Seeing Is Not Believing: Yang Mian’s Investigations of Vision Du Xiyun Everything is sort of artificial. I don’t know where the artificial stops and the real starts.[i] -Andy Warhol As humans, we have a significant desire to understand the world, a desire related to our innate curiosity and the issues we encounter in the course of our lives. However, our limitations mean that our ability to understand the world is finite. George Berkeley once said, “To be is to be perceived,” and his famous words certainly make an impression, but perception also varies considerably from person to person. The complexity and depth of direct observation holds profound mysteries. Artists often have strong feelings about perception because their work primarily operates in that realm. Visual artists are visual creatures. Yang Mian learned early on that visual perception allows us to appreciate what we see and access something deep within ourselves. With Memories of Street Fashion (1997) as an obvious starting point, we can surmise that his working method at every stage in his career has followed a similar trajectory: after he finds visual elements in his life that interest him, he compares these visual elements to historical and traditional sources to uncover their differences. Working from the outside in, he investigates these elements, attempting to see the deeper truth within. In this process, he often engages with the complex connections between the innocent eye and cultural experience. After China was first swept up in modernization, the strong reactions that those shocks produced reverberated to the present, and everything changed extremely quickly. Delayed changes, sudden ruptures, and instantaneous trends can be overwhelming, but they also greatly broaden people’s horizons. The continuous experience of rapid change helps those who have personally encountered it to identify concrete differences more easily and to better foresee the future. Rational contemplation takes place after the intuitive accumulation of a range of emotions, and driven by these reflections, Yang Mian has consciously turned these personal experiences and capacities into a distinct advantage, which naturally translates into advances in his art. Living in a contemporary metropolis, much of what we see is covered in media, and a wide range of secondhand visual information influences our bodies, as if we were living in The Truman Show. Consumer culture is everywhere, so people can easily forget themselves and fall into this gentle trap. Yang Mian has immersed himself deep in consumer culture, but he also uses various techniques to extricate himself from it, maintaining the perspective of a “bystander authority” to produce a space of vague tension and overlapping layers of joy and sorrow. There are clear templates for a beautiful face or a happy life. The powerful influence of the media acts on natural standards and makes people more willing to force themselves to fit in. Yang Mian’s observations and reflections produced Beauty Standards, Building Standards, and Come to China: The Revolution in Culture. These series are soft and sweet, but also kind of dreamy; occasionally, they manifest as strange phenomena that make the viewer a bit uncomfortable. After creating careful layers of coding based on large volumes of psychological research, sociological surveys, and marketing tactics, countless experts have been driven by profit to circulate their products among their target market. Yang Mian’s decoding is time-consuming, but the joy of cracking the code has compelled him to keep going. After following this search to its endpoint, he arrived at the foundational technologies of visual information production: CMYK and RGB. CMYK and RGB are used for printing images on paper and displaying images on electronic devices respectively. When printed on paper, CMY+K pigments are layered and mixed, employing subtractive CMY pigment-based color mixing. The colors that appear on screens are light-based, employing additive RGB color mixing. CMYK is the color process model used in color printing. CMYK has four colors—three primary color pigments and black—that can be mixed and layered in full-color printing. The four standard colors are cyan (C), magenta (M), yellow (Y), and black (K). Magenta and yellow combine to make red; magenta and cyan combine to make blue; and cyan and yellow combine to make green. Theoretically, if we only add the three CMY colors (0-100%) together, we can create 101³ or 1,030,301 colors and a shade of black. However, in the real world, no matter the brand of CMY pigment (ink or color toner), a color cast usually appears in ordinary color, inkjet, or laser printing. When equal quantities of all three colors are layered, they create a dark grey or brown, and not black. Although black is not a primary color, it has become essential to color printing. In practice, CMY has been expanded to CMYK. The RGB color model is an additive model. When red, green, and blue are added together in different proportions, the human eye sees a color effect equivalent to different frequencies of visible light. Currently, all color display screens use RGB additive color technology. RGB subpixels create a pixel, and multiple pixels combine to form an image. RGB is primarily used to test and display images in electronic systems (such as TVs and computers). The brain overcomes the eye’s normal focus to synthesize RGB subpixels into one color pixel, thereby producing the perception of color. However, what is perceived is not a compound color, because the RGB primary colors are never layered; it’s simply that humans want to see the color. The colors are formed by the brain compelling the eye to lose focus. The expressiveness of CMYK and RGB are limited by a range of specific conditions. Generally, the color value of each primary color in CMY ink printing is 0-100, and each primary color in RGB has a value of 0-255 on a color display screen. The two produce a very different number of colors: CMYK has 101³ + 101 or 1,030,402 colors, while RGB has 256³ or 16,777,216 colors. The latest graphics cards, display screens, and software can produce 1,073,741,824 colors. In addition, the ink used in printing is not the ideal, pure color, so printing can create fewer color spaces than in the RGB model. Any RGB model has more colors than any CMYK color gamut. As a result, printing companies generally stress that you cannot print a finished product based on the colors you see on screen. Every electronic device will test and display a specific RGB value differently, because the color elements (phosphors or dyes) and their respective responses to red, green, and blue levels will differ with every manufacturer, or even in the same device at different times. Just as CMY requires the addition of black in practice, the whites displayed using traditional RGB technologies are not bright enough and are typically rather energy intensive. Recently, many companies have been researching subpixels with colorless filter elements to create a pure white, so RGB has, in practice, been expanded to RGBW. Let’s bring CMYK and RGB back to how humans perceive color. The appearance of a color can be measured and quantified in different ways, but our perception of color is a complex physical-psychological reaction. We perceive certain colors because the brain responds to the stimulus produced when light hits certain cone cells in the eye. The three primary colors are determined by physiology, not physics. The three types of cone cells in the human eye are most sensitive to red, green, and blue light respectively, which is called trichromacy. Every type of organism has a different number of cone cells that identify color. For example, bird eyes have four types of cells that are sensitive to different wavelengths of light, while most mammals only have two—for them, there are only two primary colors. In addition, there are differences in color perception among humans, because the peak response of the cone cells differs, even among people with “normal” color vision. Humans are also cultural creatures, and people can see the same phenomenon in disparate ways. Equipped with this knowledge, Yang Mian has created CMYK and RGB: The Moment of Visual Persistence. These layered works, employing innumerable colored dots and lines, radiate an energy that is purely visual. Sometimes he adds dramatic effect with lights that turn on and off and exhibition spaces that can be opened and closed, revealing his instincts as a visual artist. At the same time, he proposes the idea of “visual democracy” for his viewers to ponder, hinting at his potential as a conceptual artist. For Yang, visual democracy means that he only uses three primary colors in his paintings (in addition to black in CMYK and white in RGB: The Moment of Visual Persistence), which allows viewers to generate their own outcomes based on optics, neurology, and physics. Because every viewer’s retina is different, the works will be different every time. When he began painting CMYK in 2009, Yang chose a ready-made image and imitated the printed CMYK color model by deconstructing and reconstructing the image using cyan (C), magenta (M), yellow (Y), and black (K) dots. When he paints, he consciously mimics the effect of a machine, while subtly adding his own subjective analysis and taste. This method of painting is focused on a nearly perfect full-color printing system. The visual products of this system have become increasingly lifelike, covering various facets of contemporary life such that people who have already become trapped within it may find it hard to extricate themselves. Yang Mian’s investigations from the outside inward take apart this system to reveal its genetic makeup. With this democratic way of looking, he gives viewers the opportunity to leave the system. When confronted with a full-color printing system that wants to be all-encompassing, Yang Mian could theoretically have used any ready-made image for his CMYK works, but he has primarily chosen classic works of art from Chinese and Western art history. In a contemporary life that is transitory, brief, and contingent, most images are destined to become trifling fragments that disappear into a black hole after one careless glance. Yang has selected classic works of art that have been passed down to us in the long history of civilization, revered for the aesthetics, emotions, ideas, or beliefs they represent. Viewing the original works is a rare experience, but even printed copies can draw viewers into looking for long periods of time, moving hearts and minds. Yang Mian expands these moving printed images into massive paintings, which naturally envelop the viewer with a solemn and sacred power. However, after these classic images are deconstructed then reconstructed as countless cyan, magenta, yellow, and black dots, the short-lived aura, which was so concentrated in the finely printed copy or the original work, is dispersed by these obviously mechanical dots. When confronted with these casually arranged CMYK dots, Yang’s viewers, with their democratic vision, may feel relieved, or they may feel despondent. In his series From the Early Renaissance to Pop Art, Yang Mian makes use of millions of dots in these four colors, developing colder, grander games of disenchantment. He chooses three or four key works from one past school of art and layers them into a single painting. The more he engages with these classics, the more startling his interventions seem. In layering three or four masterpieces, he balances identifiability and unidentifiability, making his visual democracy even more “democratic,” and even leaving viewers with both visual and conceptual uncertainty when they first look at the paintings. However, layering countless works is easily achieved in the CMYK color system, because this system is still self-contained yet relatively unconstrained, even as adjustments are constantly made in the quest for lifelike representation. More than one hundred years ago, Georges Seurat and the other Neo-Impressionists painted with colored dots that viewers’ retinas would automatically blend into colors based on their physical experiences. This rigorous, meticulous style was another step forward in the art history of modernism. Today’s CMYK color system and the Pointillists have a similar look but an entirely different spirit. Yang Mian’s CMYK series adapts to and operates within the middle ground between the original visual image and the printed image. Some day in the future, he may even launch a “Yang Mian’s dots” filter for picture editing software. This living tension between entry and exit, inclusion and exclusion, is a natural consequence of his complex process. RGB: The Moment of Visual Persistence is concerned with full-color screen display systems. Yang Mian uses red (R), green (G), and blue (B) to imitate the combined effect of these three primary colors on a white (W) background. In CMYK, abstract dots imitate pigment, and in RGB: The Moment of Visual Persistence, abstract lines imitate colored light. The visual democracy of RGB: The Moment of Visual Persistence first requires the automatic admixture of thin colored lines within the viewer’s retina to generate the intended effect. However, the RGB series is dominated by several large blocks of color, not the complex images of CMYK. Thus, in RGB, visual democracy primarily exists in the form of visual persistence. Because of the optic nerve’s reaction speed, the vision that light produces in the retina persists for a time after the light disappears, and different frequencies of light persist for different lengths of time on the retina. Yang Mian uses thin red, green, and blue lines to create a painting, then he demonstrates the persistence of vision. He paints his own memory of the visual persistence of the first painting in a second picture of the same size. He moves through a complex four-stage process: looking, persistence, memory, and painting. As much as possible, he wants to involve his own physical experience, reason, and capture accidental moments. Comparing the first picture to the second reveals the multiple effects of visual persistence: simultaneous changes, visual surprises, staggered parts, and elements that have faded or vanished completely. So that his viewers more clearly experience the persistence of vision, Yang Mian installs lights that turn on and off at fixed intervals in the viewing space. First, a light illuminates the first painting on the left side and the second painting, which depicts Yang Mian’s memory of visual persistence, remains in darkness on the right side. Next, another light illuminates the second painting, leaving the first one in darkness. In that moment, viewers can make use of the persistence of vision from viewing the first painting, and compare them to Yang’s memories of visual persistence, which shows how the viewer and the artist differ. Finally, both lights turn on at the same time, illuminating the paintings and creating new visual persistence on the retina. Yang Mian has also designed an immersive RGB space. The viewer is immersed in seven colors of magnificent lights that cover the walls and ceiling but turn on and off every ten seconds. After the lights turn off, a vision persists in the viewer’s retina, then disappears after a time. Full-color screens are rapidly becoming commonplace in everyday spaces. People are dazzled by HD video, accepting it as truth. They stare at these screens and cannot help but be immersed in them. In RGB: The Moment of Visual Persistence, Yang imitates the effect of a full-color screen in painting. After the often-overlooked phenomenon of visual persistence is emphasized in aesthetic form, viewers can personally experience shifting perceptions of colored light. Determinacy makes people feel stable, as if there is something they can trust. The dazzling images flow on the screen, but when determinacy does not exist, the shift from exterior to interior is an empty invention that allows us to appreciate what we see. When the electricity cuts off, the screen goes cold and black, recalling Andy Warhol’s yuppie assertion: “I just worked hard. It’s all fantasy.”[ii] Even though they have already reached a rather high degree of fidelity, CMYK and RGB are not the end technologies that produce visual information. Driven by established ideas and financial gain, more lifelike new technologies are constantly being developed and upgraded, such as holograms, VR goggles, and autostereoscopy, so that people find it difficult to differentiate the real from the virtual. In so many sci-fi films and TV shows, viewers see a future dystopia in advance: people are sealed in mazes, with all kinds of lifelike technology-generated visual information created to confuse them. They are intoxicated and unable to free themselves, and they seem to have entirely lost the desire and opportunity to find a way out. To return to where we began, there are a lot of limitations to the belief that natural phenomena perceived with the naked eye show us the truth; the naked eye’s perceptions can vary from person to person. Humans are very limited, but they also want to understand the truth. As a result, the “truth” is extraordinarily complex, related to experience, reason, and a belief in something beyond experience and reason. Plato held that the world is divided into the phenomenological world and the rational world; the former is the visible world, and the latter is the intelligible world. In the visible world, no matter how many times a surgeon opens up a skull, he or she will never find thoughts inside. However, “…what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.”[iii] September 13, 2021, Beijing [i] Andy Warhol quoted in Kenneth Goldsmith, ed., I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews (New York: Avalon: 2009), 93. [ii] Andy Warhol quoted in Goldsmith, 393. [iii] New King James Bible, Romans 1:19-20.