Fire with Fire
Kirsten Chappa

In Common Love: Aesthetics of Becoming in Contemporary Art. Kaira Cabañas (ed). Exhibition catalogue. New York: Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, 2011, 51-63.

[Excerpt] Will Kwan’s Flame Test (2009) is an inflammatory work of art in several senses of the word. The trompe l’oeil of actual flags in various states of disintegration reads as an attack on patriotism and as an impassioned call to dismantle identities based on one’s country of origin. Drawing from news coverage of flag-burning protests, Kwan inserts tightly cropped reproductions of assorted national symbols into a photograph of an urban street scene. Here, individual struggles give way to mass protest, advancing civil dissatisfaction and dissent as common ground. The political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe patriotism as a type of distorted, identitarian love that operates according to a logic of exclusion, reinforcing solidarity among those who are similar.1 To counter this corruption, they advocate a “love of the farthest,” which supersedes a love of one’s neighbor, and in so doing, propose a concept of love as a political power and a potentiality for the radical transformation of subjectivities.2 The works discussed in this essay move beyond identitarian forms of national, or even familial love. They offer models of love that transcend similarity and resist isolation through actions that open onto new social and economic schemes of cooperation. Moreover, by placing emphasis on process and performance, they diminish the stereotypical notion of love as a static noun, instead reinforcing a conception of love as a verb: it is something that we do. We might also think of Kwan’s imagined scenario in this way, as extending a hopeful proposition for the future and a reflection on the already existing permeability across geopolitical divides within our current globalized world.3

In contrast with Flame Test‘s decisive, if fictional, call to action, Kwan’s earlier video Displacement (with Chinese Characteristics) (2006) provides a complex view of his ambivalent position within the larger sociopolitical conditions of globalization and forces of socialist capitalism.4 The piece begins with interpolated shots of factory workers, stock traders, and urban-scapes, set to a repetitive soundtrack of incessant machines.5 Rather than seeing the glamorous city that forms part of Shanghai’s popular imaginary, the viewer is privy to a problematic setting of both poverty and rapid urban renewal. The archival footage gives way to a present-day scene of young Chinese laborers on a construction site of Kwan’s own design. The modest crew, donning brand-name sneakers, jeans, and T-shirts, methodically gathers and arranges the rubble of recently destroyed buildings into what looks like a minimalist sculpture or earthwork. Shot from above, their construction has the eerie sci-fi quality of a crop circle. The monumental scale and use of available materials may also evoke an SOS signal, but here such a gesture of hope becomes a futile call for rescue, as the work—the labor and its product—reinforces the systems that created this inhospitable territory: during the course of the video, the sculptural design reveals itself to be the Bank of China’s corporate logo.

1 Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth, 182.
2 Ibid., 183.
3 Today, as workers, goods, and services circulate across arguably outmoded municipal boundaries, these borders are increasingly policed. That is, globalization’s promise of connectivity and prosperity is premised on maintaining boundaries, both physical and psychological. Yet this reshaping of borders has opened onto an increased awareness and dialogue around the colonization, exploitation, and privatization of our common natural, cultural, and knowledge-based resources that rightfully belong to society at large.
4 On China’s incorporation of a capitalist organization of labor, see Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth, 91-93.
5 The audio begins as a beating accompaniment signaling the forward march of progress, and later becomes warped, creating a drugged atmosphere that mimics the dusty haze veiling images of massive construction projects.

Publication available at the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, New York.