Text by Edward Lucie-Smith
I’ve just had one of the stranger contemporary art experiences of my career––participation in Long March: A Walking Visual Display. This project has occupied the elite of the Chinese art world for most of this summer, and will continue till the third week in October.
What is it all about? It represents an initially surprising example of US-Chinese cultural co-operation. The Chief Curator, Lu Jie, lives in New York. His co-curator, Qiu Zhijie, is one of the brightest stars of the current Beijing avant-garde.
The project has been organised by Lu Jie under the umbrella of his own tailor-made New York based foundation, but has attracted the––it must be said, sometimes rather bewildered––co-operation of local cultural institutions along the route of the Long March through China that began in October 1934. This rescued the beleaguered Communist Army, then in danger of being wiped bout by Kuomindong assaults, and established Mao Zedong’s dominance over the Party. “[The project’s] aim,” the curators say, “is to take both contemporary Chinese and international art to a sector of the Chinese public that has rarely, perhaps never, been exposed to such work… Specifically, we will bring art to the people who live along the route of Mao Zedong’s Long March. Mao’s March symbolised the deliverance of the Communist ideal to the Chinese proletariat, It is with this symbolism in mind that we now choose to march contemporary art out to China’s peripheral population.”
The formula sounds simple enough. “The curatorial team and two camera crews will travel for a five-month period along the route of the Long March, documenting the journey and compiling an archive of the experience. Along the way, local and international artists will join in at different venues to participate in the project by creating and/or showing their art works. There will be 20 events taking place in specific locations, each chosen to represent a certain historical, political, geographical and/or artistic context. Every event will include an exhibition and a forum for debate. In these exhibition venues, original artwork will be shown, but secondary sources such as slides, videos and exhibition catalogues will also be displayed. Following the exhibition we will hold discussions with invited artists, curators, critics and the local public.”
Once the five-month tour within China itself is over there will be an international touring exhibition documenting the event.
Of course things are never quite what they seem. I joined the new Long March at Stage 8, a conference held in Guizhou province, first in Guiyang, which is the provincial capital, then in Zunyi. This, a city that at the back of beyond even in Chinese terms, is famous for one thing only. It is the place where Mao, in January 1935, after five days of debate, finally seized control of the March, which had been going disastrously wrong. The debates took place in a rather palatial European-style house taken over from a local warlord, and in the 19th century French Catholic mission church next door. These buildings are now preserved as monuments to the event. There is also another museum/house where the Chinese Communist Party set up a new banking system. Its rooms are stuffed with Cultural Revolution style artworks of a kind that have more or less vanished from the rest of China. One is a rather touching folk-style print, a kind of Communist Pieta, showing a dead soldier by the side of a road.
The new Long Marchers set up a temporary exhibit of their own in a building housing a privately owned language school, the first of its kind in the region, which teaches English for business use. No organisation could be more thoroughly emblematic of the China of the present day. One item in this show, very different from the print I have just cited, was Mao’s face turned into a ‘Mao Brand’ logo––a comment on China’s recent conversion to state-managed capitalism. What came immediately to mind was Karl Marx’s saying that “History repeats itself––first as tragedy, then as farce.”
While the Long March project seems in some ways to model itself on the pre-Modern effort of the “Peredvizhniki” (“Wanderers” or “Itinerants”) in Russia––the society for Travelling Art Exhibitions founded in 1863, which was a sincere effort to bring accessible art to the Russian masses, it is also something shot through with post-Modern irony. The ambiguity was well expressed in an event staged by the new Long Marchers at Jingganshan (Site 2) in Shanxi, when they floated a statue of Marx in Chinese Dress down the Zhusha river, from a sentry post once used by Mao, who set up his first revolutionary base in the region in 1927. This part of the river is now a favourite tourist destination, which offers rafting trips to both Chinese and European visitors. The Marx figure in white fibreglass, the work of the leading Beijing sculptor Sui Jianguo, is an effective epigrammatic expression of the way in which Mao had to adapt Marxist doctrine to Chinese conditions, stressing not the urban masses, as his Russian and German mentors wished, but the importance of the peasantry. Hard-line Maoists, however, might consider the image a little subversive, especially as it was accompanied by another, smaller figure showing Christ crucified, also in Chinese dress. This served as a discreet reminder that the Christian-inspired Taiping Rebellion, which swept China in 1851-64, and which is estimated to have cost some 30 million lives, was the direct precursor of some of Mao’s ideas.
Nevertheless, there are other significant aspects to the enterprise. The route of the original Long March led through a number of remote regions inhabited by autonomous tribal groups, many of whom were only fully incorporated in the Chinese Empire at a comparatively late date. Long March events have called attention to the existence of these. The American feminist Judy Chicago, one of the non-Chinese artists invited to participate, did a residency in a community beside Lugu Lake in Yunnan, where there is an indigenous matriarchal culture. There were also encounters with fascinating totally isolated ‘folk’ artists, such as the veteran photographer Li Tianbing, who uses an old-fashioned plate camera and makes prints using sunlight, because there is no electricity where he lives. Another encounter was with villager known as ‘Old Jiang’, who has lived in retirement since the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s and who has almost lost the power of speech because of his isolation. Jiang has made a series of extraordinary relief portraits of Communist leaders which look like Wei Dynasty (386-534 a.d.) Buddhist sculptures, complete with offering cups. “After repeated enquiry by the curatorial team on what drives him to make his works so persistently, he answers by writing ‘To Serve the People’ in big letters on paper.”
The most significant element, however, has been none of these things, but something much simpler––the coming together, under the umbrella of the Long March project, of China’s brightest curators, both official and unofficial, together with the directors of independent art spaces and those responsible for unofficial or only semi-official art periodicals, publishing houses and bookstores. Independent spaces for avant-garde art now exist not only in Beijing and Shanghai, but also in places as such as Kunming. in Yunnan, the old gateway to the Silk Road in the far west, which has become China’s very own hippie heaven. Often these art spaces double as bars and coffee houses where artists and those interested in avant-garde manifestations can meet. Long March: A Walking Visual Display is in fact an assertion that a genuine avant-garde art world independent of the government now exists in China.