Uncanny Juxtapositions / A Brief Guide to Getting Lost at the Tap Water Factory / James Reath

Detail from Geng Jianyi, Two People Under a Light (Reproduction), 1985, oil on canvas. Collection of Taikang Insurance Group.

In this Uncanny Juxtaposition:

Geng Jianyi: Who is He? (Beijing: UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, 2023)


Eluned Summers-Bremner, Astray: A History of Wandering (London: Reaktion, 2023)

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Detail from Geng Jianyi, Two People Under a Light (Reproduction), 1985, oil on canvas. Collection of Taikang Insurance Group.

Roaming from ancient Australian aboriginal dreaming practices through hobo sigla, ghost particles, medieval forests, and off-shore trading systems, Eluned Summers-Bremner’s delightfully distracted cultural history of wandering, Astray (Reaktion: 2023), endeavors to teach us the value and meaning of errancy in the warming worlds of late capitalist technocracy. So, too, in the exhibition Geng Jianyi: Who is He? (UCCA Center for Contemporary Art: 2023)—a tantalizing retrospective of one of China’s leading conceptual artists from the ’85 New Wave movement to his late experiments with Moving Books 1-6 (2006)—do we find a welcome means of being led astray, both from orthodox art histories of conceptualism and from the epistemological stability of our everyday ways of knowing, feeling, and being in the world. Taken together, Geng and Summers-Bremner present the conceptual and pragmatic value of wandering as a kind of elastic and tensile tool—not unlike what Hubert Damisch describes as “l’élasticité du concept” structuring “la nuage”—tailormade for the generative production of errant relations and tangential interdependencies. In turn, the value of wandering comes alive throughout Astray and Geng Jianyi: Who is He? as an increasingly necessary tool for reinscribing limit in an overtly delimited late capitalist lifeworld and for dissolving rigid ideations of community and category in increasingly insular nation-states.

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Eluned Summers-Bremner. Astray: A History of Wandering. London: Reaktion, 2023.

Bronze Age nomadic steppe tribes found the lived condition of wandering to be a rich catalyst for adaptability, and so too does Summers-Bremner warn that in the warming worlds of the Anthropocene we will need to reacquaint ourselves with the epistemological virtues of drifting as a teacher of adaptability, dexterity, and ingenuity. The contemporary sense of wandering as departing from something—like “a path, a moral code, an ethos”—appears from this perspective as a crude “modern mistake, an industrial or proto-industrial valuing of product over process” (8). Environmental volatility necessitates transience, and in turn Summers-Bremner invites us to reconceptualize wandering as a healthy and intrinsically human condition of “decentralized organization” (11) that is not only proleptically inscribed in our fraught futures, but also embedded in the history of the universe itself, rooted in the narratives of our more recent pasts—from Homer’s Odyssey to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—and etched into our shared sociopolitical present of gig economy workers, global financial networks, and unending refugee crises.

Astray augments its urgent environmental call for a rekindling and a relearning of what we might call our undying will-to-wander by way of attending to a multi-scalar, multi-disciplinary, and multi-temporal archive that cuts across physics, poetry, biology, economics, philosophy, history, linguistics, anthropology, art history, and more. In doing so, Summers-Bremner’s history of wandering seeks not to romanticise anarchy or formalise chaos, but to quietly and rationally defend our abiding need for democracy, sanctuary, origin, errancy, and meaning. As Socrates reminds his fellow Athenians, “democracy is an experiment designed to mobilize uncertainty,” spurring communal goodness by way of asking us all to wonder what goodness itself is (251). As greed and tyranny rise with sea-levels and scarcity throughout our century of spiralling environmental catastrophe, Summers-Bremner ventures that ancient and pre-modern strategies of wandering will emerge once more as a vital force for “communal good” (252). Far from mere anomaly or mere outlier, the nomadic germ that Astray excavates across a dazzling range of materials emerges instead as the essence of an older, richer, and potentially life-saving form or feeling of community—routed through ancient democracy—that we will do well to reacquaint ourselves with in the tumultuous times to come.

The oeuvre of Geng—like that of so many other twentieth- and twenty-first century artists—seems to index a parallel way of clinging onto or keeping alive this increasingly lost art of wandering as what Summers-Bremner calls a vital kernel of “practical, ethical and phenomenological possibility” (9) and “communal good.” Geng’s conceptual practice typically evokes a rigid form or structure only so that it might be wandered out into and through in a kind of kinetic grammar of micro-variation. Consider, for example, Geng’s breathtaking student painting, Two People Under a Light (1985). The work is “a copy of the structure of some still-life paintings I had made,” Geng recalls, “only I took the form and switched the two empty bottles in one of the still-lifes with two figures.” The structural play underlying the composition transforms the work, irreverently animating, enlivening, and undermining the observer’s initial sense of the painting’s severe stillness. The objective quietude of its human and non-human forms suddenly starts to tremble, waver, and wander. We are alerted, abruptly, to the distracted, decentered gaze of the female as she floats to the fore, almost overwhelming the eyeless male besides her, who is boorishly distracted by a newspaper and becomes increasingly mannequin-like. A form, a shape, a silhouette so often only really comes to matter, Geng suggests, when it becomes a point from which we wander.

Skip ahead now to Geng’s four-channel video-work, Do Yourself the Correct Way (2005). Here, factory workers are filmed performing and reperforming the same menial task inside white cubes accompanied by little more than a camera and a laptop. “The aim,” writes Geng, “was to find out if there was any action that can be reproduced exactly.” Early-twentieth century machine age Taylorist demands for infinite gestural efficiency are represented by Geng via the millimetric precision of early-twenty-first century digital technologies from the heart of modern China’s great financial and industrial acceleration of the 1990s and 2000s. What we are presented with is a video attuned to the quiet curl of quantum error, singing in an increasingly regimented, codified, and technologized late capitalist world.

Yet, while there is a glint of machine age economic practices in Do Yourself the Correct Way—as in the Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s “time-and-motion studies” from the 1900s—so too does it seem to look ahead to a neoliberal postmillennial digital age in thrall to capitalizing on and even gamifying increasingly discrete gestures. The “micro-work” platforms like “Clickworker or Amazon Mechanical Turk (where work is not called work but HITS, or Human Intelligence Tasks)” (225) that Summers-Bremner analyses seem particularly pertinent to Do Yourself the Correct Way, as Geng homes in the new millennium’s increasingly technologized attempts to systematically and even algorithmically isolate and exploit workers in the neo-nomadic communities of what will become the “gig economy”.

By contrast, in Tap Water Factory (1987), Geng reproduces a portion of the structural layout of a tap water factory in mainland China, only to pierce and warp the blueprint with holes, gaps, folds, and other deformations. On one level, the work’s peculiar title, Tap Water Factory, suggests late capitalist practices of private corporations like Pepsi and Coca-Cola that ubiquitously bottle and commodify tap water—a basic human necessity. On another level, however, the work communicates a critique of the encroaching privatization of public infrastructure. Specifically, in Tap Water Factory an essential infrastructural node—where water is, presumably, chemically treated, filtered, and rendered publicly consumable—is presented as structurally and formally labile, or open to public traversal. In the reconstruction of Tap Water Factory for a previous exhibition at Power Station for Art (PSA) in Shanghai, for example, the deconstructed blueprint was reconstructed as a maze-like installation, open to the continuous deformations of wandering observers. The industrialist drive to control and commodify the elements folds back out into an open and generative space of and for the communal good.

Figures depicting the flightpaths of wasps in relation to their nests, drawn from Zeitschrift fur Naturwissenschaften (20 October 1900).

In this sense, Tap Water Factory brilliantly transforms a hyper-regulated and increasingly privatized infrastructural space of elemental control into something like a dark medieval forest, an errant space for getting lost in like what Summers-Bremner discovers at the start of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (c. 1308-1321). Dante, Summers-Bremner notes, uses the word selva for medieval forest, derived from the medieval term silva referring “not only to wood and forests but to all matter in its originally chaotic form”. In turn, silva is a translation of the Greek hyle (meaning matter, stuff), and in the twelfth century becomes a means of describing “the disorderly, mobile matter from which the Timaeus’ craftsman-god creates the universe” (21). The medieval forest not only encapsulates a fundamentally wild space through which to err, stray, and wander, but also suggests an elemental environ wherein such errant matter is first brought into form. By extension, Geng’s Tap Water Factory is a kind of postmodern incarnation of the dark medieval forest, a space wherein the subject can err once more and rediscover elemental form’s complicity with continuous deformation.

Like the hypercommodified and controlled environ of Tap Water Factory, Geng’s later conceptual installation piece, Floor (1997)—brilliantly reproduced by the UCCA—invites the public to wander through and even trample upon its deconstruction of rigid form. Floor is a fractured mosaic of different floor types lifted from a cross-section of environments, both indoor and outdoor. To experience Floor is to drift erratically over and in-between bits and scraps of 7-Eleven corner store floors, public square floors, humdrum hotel room floors, ultra-hygienic art gallery floors, private living room floors, dusty stairwell floors, and the floors of grey office blocks. The ground itself here—the fundamental condition of rootedness and place—fragments with the digitized textures of kitsch oriental carpets and cold linoleum tiles, cracked pavements and astroturfs, reassembling into the jumbled likeness of an unfinished puzzle.

For Summers-Bremner, the act of wandering is a way of being in dynamic cooperation with the sort of incessantly changing and deeply puzzling environment that Geng diagrams in Floor. If a nomadic principle is excavated by Summers-Bremner—and morselized across a constellation of warriors and atoms, Romani and algorithms—then so too is it augmented by the text’s own tendency to wonder about the meaning of meaning itself. Like Floor Astray is a motley veil, a meticulously scrambled crazy-quilt that Summers-Bremner carefully braids as she drifts between the Mongolian word for “tribe” = irgen (96) and a Middle English term for “chance, hazard” = auntred (112), the ancient Indo-European root for “wander” = er (17) and Romani terms for aliens = gadje and clans = kumpania (122). There is even a passage devoted to unpacking TaskRabbit’s contemporary “use of the word ‘community’” (224). Indeed, Summers-Bremner’s prose is so densely intertwined with this world’s meandering meanings that the text itself comes to resemble a dark medieval forest that quietly cajoles the reader into an elemental state of “mobilized uncertainty” and primes us for our dislocating futures.

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“Everyone has a dual role as both audience and an integral part of the work,” writes Geng, inviting the observer into the artwork as a mobile vector that helps make and remake its variable networks of possible meaning. The art of Geng manifests what Summers-Bremner highlights as a dialogical kind of conceptual “aposiopesis”, as if giving shape and form to “an uncompleted phrase” (25) that invites the listener to complete, luring them into a dialogue that leads exactly nowhere, and wherein both artist and observer are suspended—left to drift in a non-sovereign state of uncertain communality. Much like the meticulously meandering essays of Astray, Geng’s conceptual art manifests a curatorial-critical relational aesthetic that draws objects, concepts, and observers into animate syncretic kinships suffused with what Nicolas Bourriaud calls “semionautic” drift. Here, “the artwork functions as the temporary terminal of a network of interconnected elements, like a narrative that extends and reinterprets preceding narratives. […] The artwork is no longer an end point but a simple moment in an infinite chain of contributions” (18). While Geng encourages us to drift through medieval forests of tap water factories, 7-Eleven floor tiles, and digitized recordings of menial “micro-work” gestures, Summers-Bremner invites us to learn again to wander or “mobilize uncertainty” in the way of ghost particles and ancient aboriginal dreamers, modernist hobos and romantic poets. Together, Geng and Summers-Bremner remind us that the artwork, like the essay, is a temporary terminal in a volatile network of mobile interests; a dynamic and relational space of interstices wherein the lost art of wandering itself is let to naturalize a grammar of swerve and pivot, formal liminality and uncanny conjunction that will in time find new meaning still as strange weathers circle.

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