Localizing the Chinese Context – Contemporary Chinese Art in China and Abroad

Lu Jie


The most problematic phrase left behind from 9/11 is that “things will never be the same.” In actuality, even before 9/11, the world, as well as our understanding of what is the “same” and what is “different” has never been the same. The problem, as Ien Ang points out, is not the recognition of “the same” and “different” types of fundamentalism, or the imagination of varied and differing cosmopolitanisms. Regarding the crisis and cultural conflict characterized by 9/11 Immanuel Wallerstein writes, “one of the cultural rules is that the denigration of others is indispensable to sustaining the internal self-assurance that makes possible the effective exercise of world power…” If we recognize the “contradiction between our ideals and our privileges” that Wallerstein speaks of, we can also understand why the rejection of dialogue is a shared characteristic of crisis. Contemporary fundamentalism is brought on by the cultural crisis that globalization has aroused. Not only has globalization failed to realize democracy, but it has also brought with it an even greater conflict of interests. Wallerstein’s formulation of the indispensable conflict of cultural logic that supports our privileges is also that of what Ien Ang terms, “the fundamentalisms of the “Other” but also the fundamentalisms within ourselves.” Citing Slavoj Zizek’s criticism on globalization that, “The opposition between globalization and local traditions is false: globalization directly resuscitates local traditions, it literally thrives on them, which is why the opposite of globalization is not local traditions, but universality,” Wallerstein goes on to express his own opinion: “But at the end of the process lies the possibility, which is far from the certainty, of a more substantively rational world, of a more egalitarian world, of a more democratic world – of a universality that results from giving and receiving, a universality that is the opposite of globalization.” The rejection of dialogue is due to the opposed sides’ inability to provide an effective and practical proposal, as well as an inability to realize this proposal. This crisis and the conflict created by the rejection of dialogue is an inherent part of modernity itself, and as such, have always been present. I define myself as a “cultural worker,” not because of the desire for a nostalgic metaphysical label, but rather to seek to find and transmit a positive optimism balanced between theory and practice. While we contemplate the relationship between art and democracy, I optimistically look at the experiences of art around the world in its opposition towards the globalization of a market society. Different but synchronic experience of the contemporary can be used as an intermediary to demonstrate and spur along sharing and exchange, and to question these differences, and not to reinforce the borders and fixed interpretations of them.

The largest problem we face when we are discussing the global and the local is the “false” opposition between globalization and local traditions that Zizek speaks of. An innumerable number of critics have continually battled over what is local and what is global. Likewise, in the art field, “false” globalization and the positioning of the local are also major topics, or at least this is the case in the non-Western art world that has newly entered into the game of international contemporary art. For example in China, the case I am most familiar with, how exactly do we position the international and the local is a focal point of crisis.

The emergence of an international platform for artists could be called the defining characteristic of Chinese art in the 1990s. A reference to the events of Tiananmen in 1989 became an essential and unquestioned cliche of almost every essay introduction of contemporary Chinese art, and is typical of the superficial politicization of the representation of China, whose baneful influence still requires a large amount of time and work to clear up. The daily more apparent nature of contemporary Chinese art is what I term “over-exposure, but under-exposed.” This contradiction is a continuously existent dialectic, which is to say that, no matter whether it is within China or outside of China, whether it is within the artworld or not, the judgments about the so called rise of contemporary Chinese art are all based upon a historically rigid and simplified set of clichés. The production of a majority of works and their exhibition continue to revolve around the discursive mechanism of “knowing” and “not knowing.”

As Susan Buck-Morss recently pointed out in a lecture given at the Tate Modern Museum;

the global artworld’s inclusion of the vibrant, new work of non-Western artists is quickly overwhelming the traditional story of art as a Western narrative. Non-Western artists are denied the luxury of imagining art as an isolated and protected realm. Reflection on the larger visual culture, the collective representations of which frame their art, is difficult, if not impossible to avoid. Even if the artworld’s financial motives for the inclusion of these new artists have been less than laudable – the establishment of market niches for culture produced by the exotic ‘other’ – the results have been so transformative that the History of Art as an inner-historical phenomenon can no longer contain it. Western Art History, once deeply implicated in the history of Western colonialism, has in turn become threatened, in danger of colonization by the global power that visual culture has become.

While Susan Buck-Morss provides a positive reading of the international art space; from my perspective as a practitioner there emerges another crisis. How are those artists and works that colonize Western art history to be produced in the local contexts? How are they to be read? What type of anxieties does this raise, and what type of crisis does this bring? How are those “Non-Western artists [who] are denied the luxury of imagining art as an isolated and protected realm,” – which is to say, those artists who have lost the cultural self-sufficiency they had before globalization, and who at the same time have been unable to gain anything from this new process – to face their consumption by the “other” and their inability to speak for themselves? This is not only an individual problem. We know that in the domain of contemporary globality, there are still numerous civilizations and ethnic groups that have not been included into the programming of “inclusionism” and “multiculturalism” in the contemporary, but whose colonial history has long since been collected by both them and the “privileged ones” and deposited in the museumified space of unbridgeable differences. Where are the contemporaries of themselves and their “others” to find expression?

While large scale Chinese art exhibitions have achieved a basic role in raising the international consciousness about Chinese art, because international curators cannot be familiar with all areas, and select works based upon a similar standard, it contains many prejudices. The common criticism leveled against large scale Chinese art exhibitions or Chinese participation in the international art biennale is that, the former strives too hard to create a background for artistic production, and thereby leading the group into a process of ghettoization. The latter, on the other hand, has no way to provide a background. One exhibition that has recently received quite a lot of criticism is the “Between Past and Present: New Chinese Photography and Video” exhibition” currently touring the United States. Of this exhibition, Yu Sha writes, “I cannot immediately identity exactly whether the attraction of this exhibition comes from ‘Chinese art’ or if it comes from ‘Chinese in art,’ or if they are both present. Investigatory news style understanding or anthropological analysis has consistently been the heuristic eaves from which the art world has used to explain contemporary Chinese art. This makes me question the methods for evaluating Chinese art in the West.” On the other hand, Yang Wei uses a title of “Emptiness of the Curator” to criticize the over globalized nature of exhibitions curated by overseas Chinese curators whose, “…exhibitions are mostly about the globalized situation…and emphasize that contemporary people carry with them a mindset of mobility. In that space, it is as if almost all the cultural relationships and linkages have become blurred. Artists have been frameworked by the large scale international exhibitions, and all that remains are some fleeting visual images.

Curator Fei Dawei takes this stance on Chinese art exhibitions:

A very large mistake is that its purpose is to display the entire face of contemporary Chinese art, instead of featuring the individual artists; however, this objective is inherently a mistake. Several exhibitions involving Chinese art in the 1990’s were curated by Western curators. When they would select artists and works to construct a framework, they would often lack the historical awareness that comes from personally living in contemporary Chinese art circles. What they displayed was a sampling of what could be seen by looking in from the outside...In the view of certain Western curators, they may feel that to distinguish between certain things is not important, some things were chosen because they thought that they had to meet certain parts of the audiences expectations, therefore, these exhibitions would often remain stuck upon the collective image, and did not express the value of the individual work or artist…This is all due to the fact that curators lack a feeling for the works or for the history. In these exhibitions, Chinese art could only be dealt with as a collective and social phenomenon by simply pigeonholing it.”

How can an exhibition more deeply express the physical and psychic displacements, the realization and loss of knowledge, and the search for and construction of the subject? If an exhibition is unable to do this, not only are individual and collective separated, the expressions of both remain unrealized and both sides lose out. The individual and the collective, and art and politics cannot be separated. While the relationship between individual and collective have revealed the dangers with the random application of ideology, it is still not possible to completely do away with ideology. The post-colonial period has provided a space for the experimental culture of non-central regions, which, along with the globalization of migration has also brought a shared living and experiences of a synchronic display and exchange of art, theory, and cultural production within the centers. We have already recognized the limits that differences can set, but we must also recognize that there is a limit to these differences, and our ability to define and identify the borders between them. One of the purposes of the international exhibition is to expose the local specificities and new orientations within a global context. If this were not the case, then artist would have no need to exhibit internationally, and there would be no reason for the museums to hold these exhibitions. In other words, “Chinese art” and “the Chinese in art” cannot be separated. Whether it is “us” or “them” excluding the other or welcoming it, for whatever reasons, be they economic, inclusionism, the construction of a national image, or a strategy to reaffirm one’s cultural logic, that we are willing to represent the other is a requirement for both sides, and also a complicity between the two. Western museums and the entire social system are currently undergoing a different type of self-imagination that continues to be based upon the imagination of the “Other.” However, the difference this time is that this imagination of the “Other” is not used to exclude, but rather to welcome. Museums rely on the logic of the selection between completion and incompletion, visible and invisible, presence and absence, gain and loss, which will always be the battlefield of ideology. China itself is entering into a new process of self-imagination, only the direction is reversed, we are imaging “them” imagining “us.”

The issue of “made in China” has been discussed on and off over the years, and was restarted by the criticism of Fei Dawei’s “Le moine et le demon” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary, Lyon, France. Wu Wei’s “Still Made in China – Judging ‘le moine et le demon’ – Chinese Contemporary Art Exhibitions” is an example. From his criticism, one can see that, Wu Wei’s understanding of “made in China” is that if an art work references characteristics, motifs, or forms of Chinese identity or folk art, then it is understood as “Made in China,” and as such “superficial and “absolutely unable to cross cultural boundaries (without critique)…it is unable to clearly address the social realities of contemporary China.” Wang Nanming, in “The Laboring Competition for Chinese Symbols: Xu Bing and Gu Wenda,” simply puts equals signs between Chinese symbols, “made in China,” and Chinatown culture. There is no type of theoretical basis that develops the analysis of the relationship between these three elements, he simply draws a forced conclusion that these three things are not only equal, but furthermore, that they are invalid expressions of contemporary China, and should be shunned by contemporary Chinese artists.

From this type of criticism, it is possible for us to see the expression of the postcolonial phenomenon in China: the tension between local and global, a rejection of tradition, and the loss of subjectivity, along with a rigid understanding of historical problems, and a blind imitation of postcolonial theory that limits a deeper understanding of the particular historical and social background and connections that gave rise to the theory. In Chinese art criticism, postcolonial theory remains directed towards critiquing the imagination of the West, which in actuality, is the reimagination of the Western imagination of China. In this process, the “Other” occupies an important oppositional position to “Us.” As Schmitt notes, in order to achieve this feeling of self assurance, which is always constructed upon a historical amnesia and false power structure, one must first construct a homogenized self-evaluation that surpasses the values of others. However, in the process of constructing a False “us,” we also construct a False “other,” and crisis and conflict naturally ensue. For example, at the same time as there is a global demonization of China, and an imagination of its hegemonic excess, there is also an accompanying rise in narrow-minded fundamentalist Chinese nationalism. Hardly is there ever a realization or reflection of the construction of Chinese identity through China’s own history of internal colonization of other minority groups by the Han Chinese, or, in terms of art, a colonization of “folk art,” “unprofessional art,” or secular visual culture by elite art and culture.

A recent development in the Chinese art world is the dilemma faced by artists as they seek to “self-represent” as well as self-translate. Often, artists seek to be active within their own passive conditions by strategically producing works partly for Chinese audiences, and partly for international audiences. This duality is also a major feature of Chinese modernity, which is also to a large degree concerned with how the West imagines us. Under this condition, artists must balance between their experiences in the local context, and the so called “Chinese context” that has been forced upon from the outside. On the surface, displaying Chinese art is heavily imbued with a politic nature. Chinese artists are playing chess with the system, and attempt to take their own freedom and power of display to the extreme. However, the view from within appears that they are continuously exercising self-restraint ensuring that their works meet the demands of the international imagination.

The anxiety that arises from individual artists’ participation in group exhibitions, but not being noticed is also a problem that lies with artists themselves. Exhibitions that are focused on individual attempt to have audiences fetishize the work so that the artist’s power gains and attracts the market and collectors. However, if the meaning behind the work is ever unfolded, audiences and the collectors will be lost within it. There is a dual contradiction here. The actual Chinese art market is dependent to a large degree upon the ideology of the image of the “other” for its marketing purposes, and as such, Chinese artists remain bound. However, since we need to get rid of this group phenomenon, why is that in exhibitions in China, Chinese artists rush to participate in trendy thematic biennales and large-scale exhibitions, but turn numb at the prospect of a solo show? This finds its manifestation in the great leap forward in strategizing by Chinese artists, curators, and critics, but also a degeneration of artistic language. Artists focus the creation of their works based upon considerations for its consumption, and the entire process by which an artist is either accepted or rejected. Terms such as “museum artist,” “proposal artist,” biennale artist,” and “gallery artist” express this strategic positioning. Perhaps most interesting is that the most “successful” artists are those that happen to have the most strategizing.

This is a typical example of the consumption of art coming to drive its production. In history there are similar experiences: for example the classic styles and design of 19th Century Chinese ceramics exported to England were actually based upon the styles imported from England. Likewise today, the style of internationally popular Chinese political pop is being re-imported, creating a situation where this style is not only inundating the market, but has become the actual representative of Chinese art. Although the early works of political pop have already been critiqued as superficially expressing Chinese “avant-gardism” without any type of critical nature – what I term “fictitious avant-gardism” – I also want provide another angle to interpret this interesting misreading of political pop as avant-garde. When the artists were producing these works, they were reflecting the period of the times, and the earnestness and sincerity was actually an extension following the realist and socialist traditions, and not part of the so called avant-garde. However, in general, people outside of China do not recognize that political pop is one aspect of the mainstream, and continue to consume the works under the label of an avant-garde reading, thereby causing them to lose any type of theoretical basis. What is expressed by this artistic language is that socialist realism has given way to social realism, political pop, and cynical realism, which is to say, that it has given way to “Chinese contemporary art,” and to a reflective discourse that changes form, but remains unchanged. All of these topics must begin with an understanding of what is avant-garde and what is contemporary.

How did the equating of the Chinese avant-garde with the Chinese contemporary art both in China and abroad come about? How do we understand and the changes in the dualistic debate between “right” and “left” that began in the 1990’s, and continues on today? What is the relationship between the supposedly underground nature of artists and the international and domestic critical demands, and the artistic avant-garde and the social avant-garde? Can these popularized works adequately reflect the complexity of the Chinese context, and is this context forced upon from the outside, or is it a complicity that is both internal and externally applied? How come the contradictory relationship between tradition and modernity, individual and collective, and local and international are taken so simplistically? The popularity of the so called underground position of the avant-garde is due to it being underground, and as such, represents a critique that is in demand. However, it is a mistake to equate underground with critical. Furthermore, there is a contradiction between the “artistic” avant-garde and the “social” avant-garde. Much care should be given not to overlook the complicated situation and the rupture between tradition and modernity, theory and practice, and collective and individual. Otherwise, theoretical generalizations will only direct art creation into a much narrower space.

Another problem that the Chinese context must unravel is the problem regarding
“systemization,” which is also linked with the relationship between criticism and practice. As we are all aware of, because the system is tied to the relationship between history and present, ambivalence and compromise are a major strategy. It is for this reason that people find the system particularly easy to criticize. However, because the critical system is based upon the transplantation and imitation of the so called “international” standard, which, combined with the phenomenon of these critics making careerist choices and becoming professional curators, is unable to generate any serious debate or an open structure for creativity. Instead, they are all working together to try and construct the so called “standardization” of contemporary Chinese art, another system and model for art exhibitions and biennales, but ultimately to the end that they have moved contemporary art mostly into real-estate show rooms. There are also those who present grand proposals of promoting Chinese masters, or constructing a system that promotes art stars. The laughable desire and quest for these standards is presented in the Chengdu’s biennale’s call for “a model for art.” This is also represented by the art historians who use the methods of historical retrospective, summarization, and conclusion as a departure point for their own curatorial strategies.

Regarding the systemization of contemporary art, Wu Hong criticizes the Beijing Biennale for both wanting to provide a site and image of a large-scale system with Chinese characteristics, as well as trying to say that it is linking with the global practice, a position he believes is contradictory from the start:

The government spending a large sum of money to organize this exhibition is without a doubt intended to raise the image of Beijing’s art culture and try and meet one of the requirements as a large international and cosmopolitan city… “One cannot see any of the experimental nature of artistic concepts and artistic discourse that is common in the international art biennale. What you see is the national fine arts exhibition that is only the old, or the rigid, or that which is completely according to the standards of “administrative aesthetics” that express the structure of “the artistic bureaucratic system.”

However, most peculiar in the debate regarding the systemization of Chinese art, is the lack of a voice from inside the system. Therefore, any type of discussion can only be a type of posturing, without any possibility for substantive exchange. Firstly, we need to ask what is the system? Who represents the system, and who does it represent? Is the system continuously unchanging? Is the system the biennale that changes every time, or is it the not so similar organizers and co-organizers? Or is the system the different curator of each year’s biennale? Or is it the different artists who participate every year? Is it the relatively open Guangdong Fine Arts Museum that is the system, or is it the sometimes conservative sometimes open, Millennium Museum? Or is it the slowly opening National Gallery that is the system? Is it the county and village governments that supported contemporary art along the route of the Long March? Are these multiple systems? Or perhaps the system is a combination of them all? One sided criticism towards the system is actually a one-sided critique against individuals and their practices which are supposedly representing the system. Therefore, the ambivalence lies in the fact that, in order to keep their distance from the system, the criticized individuals do come out to defend themselves, rather they lightly point out that their practical problems are problems with the system. My understanding is that the system is spatial as well as temporal. It is an actually operating structure of how we recognize space and time, and that requires both the inside and the outside to complete. Unless there is such a thing as a system that never develops or changes, then we are all part of the system. Whether activities are conducted by the system, or by independent individuals outside the mainstream system, all are strategically viable in the contemporary Chinese local context. As such, criticism must also move away from the superficial ideological positions of governmental critique, and binary positioning of system and outside the system. While differences exist, it is not of oppositional superficial ideology. It is simply not possible to be truly independent.

If this is the case, then what is systemization? Currently, it seems that there is not any discussion regarding this problem, only anxiety. The anxiety from inside the system is a fear of being criticized as the “system.” This is because the system has been simply entrusted with a negative ideology. While it is accurate to criticize the system’s control of the understanding of “reality” and its continuation of a conservative position as squeezing out the production of possibilities, the criticism coming from outside the system ought to provide possibilities, and not become the selling point for ideology. Contemporary art in China has a characteristic of using “resistance as capital” to sustain itself.

In Feng Boyi’s “Under Underground and others – regarding 20 century and 90’s avant-garde art,” there is one phrase that is particularly well put:

To avant-garde artists, their “independent, free” narration is a cultural imagination that forms a kind of highly abstract, ideological “freedom and independence”, rather than affirming an act of separation from the official system. Such imagination of mutual exclusiveness hides the fact that, after separation from the State system, what lies ahead is not a free world, but domination of the discourse of power of another system. To independent curators, so called “independence” has to rely on capital from overseas and private capital in China. Therefore, in the “free, independent” narrative, being outside of the official system does not lead to an ideal world, nor is it a road of breakthrough and escape. For example, the fashionable phenomenon of co-operating with thriving real estate developers in holding contemporary art exhibitions shows that are has fallen into the control of free market or capital. Therefore, the collaboration between the governmental art system that have appeared in recent years, also has its logical necessity.

The case of Huang Yongping’s EP3 airplane illustrates the complexity of the situation. The work a “success” by being first banned by “door keepers of Democracy” in the west (joint French and American sanctions), then it banned by the Chinese system, and finally banned by the self-proclaimed leftist merchants in Beijing. Today, we often hear artists’ regretful laments that their shows are not banned like the previous “avant-garde” generation, thus losing the easy path to fame provided by so “governmental censorship.” In the attitude of essentialism where everyone is so certain that the logic and meaning of “avant-garde” equals “contemporary,” when people are incessantly debating about systemization, cooption, and individualism, has anyone considered that power struggle and exchange are mutually dependent upon each other? However, it is also important to ask the fate of those works and artists that do not happen to be opposed to this dualist power relationship. What about the art of those so called folk artists, traditional artists, non-artists, artists working in the contemporary, but who are not part of the so called “contemporary art?” Setting up these binary positions overlooks the fact that there are alternatives of folk, traditional, and non-art art that are not accepted by the “contemporary art” system. The basic conflict in Chinese art environment is not only between the developing political avant-garde and the traditional artistic avant-garde, but also between the “elite culture” which the above two form in opposition to the new masses categorized by consumerism and secular life.

In this article I have used the term “contemporary Chinese art” as opposed to the commonly used term “Chinese contemporary art.” We need to be careful of limiting our understanding of the contemporary to one large unified international identity, and the singular identity of “contemporary” China as being the so called “avant-garde.” Because the term “contemporary China” has become an adornment to the term “avant-garde,” the bankruptcy of the “avant-garde” has also led to a lightheadedness of the contemporary. In actuality, there are multiple contemporaries. While it is perhaps acceptable to place certain boundaries on these contemporaries, they do not follow any overlying order, such as the historically linear narrative that restricts the international understanding towards contemporary art. In China, “contemporary” has been simplistically equated with separation and the cutting off from tradition, lending the false appearance that it is not just one Chinese artist who is trying to separate from tradition, but the entirety of Chinese artists. When we speak of standardization of contemporary art, the problem is not placing one or one type of contemporary Chinese art into the contemporary international context. Rather, if all of contemporary Chinese art in the contemporary international setting is restricted to this one type, then there is no way to realistically give expression to the historical appearance. Those exhibitions that claim to provide context and complete background knowledge are both unable to be complete, and are unable to focus on explaining the relationship between the individual and the time period. At the same time, as audiences, artists, and curators are all attempting to squeeze and strengthen their power, they are re-writing Chinese art history from the outside, thereby extinguishing the right to the contemporary of a number of artists, works, and related practices, among which several constitute an important part of the structure of contemporary China. However, in the context of globalization, these artists working in the contemporary have not necessarily gained the right of representation. This is due in part not only to curators having no way of understanding the Chinese context, but also having way to make those in the art system with power to understand this. Even if they were able to accomplish the above two, audiences simply would not be satisfied. This is because, substantively speaking, the power structure relationship of Chinese art (including artists, curators, museums, biennales, markets, media, etc) in China and internationally, continue to search for a opposite in the bounded field of “contemporary” art.

Then, how do we go about re-examining the crisis of the separation between tradition and modernity and between local and international that we spoke of? How is an artwork to act as an intermediary, and not simply be a reactionary or a passive type of response? In the conflict between pro and anti-globalization in China, avoiding a naive opposition based upon nationalism, as well as acceptance and surrender for the most part relies on first facing the mutual relationship between the international and the local.

Given the limitations of the mega-international Chinese art exhibitions, who continue to be based on the distinction of superficial cultural and ideological differences reinforced by the paradigms of “West”, “center”, “multiculturalism”, “Other”, and the “Post Cold War mindset,” and the practices and thinking which they are representative of, in an 1999 article I proposed that we go “From Outside to Inside,” redirecting exhibitions from international audiences to ourselves, to use a new critical and creative self-understanding to come to new of the “Other.” 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. 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. With this proposal, we marched in the practical, physical, and discursive space of the Long March.

The Long March project itself is a metaphor. It is an international cooperation, it is a campaign, and a complex art project subtitled “a walking visual display.” It is a journey, whose participants include artists, theorists, and art activists, from both China and abroad. It uses the historical Long March as a geographic and discursive framework, and the curatorial plan parallels the grand narrative of the historical Long March: its romantic ideals of turning failure into success, of taking to the road in search of utopia, of founding an alternative democratic society through engagement with the masses, leaders, and soldiers, of representing the intellectuals and the people, of holding imported theories and tactics up to the lens of reality in the local context, of generating the new and powerful praxis that led ultimately to the founding of the current Chinese state. It is a journey of visual creation and display that follows the route of the historical Long March, building a platform between the local and international. 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. 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. 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 Zunyi Conference (a part of The Long March – A Walking Visual Display) entitled, “Curating and the Chinese Context,” discussed the topics which arose from being engaged in the Chinese context such as, the binary positioning of art and ideology, individual and collective, China and the West. The purpose of raising the question of a Chinese context was to use China as a platform to examine the complexity of globalization, not only the debate about its acceptance or rejection, but also to show how this process has been an important and still ongoing part of the story of Chinese modernity. In addition, it also sought to challenge the West’s neglection of the link between history and present in contemporary Chinese art, and the subsequent decontextualization of contemporary Chinese art as a result of its forced reading with the concept of modernity of the Western art narrative.

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. The Long March revisited revolutionary memory in hopes of neither parodying or to subverting 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.

In the art world, how to define the relationship between the artistic avant-garde and the social avant-garde is similar to how to define the social avant-garde of the Chinese context, where “the left is conservative and the right avant-garde.” Recently, the debates regarding the book Empire have been oriented towards the discussion about the possibility of constructing the universality of democracy. Is it possible to change our viewpoint and to exchange the question of what is reality by changing the relationship between action and reality? Pierre Rosanvallon proposal for a new experience of democracy is not a model for a new utopia, but rather the numerous differences that we meet in our efforts is the carrying out of an internal utopia that is perhaps real, and perhaps operative. Nonetheless, the orientation that it provides us is not the false commonwealth that a market society provides, but rather a democratic commonwealth. The Chinese art world also faces this false problem of the system “not yet being constructed so unable to tear it down.” The understanding of the Long March is that, construction and tearing down has always been in the same step. If the experimental and critical nature of art in China cannot be outside of the system only inside the system, but persists in constructing a systemized space outside of the system, then art cannot be a democratic utopia. This type of plan perhaps is a utopia in itself, which can be a realistic utopia. In the middle of realizing utopia, utopia can actually be achieved. The Long March built a realistic utopia. From the villages to international exhibitions and biennales, it is possible to see the grand narrative of the Long March, which is from the roots to the top, from inside to outside, and vice-versa.