu Lu>, and <Square Isn’t Square, Circle Isn’t Round, Time Doesn’t Pass>, organic lines, which are an imitation of organic languages, are further combined with the languages themselves. In <I Take One Only>, the painting is transposed into a presentation of “nature-personification” relationship where spoons are installed on the wall under the command of art and cotton strings on the ground so much entangled as not to be parted from one another, creating a to-and-fro between regularity and obscurity. Likewise, in <Jade Hiding in Stone Gives Brightness in Mountains>, as white, heavy ropes string rocks together, an encounter between these ivory, squared rocky cubes and the act of stringing-up takes place, transcending the thickness of rocks with meeting-fun and an imitation of life, while taking a Mobius-strip-like trip between “a mountain of heavy strung-up rocks” and “the rocks-made-light compared with a mountain.”

Carrying out a laboring activity in which the artist doesn’t get involved in—or, to put it this way—escaping from an existing framework, makes it possible for the artist to return to a pure, self labor. Also, it is only in this way that the artist becomes capable of evading the essential, existent labor relationship between the artist and the world. In other words, this is a philosophical, long-term labor pursued by the artist: to transpose one’s life into art work, making it a medium to re-present spiritual and mother-earth illusory imagery. In <I Measure Tsong Pu Fragmentarily>, Chen Kai-Huang states, “to refrain from falling into the trap of ideology, (Tsong Pu) replaces a rationalist debate on ‘image/ thought’ with a ‘freehand labor’ at an observer’s aesthetic distance, […] stringently criticizes the ‘labor-desirism’ in the social mechanism.” Looking at Tsong’s labor of art and his reflective criticism on “labor-desirism” which accurately pinpoints the absurd cognitive mistakes made when analyzing abstract art work, a dialectic way of thinking comes accentuated in the field of “medium manipulation.” However, this dialectic line of thought does not aim at pushing art work to the peak of a philosophical debate. Rather, the dialectics Tsong presents is a temporary opposition of “escape,” in the meantime taking off the weight of dialectics, turning to a “journey” in another dimension. While retaining an acute sense for social life, Tsong continues to elude his connections with the social context in which he rests. He has completed an uncanny, contrasting vagabond journey: on the one hand, he keeps challenging the conventional framework set by society and art; on the other, he escapes all heated debates on related issues. Simply said, he confronts our society with his artistic practice while withdrawing himself from his stance in order to sustain a certain anarchist spirit as an artist. Just as Tang Huang-Zhen mentioned in her review <Love Never Dies>, Tsong Pu’s printing labor “likens the inclusion of ink stick-grinding to the entire process of calligraphy art.” In other words, despite the fact that this printing labor is itself a candid, Brechtian criticism—which is, although it reveals the plain production of art, what’s really crucial is that the labor enables the artist’s works to enter another dimension of presentation. It is definitely not about a religiously sacred pride but an amusing “an-sich.” The act of “printing” is a fair distribution of patterns and a re-presentation of mechanical labor. With the shattering-down of forms, the prints present a kind of visual instability that transfers Tsong’s works from one dimension to another—or, to put it in another way, to embark on a “vagabond journey” that defies reproduction.

Undoubtedly, this production-defying attitude is plainly and fully expressed in Tsong Pu’s solo exhibition <I Hate Takashi Murakami>. First, with wooden bars, Tsong constructs two “protesters” in a simple and yet sharp, clever way, cynically defying the two-dimensional “manga (comics/ cartoon)” imageries. Moreover, unlike the prints works in <Gathering>—which refer to a return to nature, what’s added is the explanation comprising numbers within a flat universe as well as a visual obstruction by colored digital pixels. In the <Lao Tsu Says…> series, a minimalist method is adopted—which is, to put matches in a neat order—to quietly ridicule the artfulness and man-made smoothness of contemporary art. Undoubtedly, in such a comprehensive exhibition where art forms are deftly inter-altered, Tsong Pu challenges the spectatorship and taste conventionalized by overwhelming information in modern society. Unlike the <Gambler> exhibition at Main Trend Gallery, the one held in ITPARK attempts to note down a historical imprint, which is exactly the rebellious, witty “Tsong Pu/ poet” who had just returned to Taiwan in the 80s. In the series displayed at ITPARK, visual semantics are utilized to criticize social information; what’s more, the fun coming along is not about the cheap excitement of scintillating issues, but a stance, an attitude the artist takes. It is this attitude of “an-sich” made explicit by wooden bars, pixels, and matches that “an-sichly” and yet somewhat provocatively stands in front of our formalized eyes. In this exhibition, the vagabond abruptly aborts his journey, allowing the free-floating land masses to leave layered canvases, posing undauntedly like the candidness expressed in <Learning English, I’m The Man>. The candidness is as pure as the prints in Tsong Pu’s works at Main Trend. The only difference is that the lines Tsong’s after are semantic ones. What’s amazing is not whether the semantic presentation of Tsong is expressive or elegant enough. Rather, it is Tsong’s graceful jump from the topologist state at Main Trend Gallery to the critical poetics at ITPARK—while at the same time the artist is still able to get a full grasp of the creative vocabulary that he wishes to use— that makes us in awe. Yet the artist-poet does not intend to take poetry as a postmodern interpretation of his works; the two should, in fact, echo/summon one another. To put it short, Tsong’s poetry will never be complete without his works. Meanwhile, the visual construction of his works not only creates an overlapping compilation of messages and a visual obstruction but also embodies the artist’s attitude as a poet.

Thus, the creative process is not merely about completion of practical projects anymore. It is also a way for the artist to define and measure his artistic territory. The “virtuality” of painting becomes the artist’s pursuit of or experiment on his/her subjectivity. It safeguards an obscure, uncanny state between the abstract and the substantial. Subjectivity, for a long period of time in the history of painting, was interpreted and pursued through depictions of humankind. Yet a lot more non-human themes have derived from it by now. Moreover, the quest of and experimentation on the subjectivity of art have reached another fundamental combination of “surface-depth” after it was combined with the “artistic subject” in the 20th century. Checks have always been used by Tsong as a way to mark/ measure an artistic territory where the labor of prints are restrictedly located in. The checks and the prints, respectively, highlight their abstractness (being abstract) and heterogeneity (being substantial). The interconnections between checks and prints, then, uniquely express the two subjects’ strength and quality.

In the above philosophical imagination, Tsong Pu’s “agencement (installation)” enters a poet-natured gambler’s scene: it is both a plane regulated by the re-presentation of reality and a virtual sphere where its quality and strength are interwoven. Such checks, being regulations of reality, embody the artist’s poetic meter that works as a base for color patches, slanted prints, lines, and images in his works. Furthermore, this poetic meter expresses a kind of “rationality” that goes heterogeneously against “art”—or, “poetics.” It is a base (fonds) too abstract for art that makes the checks “a baseless base” (le fonds sans fond)—an almost religious and yet game-like, powerful power. As the “baseless base” evokes power, the latter appears in the tension between the finite and the infinite, the restriction and emission of power, and quantity and quality. The checks are a disillusionment of illusory images—they can further exert as the disillusionment of brushstrokes, styles, and language. The canvas is not a base screen that projects the artist’s workings of mind; rather, it is where the “art” that confronts the artist lies. The checks are a strategic employment in which corporeal actions are revoked for an infinitely open possibility. Analogically speaking, they are just like the dices that multiply probabilities indefinitely while they themselves become a gambling sphere at the same time. Infinity, through these painting operations and with fixed conditions, is expanded here. In other words, these fixed terms are exactly—undoubtedly—a presentation of infinity. We may further suggest that the checks and the paintings derive from the same constructed shape; the extremity/ ultimate, minimalist state of imagery and actions are in no way a peak of spirituality but a repressed restlessness and restlessness resulted from repression. In fact, it is such restlessness that makes it possible to question or shatter the pleasant, high-profile aesthetics forms. It is a path that leads to an infinitively restless state: on the plane of Tsong Pu’s artistic practice, the extension to infinity goes via a “land mass” confined in a spatial reality. With the intervention from the poet-gambler-artist, however, this land mass turns into one for vagabonds, reaching out indefinitely. In other words, this is not only a language that many of Tsong Pu’s works share and from which these works differentiate; through this artistic operation, a connection between Tsong—an artist of the martial-law period in the 80s—and the island Taiwan is transposed as “a transformation into a vagabond (or, Ulysses).” In this way, both the unlikely unification among the prints on the dices as well as the creaks of uncertainty among these cubes contribute to the imprints of Tsong as a vagabond. The coupled “freedom—in-itself” prints resemble two “escaping” actions: on the one hand, they are the engravings of the 80s’ passion; on the other, they uncannily indicate that there is this “dominating sentiment” that transposes art from being free to in-itself through an unchanged lightness over the past two decades by the artist.