Gu Dexin’s exhibition offered a highly constrained amount of visual information yet created an elevated level of emotional and moral tension that was both gripping and disturbing at the same time. It was matter-of-factly entitled ‘2009–05–02’, the date of its opening (as all of his site-specific projects are). The following words were written repeatedly and continually in Chinese block characters in red lacquer, on wooden panels fixed above the eye level on all the walls on the ground floor of the otherwise empty gallery: ‘WE KILLED HUMANS WE KILLED MEN WE KILLED WOMEN WE KILLED THE OLD WE KILLED THE KIDS WE ATE HUMANS WE ATE HUMAN HEARTS. WE BEAT PEOPLE UNTIL THEY TURNED BLIND. WE SMASHED PEOPLE’S FACES.’ These words, stating acts of extreme violence and annihilation, had the grim appearance of the engravings on head stones – chilling revelations and accusations as if uttered by a stern voice from above. They unhinged any sense of assurance and balance, forcing us to ask ‘How do these situations concern me?’, ‘Could I be one of them?’, ‘Would I be the victim or the executor?’, ‘Where do I stand?’.
The windows of the gallery were blocked by old television sets, all of which showed the same looped video of unhurried and fluid cloud formations in a blue sky. It was such a peaceful and comforting presence that it provided a temporary relief from the immense strain of the wall texts below. Going up to the top floor of the gallery, one passed through the second floor – which was in pitch darkness. There was nothing there. A momentary and partial deprivation of sight, a grip of apprehension – an experience not to be missed. On the third floor there were two more projections of the looped cloud video. As the artist had promised us on the ground floor, we had arrived in heaven – ‘WE CAN GO TO HEAVEN’ was the sentence written twice in the same red lacquer and positioned on a wooden panel slightly elevated above the centre of the ground space’s floor. But could anyone really shake off the lingering sense of anxiety and guilt triggered by the sentences on the wall? Those words, simple as they appeared, had cast a spell.
Gu Dexin – who became known for working with perishable materials such as fruits, meat and animal intestines, which he left to rot in the exhibition space – has now taken a drastically different approach, albeit possibly with the same issue in mind: what lasts and what doesn’t? While most of Gu Dexin’s former installations touched upon our bodily senses in the bluntest way, ‘2009–05–02’ spoke directly to something much more inescapable. There was no way to ignore the contrast between the bloodshed conjured by the words and the eternal serenity suggested by the videos. The exhibition brought up the question of art’s responsibility towards our world, asking how can a work of art discuss fundamentally human subjects such as atrocity and salvation? The least it can do perhaps is to provide a space for thinking, reminiscing and looking forward, which is what Gu Dexin’s did here, in a beautiful and forceful way.
First published in Issue 126