What do you want to know? What do you want to feel?
Chen Wei, Noon Club, Skira, 2019
‘What do you want to know? What do you want to feel?’ is an essay written for the artist Chen Wei’s book Noon Club, published by Skira, 2019. Bilingual, English / Mandarin
Would you like to know where Chen Wei stands politically? Morally? Sexually? Socially? Aesthetically? Would you like to know if these images were made in China? Would you like to know the exact origin of the enigmatic phrases that appear on the artist’s pages and works in neon? Would you like to know if those are ‘real’ nightclubs, or sets built by the artist? Would you like to know if those are real night-clubbers, oblivious to the artist, or paid models following instructions? Would you like to know the attitude the authorities take to nightclubs? Would you like to know for sure? Would you like to be told the art is intentionally ambivalent and mysterious, so that you might have all your uncertainties put to rest?
We can look online for that kind of knowledge of Chen Wei’s work. It is readily available. Or we accept all those uncertainties and just respond withthem. What use are categorical answers to the questions raised by art, to the questions art asks of us? We must trust ourselves to respond, to make of it what we can. It is what the avant-garde composer John Cage called ‘response-ability’: the obligation to take seriously our role as an audience.
It has become customary for art writing, and notably writing on art originating in China, to string a few background facts together like keys on a keychain. This way, an audience might hope to make some kind of shortcut through an artist’s perplexing field of signs. (As if getting lost in the field of signs could not possibly be the greatest pleasure the art could offer.) The facts might be biographical, cultural, or perhaps anecdotal. Whichever they are, the desire for facts is probably all the stronger in the case of Chen Wei’s work because it is clear to anyone with eyes that the complicated subject here is pleasure itself.
Art about pleasure often has the effect of undercutting that pleasure, estranging it, even emptying it out. While contemplating art about pleasure, a viewer can feel seduced and abandoned. (And what’s wrong with that? Isn’t it precisely what the best art can make us feel?) But while everyone likes seduction, fewer can handle the abandonment. And so art about pleasure tends to feel melancholy. Whatever our degree of empathy, whatever our wish to commune imaginatively with the pleasure we see depicted, we feel the gap between it and us. And in making art about pleasure, perhaps an artist must feel this gap too. Edouard Manet did not lose himself in the revelry of the barat the Folies-Bergère. He contemplated it, in all its economic and gendered contradiction, and painted it for us. Whatever the pleasures of the bar, they were fleeting and compromised.
Perhaps that is the allure of any bar or nightclub. Such places of pleasure tend to have a double relation to society. They can be an escape, a pressure valve that allows people to release their tensions before returning to the status quo of daylight, but they can also be spaces of resistance and destabilization. Giving oneself over to brief pleasure is like dreaming. In dreams, the repressed thoughts and wishes – of the individual, of the group, of society – will surface. This can confuse and worry those in power. The line between the pressure valve and social unrest can be very thin. (What exactly is that person, asleep on a thin mattress, their head obscured by a mirror ball, dreaming about?)