First Experience: Ning Li – In Search of the “Changeling” in Tokyo

post: 2013/06/10

When the artist Ning Li came to Tokyo, he brought with him the characteristic dustiness of his hometown Jinan, as well as the psychic stress, the discouragement, anger, and resignation of life particular to the current government of China.

For a Chinese national today, “Japan” is no doubt the emblem they know best. The thoughts towards Japan that Chinese people have refer to the war that took place 1937 and 1945. In films and television dramas, the image of the “Onigo” (“changeling”, a pejorative term for the Japanese) has taken society by storm and gradually implanted a stereotype into people’s minds. (In the past, “Onigo actors” were skinny Chinese actors playing the roles as vulgar characters but recently it has been more young Japanese actors who live in China.) Ning Li has been searching for the “Onigo” in Japan, but the only people he could find are people diverse in sensibiltiies and personality, and who have the same human emotions as him. The stereotype he had in his mind has lost its shape. At this point he then developed his concept of “Undoing”.

Naturally, the structure of the work is relatively simple but in the current situation between China and Japan, a work like this is experiencd in a very particular way. Ning Li, as he shows in the beginning of the work, ironically points to an empty, narrow-minded Chinese nationalism. His perspective, though applying different methods, also represents an ironical parallel with Makoto Aida’s approach to Japanese nationalism.

The categories of “state”, “ethnic group” and “race” are “undone”, and the position of the individual strengthened, so that the individual is not absorbed by the group any more.

There is a popular funny story. The theme for a short essay in an English exam was: “Write about your personal view on the problem of food deprivation”. The African students asked: “What is food?” The American students asked: “What is deprivation?” And the Chinese students asked: “What is a personal view’”? In China, where collectivism is esteemed, individual principles are systematically destroyed by the educational system, ideology and habits. As an artist who is living under the strong pressure of this system we can understand that Ning Li is rebelling. Looking at his initial works, its form is comparably simple and superficial. But this is no doubt due to the fact that there have been limits of time and scale. Yet what is even more important is that his theme is the collapse of the group, the wiping out of stereotypes and categories, but his research and its methods still rely on categorization. This means that when he decides on the age of the interviewees for his film he expects that these person will be representatives of his or her age group. For example, he asks: “How are you Japanese thinking about this issue?” “You Japanese junior high school boys, what do you like?” When he asks questions like this, he wants the interviewed person to answer as a representative of the group to which he or she belongs, and the questions undoubtedly include a kind of induction. By this, a precious opportunity for true exchange between individual and individual becomes ineffective; the interviews remain on the surface. And this is contrary to the artistic aim of Undoing. Without the limitation of time, Ning Li’s interviews would surely have come reached a higher standard.

Actually, since the 1980s Chinese artists have emphasized the role of the individual and worked to weaken collectivism. The dark shades of the civil movements during the Cultural Revolution still continue to shroud people’s minds. The pressure of mainstream discourse under the current system created a backlash which made Chinese contemporary art of the last thirty years opposed to the issues of social responsibility and the politicization of art. Ning Li’s way of thinking basically follows this same track. It is like a hand-me-down opinion from the 1968 student movements in the West, but when we take the specific circumstances in China into account, we can say that this kind of resistance can still claim value.

The foremost aim of r:ead is exchange. The very first unconscious step of cultural exchange is to escape from stereotypical images and to eliminate the prejudices against certain ethnic groups, and to deal with each other, individual to individual. In this way, deepening the exchange between individuals, deeper thinking will finally be generated. More than thirty years have passed since the policies of reform and openness began. China is still a relatively closed state. Especially for a Chinese artist r:ead was a most valuable experience.