If Land “Is” Not Land

Text: Wu Jiarui Translate :Xu Caiyan

Ph.D. in Arts Phenomenology and Contemporary Art, The Institute for Collaborative Innovation in Chinese Visual Studies, China Academy of Art

When We Raise Questions About Land

Land, what on earth is land? By raising such a question we try to investigate or understand land’s existence.  To answer it, we have to start with the physicality of land – all things have form. When we look at land, firstly we eye on its appearance (“eidos” in ancient Greek). We always give it a form when we observe a land plot (although it’s inaccurate to describe such). Take for instance the lands sold by the Half-Field Planning Bureau. These could be an interspace, a space between two areas/borders; the thick separation between two floors of a building; or even the old walls wrapped by the new walls in a residence…and so on. We like to give land a form upon seeing it, as if the natural land did not exist – even though it could be presented in an articulated linguistic system, just as those lands sold by the Half-Field Planning Bureau mentioned above. However, it is still difficult to directly arouse the mental image of “land itself” in people’s subjective consciousness, and therefore it is hard to experience this.

If we switch the perspective and focus on the functions of land, we understand that land is certainly useful: nutrient-rich soil is suitable for cultivation (such as black soil in northeast China); as the base of buildings, foundations are built upon it; as a commodity land can be traded among real estate developers and even individuals for various purposes, and in the hands of land artists it becomes a creative material… All these show how the function of land as a material is defined by its form. In the end land always “serves some purpose”. This may be attributed to land’s inherent nature but in its own usability land itself tenaciously avoids being captured by thought; in the process of daily use “the usefulness itself has become useless, gradually wearing off, becoming tedious.” By contrast, near swamps, tundra, and seismic zones where its usability is compromised, land itself has the opportunity to manifest in human thoughts and inspire creations.

These and similar customary definitions represent popular understanding of land being land. The natural land in its original sense continues to be lost in conventional experience.

How Can Land “Be” Land

The truth of being is automatically set into works of art. When we talk about the truth of being, we mean that our knowledge of some thing conforms to the facts, or, that being has reached the truth (aletheia) of its own existence. In Cai Guojie’s works, the always self-enclosed natural land is comprehensible.

This understanding may come from voiding land’s usefulness in his Half-Field Plan. Whether it’s Le Murate in Florence, Yongkang Street in Taipei, or the Luxury Flats by Mountain Parks in Hong Kong, the land sold is to some extent invisible or unusable. The way the artist managed this type of land/space helped create a vacuum in land’s usefulness and reliability, so that the land made itself present on the site, and the truth of land’s existence was auto-set into these works.

The skilled manipulation/use of land by urban planners, real estate developers, landscape artists, and general consumers has long obscured land’s original state. Land as a resource becomes useless and transparent as it is continuously being used, so much so that it will never manifest itself unless disastrous natural events (landslides, earthquakes, soil exhaustion, etc.) take place. It is undeniable that “land” as a conceptual entity does not seem to mean much to humans, but pondering this issue is speculating on the relationship between humans and nature.

Under capitalism, it seems that modern man’s life goal is to complete the logic of consumption – consuming things and ruining lands discovered. The land purchased at the “Half-Field Planning Bureau” and the owner identity resulting (becoming) therefrom was originally a virtual space and virtual identity, respectively; yet, even though it consumed the buyer’s money (very little) and time, it is still unusable and even invisible. Despite the fact that in the latest exhibition, the artist presented these invisible lands through 3D scanning and printing technology, such concrete yet insufficient representation still points to this kind of land’s unusability, for the existence or essence of land is only imagined by the subject (observer), suspending in the subject’s thought about his/her own relationship with land or nature.

Upon seeing the works, viewers could not help asking, “Is this real land?” “Is it really mine?”, “What can I do with it?”, “How did he discover these lands?” … Then, what kind of land is considered “real”? And how does man measure his own value? Capitalists build a business empire to prove themselves; real estate developers claim to have provided dream homes to many; the middle class buy a number of properties just to feel more secured, and some others come to Guojie’s Half-Field Planning Bureau to spend money on a virtual space. What else possibilities are there for humans to satisfy their desires? Has the model of human desires been stereotyped by mainstream narratives? Is there any space (physical or psychological) that will not become a target for consumption? What is the buyer buying? The land itself or the consumerism itself? Or maybe both? All these questions hit the viewers during the artist’s creative activity, which all began with what is land.

According to French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, every creative act is an act of resistance, but such an act is only able to endure if it has the power to “create” in order to “remove” the facts. Otherwise, no resistance is possible and the facts will always be more powerful. The land sold by Half-Field Planning Bureau is something whose usefulness has been voided. The sale of an “interspace” can be regarded as an act to “disclose” the land. When a customer buys and when a bystander watches the transaction being done, this virtual transaction actually breaks the experiencer’s perception of reality. That, according to Jean-François Lyotard, is an “absence”, or a “negative presentation” in Kant’s words. What exactly have we bought? How to tell we actually get it? Did such a transaction really happen?

After all, in the popular mind, the attribute of land – its usability – is no longer present, which rather makes possible the presence of land itself, that is, the presence of the original actual land, where land is being land itself. How can land really “be” itself, and as how it is intricically? The artist’s 3D-printed “Monument of Error” could be a symbol of the original real land that kick starts viewers’ thinking about the original truth of land. Real transaction, real land plot, its unusability and unpresentability. When “usability” – the most important attribute of land that defines how land is land – is taken way, how does the owner own the land? What kind of ownership is it? What is land? What is ownership? Amid this non-availability and non-presentability, these questions come up in the mind of the buyer/owner. Perhaps it is the aim of modern art to stimulate a person’s proactive thinking by providing a void of meaning.

As a shelter for land, the Half-Field Planning Bureau presents land in its original state, impacting the transparency of land in daily life, and allowing humans (as subjects) an opportunity to ponder about self.

We Defend the Honor of Difference

In Cai Guojie’s latest exhibition, the artist transcended his original identity,  participating in Macao’s urban planning by constructing the 9th New  Scenic Spot and introducting real estate developers into the art space, while switching their roles from developers to tenants. What he did can be seen as an act of “deterritorializing” and “reterritorializing” according to Deleuze’s vocabulary.  The artist discovered the borderlines and sold the interspaces in between; such acts were like forfeiting borders and deterritorializing identities: the artist became a real estate agent, and the real estate developers – providers of spaces – now became renters, and in face of refugee visitors, the artist morphed into a buyer who bought spaces from them … Here, the seamless land has become the mobile land, as the gap (forfeited as a result of the sale of the interspace) underwent a deterritorializing movement and thus created new space and new role, whose social identity is no longer static but constantly changing, looking for new forms of existence.

The artist mentioned that Macao is a society with many associations. Different associations are like clusters of societal clouds, each  responsible for their respective “micro-narratives”. Such a social structure implies the disintegration of metanarratives, just as what Jean-François Lyotard referred as “the best way to resist capitalist globalization is to increase the intensity of fragmentation of language games”. Both associative activities and artists’ deterritorializing creative efforts are increasing such fragmentation, emphasizing the differences. They may trigger the collapse of traditional justice, culture, and identity, while also enabling different languages to become legal on a wider scale, which in turn makes society more and more open and diverse.

We should embrace the glory of difference, dare to challenge mainstream definitions, and “activate the differences and save the honor of the name??”.

Cai Guojie’s Half-Field Planning Bureau is a sanctuary for land. By infusing in land the nature of “non-land”, he gives himself ‘the power to “create” to “remove” the facts’. This kind of interference offers strong individuals a chance for self-reflection, while also maintaining the legitimacy of differences. It is a most vivid, powerful example of an artist resisting mediocrity with creation.

December 3, 2019 in Hangzhou, China

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