(Originally published under the title Curator’s Words in the catalog of Long March: A Walking Visual Display (Long March Foundation,
Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie
As curators, our attention to contemporary art in China focuses on the relationship between artistic creation and interactive reception by its viewers inherent in the current exhibition culture. A major characteristic of art in contemporary China is that art has left the audience, has moved from the broad masses of the people toward the elite, from private studios toward hierarchical structures (things like biennials, blockbuster exhibitions, and other authoritative spaces), and from China toward the world beyond China. These three movements have led the avant-garde directly into the trap of the global market and the maze of mutually determinant relationships that it implies. The emergence of an international platform for artists could be called the defining characteristic of Chinese art in the 1990s. Other sociological questions about art in China-questions like the relationship between the masses and the elite, between tradition and reality-fell to the back, as the “differentiation of China and the West” came to occupy a premier position, becoming a guiding parameter for both theoretical debate and artistic creation, systematically producing our feelings of awkwardness and grievance. This is a classic example of artistic consumption coming to drive artistic production. It is unreasonable to let artistic production sink to fit the limited understanding of foreign art consumers, or to wait for the Chinese economy to develop such that domestic art consumers can support contemporary art. The excuses of the market hide the true problems of art itself-the rift between the masses and the elite, and the disconnect between tradition and reality. We must begin from our own understanding of ourselves as practitioners of Chinese art, raising anew these issues which have been set aside in recent years. In this process, one important task is to revisit our memory of the Chinese revolution and assess the impact of socialism on contemporary visual culture.
The key influence on Chinese art has been the system which drives its circulation as currency, i.e. the dislocation produced by the current system in which exhibition, collection, and exchange proceed in a unidirectional manner “from in towards out,” with “out” referring mainly to the West. We believe that Chinese contemporary art is beset by the illusory conviction that it is avant-garde. Revolution remains in certain slogans and individual feelings, but in China, professional revolutionaries have often been the least revolutionary of all. Contemporary Chinese art emphasizes signification over experience, preaching away in the empty language of inflated conceptualism.
In recent years, we first imported expressionism and made it cooperate with the formalist elements of traditional art, producing many feeble images. Next came Political Pop, which announces itself as avant-garde while speaking the same didactic language of the cartoon comic books, New Year’s prints, and illustrations which were the artistic mainstream before 1989. In this way, art was made once again into a footnote of ideology. In the same way, conceptual art has devolved into a fixed canon of visual and linguistic devices. Are these manifestations of collective consciousness or collective unconsciousness indeed a singularly Chinese phenomenon? Or is this simply the state of affairs in each periphery of our post-colonial world? How do these peripheries respond to the question of tradition vs. modernity? How are their responses similar to and different from ours? We hope to re-interpret these questions using the framework of “from outside toward inside.” By this we mean not simply seeing ourselves as the center, thus falling into the struggle between “essence” and “utility,” but to make a broad-ranging comparison between ourselves and other historical and geographical locales in the process of forced contact with the West in order to reconsider the process of dissociation of signification. In other words, we wish to re-examine the fixed interpretation of the “local context” which has come to seem conventional. This method of turning the telescope around, looking “from the outside in” may be beneficial to art both in China and abroad.
By and large, Chinese contemporary art has reflected the historical and social reforms of the past 20 years. Chinese ink and wash art lingers in a strangely un-moored traditional circle. From the perspective of the audience, it has reoccupied its position as art for the elite and has thus become their metaphysical candy. At the same time, owing to the onset of outside ideology and market demand, Chinese ink and wash has weakened into the darling of an elite market, suggesting the generally awkward situation of traditional culture in contemporary China. So-called avant-garde art diverges from tradition, but in doing so has been incorporated into the ideological realm of conceptual art. Avant-garde art has easily attained elite status, consolidating its authority based on its success in the overseas market even as its interpretation of Chinese history and society becomes shallower and shallower.
The dialectic between “essence” and “utility” (ti yong zhi bian) was a passive strategic response to the compulsion and stimulus of the outside world on China in the early 20th century. It never necessitated a self-conscious re-formulation of Chinese culture. Its conclusions about the relationship between cultural tradition and modern circumstance retain an illusion that we are searching for something essentialist. Contemporary Chinese art, setting off from this dichotomy, has formulated strategic responses to the questions of how to utilize traditional cultural resources, resources stemming from socialist revolutionary culture, and resources from abroad. It thus avoids ontological and methodological innovation, particularly emphasizing “results.” In many ways we misread Chineseness similarly to our Western counterparts. Because we accept the burden of self-stereotyping, the utilitarian praxis which underlies such a self-deprecating activity must maintain an illusion of success and privilege. This traps Chinese artists in a vicious circle: because they are excessively attentive to the reception of their works internationally, artists on the one hand leave behind the local in the name of personal success, but on the other hand begin to complain of frustrations in dealing with the international realm stemming from their cultural background as members of the periphery. We must begin by clearing the slate; only then will we be able to develop a more constructive approach. What remains important is that we can find a contribution to the world in the raw material of our historical and lived experience. The answer is not to care uselessly about the volume of our voice, but rather to use that voice to say something substantive, and find new possibilities in this process of self-interpretation and self-restructuring.
The question of how we face up to “the West” is in reality the question of how we face up to ourselves, and only a critical and creative self-understanding will provide the foundation for an answer. This old topic still looms large over contemporary art in China. It connects with other important questions facing art in China, questions about the possibility of art’s survival, how art ought to relate to Chinese society, and how art might free itself from the problems of its ideological landscape, economic setup, and educational system. The “from inside toward outside” exhibition patterns that have characterized Chinese art for the last decade have many proverbial positive effects, but their limitations are also becoming more and more apparent. Among them is the way in which the art scene’s superficial response to ideology has failed to seriously engage the issues at stake-a phenomenon apparent in increasingly superficial social criticism based on the failure of the Chinese revolution or the loss of faith in utopia and idealism. A deeper understanding of local context is necessary-especially its centuries-long encounter with modernity, the gain and loss of its quest for utopia, the completeness or incompleteness of its revolution, and the mutually constitutive relationship between nationalism and internationalism, and the contributions, errors, misreadings, rebirths, restructurings, and localizations of Western ideologies in the process of entering China have already deeply entered China’s social and individual consciousness. The question of how to re-visit these issues through visual culture is a new departure for the future. As such, it is not only the work of China but is China’s responsibility to humanity. We should set to relocate ourselves in the local and international consciousness. This means nothing less than attempting to reconstruct society. Visual art bears a significant responsibility to reconstruct the consciousness which lies below this society.
One hundred years of revolutionary struggle and the lived experience of socialism not only influence every facet of contemporary society in China, but have also left a deep residue in the memory of the people. This permeates every corner of Chinese contemporary visual culture, becoming a resource-sometimes apparent, sometimes not- for Chinese contemporary art. Revisiting revolutionary memory in this way, we hope neither to parody nor to subvert the conservative or authoritative elements of socialist life. Nor do we seek to turn history into mythology by simplifying the past, maintaining the integrity of the grand narrative via creative nostalgia. Our working method is to subtly explore this historical period’s traces in contemporary visual culture, re-organizing the chaos and rescuing it from overused, canonized discourse. We must search for the points where historical memories converge with contemporary ideological trends, re-sensitizing ourselves to the subject and bringing the past into the present so that we can examine the traces’ effects, both negative and positive. This requires the integration of fieldwork and linguistic analysis, of the archaeology and architecture of knowledge. The theatricality of the stories of the Long March, the richness of the locales into which it extended, the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of the questions it raises-all of these provide us with a roadmap for reconstruction.
About the Exhibition
The Long March is a journey of visual creation and display. It follows the route of the historical Long March. Its curatorial aim is to allow people on this route to see contemporary art from China and abroad, and to create art in their presence. The Chinese people are currently on another Long March, the journey toward a socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics. Long Marcher Deng Xiaoping said that “only development is hard reason.” The results of this reform era are evident, as the annual growth rate for the Chinese economy has hovered around 9% for more than a decade. While rapid urbanization and commercialization have happened along the route of the Long March, such changes have also caused cultural losses and ideological voids. At the same time, a new cultural paradigm has emerged in China, whereby people regard wealth as glorious. What do people today think about communist idealism, the seeds of which were sown along the route of the Long March? What do they think about revolutionary practice, in which retreat can become victory and achievement, and which substitutes “Chinese reality” and “the local context” for foreign “truth?” What do they think about the theoretical and practical implications of the transfer of power to Mao Zedong, an event which happened during the Long March? From the viewpoint of visual culture, Long March Culture is missionary and metaphorical. It turns the kind of culture which derives from the people to serve the people into a valid mainstream language. It surpasses concrete authority, which is rooted in collective memory.
The biggest problem facing contemporary Chinese art is that its audience is limited to overseas organizations and markets, and to a handful of major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. The vast majority of Chinese have no opportunity for direct contact with contemporary art. Furthermore, precisely because the Long March travels cities other than Beijing and Shanghai-places labeled as relatively “backward”-the people with whom it comes into contact have virtually no experience with Western art. Therefore, there is special significance in sharing Chinese and foreign contemporary art with them. This activity looks to review the cause and effect relationships between revolutionary history and cultural ideology in P.R. China, especially Mao Zedong’s ideology of “art for the people,” in conjunction with ideologies that were prevalent in the West during the Mao era, including some that were inspired by Maoism. It looks to analyze how “Western” thought and art have influenced the creation and reception of art in China in the past and present. It will re-examine how our reading and rewriting of things Western and the Western reading and rewriting of things Chinese has affected the self- and mutual understanding and the further creation of the West and China. Just like other simplifications and misreadings of Chinese culture, Western Maoists also set out to reinterpret Chinese history based on their own power. We must raise a new inquiry, seeing misreading as misreading, and acknowledging the creative power implied therein. Thus, this exhibition also includes artworks from other countries, just as the historical Long March involved contemplation of foreign thought and the integration of “sinicized” readings of such thought into Mao’s guerrilla warfare tactics. The Long March will examine the influence upon history of these shifts in thought, along with that of the process of national migration, capital flows, cultural changes, and the engagements, intersections, exchanges, and connections between human and supernatural, individual and collective, and reality and utopia. This will not only be a process of yearning and following the original Long March-a historic journey that deeply influenced human society-but one of searching and building the historic journey into something new.
The working model created by the historic Long March provides us with not only a subject to discuss, but a substantive praxis for a critique of contemporary mainstream exhibition culture. Chinese contemporary art is in the earliest stages of constructing a formal system, but has begun the game of comparison and competition with the West, buying wholeheartedly into a system based on major museums and biennial exhibitions. We must think more carefully about the structural relationship of this system to the global artistic hierarchy, and to contemporary tourist culture. Nowadays, a city looking to become a global metropolis has a de facto obligation to develop an apparatus for contemporary art. We need to remain sensitive and respectful of the situation of alternative art in peripheral locales. Otherwise, a Chinese art system which takes “oppose discursive hegemony” as its slogan will in reality be nothing more than a tool of neo-colonialism. The Long March looks to integrate the production, consumption, and interpretation of art in a single scene, three issues which have traditionally remained separate. It looks to overcome the traditional distance between viewer and creator, to close the gap between “host” and “guest,” and to seek a new understanding of space. In this way, The Long March will merge exhibition with creation, and allow consumption and production to interact.
The Long March is an exhibition about exhibitions. It is not an exhibition in the traditional sense, with artworks hanging in a fixed space, both literally and metaphorically. It expands the notion of human exhibition culture through the juxtaposition of temporality and permanence. The twenty sites along the route of the Long March are excursions into the historical, political, geographic, and artistic context of each place. Each activity is divided into three parts: creation, display, and debate. The display portion involves original works, slides, video, film, and books; the debate portion involves the artists and curators, as well as the workers, peasants, soldiers, students, and merchants encountered along the road. Some of the conceptual and performance works created by artists may touch on both the “exhibition” and “debate” portions of a given activity, making the activity even more interactive. By exhibiting Chinese and foreign contemporary art to the masses, by re-reading Chinese and Western documents with them, by revisiting history and memory, by collecting their memories and interpretations of the old and the new Long March, by recording the details of these varied interactions, by restructuring these visual and textual materials and incorporating them into the next stage of the project: in this way the entire exhibition will continue to develop while on the road, becoming a way for every participant to continually adjust their thinking.
The whole Long March project will become a multi-media, multi-layered study in the anthropology and sociology of art, a hypertext connecting urban with rural and reality with imagination. Through a dialogue with international contemporary artistic thinking, it will also serve as a rewriting of post-Cold War art history.
After finishing the on-the-road portion of Long March-a Walking Visual Display, a touring exhibition will be organized as the second half of the project. The exhibition will travel through China and abroad. A massive catalogue documenting the exhibition will be published, along with a 20-part documentary film and some multi-media electronic materials.