In a room full of starched military fatigue and power suits, former Norwegian Minister of Immigration and Integration, Sylvi Listhaug—detachedly ardent as ever— offered pleasantries to 13 constituents of Sudan’s al-Bashir regime, the same responsible for both the displacement and genocide of millions, as well as the continued oppressions of current populations in Sudan.
For a representative of Norway—a country whose right is left and whose left is largely social—to spend any amount of time smiling in the faces of war criminals should be disappointing, at its best and lightest.
That is leagues from the reality, as Minister Listhaug, herself, is a war criminal.
Large, undisclosed amounts in aid funding has gone directly to the al-Bashir regime at the command of Minister Listhaug to stopper, as Listhaug calls it, the “flood of refugees to the north” in addition to deals to return asylum seekers back to Sudan and establish currents of information exchange between Norway and al-Bashir’s Sudan. It should be mentioned that at the time of the meeting, Norway was the country who had rejected one of the largest numbers of refugees coming from the Horn, West, and North of Africa, as well as from the Middle East.
Not knowing the nature of the meeting, the manner in which those refugees are returned, or the conditions a number of them are subjected to, both through and upon the prospect of their return, it would be permissible for the level of cordiality having gone on between these diplomats to distract from the fact that the aid funding increases quite likely discussed during this meeting also went toward prisons to contain several of these refugees, the funding of secret police to further discourage vulnerable other citizens from leaving, and the payment of soldiers to torture, and then sell, many these refugees for ransom– or in the event that ransom does not show, then into slavery, or the organ trade, for less than the cost of a low range consumer level vehicle.
Listhaug did this knowingly, happily, with resolve until the end of her tenure in office. She did so in 2016, infamously, as she took a two-minutes long dip in the Mediterranean whilst wearing a full body floating apparatus to, in her words, “better understand what refugees go through”.
This, unlike her meeting in Sudan, was recorded for just anyone to view. And like her meeting with al-Bashir’s constituents, or her meeting in Libya, it was a stunt. In each occasion Minister Listhaug, always so commanding in countenance, floated like an ice cube on a bed of hot mud, every intention clumsily rendered transparent, every flippancy made diffuse. These arenas are more like quicksand for those resisting their arrest each day.
Coalitions such as Norway’s FrP, or Progress Party, the political party who is represented by Listhaug, and other far right nationalist constituencies care not only to produce blockade: they also care to invalidate, to mock, and then, to dispose. Stunts like Listhaug’s provide a softening lubricant to aid, abet, and humor that desire.
They’ve inherited the dictate determining that who laughs last possesses the power.
Chinese Artist Xu Zhen, the sole member and CEO of the fictive MADEIN Company, seems also to follow this dictate, harboring tastes for stunts humoring miseries-obscured. Two of Zhen’s works—2006’s 18 Days and 2011’s Play, from Zhen’s solo show at Shanghai’s ShanghART gallery—were curated contiguously, side by side, at the Astrup Fearnley Museet exhibition Chinese Summer in Oslo, Norway.
The more drawled of the two works, 18 Days, is a netting of photograph, sculpture, and video-based documentation offering a take on 21st century Chinese neo imperial expansionism through a record of Zhen’s 18-day trip invading military borders of each one of the countries neighboring China, accomplished effectively using remote-controlled military tanks. A stunt. Meanwhile, Play consisted of a single sculpture of a woman, racially ambiguous through her possession of features characteristic of both Black and East Asian phenotypes, bound up using a Japanese erotic bondage technique, and displayed nude apart from a feathered headdress and Amazonian-seeming lip plates. The two works, produced five years apart, were curated together, placed in a punctuatively definable segment of Fearnley’s second floor, as a single curatorial phrase. At this point, this is more than stunt: this is full drama.
Viewings of the Chinese Summer exhibition opening event were largely unguided, and with few descriptors offering clear curatorial intentions outside of the desire to show works by “artists… acutely aware of their place in history… [with] a profound intermingling of joyfulness and unadulterated aspiration with serious social and political questions… [as well as] different generations… caught in a productive tension between tradition and modernity.”
Tangles of people— art world professionals and local elite among them– were thronging through the space, making it difficult to tell if some of these tours were guided or if none of them were.
Xu Zhen, himself, in attempts to absolve of undue outrage, said about Play:
“If [one looks] carefully, these sculptures using erotic bondage techniques aren’t completely like ‘black’ people. They actually have the bodies of Asian women. Everyone is the same; we always use some cultural inertia to ‘observe'”.
Upon observation, the Play sculpture appears to be cast of stone, or concrete. It is actually silicone.
Whilst silicone solids are relatively light and low-density, the repercussions for this choice are heavy, loaded, and high-density on the part of the artist, and significantly more so on the part of the curators, for this reason: Silicone is not a naturally occurring compound, but a hybrid polymer synthesized from pure elemental silicon and petroleum-derived hydrocarbons. The elemental silicon itself, even, must be produced via its own process of chemically extractive filtration, as it does not appear in a stable form naturally.
Xu Zhen’s casting of the “wild” sculpture as fully synthetic composition, rather than as naturally occurring residue, was a recurring theme possessed by the other works immediately associated with Play during its initial debut at the ShanghART gallery in Shanghai. 2011’s Divinity, a sister-work to Play, figure the artificial materials used here as “prompts [for] false understandings” and “rhetorical traps” that “don’t have the weight of historical artifacts” and are “cursory combinations of things, as insubstantial as… hazily recalled Wikipedia pages”, according to early responses to the works found in industry press.
Zhen makes errors here, failing his goal and causing unfortunate damages. Zhen makes the mistake of assuming the audience’s cognitive investment in his work goes beyond topicality, treating it as an understood that those works will be properly prefaced and situated. Zhen goes so far even to pair Play with another work Action of Consciousness, which posits consciousness as an organ of bias, deposition, and distortion—static in the same manner as a landfill— and as if upon death it could pop shit-brown and stench in summer’s heat like a leg, or an arm; a lung or a heart. As if the very physics of market don’t dictate that art works, Zhen’s among them, vested unto the art industry’s valuation games, rotate between hands as tenders for currency and as residues of the legers by which those hands signal, and reinforce therein, every polity under their ownership: As ready-made stereographs for the values of their holders.
Zhen makes an irresponsible assumption here, but an ultimately forgivable one. Yet, the errors lain succeedent compound the individual installation pieces and curation linking them together into homuncular one-two hamfistings of liberal humanist façade and gestural praxis. Objects that experience rotational motion usually undergo visual blur. And at high speeds of rotation, intra-market based or not, there are points of stereographic saturation wherein countenances and superficialities far eclipse depths intended. Artworks don’t simply circulate into gallery spaces: they spin, cavort, and tousle into them, as silicate oils greasing the palms of those already able to barrier themselves from being rubbed red by the blues of currency and memory, alike.
The works Play and 18 Days, individually, in paying no mind to this, certainly do the work of ornamenting the polities of their holder as tokens of soft recognition between conglomerates playing symbiote to one another, where financiers and benefactors trace interior to external, national-scale action. 18 days presses ambiguity between actor and organelle, with Zhen trolling concepts of dividuality and harmful reduction by “stunting”, in a way similar to Listhaug, as an analogue for an entire political ordinacy. Play jaunts a “wild” façade against the distillatively, derivatively manufactured by accessorizing signifiers of phenotypical blackness as an operational currency with which to access a path toward a universally human ground wherein signifiers signify only façade and all casual passages are just that—casual, and without past or associative precedent. Diminutive.
These moves trigger long histories which, by the hand of Zhen, lightly char but do not truly burn away due to the plasticity of our shared world. A fold made can only be wrinkled into a different fold. Obscured, and refigured, but never removed regardless of whether or not its presence is even recognized.
The intent to showcase artists “aware”, “joyful”, “aspirant”, “questioning”– affective conditions each as rivatively nuanced as they are “legibly human”– signal on the part of Astrup Fearnley Museet that, “Yes, we can all do cultural polity and exchange. As a private institution separate from the hand of statehood, we can create a stage for Norwegians-from-Norway to relate to PRC-nationals and engage in appreciation for the core human fragilities of the other regardless of any prior tensions on our respective conglomerative national fronts”. They use their leverage as a cultural institution to credit presentations of a largely socio-cultural liberalism among the agencies constituting each country, whether or not the actual external behaviors fully warrant these credits.
In placing Play beside 18 Days, works that concede for an ambiguity between cynicism and protective façade whilst manufacturing these concessions from as many sources of social alterity as Zhen could scourge, we are seeing exhibition curators allow the actual fleshed bearers of those alterities to be the casual insulatory fodder there to transduce currents from interior into exterior and to negotiate them antedirectionally as well. These works use ritual and “stunt” like Norway’s very own Minister of Immigration and Integration, Sylvi Listhaug, to soften movements of precarity into theatre. They prop a veneer of cultural liberalism on the fronts of both China and Norway to soften and obscure economic illiberalism, and for China specifically, to gauze over political illiberalism in the interest of culling greater economic reputability and trust, enabling greater market saturation in turn.
The elephant in the room with this curation lies triangulated between Norway’s status as a paragon of crude oil wealth, the growing dynamic of neo-imperialist power between China and Africa wherein the former often plays ally to the latter via government-to-government special trade deals offering the latter economic and infrastructural hand-ups out of centuries old post-colonial squalors in exchange for geo-extractive liberties, and Norway’s significant investments in Chinese stock in the interest of gaining future returns that remedy declinations in North Sea Oil supply and declinations in the largest sovereign pension fund on the planet, the GPFG, Norway’s sovereign oil fund. Essentially, it is of great interest to Norway to aid in Chinese economic empowerment to keep the GPFG in position to continue to benefit from Chinese petrodependency, just as Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries do, and largely at Africa’s social expense.
Read beneath the pretense of this context Play, 18 Days, and possibly the entire Chinese Summer exhibition produce curatorial impacts having less to do with celebration of a joyful, aspirant human commons and more to do with that commons’ instrumentalization in the interest of sustaining fiscal buoyancy in the face of international pressures or, at the very least, that common’s potential to do so. What assumes visibility upon this instrumentalization’s instance is a labor acting, intentfully or non-intentfully, to minimize the damages, frictions, and mistrustings coming in response to the peaceful rice of the PRC: a peaceful rise that carries alongside it, positively, the BRI and a symbolic victory over market-driven neoliberalism which circumvents the organizing pillars of whiteness, lightness, and unmitigated, linear, high gradient progressions of technologies allowing those pillars’ easy transmission, appropriation, and adoption: Dangerous, however, have been the potentials for PRC driven capital operations to commit abuses in the throes of their circumventions (several of which have been extensively documented, with the excess of which occurring in countries of the African continent) and, in lieu of a qualitative whiteness being the driver for market salience and legibility, the presence of a zhongua minzu weidao fuxing or “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, instead centering PRC jus sanguinis (right-of-blood) citizenship as the fulcrum for market salience and lateral mobility. This leaves all “others” pointed out by Zhen in the straits of a precarity graded in terms of ethnic and political adjacency to zhonghua minzu. Multilateralisms go to die, and the depicted alterities here signal that.
In the art industry, art works are usually singularly-instantiated objects, and one or only a few of a kind. One institution says that a work is suitable to be in the market, and its constitutive narratives are suitable to affect the public realm, whether or not it is possible to be viewed in public space. It eventually moves onto the next holder, the next institution, and so on, with each of these entities’ “vote” to hold or display the work serving as an affirmation of the work’s constitutive narratives. Within any locality of any material, be it a locus of industry as is of concern to us or other relational situation, there are particular behaviors transpiring externally to said locus which frame and encourage predispositions of hospitability particular to that discrete locus, dimension, niche, place, area. Like particles of a shimmering ash taking passage with the winds, objects moving through these localities each exhibit their own inertias and make their own kinds of indelible collisions to the terrain. Particles may be small but each carry causational validity and variable density, enabling transductions and translations of energy at multiple scales. Particles leave old loci and come back again, finding old lands with new mounds, new wrinkles, and new decrepities with prior flourishes as ruins and flowers singing in wheat crevices. They feed deeper markings onto the children of consequences already theirs. Ejections or full abjurations and blocking of returns and adjacencies– palpable “un-votes”– change nothing of the soils as they have become, nor address the byproducts of prior events and depositions. Circulating objects spectralize into tissues rotating across full textures of niche and loci in multiplicity. When an artwork moves between institutions it circulates. Seen cross-industrially, its movement is more like rotation.
And under this pretense, what of the stunts presented by Minister Listhaug? Objectionable had her movements been, to the point that she was finally pressured to step down from her position, but unfortunately only after having successfully carried out several wishes of the Norwegian FrP through an increased pressurization of the potential penalites associated with Nordic-facing immigrations. More objectionable, however, is what it took to create the sufficient pressures: a Facebook post reminding of the anti-immigration sentiments of the 2011 July 22nd Utøya massacres where casualties were mostly Norwegian, committed in the interest of discouraging social leftists and encouraging right wing extremists to take more graduated action.
Why would it take a more overt, humorless political meme to make the stances encouraged by Listhaug and the FrP unambiguous and Listhaug’s presence unambiguously unacceptable when the full gravity of those same sentiments were made clear two years prior during her stunt in the Mediterranean and during occasions in excess to that? The point here isn’t that ethnic Norwegians consider themselves and their social, national, racial commonalities to make them implicitly more valuable than anyone else– it is to say that had there been less desensitization to black alterity and black death, then Listhaug would have received the adequate pressures to exit her post at least two years prior. Lives would have been spared and a dimension of complexity in approaching the refugee crisis would have seen mitigation.
At the time of Zhen’s production of Play— and of the PRC’s elimination of ties with Norway—the PRC had been sourcing only a relatively light percentage of its oil from Norway’s North Sea Region. Still, it did so in consistency. Hu Jintao, who was the leader of the PRC a the time claimed the pursuit of a ‘peaceful rise’ to power, a statement that was rephrased as a ‘peaceful development’ in order to ally international concerns around the PRC’s oil diplomacy and to sustain its “pragmatic and low-key approach” in securing oil imports. (Hongyi Harry Li). A low scale transduction of energy from Norway provided palpable benefit to the PRC’s public interest by forming a basis for softer, only obfuscatively crude liasons, representing a style of “subtle support” largely particular to the PRC via its government-to-government market-irrespective dealings. Concurrently, the PRC has been known to provide a similar style of support to al-Bashir’s Sudan in terms of diplomatic backing, a country that is among the few which furnished more than 50% of the PRC’s energy needs at the time of Play’s production.
With the kinds of advancements the PRC has made in developing effective renewable energy technologies throughout the 2010s, it is apparent that this dynamic is not one that is especially attractive or desirable for representatives and constituents of the PRC, but one temporary, and largely implicit to the math of the PRC’s ordinacy. One thing among many things revealed to us by that math, particularly through this series of connections between the PRC, Norway, and in this particular case, al-Bashir’s Sudan, is that for the social futures of the PRC and Norway to be viable there has to be a constructor serving as a domain for the absorptive and provisional interchange and material decay—the inputs and outputs—for each benefitting constituency, the al-Bashir regime itself well among them. Arguably, for Norway, that constructor would be Islam, with practitioners of the faith having been the grand target for the country’s right wing in the interest of preventing transmission of the cultural impacts of Islamic Shari’a law, as well as in the interest of absconding some of the psychic dissonances arising from having human embodiments proxying the spectre of financial competition from abroad. Functionally, however, what could that constructor for absorptive-and-provisional-interchange-and-material-decay be other than Blackness, in concept as much as manifest? The spectre aforementioned uses it as such, as an automatic first-line barrier and nitrogeny, and willingly did so in the “special transaction” first mentioned here. It takes this form in variable gradations and prevalences, like heme at first glance, but much more like a nitrogeny ironic: reliant on alchemical nigredo decay processes to produce transformation, mutation, fossilization, time, narrative.
That dynamic—the rendrance of “skin into hide”, a phrase posited eloquently by artist Rindon Johnson—it is how we produce production itself; is the origin point and fulcrum of techne. When we see Zhen’s work instrumentalized by the curation at Fearnley, we see trinkets of hide hiding nothing at all. Everything nude and crude, faces dawbled black with hydrocarbonic byproduct, shaded ‘just-so’ in graphite, bubbled up and baked in all the right places, temporarily, and just due to the implicit math of it whilst open systems obsolesce for efficient ones, finally, and the backdoor to those efficiencies abstract closed system humanities leaving old illegibilities and violate, illicit wealths excised and claimed. The veritable absorptions, composites, records of transience absolutely do not just burn away ashen to the wind’s full mercy. They dilute into extremity, slaved down to a function-frame, as the earth for other performances. Blacknesses and plasticities of time become played out and simulated into non-native frames, as imported objects dislocated into full-on exotics, caricatures, memes, reproductions. They signal movement, rather than any kind of absence, casual condition, or dynamic staticism. As a nonproliferate of that movement, to offer up proliferated hide, asylum, fossil, or refuge for your own survival, jest, play-thing, residence, or credit, is gross.