Text by Lu Jie
The process of globalization is rapidly altering the international landscape and artists relationship to their surroundings. However, while much has been said about the effects and power of globalization in its expansive process, it is important to look at globalization as a multi-directional flow which is restricted by its dependence on the conditions of a localized practice. This process of translation is extremely complex, and the discourse and practice of the art community in recent years have proved this point. Among these debates, the most interesting have been those that distinguish between the focus on the local and the type of passive reaction of the local in response to globalization and the cultural logic behind it (difference). In this way, the narrow debates of nationalism can be constructed on a more active subjectivity, in which case the active participation in globalization will produce a new narrative. One can say that the future of globalization lies in the local. However, this is not a repetition of the emphasis that the more national the more international; The difference lies in the complicated reasoning behind the division between the traditional meaning of local, and this internationalized local.
The emergence of an international platform for artists could be called the defining characteristic of Chinese art in the 1990s. The events at Tiananmen in 1989 helped propel Chinese artists and intellectuals into the center of media attention and focus, creating an international phenomenon of contemporary Chinese art that still persists to this day. However, this has also created a situation where the “differentiation of China and the West” came to occupy a premier position, becoming a guiding parameter for both theoretical debate and artistic creation. Artistic creation and exhibitions, on their part, also began to develop based on the demands of market expectations, first with the rise of the political exoticism in “political pop” and cynicism, and currently expanding into themes such as global mobility, displacement, migration, and urbanization. These exhibitions are built upon an ontological basis that understands these to be the most outward manifestations of the “contemporary.” However, the fact remains that the situation failed to fundamentally improve since the period of Post ’89; the curating and production of contemporary Chinese art still remains embedded within a binary framework of the artist versus government, and the artworks themselves fail to address the fundamental problems that the unique Chinese context demands. The schism between tradition and modernity, between the local and the international, and theory and practice continue to go unassessed within the international art framework, primarily due to a misunderstanding of the notion of the term “contemporary” itself.
Artistic avant-garde vs social avant-garde
As China’s influence increases in the global and international arena, the cultural imagining that there remains a sea of voices that only the triumph of liberal democratic values based on a free market economy over a totalitarian socialist planned economy – which in this context is read as “globalization” – can liberate, manifests itself in the outward presentation of these proclaimed vanguards of this cultural-political process in international exhibitions of “avant-garde” art. These types of shows have multiplied and grown to the extent that many major international exhibitions must have a Chinese section. The prevailing feeling is that we have only begun to scratch the surface and that what is visible now is only an adumbration of the true phenomenon of contemporary Chinese art.
In a sense, this is certainly true; however, the crisis and ambivalence that Chinese artists face is no longer a lack of representation, but the surfeit of over-representation. While there is certainly a benefit to the voices and visibility of Chinese artists entering into the international arena, an oft overlooked side-effect is that this visibility only shows one thing; Chinese art fitted to the mainstream international narrative of “contemporary” art. The result is that these exhibitions are unable to explore more complex issues and relationships present in Chinese society today. As contemporary Chinese artists find their voices growing louder in the international arena, there is an increasing awareness of their dissociation from the “local contexts.” The excuses of the market hide the true problems of art itself –– the rupture between tradition and modernity, the local and international, the rift between the masses and the elite, and the disconnection between theory and practice have still not been resolved. There is still a large amount of study, research, and debate about how Chinese voices can be heard outside. In the art world, this translates into the creation and curating of works that are felt to be good because they are “avant-garde,” but what does “avant-garde” mean in China these days when the country is in the very strange state that the Left has become conservative, and the New Right liberal? How often do we engage with history and problem of identity of Chineseness, and the history of the Han Chinese colonizing smaller ethnic groups? How is the history and current situation similar, in that we, as “contemporary artists” colonize smaller groups of individuals such as non-professional artists, traditional artists, or folk artists, by taking away their right of artistic representation in the “contemporary?” This failure to understand ourselves has created a situation where we have become insecure about our own positions. The problem of how we know ourselves, how we project the others, how the contemporary cultural evaluations in capitalist society alter our understandings, how the problems of the contemporary art system is finding itself in China today remain unresolved.
As I suggested earlier, the problem then remains, how do we address these disconnections and crisis between the traditional and the modern, and the local and the international? While the problems with imposing the international on the local are becoming apparent, there is a need to mediate this process rather than to respond with a reflexive conservatism. Like globalization, anti-globalization has within it many patterns and processes that are contradictory. Anti-globalizationist can be both the most socially liberal and democratic, as well as the most nationalist and xenophobic. Clearly, the solution does not lie in an outright rejection of the international and the substitution of it with the local. Nor does it lie in the adoption of the international and the obliteration of the local. Rather, we must imagine a context where we can turn the local international and vice versa.
Building Code Violation
One of my latest project, which is part of still an ongoing Long March project, is “Building Code Violations”. The concept of “code violations” connotes the concepts of “temporary”, “mobile”, “alterable”, and “passive”. It is a resistance and dissolution of ordinary life to the “ordinary” regulations of “the system.” This type of “limited creativity” hides a double meaning between passivity and subjectivity. Asian modernity is characterized by passivity and responsiveness to an imposed Western modernity that acts as “code”. What is the corresponding “code” to a “code violation”? Who acts as the “standard”? Asian modernity is seen as delinquent, as disruptive of the Western model of modernity. While modernity has certainly become globalized, it is also contextually and locally reimagined and appropriated in subjective frameworks. If one were to say that Chinatown was strictly a foreign imagination of a local ethnicity, then would not the surface layer mass importation of Western styles into China’s building boom not also be a Chinatown? The artist uses the issue of “Building Code Violations” as a point to begin peeling back the layers to uncover the veins of the experiences of battle underneath the surface. Curatorial works and debate about the urbanization and migration in China, often neglect about the vast country and agricultural society.