In the exhibition Afterlives, Yoeri Guépin investigates the afterlives of various aesthetic forms and objects that were initially appropriated from the European cultural tradition then re-contextualized in different moments within the narration of China’s national history.
The public image of Yuanmingyuan is static like a photograph.
Beginning with the ruins of Xiyanglou – a part of Yuanmingyuan often discussed in history textbooks, knowledge regarding Yuanmingyuan has been tightly wrapped in a reductivist historical narrative that contrasts the emergence of modern China with its shameful subjugation under imperialism, to the extent that the drawn-out degradation of Yuanmingyuan as a farmland, collective production field, cemetery, and landfill site in the 150 years after its initial destruction has totally been covered over. The very idea of a ‘ruin” is a modern invention; one may say that the modern fascination with ruins (fluctuating as it might be) precisely coincides with their unprecedented production. Before Yuanmingyuan became a cultural signifier, it was simply a site of indifference. Arising out of a heated debate among archeologists, urban planners, architects and government officials regarding its restoration in the 1980s, Yuanmingyuan was formally established as a public park designed to provide visitors with patriotic history lessons packed with emotional, aesthetic, and moral experiences of China’s checkered past.
The theatricality of Yuanmingyuan - more specifically, its mise-en-scene -rarely occurs to tourists who are inculcated by its established narrative. But for more curious observers such as Yoeri, things appeared under a different light: during a visit, he spotted an obvious mismatch between a pillar and its foundation in the Dashuifa ensemble; it resembled more of a stage than a historical remnant. This mismatch led him to an investigation into the very idea of a historical act - who laid the stones? Who installed the setting? More broadly, how was the image of the West transferred, translated, and reactivated?
The original concept of Dashuifa came from Western paintings brought to Emperor Qianlong by the Jesuits. At the height of Yuanmingyuan’s grandeur, Xiyanglou (designed by Giuseppe Castiglione) only amounted to about 2% of the overall architecture, but it is now used to represent the whole estate as a whole. Similar operations in history also occurred in Chinese art education. Since the 1980s, art education gradually switched from socialist realism to more a “liberal cannon” where Greek, Roman, and Renaissance sculptures were adopted as pedagogical tools. As a result, long before knowing the historical and cultural contexts from which these sculptures emerged, art students have been sketching Michelangelo’s David for years.
As the central component of Yoeri’s 6-month residency at the Institute for Provocation, ‘Afterlives’ presents his research conducted at two different locations in Beijing: Yuanmingyuan and the CAFA Art Museum; the former is in the west (of the city) while the latter is in the east. Looking at how Western classic images become hollowed out, condensed, and reactivated throughout Chinese history, Afterlives touches on the subtle dynamic between China’s modernity and the acts of history that constitute it.
About the Artist
Yoeri Guépin was born in the Netherlands in 1987, his work has a strong emphasis on research and often involves historical trajectories of knowledge production such as archaeology, anthropology or the writing of history through objects. Through collecting and translating objects, artifacts and stories, their appropriation and re-contextualization, he aims at showing the governing structures of these systems, and how knowledge is represented through symbolic objects. Central to his practice is working with collecting and the anthropological/archaeological museum collection as site of knowledge production and its historical vernacular to colonialism.