It’s a special thing to watch an artistic collective emerge from a single show. In September 2005, I happened to catch the first outing of the Polit-Sheer Form Office, a new constellation of artists Song Dong, Xiao Yu, Hong Hao, and Liu Jianhua, and critic/curator/gallerist Leng Lin. Leng and Song had worked together in the 1990s, before the former’s sojourn in Berlin, on a show called “It’s Me!” at the Imperial Ancestral Temple, the cancelation of which in turn became the basis for a landmark study by Wu Hung as well as a tidy Smart Museum exhibition. The other members clicked into place over the summer of 2005. Leng Lin, having just founded an alternative space (now a powerhouse gallery) called Beijing Commune out in a still-remote Caochangdi, needed to fill his exhibition calendar. The Office, five guys who had only recently become mutually acquainted, stepped into the void.
That first show, appropriately titled “Only One Wall,” consisted of two pieces: a blue wall, printed with a generic image of the sea, and a banner laying out the group’s inchoate manifesto. Polit-Sheer Form: like so many China-coined English names, it didn’t quite sing. The Chinese name does the project some but not much more justice, and would translate more literally as “The Office of Pure Political Form.” But in Chinese it sounds, to the properly seasoned ear, like some absurdist government organ, buried deep in one or another musty ministry and with some vague but absolute set of responsibilities. The “political” here as everywhere in China is both front and center and somehow invisible, making the inquiry less some purely aesthetic conceit and instead grounding it in the back-and-forth of now. These were regular guys, trying to distill some aesthetic precepts from the lives they’ve led. And those lives, all of which began in the early-to-mid-Sixties, are among the last in China to include conscious recollection of the way things were with/under/during Mao, albeit from the perspective of young boys who saw circus and spectacle where others may have felt tragedy. That first manifesto show didn’t make a lot of sense at the time: unconvincing language about a generation unlike any other, a wall that took a rather pedestrian visual shape.
The shape didn’t matter, they argued, because the Office was really about another forgotten valence of the older order: the collective, homosocial camaraderie that they see as once having underlain so many other interactions. High Socialism was about a lot of things, but one of them was early-middle-aged men hanging out. To this end the Office began organizing trips, first to visit sites of actually existing socialism, later to take in various forms of circumscribed pleasure as in a day in Shanghai which began with a visit to the site of the First Party Congress and continued with coffee atop the Jin Mao Tower. As artists living well beyond the danwei-induced stupor of strained interpersonal relations and managed leisure to which a great many are still subject, they were nostalgic for the sort of structure that would give them orders–enforced as much by consensus as by threat–of where to be and when, what to do and how. They yearned for that particular form of governmentality in a way not that far off the mark of how Americans of my generation might for a cultural canon, conscious all along of the flawed object of their desire, subject to it nonetheless. And so they created it for themselves. Later they made paintings and coloring books about their travels.
In 2008, as the capital teetered on the brink of propaganda-induced euphoria, the Office produced its “sheerest” work ever: a Polit-Sheer-Blue library containing ten thousand Polit-Sheer-Blue books, each individually numbered, none containing anything other than pages and pages of empty blue. They took staged photos of themselves hanging out while reading the book, everyone absorbing the contentless content of the truly blue. They opened it to browsing by the gallery-going public.
Last night I went to the recently refurbished Timezone 8 in the 798 art zone for the launch of We Art Polit-Sheer-Form, a new book which details the Office’s project over the last six years. On their lapels, each member wore the Polit-Sheer-Form insignia pin: a blue rectangle with a sliver border and a tiny, rectangular indentation at top left. The indentation is there because a rafter ran through that initial blue wall they installed at Beijing Commune six years ago this week. The cool form of the pin, analogous in placement and function to the flag pins that have become part of the visual furniture of American politics, is a distillation of circumstance, which serves to highlight the specificity and contingency–cultural, historical, ideological–of any political form, no matter how seemingly ingrained. It is at once a send-up of totalitarian symbology and a distinctly insidery signifier.
Among their first pieces together was a digital composite portrait, a character named Mr. Zheng, after the first character in the Office’s Chinese name, the first character in the word for “politics.” (Perhaps not coincidentally, Mr. Zheng, while a mathematical hybrid of all five faces, most resembles Leng Lin.) For a recent show at Shanghai Gallery of Art, in that fashionable enclave Three on the Bund, they unfurled a flag bearing Mr. Zheng’s likeness out the gallery window, and let it flutter against the masonry a few stories above Guangdong Lu. Needless to say, a call asking for the banner’s removal came in from the local PSB within fifteen minutes.
After the book launch I went with four of the five Officers and critic Pauline Yao–Xiao Yu had a cold–for some late-night Cantonese. Over turtle-shell jelly and chicken-foot cassoulet, they reminisced about recent projects, and joked about a recent stay in their designated Shanghai hotel, the terrible Motel 168 on Anyuan Lu. Song Dong, secretary of the Polit-Sheer Exchequer, got up to pay. I said thanks; Thank Mr. Zheng, they replied. This morning, my houseguest for the weekend, once a part with me of a five-member crowd of Americans studying at Tsinghua, flew for Pyongyang. And then a colleague sent me this video of five North Korean kids strumming away. Must be something collective in the sheer autumn air.