Disegno – Art – Design – Lebenswelt: Bi Rongrong’s Aesthetic Dialectics

Jiang Jun

January, 2015

In Firenze during the Renaissance, Vasari put forward a grand narrative of art history from a theological perspective (see German art historian Gerd Blum’s study), in which disegno was deemed as the “father” of the Three Graces (architecture, sculpture and painting). It was from such a theological perspective that disegno was considered the worldly rationale connected with God’s “logos” for the Creation. In other words, artists were actually paving a road to God’s vision of the Creation through disegno. Disegno is an Italian word, from which we may easily sense the intimacy between drawing and design. God followed his vision to create the world. Likewise, men also followed their own vision when creating artwork or new design. In this regard, the work of artists/designers was considered equal to the great cause of searching for God’s rationality. With the passing of time, though we now live in a secularized world, we’ve inherited the fundamentals of the Renaissance – the symbiosis among disegno, art, design and Lebenswelt. 

When taking a closer look at Bi Rongrong’s artistic practice, we more or less would follow such a pattern. As she put it: “it is through disegno that I try to make sense of the world”. From her early works created during her study in the Netherlands, we could see that the symbiosis among disegno, art, design and Lebenswelt was always at the core of her practice and exploration. 

Modernism has two strategically important pillars in the 20th century: Bauhaus and De Stijl. Collectively they have laid the foundation for modern aesthetics of art and design and have had a profound influence upon modern Lebenswelt. If a general conclusion is to be drawn, abstract geometric aesthetics and the following minimalism in the 1960s in the U.S. constituted the so-called “internationalism” hailed in the architectural circles. It’s not hard for us to spot that life today is teeming with geometry-shaped daily objects. Things as small as an iPhone or as big as a cube-like amalgamated dwelling all fall into this category. The geometric style originated in Europe has swept the modern world, has been integrated with the capitalist mode of production and become an aesthetic trait of the modernization movement; it advocates its universality and endeavors to break with pre-modern aesthetics (decorative style); it realizes “Le Partage du sensible” of modern life on the aesthetic level, and highlights the value of modern life – simplicity, cleanness, purity, order, rationality and self-restraint. “Function is beauty”, the famous principle advocated by Bauhaus, still resounds among designers of the present day. Decoration seems to have become the biggest sin and decadence, as stated in Ornament und Verbrechen, an article published in 1908 by Adolf Loos, a pioneer of the theories of modernism in the 20th century; thus, geometrical aesthetics have become a moral benchmark. Modern man might be differentiated from pre-modern man as he is the “new man”, featuring rationality, self-restraint and order. Designers in the modern context attempt to create a brand new world and life through functionalist geometric design. Despite the mixed feedback and responses, their efforts have been handed down to generations for a century and laid the foundation for modern man’s aesthetic perception. 

Today the Netherlands is widely recognized as a major hub for design and creativity. Architecture and daily objects featuring geometric and minimalist structures are everywhere. It’s safe to say that Bi Rongrong, who furthered her study of western contemporary art in the Netherlands, is inevitably under the influence of such highly abstract and geometric daily aesthetics. After all, what is contemporary art? Boris Groys, co-curator of the last session of Shanghai Biennale, mentioned in a Skype interview with me that “contemporary art is the intuitive response of artists to contemporary scenarios and living conditions.”

In Bi Rongrong’s work, a response to contemporary life could be clearly perceived. Take 7:3 Colors presented at Shanghai World Financial Center in 2013 for example. Located at Lujiazui, a landmark financial district of Shanghai, the installation merged harmoniously with the highly modern and even futuristic buildings surrounding it. The steel framework of this piece corresponded with the steel structure of the surrounding architecture; the use of glass built an association with a glass curtain wall; and the LEDs seemed all the more intriguing under the backdrop of the neon-based texts featured on the huge billboards. The geometric shapes seemed to have been abstracted from the surrounding architectural space, becoming a grave accent in this highly sensual symphony of architecture. Ingeniously integrated with the modern and geometric architectural space, the piece itself was also highlighted due to its strong sense of abstraction. Steel, glass, colored lights and geometric forms became the musical notes to compose this spectacular symphony. Viewers couldn’t help wondering what on earth this installation at a public commercial space was. Was it art or some kind of commercial facility? What was it for? Through all these questions, the surrounding environment that had been taken for granted for long started to be perceived from new angles and even to be questioned: wasn’t endless consumerism exactly the alienation of contemporary life? 

On the contrary, Ideal & Useless Space, another piece of hers, presented itself as a scream within a noisy and crowded space. She made the piece in 2011. The small-commodity market on Anshun Road, Shanghai, looks just like any other market of this kind in China: messy and chaotic, with all kinds of cheap commodities piled up along the street, striking our almost numb retinas. At such a place, a cube-like space consisting of numerous overlapping triangles in green and red would definitely be seen as something heterogeneous. The spatial logic embodied within it, which was completely against the surrounding area, was what the artist would call “ideal space”. Red and green, the two contrast colors, symbolized the abstraction of all the colors contained in the market. Together they formed an abrupt scream but, interestingly, they also sympathized with the surrounding environment. The geometric compositions gave out a sense of meticulous mathematics, constituting a virtual space drifting away from the real space. Not only was it not against the spatial texture of the market, but it also revealed an intention to get rid of the fixed geometric pattern. It was thanks to such efforts that a sense of Platonic ideal could be perceived. Plato believed that geometry was supreme while physical space in the secular sense only came second. Nevertheless, I’m not suggesting Bi Rongrong believes in such kind of high-brow and westernized abstraction. Her artistic intervention managed to cast light on the conflicts between the concept of modern abstraction and China’s daily reality. Were we ready to live in the alienated modernity? Was the cubic space which looked like a dovecote an ideal or an illusion? The boundaries between order and disorder, sense and sensibility, humanity and inhumanity, health and morbidity sometimes are not that distinct. Instead, they turn out to be exchangeable within the dialectics of everyday life. 

When modern aesthetics featuring geometry, minimalism and functionalism is criticized as surveillance and control and often associated with prison, hospital, inspection office or dovecote, China is celebrating the long-awaited arrival of modernistic aesthetics and a consumer society without realizing the sense of surveillance and discipline lurking behind it. Bi Rongrong’s work, in a sense, could be seen as a subtle reminder of such danger. Rather than intervening with a critical attitude, she resorted to her artistic sensitivity to reveal, implicitly, her attitudes toward life and the world and attempted to open up a different perspective to observe our everydayness. 

The circle of art, design and Lebenswelt is always seen hovering behind Bi Rongrong’s work. However, since she moved back to China to continue her practice, the abstraction in her work has been interrupted by an influence from her educational experience before she studied in the Netherlands – Chinese painting. (She majored in Chinese Painting in college in China.) A tendency could be increasingly perceived in her recent drawings and watercolors: highly geometric forms are replaced by a botanical sense of growth and extension. Plato’s binary world never existed in China. Neither has China ever placed abstract geometry at a supremely metaphysical position. Like what is depicted in the diagram of Yin-Yang Fish, in Chinese culture, nature is believed to exist within the interplay of Yin and Yang. According to Tao Te Ching, “Tao gives rise to one. One gives rise to two. Two gives rise to three. Three gives rise to all things. All things carry Yin and embrace Yang by drawing qi together into harmony”. In her recent works, by highlighting the elements of ink and water, Bi Rongrong tones down the sense of geometric abstraction and enhances the everlasting interplay between Yin and Yang. In other words, by stressing the interactive relations between black and white, sparseness and density, dynamic energy is imbued into the previously static images. Her constant “back and forth” between static abstract geometry and dynamic growth/extension could be seen in both her drawings and installations. In a sense, it reminds us of her “back and forth” between China and the west. On the one hand, she seems to be obsessed with the modern aesthetic lying in abstract geometry; and on the other, she is dissatisfied, attempting to break through its restraints. Moreover, while she appreciates the sense of visual order and purity brought about by western modernity, she also questions the sense of inhumanity behind such order, as in Ideal & Useless Space. We wonder if she questions ideal and celebrates the chaos we’re faced with in reality or the other way round. Probably, this reflects exactly her mindset, which lingers between China and the west, modernity and anti-modernity. 

If we see Bi Rongrong’s installation as some kind of conclusion of her thinking, then her drawings could be seen as the process of thinking. Like what it meant during the Renaissance, drawing is the bond between artists and the nature of the world. Though essentialism has come to an end in the contemporary context, drawing as a practice is in nature the “vita activa” of artists. As Marx put it (drawing), it was no longer static “vita contemplativa”, but dynamic changes and influence on the world. In an interview with her, Bi Rongrong talked about her understanding of drawing: 

“The English term for ‘drawing’ actually has a broader meaning than in Chinese; it even includes color and diverse media. Moreover, in western art, drawing can not only be presented in a two-dimensional way but also be integrated with three-dimensional space. When I studied in the Netherlands, I started to pay more attention to the possibilities of drawing. Both the inside and outside of drawing became the realms intriguing me to further my practice, which led to some experimental exploration. Take my installation for example. I’d like to see them as drawings in the three-dimensional context.”

In her view, drawing is the means to communicate with the world. For each of her installation works, she makes drawings. Her attitudes toward life and the world are therefore reflected and recorded in the lines and colors of her drawings. Drawing plays a critical role in the circle of “disegno, art, design and Lebenswelt”. It is not only a starting point, but also a point of sublimation/sublation (re-starting point). It becomes a testing ground for Bi Rongrong’s artistic practice, a take-off leading to the future. 

Translator: Wu Chenyun

Proofreader: Gary Andreasen