The Second Situation (1987)

Collected Works: Art

 
 

The Second Situation

by Geng Jianyi
Painting

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Four faces guffaw before us, for reasons unknown. Each mouth implies the production of a distinct sound, from wheezy chortle to barked, ‘Ha!’ This quartet of howlers delivers canned laughter for the eyes, combining to form a tightly contained, on-cue cacophony. Though no sound emanates from the canvas, the textural twists and shadows of The Second Situation still manage to spawn a noisy racket.

Reduced to disembodied heads, the figures’ actions are obscured. We see no taut diaphragms, no necks bulging with hiccoughs of hysteria, no hands clasped on bellies or knees. The artist, Geng Jianyi, seems to be in motion, but his hairless scalp offers few clues of the direction travelled. Our interpretation relies purely on his facial features: the screwing up of the skin, the arching of the eyebrows, and the torsion of the tongue.

We may try to join the revelry, but instead find ourselves contriving mirth for a gag we don’t get. If the work is a punchline, then the quip is unclear. The monochrome palette places us at a distance from the space occupied by the figures, who are separated from one another through their division into panels. Together they form an uproarious huddle, but each face convulses in isolation.

The Second Situation snags and unsettles, toying with our fear of exclusion, and sending us in search of an explanation. We struggle to hold Geng’s gaze, fighting the urge to look away or glance over our shoulder. The instant we falter, the cackling ceases. Stepping away from the work we may begin to wonder: if nothing lies behind our back, perhaps the joke is on us.

 Words by Elizabeth Brown


More to discover

You can read a brief interview with Geng Jianyi by Sam Gaskin for Time Out Shanghai, and an article about the artist by Marilyn Goh for Daily Serving.


Question of the day

Which works of visual art from 1987 would you recommend, and why?
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Immersion (Piss Christ) by Andres Serrano. This ever-controversial photograph causes us to pause and consider the weight we place on material. (→)

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