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[ Backstage ]

3. Maintenance Regime V

                                                                                                                                                                   Jin-Hua Shi, Pen Walking, 1996-2015, Pencil, canvas, document (video, text, inkjet prints, objects)

Alongside the artwork and artist, the gallery (site, staff and operations) and audience are also included within this multiple supplementation network. In maintaining the Not Really Really series, I repeatedly crossed and, therefore, blurred the threshold of the gallery's private and public spaces. This brought the site and its operations tangibly into the network of actors that make up the work. The audience enters this network in relation to Barthes's Death of the Author (1977), in which the audience co-constructs the meaning of the work with the artist, artwork and site. Barthes states that in relation to a written text: ‘The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.’[1] Therefore, this network and the meaning of the work is built up in a specific environment and duration which will change each time it is performed; depending on location, site, audience as well as the artist and artwork. Barthes’ reader becomes the viewer in this scenario and not only the viewer but a whole network of actors who are its destination through the process of acting and interpreting.

In contemporary art, the act of ritual in performance has gained momentum among numerous artists, such as Jin-Hua Shi’s Pen Walking (1996-2015). In his Pen Walking series, the artist Jin-Hua Shi uses a pencil as his medium to track the performance and continuously draws a line, as he repeatedly walks back and forth across the white wall. The artist treats this performance as a repentance ritual to deal with pain, solitude and/or the exhaustion and possible reincarnation of life. This series has been repeated 54 times for over more than 15 years. When looking at the relationship between the artist and material in this work, it appears that the artist acts as a master and uses the material (pencil) as a servant to achieve his goal. This relationship with the material is catered towards the end-product (final artwork) as documented process; a wall that fills with Shi’s recorded walking line. The artist (master) forces the pencil and wall (servant) to serve him, in creating a repeated ritual that can be represented after the fact. This pictures the artist’s relationship to the material as unidirectional, a user (artist) using the used (pencil and wall). Instead of treating the pencil as an actor and supplement within the practice, which would have brought a pluri-directional dynamic to the performance, Shi treats the pencil and wall as a support for the performance and it’s tangible interpretation.

His performance uses a repeated routine to emphasise hardship as a result of durational labour. It is insinuated that the more he suffers in this performance, the more sacredness this performance will create. Shi presents his durational labour as sacred, which produces a set of mythologies in order to strengthen his personal sacredness. Through this sacredness, Shi is the artwork and far more important than the other materials that he uses in the performance. The pencil and wall are the medium that supports Shi’s approach to practice but his sacredness is the artwork. His sacredness is extended to the drawn line, through the trace of his touch and presence. When an art performance is more focused on the human actor’s repetitions, which are performed through using objects as opposed to working with them as actors, builds up the mythologies of the human being as the only active and, therefore, privileged agent. This betrays a human-centric behaviour within many ritualistic performances. Repetition and ritual can build a habit/brand that leads the audience to believe that this practice is personal to the artist and therefore leaves a trace of their identity (e.g. Shi’s line drawing on the wall). This trains the focus on the performer as opposed to the network of actors and meanings within the performance.

The definition of ritual provided by Tate is as follows, ‘Rituals can be religious, ceremonial or personal… A ritual is an activity that usually sticks to a set pattern and typically involves a set of actions, words, and objects. Rituals are often repeated at intervals (whether daily, weekly, annually – or on certain special occasions).’[2] Although, Not Really Really series requires repetitive actions, they are neither for religious, ceremonial nor personal reasons. The work’s motivations are more mondain than ritual and the act of labour more similar to the Fordist production line. Jeffrey Eugenides in Middlesex (2002) argues that:

Historical fact: people stopped being human in 1913. That was the year Henry Ford put his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line. At first, workers rebelled. They quit in droves, unable to accustom their bodies to the new pace of the age. Since then, however, the adaptation has been passed down: we've all inherited it to some degree, so that we plug right into joysticks and remotes,
to repetitive motions of a hundred kinds...[3]

Within the Fordist assembly line, humans have to adapt to the system and through this lose their original identifications through adaptation. This adaptation highlights a strong interdependence between humans and the assembly lines that form them. This Fordist production is seen as an unskilled process that has been replaced by post-Fordist flexible labour in the UK and USA. In an act of inversion, I deploy this Fordist factory line or maintenance model for a skilled purpose (artwork) and, therefore, aim to frame the continued presence of the production line and physical labour within UK institutions. This is to bring to the fore both the processes of labour that have been sent elsewhere and to make us think about the enforced material combinations that are produced through an assembly line.

Therefore, Not Really Really series also aims to change processes of joining to that of jointing. I define ‘joining’ as a habitual and forced combination of materials often produced through manufacturing processes. Whereas, ‘jointing’ is a combination of interactions (between artist, artwork, gallery and audience) which produces a network of actors and interpretations (which cannot be predicted). An act of manufacture or maintenance should not only be unidirectionally enforced (only one way of doing and interpreting) but should produce multidirectional communications (an act of care is a communication between more than one actor). Unidirectionality enforces compulsory obedience, whereas multidirectional communication cares more for networking and interactive feedback.

Ritual practices tend to focus on the human (producer and consumer) to produce a set of rules and repetitive patterns for personal or ceremonial purposes. This reproduces Anthropocentric behavior that aims for mastery through ceremony. Rituals, when staged in artworld institutions, which Brian O’Doherty reminds us are designed in a similar format to Medieval churches, act as a sacred form of secular communion. As O’Doherty describes:

A gallery is constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church. The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light…The art is free, as the saying used to go, ‘to take on its own life’.[4]

Through this secular house of worship, the repetitive actions are transformed into a sacred performance rather than an everyday labouring. This sacredness endures within the value that is placed on the repetitive actions that dominate the artwork. In Not Really Really series, the form of repeated gestures (which are required to maintain the organic materials) is similar to the performance of ritual but the process itself is not produced as a performance. I am not repeating actions as an end in themselves (performance) and am more like a servant to the artwork, as an assemblage of human (artist, gallery staff and audience) and nonhuman actors (artistic materials and architectural framing). In preserving the organic materials’ freshness, I am serving the artwork and focussing on the demands of labour as opposed to ritual. Rather than a sacred process, I aim to reveal everyday maintenance and the systems that they support. This is so that we can start to question the ‘uses of use’ in our everyday systems and the paths that they set us on, in terms of our relationship to the materials and their use/interpretation.

Ahmed argues that social institutions have systemically restrict our ‘use of use’, which creates a funnel-like path that we must follow. Ahmed states that the, ‘Use of use, is a restriction of possibility that has become material, use of use, a narrowing of the routes; the more a path is used, the less paths there are to use; more going through less.’[5] Rather than funnelling the audience through one path or approach to my practice, in the Not Really Really series, the audience encounters the process of maintaining the artwork by chance because it is not treated as a performance; there are no timeslots advertised for the refreshing of the organic materials. This creates an unexpected interlude or glitch, providing multiple paths (or chances) for the audience’s interaction with the artwork.   

[1] Roland Barthes, Death of the Author (London: Fontana,1977), 148.

[2] Tate Student Resource, Ritual Coursework Guide, Tate<> (accessed 14. May. 2021)

[3] Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (USA: Picador, 2002), 95. Quoted in Harmansah, Omur. “Modernity, modernisation and the body”. Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World. September, (2006) < >

[4] Brian O’ Doherty, Inside the White Cube – The Ideology of the Gallery Space, San Francisco: The Lapis Press, 1986, 15. <> (accessed 19. May. 2021)

[5] Sara Ahmed,
What’s the Use, (Croydon: Duke University Press, 2019), 185.


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