“Feast”: Xiao Guo Hui’s Divine Tragedy

There are few films that could be said to have led to their director’s deaths; Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom is one such film. It openly attacked and insulted the powers of his native Italy, at the time (1975) – the body politic, the church, the intellectuals, the armed forces – as it graphically depicted the systematic torture and murder of a group of defenseless young people by a cadre of posh, bourgeois, fascistic government officials in a luxurious villa. The film is nearly unwatchable; disgusting, yet truthful.

The virtuoso canvases of artist Xiao Guo Hui induce a similar effect. Using a classical (and notoriously difficult-to-master) medium, egg tempera, that was made popular in Byzantine, Medieval, and Early Renaissance European painting – and largely used in religious art – Xiao’s canvases depict gross iniquities and a catalogue of “man’s inhumanity to man.”

That Xiao has chosen such a beautiful, yet inflexible and unwieldy medium for these works feels fitting, as the images illustrate the implacable nature of power and control. But it’s a control not exclusively of the state-imposed variety; rather, Xiao trains his lens on the brutality and egregiousness that can be inflicted by the people on the people; not by some unseen force, but by your friends and neighbors.

Adopting a style borrowed from the Northern Renaissance, Medieval painting, and the Florentine School, Xiao populates his elegant canvases with a cast of unlikable characters who, in their chicanery, could rival reality television’s spectacle of degradation.

The victimizers look like yuppies in their thirties. The females wear high heels and haute couture outfits. The males are cruel Lotharios (rapists, really); their dehumanized victims are helpless young women, children, and bound political prisoners.

The title of the exhibition, Feast (recently on view at Christopher Cutts Gallery) presents an irony, of course. There is a culinary motif in many of the works, but the feast depicted is grotesque and unwelcoming (one is reminded of the shit-eating and cannibalism that goes on in the restaurant of Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover).

A striking feature of the paintings is the fact that even though the figures are rendered in a “Western” style, the majority of the characters have Asian features and sport a mixture of Western, Medieval, and Japanese salaryman-style attire. The personae in this black comedy appear like Balthusian nymphets, or emaciated Botero characters, who seem to take it for granted that ravenousness and rapine are the order of the day.

The namesake work, Feast (2015), portrays this activity in full swing. A server in a French-maid’s uniform looks coyly askance as she inserts fish from a plate into the mouth of an unconscious man. Another figure, wearing a king’s crown, has unbuttoned his pants to let his gut hang out as he has obviously overeaten. He leans against the backrest of his chair, his business suit jacket wrapped around it without ceremony. This is an allegory for the hangover after the orgiastic gyrations of what critic Matthew Collings terms “a society geared only to producing wealth.”

Elsewhere, the aptly-titled The Martyr of Beauty (2012) features a woman splayed on an operating table, nude and (one assumes) drugged. Surrounded by a group of nurses and physicians, she is about to receive some sort of plastic surgery. But the demeanor of the numerous medical personnel (arranged in a composition reminiscent of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch) seems duplicitous, even malevolent, as though preparing to torture and eviscerate their patient in open violation of the medical dictum Primum non nocere. The woman is positioned at an angle to the picture plane, giving us a full view of her genitalia. She is absolutely powerless to do anything about her predicament.

But the most arresting images are to be found in Nyotaimori (2013), which could be said to be the feast’s “conclusion.”

An activity that enjoys great popularity among Yakusa organized-crime types, Nyotaimori, is the Japanese practice of eating sushi off the body of a naked female. In this instance, the woman in question bears an uncanny resemblance to that in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (c 1486) (which, incidentally, was also painted with tempera on canvas). In a scene that seems ripped from the pages of Araki’s Tokyo Lucky Hole, Xiao’s Venus has the demeanor of a corpse.

Everyone around the table is inebriated. Those who aren’t passed out appear to stumble about, overtaken by an alcohol-fueled euphoric frenzy. As a man vomits, another man steals his wallet, and another forcibly pours Sake down the gullet of his neighbor. True to form, they wear Yakusa suits, all in a disheveled state. Around the table are the accoutrements of a dinner party; the table is littered with empty plates and Sake bottles, chopsticks and wasabi dishes. The woman lies abjectly on the table, ravaged and spent. She is naked, listless, vulnerable, but the males surrounding her no longer pay attention. They are too dissipated by their own debauchery, hopelessly lost in their own obscenity.

Now as ever, the message rings true: We are these characters, for we are the victims as well as the victimizers. Like the “monsters” in Pasolini’s film, these unlikable subjects are a reflection (or refraction) of ourselves; we are the revelers in this ball of depravity.

Xiao is a satirist in the tradition of James Gillray and William Hogarth. His humor is dark, but vital, and I think, necessary, for it depicts a culture on the skids, totally wasted and wallowing in its own excess. This is our predicament: sitting around our own mess, stealing from one while pointing a finger at the next.

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