The Multi-Context of Self-Physical Labor: An Ontology of Tsong Pu's Art Creations

By Wen-Hai Chu for Tsong Pu (莊普)

 The Multi-Context of Self-Physical Labor: An Ontology of Tsong Pu's Art Creations


By Chu, Wen-Hai


One can say that the Taipei Fine Arts Museum‘s 2010 exhibition, “Art from the Underground: Tsong Pu Solo Exhibition,” is a retrospective look back at Mr. Tsong Pu’s entire artistic career.  While viewing this retrospective exhibition, we can see the development of the artist’s style over the course of three decades.  It lets us further explore the kind of thought that has inspired the development and message behind the complex evolutionary states of his works.  As a result, I will use an “ontological” approach to attempt to discover the contextual basis of thought that has influenced Tsong Pu’s works, as well as achieve a metaphysical level of understanding.

Using vitality to replace the static, silent, and metaphysical world


The aesthetics of Minimalism can be traced back to Pythagoras’ Golden Ratio, which was discovered in 6th century B.C. Greece.  There, aesthetic values were based on perceptual intuition.  In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant, in his "Critique of Judgment," described such basic aesthetic principles with his declaration: forms that resonate with peoples’ innate sense of “beauty” are considered beautiful. This led to the concept of formalism. Western Epistemology’s focus on the conflicting nature between subjectivity and objectivity also utilizes the concept of Transcendental Aesthetics to judge subjective forms.  It attempts to blend with Eastern aesthetics and to mitigate the resulting fallout that occurs when subjectivity expels objectivity. However, despite their efforts to derive philosophical implications from Eastern picturesque; after all, the Western method of objectivity is still by separating the object from the self, which is an outwardly directed approach.  Therefore, the so-called blend of the East is based on the Japanese Zen concept for the "unseen," "object’s sorrow (物 の あ は れ),” and other attributes of death.  This is compared to the geometry of time bracketing and Epoché, a realm where all judgments about the existence of the external world and, consequently, all action in the world are suspended.  Therefore, Laozi and Zhuangzi’s concepts regarding “life” of "as one, all are the universe" were never a good fit with the values of Western Minimalistic art.  However, it suits and also validates Eastern art’s realm of aesthetics very well.  While interpreting the metaphysical life of Eastern art, the late Tang Dynasty philosopher and poet, Shi Kong-Tu, brought aesthetic judgment to a poetic realm in his "24 Poems" by making aestheticism purely conceptual and unaffected by the phenomenon of referencing.  Facing the endless metaphysical realm found within “24 Poems,” Tsong uses different means to achieve the same goals by not using intuition, but, by finding an inductive process to rationalize this metaphysical realm through “object” and “material.”  In Minimalism, “object” and “material” are not classified as purely still and static, rather forms that embody the notion or context of laboring. They are also not classified purely as a phenomenon of reference.  Therefore, Tsong’s labors are not the result of “thought” or “intention.” Instead, his labors are his thoughts.

My Contrasting Forms of “Thought” Within the Context of Self-Physical Labor

“Objects” and “materials” are essentially objective elements.  Not conforming to Eastern approaches, which are purely transitional or conceptual, yet different from Western approaches that view “objects” and “materials” within a timeless, lonely context, Tsong Pu finds a middle ground. Tsong does not consider “thought” as pure reason, rather obtained by dealing with the most basic materials, such as wood, steel, concrete, and even paper.  It is the most basic reflection when creating art.  For example, if one repeats a certain motion (e.g. vibrating an object or stamping a chop), then a grand narrative, made possible by deviations and stands opposite a living state, is constructed.  His recent works incorporate many objects found in daily life, which are transformed through physical labor.  During the process of labor, an exchange occurs between the “marks” left behind and the minimalistic “forms,” creating a dialogue.

It must be said that this kind of exchange is conceptual.  Formalism has always been a proposition of visual culture.  People invent logic to gain clarity, yet, the eye is our main tool to observe the external world with the most clarity; thus, modern art, created within a pure visual context where non-visual senses and events are rendered irrelevant, will resist this burdensome, decadent, and even strange society.  “Form” is an aesthetic proposition that leads to “form and content,” which are constructs of conceptual art and embodies critique in itself; however, sadly enough, much minimalistic art only embodies form and not content.  From a visual perspective, Tsong’s language, which is the result of laboring, lets his minimalistic art undergo an artistic transformation under the premises of “Aesthetic Judgment.”  Using the Eastern philosophy of “as one, all are the universe,” this transformation takes away dominant visual elements and attempts to link  “thought” and “body,” which, when combined, becomes the true “intent” behind his works.  The extent of this goes beyond visual forms and constructs.  Therefore, when we refer to Tsong’s work, it refers to not only “physical form,” but also the thoughts and narrative embedded in his works via laboring.  

The Intent of Art via Repetitive Laboring

Tsong Pu’s works can be roughly categorized into two schools of thought: continuous stamping and emphasis of the link between material and space.  For example, his ‘80’s works, “Moonset, Sun Rise” of 1986 and “Spirit Tower” of 1990, do not intentionally contain man-made fabrications.  The simple piling or curling of industrious materials creates the basic form.  From these rough materials, one can sense the “rudimentary labor” and draw connections to the spirit of the  “universe.”

It can be said that the ‘90s is where Tsong Pu invokes an ‘80’s Modernism, the merging of the spirit of “rudimentary labor” and living environment, to form the concept of “daily handling” to form a characterization of the mind.  This part is mainly represented through 1992’s “Transposition of Light and Water”, 1995’s “Name and Warehouse”, 1996’s “Declaration of Independence” and “Backyard in June”, and 1996 “Ho Da La”.  This is a period of time where we can see more use of daily life materials, such as staircases, buckets, or hammers, or by cutting images into lattice patterns and interacts them with various materials.  It can be said that during this time, Tsong Pu uses metaphysical thinking to transfer the spiritual realm into the real world.  

After 2000, having been influenced by the atmosphere of post-modern culture, the thoughts behind Tsong Pu’s works turned from the realm of daily life to a type of nomadic discourse.  Examples of this can be seen mainly in 2001’s “Some Nouns, Lots of Verbs and a Few Adjectives”, 2003’s “N96”, 2005’s “In a Distant Snoring Sound”, 2006’s “Ears of a Rabbit and Tail of a Fox”, 2007’s “Not About Taipei”, and 2008’s “I Hate Takashi Murakami, I Hate Yoshitomo Nara”.  Within these works, the so-called “nomadic” or “marginal” are methods of cutting into thought.  This is more like a methodology within all of Tsong Pu’s works so far, and not like the deliberate presentation of nonsense and one-sided meanings to subvert value in most post-modern works.  With a “non-logical and randomly chosen de-centralized theme,” the perspective and creativity behind the works flourish.  They use the ‘80s notion of “grand narratives” along with the logic of the ‘90s “phenomenon of life,” and expand into a postmodern “verbal” language.  The allegory formed by this type of language, in turn, becomes something like Plato’s ”Idea,“ which leads its creations.  

Tsong Pu uses this type of logic to cut into thoughts, but does not get completely trapped in it.  Regarding post-modern behavior to place a consumer value on all objects, Tsong Pu looks very carefully at this cultural mindset, and re-examines the modern consumerism and “materialism.”  From his ‘80s era works, we can see that he treats “object” and “material” as a sublime spiritual body.  In the ‘90s era, his concepts of “object” and “material” became a shared spiritual home combined with life, and where values are combined.  However, now, with modern people in the habit of seeing “object” and “material” as a kind of quantifiable and exchangeable consumer item, he incorporates even more layers of laboring to leave a mark and make a statement.  We must say that the main purpose of this type of multi-contextual self-physical labor is not to concentrate on shapes, but, instead, is a multi-sided labor test of “object” and “material” that explores their possible metaphysical significance.  This type of thinking and minimalism has somewhat different perspectives.  Minimalism has some degree of teleological orientation: when it becomes a type of conceptual thought, its aim is to eventually obtain an absolute form or shape in order for it to achieve its goal of becoming a concept.  However, Tsong Pu’s method of thinking is a concept composed of a shapeless structure that draws out the metaphysical significance, not the vision or intent behind the shape’s purpose, behind “object” and “meaning.”  In fact, this is an Eastern model of thinking, especially that of the famous philosopher, Zhuang Zi.  When we say, “wandering within the object,” the value of the structure is certainly not an object, but a condition.  But, for the pursuit of this realm, he does not draw from intuition by placing the traditional realm against Zhuang Zi’s, but from the traveling visual realm created through multi-contextual labor.

Author Description:

Chu, Wen-Hai

Graduated from National Central University Graduate Institute of Philosophy

Emphasis on Art Criticism and Aesthetic Discourse Analysis

Articles discussed at large-scale domestic and international symposiums