Arts Featured

Subverting subversion

You'll feel how we tell you to feel about this picture
You'll feel how we tell you to feel about this picture

What’s the difference between the official narrative—the stories authorities choose to tell us about who we are—and the reality for ordinary people living their everyday lives? This question is especially poignant for Jing Yuan Huang, the Chinese-Canadian artist behind Latitude 53’s newest exhibition: Classroom of Culture Reflection—Confucius City Edmonton Project.

“I’ve become very alert to the idea of influence,” she says by email from China. “I question the infrastructure and the visibility of ‘influence.'”

In Confucius City, Huang uses pleasing bucolic images like clouds or doves—imagine the famous Windows desktop background of a rolling green field under azure sky—and intersperses them with authoritative, official-sounding bureaucratic-y text. These words identify not only what you’re looking at, but how you should be feeling about it.

This idea, of how authority attempts to shape how people understand reality, is one that is especially poignant for Huang. The Chinese state regularly uses outright propaganda to advance its agenda. Authorities also use Confucius Institutes, a worldwide program of schools said to promote Chinese language and culture—but often criticized for presenting a highly politicized view of China.

“I could assume that most of the people know [that] what [the] government has put out was lies, or propaganda, or just empty forms to make things in order,” Huang says. “Sometimes, I am very surprised to know that people are still very supportive of the government. My recent projects are set to explore this area: how do people really see their own lives?”

Huang describes the images she uses in Confucius City as “neutral/natural,” extremely subtle visual prompts that don’t carry the heavy weight of preconceived meaning. What do you make of a perfectly ordinary-looking picture of a cloud against a blue sky? Well, what does the text tell you to feel?

Ai Weiwei, the towering giant of contemporary Chinese art, was in many ways a catalyst for Huang’s exhibition. She started Confucius City in 2011 after Weiwei was arrested by Chinese authorities for his provocative activism and challenge of state authority.

The real reasons he was arrested—that unflinching criticism of the Chinese state—was not what the authorities told the public, and they preferred to level tax evasion charges instead. This punitive reaction to an outspoken artist is explored in Huang’s classroom setting: desks lined up in rows, texts and images on the wall.

“It invites you to reflect on culture, with a couple of examples of how ‘they reflect,'” Huang says. “Through rhetoric you understand this message comes from someone who believes ‘art should serve people,’ and ‘tradition should serve national pride.’ [There’s a] contrast to how modern, open, calm the setting looks with the backwardness of its belief.”

This approach is a new one for Huang’s work. She’s presented Confucius before, like in Winnipeg where she favoured more striking imagery: naked female torsos juxtaposed with flashy mandalas and grim communist architecture. Other notable work includes Transmigrating Inadequacy, a 2008 effort where Huang created large-scale installations of image-walls that guided visitors through the exhibition space.

Adam Waldron-Blain handles program coordination and communications for Latitude 53—and is also tasked with executing Huang’s vision from across the world through a slight language barrier and a 12-hour time difference. Huang immigrated to Canada in 2002 but returned to China in 2010. For medical reasons she will be unable to be in Edmonton for the show, so Waldron-Blain is the artist’s de facto eyes and hands in Canada.

The staff assembled the classroom setting in the gallery’s main space. While more pronounced in China, with its more overt state indoctrination, Canada—and especially Edmonton—is not immune for distorting our story to serve a purpose.

“Edmonton has this focus on identity: who are we, what kind of city are we and what’s our history,” Waldron-Blain says. “So we’re constantly talking about what everything means, what our narrative is.”

Until Sat, Jan 17
Latitude 53

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