Guo Cheng: An Absurd Response to the Planetary Absurdity

In “A Room with a Voice: Mediums and Mediation in Thailand’s Information Age,” anthropologist Rosalind C. Morris uses Thai psychics’ obsession with the media technology of “future remembrance” to raise a new and interesting perspective: psychics respond to the calls of technology, but the ways they use such technology might more appropriately be described as “summoning.” The author furthermore describes a “future occasion,” in which information and signals “will fly around the globe as miraculously as a spirit who descends from another time,” and “the telephone line will become the repository of radio signals that were sent long ago, or which are being sent elsewhere but are overheard nonetheless.”1Rosalind C. Morris, “A Room with a Voice: Mediums and Mediation in Thailand’s Information Age,” in Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain, ed. Faye D. Ginsburg, Lila Abu-Lughod and Brian Larkin, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.​ Of course, all the technological traces left behind by humans are liable to become a past that can be summoned and intervened in.

The magnitude of time with which Shanghai-based artist Guo Cheng’s work deals must usually be considered in terms of a giant and sluggish tachometer called “Earth time.” The background radiation in the atmosphere, the architectural detritus and microplastics in the ground, these objects that may tenuously be called signals and signs that depend on the human-made structure of global technology to store and transmit, taking advantage of the natural properties of the atmosphere and stratum to roam the earth. As long as they remain in the air and earth long enough, it will be possible to be detected, calibrated, secretly monitored, stolen, translated and summoned. This has been Guo Cheng’s working method for a long time, yet in his recent solo exhibition at Magician Space, he has declared his attitude towards such objects, for the first time, as the titular “almost unmeant” has suggested: it seems to be one of disregard, near meaninglessness.

Oftentimes when people treat grand undertakings like minor ones is because only the “minor” can contrast and undermine the “grand,” and because the “grand” has never been easily achievable. In recent years, discussions about the techno-sphere, earth engineering, and the Anthropocene have already attracted the attention of many researchers. But what is paradoxical about this all is that any of the above topics must engage with issues of scale and consensus; between the individual life and humanity as a whole, human time and geological time, lies an enormous difference of scale. The rise of geoengineering and the technosphere seem, at the outset, to evoke a kind of seamless imagery, but was in actuality brought about by numerous, discrete wills, nor is it a superorganism possessed of unified agency. In the introduction of The Technosphere, Now, published by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, the editorial team provides a description of this jumbled state of affairs: “How did we end up in this world of technological vertigo, this Mobius strip of world and planetary technics, wherein cause and effect, local and global factors, human and non-human agency, perpetually confuse and confound one another’s borders?” 2Reader #1 The Technosphere, Now, ed. Anna Sophie Luhn, Bernard Geoghegan, Janek Müller and Volker Bernhard, Berlin: Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2015.​ Faced with such enormous scales and complexities, the human is hopelessly ill-equipped. It is essential for artists, when joining in the discourse, to ask to speak such chaos without sinking into nihilism, how to confront the individual’s powerlessness.

Perhaps precisely because of such powerlessness, Guo Cheng is forced to adopt an attitude of near meaninglessness when engaging with such objects. All of the artworks on display by Guo Cheng give off a small, calm quality, of extreme emotional restraint and conscious distance. All of the objects that play major roles in the space, whether the trembling Geiger–Müller tubes and infrared cameras of The (Temporary) Gadget No. 5 or the intermittent and unidentified crackling sounds from Amber, all hunt for signals outside of the human spectrum; for example, the background radiation remaining from thousands of nuclear tests. In The (Temporary) Gadget No. 5, tentacle-like Geiger-Müller tubes protrude from devil’s ivy and cacti, bearing a striking similarity to the psychics in “A Room with a Voice” who are obsessed with video recording technology (why does a psychic need a video cassette?). Technological apparatuses (Geiger-Müller tubes “detect radiation”) and folk religious beliefs (devil’s ivy “wards off radiation”) seem to coexist tenuously. When the prerogative to “detect” is given to these small instruments, the humans who walk between often feel a mild unease: the objects in the gallery space are obviously human-made, even handmade, yet the sharp, dry and alienated atmosphere they create has nothing to do with humanity. The objects we create with our hands seem more interested in a hidden nature, composed of invisible signals. Amber No. 8 carelessly detects heated a circuit, buried within concrete, as well as the infrared radiation emitted by passing human bodies, without giving any actual temperature readings. Everything in the gallery seems only to detect, never to respond. This is not, however, a desolate, cruel space filled with dead things, in which humans have been judged and gone extinct, but one that preserves a certain liveliness, cleverness, witchiness, as if ruled by assemblages of things that have inherited human traits.

The one artwork in the space that responds to human actions is Abstract Oracle Generator, a hyper-symmetrical, elegant, and perverse metal installation whose shape reminds one of the divine light radiating from behind the heads of saints and sages. When visitors knock on the copper chime at its center, an LED display will flash with four letters, based on randomly generated numbers —— symbols harder to decode than prophecy. A self-effacing absurdity runs through Guo’s creative output, and the only time one of his artworks seems to “invite” the viewer to action, the humming reverberations of the copper chime offer only absolutely indecipherable and meaningless feedback, announcing a deeper absurdity and irrelevance. Perhaps we should seriously consider whether this is “almost meaningless” or “altogether meaningless”: the former contains the desire, however tenuous, to speak, an openness, however feigned it may be, a certain willingness to concede something. When contemporary art attempts to respond to planetary absurdity with its own absurdity, to believe in the “almost meaningless” is perhaps a position it is forced to take. Just as Stuart Brand claims in Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, “the forces in play in the Earth system are astronomically massive and unimaginably complex. Our participation has to be subtle and tentative, and then cumulative in a stabilizing direction.” 3Stuart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, New York: Viking Adult, 2009.Abstract Oracle Generator is sane in comparison to actual human interventions to nature: Humanity once thought of stratospheric sulfate injection to dim the earth by launching satellites and surveillance markers into each of the earth’s spheres that are vertically layered —— the absurdity of such actions is enough to render most people speechless. These traces intersect with the evidence of geology or future archeology, becoming Guo Cheng’s chaotic earth, waiting to be remembered and summoned by the psychics of the future, returning, incredibly, to the séances of the future via nearly meaningless paths.

Translated from the Chinese by Henry Zhang.

Iris Long is a writer and independent curator. She currently works as a researcher on art, science and technology at Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing. She was shortlisted by the inaugural International Awards for Art Criticism. Her translation work, Rethinking Curating: Art after New Media, received nomination from AAC Art China awards (2016). In 2018, she was the recipient of Hyundai Blue Prize for curators. In 2019, she curated Lying Sophia and Mocking Alexa, Hyundai Motorstudios Beijing; Deja Vu, Today Art Museum, Beijing; Mind the Deep: Artificial Intelligence and Art, McaM, Shanghai and co-curated The Kind Stranger and Latent Landscapes, UN Art Center, Shanghai. She is also the art jury of ISEA 2019, and art jury of SIGGRAPH Asia 2020. Her research work has been presented in Art and Artificial Intelligence Open Conference at ZKM, Karlsruhe; Korea Research Fellow Program at MMCA Seoul; Art Machines: International Symposium on Computational Media Art in Hong Kong, and International Symposium on Electronic Art and Digital Research in the Humanities and Arts in Gwangju.

Henry Zhang is a translator who lives and works in Beijing, China

Guo Cheng. Almost Unmeant. Installation shot.

Guo Cheng, Abstract Oracle Generator, 2020, stainless steel plated with titanium, inverted bell, wood, custom circuit, LED screen, Geiger Muller tube, 210 x 210 x14cm, courtesy the artist and Magician Space

Guo Cheng, Amber No. 8, 2020, concrete, reinforcing steel bar, custom circuit, thermal camera, Raspberry Pi, LCD screen, 31 x 31 x 170cm, 20 x 20 x 180cm, courtesy the artist and Magician Space

Guo Cheng, Abstract Oracle Generator, 2020, stainless steel plated with titanium, inverted bell, wood, custom circuit, LED screen, Geiger Muller tube, 210 x 210 x14cm, courtesy the artist and Magician Space

Published: 2020.11.12