Joseph Tanke: Become What You Are Not:Han Xiao's Evanescent

To whom do our bodies belong? That is one of the many deep,nuanced,and troubling questions posed by the recent work of Han Xiao. Do we belong to ourselves,as so many of us naively believe?Or are we the products of social,cultural,and historical forces beyond our control?Even if the individual ultimately retains responsibility for his or her own body,to what extent can we say that he or she is in control of it,especially since the values according to which we negotiate our bodies and minds predate,outlast,and ultimately escape us?
It is now common in art circles to describe Han Xiao as humanist,a lover of classical art and wisdom.Perhaps we should demand nothing less of doctors,even now as the medical establishment--East and West--becomes more and more unmoored from its earlier humanistic underpinnings.Nevertheless,I am inclined to see Han Xiao’s work as a profound meditation on our posthuman fate,on the fact that we reside in a world increasingly incompatible with traditional notions of human nature and certainly inhospitable to the scope size,and aptitudes of the human body.Does one need to spell it out?At a certain point,human civilization crossed a threshold after which technological manipulation replaced what was probably a fiction to begin with,the idea of human nature.For a longtime,this fiction prevented techniques from dramatically altering the human form.Today,however,we live in an era in which individuals alter their identities at will--or seemingly at will--by means of carefully designed digital profiles,elective brain chemistry that changes moods and personality,and greater and greater corporeal plasticity.Practically speaking,we have strayed so far from the idea of human nature that perhaps only one slogan is now capable of uniting humanity:A better life is possible...through human engineering.
“Today,The Art Museum”is a three-part exhibition of Han Xiao’s recent work.A performance on August 25,2012 will allow gallery goers to meet Zhang Lei,a recipient of one of Han Xiao’s gender-reassignment surgeries.Visitors will have the chance to encounter her,one-on-one ,in a way reminiscent of Marina Abramovi’s recent performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York,”The Artist Is Present.”Instead of encountering a silent artist ,however,viewers will have the opportunity to engage the more ambiguous persona of Zhang Lei.Is she here as art object?Artist of her own identity?The collaborator of Han Xiao?The second part of the exhibition includes the instruments,documentation,and ephemera from operations recently performed by Han Xiao,such as the August 8,2012 breast augmentation of Yang Yuhuan.Finally,we have sculptures,unsettling sculptures composed of bone fragments and other organic materials.Given Han Xiao’s painting practice,many will likely view these sculptures in terms of classical Chinese aesthetics,and they would be right to do so. I would insist,however,upon how very jarring these objects are in the context of the museum,and how these compositions upset the customary partitioning of the organic from the cultural.How can one not see a work like Mandibular Angle (2011),a work composed of the bone chips of over four hundred patients,as a monument to our desire to be rid of some unpleasant aspect of ourselves,and the pain entailed in doing so?
What ,ultimately,drives this relentless desire for self-transformation which resides deep in the human heart and which is on display everywhere in the world today?What role does the pursuit of beauty play in this process?And,perhaps most importantly,according to whose criteria of beauty are we remodeling ourselves?These are the kinds of questions that need to be thought through carefully,not only by those undergoing elective procedures,but also by society at large.These are ethical and philosophical questions of tremendous magnitude,but ones that must be posed in a direct and visceral way.Perhaps they are questions that can only be properly framed by a plastic surgeon turned artist.
Given these concerns,it is not a surprise to learn that Han Xiao admires philosophy,especially the anti-humanist thought of Michel Foucault.It was Foucault who taught us in the West how to think once again in terms of systems,processes,relations of power,and,above all else,history,instead of the subject and the individual.And it seems important to indicate here not only the topics that both Foucault and Han Xiao share--the body,sexuality and sexual identity,the history of medicine,and power--but the affinities between their ways of pursuing these questions,that is,the deliberate,analytical,and desubjectivized fashion in which each conducts his investigations.Many will be surprised to see the absence of any and all melancholy in Han Xiao’s work,and a bold refusal to editorialize.Han Xiao does not romanticize earlier eras,and he does not contemplate what might have been had the relationship between the human being and technology been configured differently.His works are an embrace of the world as it is.And they need to be.Upon what basis could one criticize the young women who come to Han Xiao seeking to inject some beauty into their lives?What value could one appeal to trump beauty when everywhere our sensory landscape is being reconditioned according to aesthetic criteria?
Here it is helpful to invoke the thought of another French post-structuralist to better understand some of the questions posted by Han Xiao’s practice,namely the work of Jean Baudrillard.In the Transparency of Evil (1993),Baudrillard delivered a stinging and wide-ranging critique of the art world,the very same art world that embraced his writings so enthusiastically throughout the 1980s.He claimed that despite its pretensions,the avantgarde had been definitively surpassed by the aesthetic operations refashioning everyday life.Baudrillard formulated the concept of “trans-aesthetics”to express the idea that art is now everywhere in the world,except in the world of art!Trans-aesthetics,along with the concepts of “trans-politics,””trans-economics,”and”trans-sexuality”designate the collapse of these different domains,once believed to be separate,into one another.Modernity,for Baudrillard,is the dizzying process according to which the signs of art,polities,economics,and sex become thoroughly and irredeemably confused.Trans-aesthetics designates the movement,carried out by advertisers,the mass-media,politicians,and pornographers by which art lost its boundaries,and with it its specific capacities for shock,seduction,and adventure.In a world rendered aesthetic,what use have we for galleries and museums?
What will be disturbing to many about the work of Han Xiao are not the procedures themselves,but the way in which he uses them to problematize the concept of art.For a long time,art has had a strained yet fruitful relationship with medicine.One thinks of the comparisons often drawn between the figure of the artist and the”medicine man,”shaman,or healer,and even the role that the study of anatomy plays in acquiring basic drawing skills.Further,after the collapse of the dominant narrative of modern art--the one according to which it was the duty of each medium to achieve its own purity by means of a self-critique using nothing but the medium itself --art reached out to science in new and unprecedented ways.Many sought to reinvigorate art by contaminating it with other techniques,forms of knowledge,and domains of life.Nevertheless,those engaged in the production,display,and consumption of art are more comfortable with this idea when art remains in control of the process.They can scarcely abide the thought of applied science blurring the boundaries between art and life,and of a man of medicine usurping the powers invested in art.
And to do what exactly?Not only does Han Xiao suggest a deep complicity between art and medicine,one well worth pondering;he leaves us with a series of serious questions regarding the place of art in the contemporary world:Where today does art reside?Is it in the operation itself,carefully staged as performance?Is it the finished products Zhang Lei and Yang Yuhuan?Is it to be found in the objects displayed for museum visitors?Or is it the concept that unites these different works?
A similar series of questions likewise presents itself regarding the place of the artist.Is Han Xiao still the artist if he is carrying out the instructions of Zhang Lei and Yang Yuhuan?Is he enacting their conception of beauty,his own,or someone else’s?Are Zhang Lei and Yang Yuhuan artists,at least of their own identities?Can they rightly be termed “collaborators”?And what are we to make of the fact that Han Xiao insists that for the August 8,2012 breast augmentation performance,the lover of Yang Yuhuan make the first incision?I am inclined to see this as a heart-wrenching gesture,a provocative artistic choice that speaks volumes about the nature of love and romance in the contemporary world.No longer do we love others unconditionally,we reengineer them to fit our ideals.
If these(artistic)operations make us squeamish it is because we see in a dramatization of what occurs,perhaps more subtly,in our negotiations with friends,family,lovers,and culture at large.Are we not continually being reshaped by these exchanges?Do we not in turn attempt to perform little cosmetic surgeries of our own when we influence the appearances of others with hints and compliments?At the end of the day,what is the difference between a well-placed word and a scalpel,between the semiological operations carried out upon our bodies by culture and the actual operations of Han Xiao?
If,as I suggested,our bodies no longer belong to ourselves,but rather are thoroughly penetrated by society,culture,and history,should we not also say the same of art?This,I think,is what Han Xiao’s work captures so well.Art now takes place behind our backs,in a play of anonymous social and historical forces that no one in particular controls.In this respect,Han Xiao’s ambiguous relationship with his volunteers/subjects/objects allows him to discover the perfect vanishing point dreamed up the golden of European aesthetics and postmodern theorists alike,that of a subjectless process in which the artist ,object,nature,and culture become so thoroughly confused that one cannot ascribe causal agency to one over the other.
While Han Xiao’s art is very much about the reintroduction of beauty into contemporary art,it is a beauty that was made elsewhere,outside of the artist`s studio or the contemporary museum.It is a beauty that was dreamed up by advertisers,ladies`magazines,male fantasies,and the desire for youth,perfection,and immortality.But perhaps,at its very core,Xiao’s work speaks to the beauty we find in losing ourselves,or,more radically still,recognizing that we never had a self to lose.