(May 29, 2010, Yongyige Restaurant, Beijing—At a roundtable discussion, participating artists and curators of Long March Project—Ho Chi Minh Trail initiated a group workshop focusing on contemporary issues in artistic production and artists’ engagement with social thought. The following is a selection of transcriptions from this workshop, which continued to progress throughout the journey.)
Xu Zhen: There is a common feeling of discontentment amongst my artist friends today. Most of these artists began their career in the mid-to-late 1990s; back in those days, their creative inspiration thrived upon a sense of visceral excitement guided by clear and defined goals for various stages of their creative processes. Today, these artists find it difficult to define goals because it is unclear what they are up against.
Liu Wei: From my point of view, it is too clear what we artists are up against today; that is, our powerlessness against capitalism and society at large. Because of this feeling, we are unable to express ourselves or to express fully the state of our society.
Xu Zhen: With these limitations on personal expression, artists can develop alternative working approaches that emancipate them from naive dependencies on clear goals and physical excitement. With a broad working method in place, artists can begin to work, make choices, and maintain a creative momentum without being self-indulgently stuck on the problems of individual works. . . .
Gao Shiming: What is this feeling of discontentment prevalent in the art world today? This year the Shanghai Biennale examines the idea of rehearsal and touches upon the omnipresent phenomenon of cosplay in society. Even as art workers, our inspirations, evaluation systems, working methods, and self-images are all essentially pre-conditioned by society. Art production is not determined merely by art institutions but by society at large.
Artists are anxious today because they are trapped in an illusion that their creativity is waning. In actuality, the power and meaning of their artworks do not depend on artists alone but on the effect of these artworks on society.
Lu Xinghua: Artists in society are in the position of having a strong political voice. However, they must face the same dilemma as intellectuals involved in a mass political movement. In a group effort, each individual voice becomes one voice among many. Artists participating in the Long March Project Ho Chi Minh Trail project are only members of a group. In a collective project, we must surpass the concerns of individual authorship and originality.
Zhang Hui: As we move forward in our journey, there are times we must pause, regroup and clarify our positions, then start again. If we fail to recognize where we stand, we would be unable to process our journey as it unfolds.
Gao Shiming: I doubt that any one of us can do what you have just proposed. It is difficult to have a clear position when everything about contemporary art today is fragmented—current artistic practices, discourses, curatorial methodologies. All of these are in pieces and hard to define.
Lu Xinghua: Only when an artist can no longer compromise in daily life and decides to act upon his dissatisfaction with the present global art system does he or she truly begin to work as an artist, and at that point the artist makes use of his or her political voice. Artists do not need to be told that they must stand up and speak themselves; their daily feeling of unease should be sufficient motivation for them to do so.
As Slavoj Zizek says, your initiative (your work) should reflect your dissatisfaction [with society]. As a philosopher, I realized early on that what I say makes my colleagues feel uneasy. I was troubled at first; then I began to recognize that this was the innate position of my work, and after a while people began to appreciate my role in conversation as the vile power. Similarly, an artist who puts an audience into a state of unease does not necessarily gain immediate popularity and recognition. Three years later, the artist’s efforts may amount to something worthwhile. There are very few artists like that in China, those who truly cannot bear the current state of society and decide to speak out against it.
Gao Shiming: Xu Zhen has often been seen as a vile power of the Chinese art scene. In 2006, he founded Art-Ba-Ba, China’s largest online art forum designed as a public platform for art workers to share ideas and criticisms. But now the Web site has developed in an out-of-control way; it has become a public venting place for artists in China.
Xu Zhen: My view on this issue is that everything comes in different phases. When one phase is over, either good or bad, you learn from it and start something else. To me this is an ongoing process. There are many artists who depend heavily on instinct and get stuck on the problems of one particular work.
Lu Jie: In my daily work as an administrator of Long March Space, I am often confronted by artists’ strong sense of self-protection. This leads me to wonder, are these artists protecting their artistic practice, or are they protecting their artworks?
Lu Xinghua: An artist needs to penetrate his or her defense mechanisms, even though he or she maybe unwilling to. Art is about guarding not oneself but life itself.
Gao Shiming: I think artists are vulnerable when they are infatuated with individualism and insist that art should be the creation of one author. This obsession follows the same economic logic as the free market economy, in which capitalism essentially affirms individual power.
Xu Zhen: I am skeptical of this type of individualistic creativity.
Gao Shiming: Why are art issues political issues today? Art practices that appear to address a concern within the arts are oftentimes addressing an issue within greater society. For example, a work that rejects formalism negates the logics of the capitalist market. The production company MadeIn, founded by Xu Zhen, produces artwork as a company, thereby surpassing the art market’s dependency on original authorship and individual stardom.
Xu Zhen: Just because MadeIn is a group of people does not mean that my intentions in founding it were not individualistic.
Gao Shiming: Here, Nietzsche’s idea of “artist’s art” becomes art understood by an insider’s audience and incomprehensible to a greater public.
Xu Zhen: This is what happens when you take art making too seriously.
Gao Shiming: Going back to artists’ feeling that their creativity is waning, I want to ask Xu Zhen and Liu Wei, does this feeling stem from having too many or too few limitations in your artistic practice?
Liu Wei: It definitely stems from the feeling of limitless possibilities.
Gao Shiming: What are the current issues for artists? In most cases, whatever the artist does is tenable, and the art dealers, critics, curators, and collectors will find a path for you.
Wang Jianwei: Green light through and through.
Gao Shiming: There will always be someone who conspires with you, a ready-made conspiracy. Bonnie Marranca wrote a book about this, The Avant-Garde and the Audience, in which she talks about an audience that has been waiting for you to seek them out, to shock them, to achieve the utmost social controversy. They are waiting for you to hurt them as a subject of sado-masochism.
Xu Zhen: At present, anything can be expressed and done; the possibilities are limitless. So I have to find reasons to make choices in my work and think about how to deal with this audience that is waiting for me to target them.
Gao Shiming: If you want to create art, the first thing you need is to find something or someone whom you can contest with. If the institutional system does not concern you, then you need to look elsewhere to see what makes you feel antagonistic. Unlike a modernist whose focus is to observe the inadequacy or actualization of the self, you don’t have the desire for self-expression or confession; neither are you a classicist who, when you see a landscape, forcibly becomes impulsive and needs to portray or praise it.
From our conversation thus far, what I am hearing is that the current issue in contemporary art is not the waning of creativity, but the lack of a mission statement.
Wang Jiahao: Lack of discipline.
Xu Zhen: Artists as manufacturers must make their own purchase orders.
Gao Shiming: Artists are finding it difficult to begin their work. For Xu Zhen and many other young artists, there is an interest in what other artists are working on. Often times, their work approach is one of conducting conversations and competitions. What worries me is that their concerns are focused primarily on the art world itself, and I always say that the art world functions like a theatre; there’s a lot happening beyond this theatre.
Xu Zhen: This is where I do not agree with you. Like you said, Art-Ba-Ba was a learning curve for me. There were many reasons and obstacles in it. While I enjoyed its benefits, I was also confronted with its problems, such as the Web site mutating into a venting platform for the Chinese art world. In the past two years, I realized through my work that those are not my issues. If we had had this conversation a few years ago, perhaps I would have had another attitude.
Gao Shiming: From my understanding, Art-Ba-Ba has become part of the self-enclosed art world. Artist Chen Chieh-jen’s work, on the other hand, embodies something that we are lacking in the art world; that is, a direct confrontation with reality and politics.
Xu Zhen: Through my own work, I have come to realize that freeing oneself from the art theatre is not enough. There needs to be something else. I have studied the works of the earlier generation of artists and how they worked without an art system in place. But learning from them is not enough; my predicament is that the art world today with all its infrastructure brings us artists more problems than benefits.
Gao Shiming: So far we have been discussing art with a focus on art objects. Let us now broaden our scope to include artistic practices, art labour, and art activities; this way we can speak of art as a field with broader relationships and activities. As Lu Xinghua cautioned us earlier, artworks are not made to be worshipped. Art is a type of labour with social implications. Can art labour possibly deter society from the cycle of capitalism? Art labour is social labour. However, the art world seems like the film studio in the Truman Show; it is a fake reality detached from society at large. To directly affect society, art must penetrate the theatre screen that separates the two worlds. Within the theatre of arts, menacing or provocative behaviours do not possess social threat but are instead evaluated by their aesthetic merit. From my point of view, the border between the art world and society at large is not formed by a simple screen but a ring-shaped whirlpool that is constantly resurging.
Liu Wei: Sometimes I feel everyone has too much faith in the aesthetics of great strength. To me, subtler experiences may have a greater impact in a society where the means to achieve success is to demonstrate obvious power. I am speaking of my attitude towards society at large. A capitalist society endorses a certain social language and aesthetics. A powerful voice is a way to comply with the current rules of propriety and to establish oneself in today’s society.
Lu Xinghua: In Plato’s plans to exile artists from the city-state, he claimed that artists create too many illusions that provide distorted reflections of reality. Once the audience sees too much of these illusions, they grow accustomed to it, and their perceptions become distorted. Not that Plato was unaware of the profound beauty in artworks; in Plato’s city-state narrative, artists served as a political metaphor to illustrate specific social concerns.
Gao Shiming: Plato’s objection to artists can only be understood as the objection to artists as a social class in fifth-century-BC Greece. In Socrates’s time, the ideal was that everyone would be an artist; everyone would be pondering philosophy, practicing sports, making sculptures, and respecting the gods. At that time, public space, political space, theatrical space, and artistic space were incorporated into one.
Lu Xinghua: We are unable to return to those social conditions. Artists today supply society with artworks, and these works disturb the harmony and emotional fabric of society. Artists are meant to agitate society by creating bizarre objects and exposing things that are suppressed.
Lu Jie: To philosophers, the critical role of the artist is clear; yet artist themselves remain anxious about their state of creativity.
Gao Shiming: These artists are anxious because they don’t know how or why they want to begin to create.
Wang Jianwei: Artists are not anxious about the level of their creativity but are concerned about their cosplay roles in society. To say there is a decline in creative energy suggests that Chinese artists were once at a height of creativity. If that is not the case, then where does this feeling of decline come from?
Zhang Hui: Let me use an example of theatre to answer your question. Social drama is a type of documentary theatre that was so all-inclusive of society and theatre that it developed into a state of helplessness. All creative possibilities were included in this genre of theatre. Who resolved this predicament? Bertolt Brecht spoke to the essence of theatre and proposed the effect of critical distance. He magnified the work of theatre so that its concerns were not only on a textual level; theatre became a way to understand the world. This was Bercht’s fundamental difference with the German theatre director Erwin Piscator. If we discuss theatre and rehearsal in our journey today, we need to be aware of the previous failures of social drama and the helplessness it created.
Wang Jianwei: Returning to Gao Shiming’s idea of a screen between the art world and society at large, I believe that all acts of recognizing this dividing screen are displays of ideology. The claim that artistic creativity is waning assumes that artists are not part of the general context of society and only concern themselves with a closed fictional world. Meanwhile, many art curators and critics also position themselves outside of general society and objectify all social happenings. These attitudes reaffirm the presence of the screen. We should recognize that artists are part of society and its politics; artists do not need to fictionalize a political body and then attempt to solve its problems. That would be the greatest endorsement of ideology.
Johnson Chang: What I am hearing from this conversation thus far is that the new generation of Chinese artists are struggling with issues of the art world, whereas back in the 90s, artists fought against ideologies that were closely tied to culture, creativity, and one’s position in society. Now that everyone has fallen into the issues of the art world, are we seeking ways to reconnect with real politics and social issues?
Xu Zhen: My experience tells me that an artist is unable bypass the art world and directly enter greater society; his voice is always first funneled through the art world.
Johnson Chang: Can we find the big world within the art world?
Gao Shiming: In fact, it is located within.
Xu Zhen: We artists are led astray by your terminologies—systems, societies, whirlpools, politics.
Gao Shiming: It’s not just a matter of walking outwards into greater society; we need to excavate from within, where there are overlaps between the outer and inner realms.