HONG KONG — It should be obvious by now that we’re big Johnson Tsang fanboys. We’ve done a few posts now showcasing his artwork. The more of it I see, the more I realize that the Hong Kong artist has a very narrow tightrope to walk. His politically and narratively charged sculptures are very easily read, which can be both a blessing and a curse.
I say curse because it would be easy for Johnson to be too on-the-nose with his thesis. Take his work in the context of other politically charged art and you see how it could become trite. He’s one Ronald McDonald-menacing-an-infant-with-a-Big-Mac away from the rest of the social commentary viral art being passed around Instagram and Pintrest.
I say blessing because I respect the way Johnson clearly communicates his point with very little text. Tsang’s cherubs represent innocence, both in the sense of wanting to preserve it and in the ignorance that often accompanies innocence, which can lead to the destruction of innocence. I get the sense that the cherubs, like ourselves, are tossed without context into a violent and unsympathetic world. They’re presented realistically, but not half as realistically as the antagonists of these works: the tanks, the grenades, the elaborately tailored military uniforms. The cherubs come from somewhere more holy than here, so of course they don’t stand up to all of the crafty, ingenious devices of pain and death we’ve had millennia to perfect. It’s no contest, really, and that realization hurts so much.
While some of Tsang’s works are about literal bullets, guts, blood and death, the ones we have for you today are more about the psychology of such things. We see a line of tanks (and bravo to Tsang for sneaking a Tiananmen Square reference into his work) advancing on the shattered cranium of one of his cherubs. Did the tanks shoot down the cherub? Are we looking at Tsang’s version of Godzilla? It’s possible, but the more disturbing read for me is that this is a military advance on the mind of the cherub. The water torture drip, drip, drip of violence that hits you every time you load Facebook, every time you turn on the news, every time you sweep the dial along the AM band of your car radio, every word from the mouth of a xenophobic demagogue politician is part of a strategic, intentional assault on your brain. The cherub could be dead here, but I think he’s sleeping. He’s in a fugue state. We caught him just at the moment he surrenders, giving the soldiers another base of operations. The bad guys won.
The birdcage could be another form of cherub abuse, but I’m of two minds about it. The pessimistic read is that the crying cherub is caged forever, imprisoned in the mind of an adult who knows better, who has learned to ignore the weeping. The positive read (and maybe this is because my pinko sympathies force me to look for anything resembling hope) is that the cherub is in there for its own protection. We’ve seen what happens when they’re allowed to roam freely: the monsters who run this place kill them and play in their blood. The only sane response to so much hate and pain and death is to take that innocent part of yourself and hide it. Not bury it, but hide it. Give it a safe, if uncomfortable, place where it can inform your day to day life until you have the power to act. Let it cry at what it sees for as long as it needs to. Be happy that it’s crying because this only means that it is still alive. Listen to it and let it tell you how we can do better.
Be safe out there, little cherubs. Love you.
Bill Rodgers is the Managing Editor of cfile.daily.
Do you love or loathe these works of contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.