“If This is a Man”








“If This is a Man” is a memoir by Jewish writer Primo Levi about his experience in the Auschwitz concentration

camp. It begins with a poem. Here are the opening lines:

If This Is a Man

You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,

Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud,
Who does not know peace,
Who fights for a scrap of bread,

Who dies because of a yes or a no.

Consider if this is a woman
Without hair and without name,
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.

In this prayer-style poem, the author exhorts the reader to imagine a state of inhumanity. And if we forget this
possibility of existence, may misfortune befall us:“Or may your house fall apart, May illness impede you, May your
children turn their faces from you.” Actually, Primo Levi’s emphasis can be understood as: if we forget this “inhumanity”,

then our existence as “human” is not fulfilled.

But “man” itself is not a self-evident, complete concept. The subjectivity of man posited by enlightenment thought

is constructed atop that single reed, the background of nihility — man as an object. That is to say, you must first posit

man as an object before pursuing the concept of man as man. We may be unclear on what a man is, but we all know

what the state of inhumanity is. As Adorno says: “We may not know what absolute good is or the absolute norm, we
may not even know what man is or the human or humanity — but what the inhuman is, we know very well indeed.”〔1〕
In this sense, “man” always implies where and what man is not, i.e. the presence of the inhuman, to the point that “man”
is nothing more than a witness and ponderer of the inhuman. This is why Primo Levi, as a witness, repeatedly beseeches
us to “consider”.

As for this exhibition however, this “a man” is not urgent about being raised up to “the man” that has been

defined as the ontological subject of thought; instead, it emphasizes a humble perspective of empirical observation and

institutional analysis. Here, “a man” is concrete and multidimensional, and therefore, full of doubts. These doubts touch
on artists, artworks, audiences and the entire system that permeates them all.

Is artist “a man”? It is difficult to provide a clear answer to this question. On one hand, the concept of “personality”
constructed by modernism has already been met with challenges; the use of such techniques as reproduction and
appropriation as well as conceptual art’s discarding of style; such things have already touched on a reconsideration of the
humanism that serves as a backdrop for the concept of “personality.” Meanwhile, more and more art practices — as the
result of the rethinking of such concepts as “personality” and “talent,” we have grown to abandon using the term “artistic
creation” — are no longer completed by a single artist; more and more artistic practices are emerging under the visage of
artist groups, art factories and art companies. Though they still emphasize the individual traits of the artist, this is already
a situation where the artist is turned into an icon or a promotion.

Beyond this, and possibly more importantly, the influence and decisive power of our entire art system — including
production, dissemination, consumption and research — over artistic practices has already far surpassed that of any
single individual. We are facing straits where even the concept of the “artist” may be discarded, because the difference
between an artist and a non-artist is perhaps only determined by whether or not “a man” is — whether actively or
passively — situated within this art system.

In such a situation, the previous images of the artist, such as the prodigy, the lunatic, the nobleman, the hero, the
recluse, the star or the great man, may all face incompatibility with reality. As a result, we trend towards restoring the
specific artist from these masks, returning to the lowest, most mundane and trivial experiences while temporarily setting
“art” to one side, facing only the living world of “a man” that has been disenchanted.

As for the artwork, what relationship does it have to “a man”? The artwork inevitably encompasses “a man”, like
the “man” and “woman” in the opening poem, but it must be emphasized that he/she could come from reality, but could
just as easily be speculative, and he/she is not without connections to the artist. Of course, the relationship between the
artist and “the man” in his artwork is not so much the artist’s connection with his shadow but the relationship between
one person and another and the connection between the individual and the collective. It can also be extended to the
relationship between the artist and the audience.

Under today’s cultural system, the relationship between the artist and the audience has been alienated, becoming a
unidirectional relationship of producing/receiving. For the average member of the audience, the art museum is more of
a place for pilgrimage and to receive education, a place where their own subjectivities have not gained presentation. As
opposed to the legendary subjectivity of the artist, the audience is always the collective, the anonymous, making for an
asymmetry between individual production and collective reception.

It should be noted that the rise of this situation is connected to the construct of the solo exhibition mechanism
within the modern art system. To this day, the large retrospective solo exhibition in the museum is still viewed as the
final crowning ritual for an artist, and the periodic holding of solo exhibitions in galleries is the fundamental path for
the artist’s career development. Whether or not the solo exhibition mechanism can still effectively handle the task of
presenting artistic practice and research is at this point a question that must be discussed. In fact, the discussion about

the concept of the “solo exhibition” is a latent theme of this exhibition.
It is for these reasons that we are now attempting to deviate from the conventional “solo exhibition”. Firstly, this

exhibition cannot be classified as a retrospective exhibition or an exhibition of new works from a particular phase. It
is closer to an art history research exhibition, one which sets out from an abstract theme and examines specific artistic

practices, even though this theme falls on Jiang Zhi. This theme, however, is productive — in comparison to traditional
art history research — or perhaps under our constructed perspective, Jiang Zhi’s past works will be looked at anew.

On the second point, the subject of the exhibition grows more complex. The interaction between the curators, the
museum and the artist have made the subject of the exhibition no longer the artist as an individual but instead a field with
many dimensions. In this exhibition especially, Jiang Zhi takes on multiple identities: the artist as the object of research,
the artist as the subject of practice and as a curator. It is under this last identity that Jiang Zhi has turned the concept of
the “artist” and his persona into the topic of his discussion. Possibly the most interesting, however, is that a fabricated
character, “Mu Mu,” has also entered into the subject of the exhibition. “Mu Mu” can be any person, including a member
of the audience.

In fact, there are four exhibitions under this theme of “If This is a Man”: Jiang Zhi’s solo exhibition curated by the
curators, the “Man with the Eye-White” and “Landscape of the Very Spirit” solo exhibitions curated by Jiang Zhi, and
the “Museum of Mu Mu”. There is no linear relationship of subordination between them.

Under such a construct, who is “a man” is hard to say at this point. Is it Jiang Zhi the individual, Xiong Wangzhou, his
fellow painter from hometown, “Feichang Diyao”, the once closely watched blog ID (of Yang Jia), or “Mu Mu” the doll
and mask? Of course, “a man” can also be an individual connected to Jiang Zhi’s works, such as the poet Forefinger, the
performer Ah-Jiao, or Jiang Zhi’s friends and relatives. “A man” might appear in a written passage, a recorded segment, a
video or a photograph. “A man” could be in the exhibition hall looking at the artworks, or reading this text right now.



Bao Dong

March 2012, Beijing

( Translation_Jeff Crosby )

Adorno, Theodor, Problems of Moral Philosophy [Chinese version]; Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 2008, p. 198