Michael Aiken Reviews Ouyang Yu

By | 4 December 2015

The second section of the book, titled ‘Leaf or fallen bank’, is preoccupied with questions of authorship and authenticity, while also making fun of arguing for a final position on these:

books, according to him, are not worth writing, having written one book that went back many centuries examining a time similar to ours in every aspect of time except the sound of their voices, which, unfortunately, have not been recorded, and the details that could not have been noticed by themselves or filed away (‘Books’)

As is so often the case in this book, here Yu seems to be revealing an endless fixation with investigating the absolute truth of things that are fascinating because they have no absolute truth.

The playful self-deprecation in this book feels honest without being earnest, self-critical without being self-effacing; subtle but showy. ‘Banality’ for example, makes art of email spam with a flight of fancy into the repercussions of seriously considering an unsolicited offer of marriage: ‘If I were to marry you I would have had to divorce (…) if I were to re-marry I’d have to bear/with all this day after day after night after night’, and ‘what is this based on except I stayed up late or went to the (online) market’, end the prevarications through banal email interactions with the closer, ‘I want to disappear into creative/banality just gauge how close the bin is to my brain’. Yu’s is an honesty that couldn’t be otherwise; the whole value of his investigations seems to be in getting to the truth, not of objective ‘fact’, but of subjective perception and reception. The minutiae of the everyday (and the timeless) are fair game in this endless, unending quest to expose the fact that the referent is always ultimately deferred. Life is in the living – or in the becoming, might be another way to put it.

The subjects in this book are unrepentantly contemporary, with references (and hyperlinks) to Wikipedia, current politics, and matters of popular culture like the SBS-syndicated Chinese dating show Feicheng Wurao. Amongst such material, the natural world also makes appearances, yet in characteristically unique ways. Yu’s ecopoetics is one of problematics, and both the inevitable collisions between human culture and nature, as well as the timeless disregard the former has for the latter, inform his investigations of each domain. In ‘Self publishing’, for example, he critiques our arbitrarily gate-keeping literary culture by noting that, ‘birds never remain quiet because they don’t get paid for calling’. After admonishing at length the ridiculousness of worrying about the legitimacy of self-publishing, and citing numerous canonical authors who are guilty of that very crime, he closes summarily with, ‘Now listen, to the rain self publishing again as it did 3000 million years ago,/on the page that is my roof’. Meanwhile in ‘Installation 001’ he indicts both our artificial sanctions on what is aesthetically valuable as well as our concomitant ignorant misuse of the natural world:

you want to cut this roadside slope with wild grass and a few trees and relocate
them into the national gallery

you want to cut that sky where a cloud is so big it bursts the car window and
install it inside the brain of the country

you want to pull the lone tree by the root and stand it in the middle of all galleries,
blocking the view

At once wholly contemporary and somehow timeless, Yu’s approach doesn’t interrogate the interactions between the human and ‘natural’ so much as expose the hierarchy: that is, the artificial and therefore apparently subordinate human world, subordinate to (or just a pale shadow of) the totalising essentialness of all-that-is-not-human. We might debate amongst ourselves whether self-publishing our art removes its value, but in the meantime the fundamental beauties of reality – rain, birdsong – don’t have time (or need) for such crises of worth; they simply are, they exist and they act because they must. Yu seems to be telling us: if your art is not a function of your essential self, if you need ponder whether you should be doing it, you probably shouldn’t.

This book as a whole zooms from the macro to the micro, the personal to the national, in a way that feels frantic, encyclopaedic, and entirely subjective. Reasserting the value of the subject in the living world seems to be a driving mission of the verse. Whether or not we can describe the ineffable, or comprehend it, to exist is to know the ineffable exists. This book is a celebration, a condemnation, and a defiant incitement to go with boldness, to be amongst it.

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