Paradox of Curatist – Long March as Author





That “contemporary art is tired” is characterized by the fact that “exhibitions are tired.”  The problem is not only that of “star” curators, but is also associated with artists adopting a strategic approach to the current mega-exhibition system, as well as the weariness and empty language of art criticism, which characterizes the entire globalized art system.  The crisis of curating is a global phenomenon that is particularly visible in contemporary Chinese artworld.  The appearance of curating in the 1990’s was strongly tied to the innovative experimental art experience, and the collective collaboration between curators and a handful of provocative experimental artists.  Today, in the slew of trendy curatorial projects, this type of approach is rarely visible.  Instead, curatorial strategies are purposeful and unequivocally careerist in their aspirations.  While it appears as if artists and curators are supporting each other, the end result is that art creation has become completely dependent upon the mega thematic group shows with a lofty curatorial subject, loose and spatially incoherent grouping of artist works, and lack of sincere curatorial thinking and critique.  The careerist approach is always using reality as a condition, compromising, and unable to creatively break through borders and boundaries,  and the entire process of making and exhibiting art become a power struggle of authorship which has driven both artist and curator as “productionists and exhibitionists.”

In the era of exhibitions, the strengthening of exchange and gathering has also increased and reduced the differences and similarities of our identity. We have all noticed the very apparent change in art practice of different regions, which is the construction of subjectivity from the international by turning it into the local.  However, aside from competing to construct a large scale exhibition, market, and museum system, or forcing into international standards, or the transplantation of curator’s powers, and the collision between modernity and tradition, it also reveals the different experiences and conditions of local context. It was with this departure point I set out for Long March in 1999.  We departed in summer 2002 and are still marching on the road today. The Long March is at once a concrete series of display-events along the route of the 6,000 miles historic Red Army trek (1934-36) in China, and a presence in the art world in and beyond China that looks to establish a new consciousness of art in relation to history, culture, and memory. To interrogate the revolutionary memory of the people and artists it works with, to make a revolutionary departure from standard art-world praxis, to stand in revolutionary relation to a group of artists, all in an act of endurance of indeterminate length. 

The Long March is a metaphor. It is an international cooperation, it is a campaign, it is a complex art project subtitled “a walking visual display.” It is a journey. Its participants are artists, theorists, art activists and general public, from abroad but mostly Chinese. 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.

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. 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 merges exhibition with creation, and allows consumption and production to interact. It is not the opposition between local and international or its exchange, rather it is the interactive translation and the inheritance of revolutionary nature of the internationalization of the local and the localization of the international.

Curating, in the sense of the word we are using here in the Long March, has always been a method to produce a work.  Curators have always had a strong relationship to the works, and the two have been entangled together since the beginning.  The first step we took was to make the Long March space a physical and discursive space, thereby revealing a series of dialogues with and within the spaces. We not only disrupted the relationship between curators and artists by using the identity of an artist to become a project director of hundreds of projects grouped together in one project – the Long March, but also by the fact that both artists and their works turned into part of the Long March both as an author and a piece of art work.  Artist being curators and curators being artists mutually helped each other in their development.  However, a distinction must be made between two forms that the artist/curator relationship may take.  One is to model the identity of the artist to make an exhibition.  The other is to organize an “exhibition” that breaks the concepts of curating and work, such that the entire Walking Display appears as a work that conflicts with other works in the exhibition.  Furthermore, this conflict is not in the interest of superficial critique, rather it is a conflict between power and interpretation.  In the endless variety of art activities of the Long March, there are scholars as artists, artists as curators or social works and researchers, audiences as participants and even collaborators.  Collaboration and participation must adjust accordingly to accommodate the variegated and different positions that each individual sets out from.  As curators used exhibitions to criticize the recognition of space, materials, or art history, they drew closer and closer to the artists.  Their exhibitions became their creative works, as well as a medium to express their perspectives, which was similar to the approach artists were taking towards their works. 

The Long March is a grand narrative and ambition, but because our revolutionary curatorial idea is not always recognized collectively by artists, we encountered with both resistance and support.  We talked to several hundreds of artists and holding several meetings and press conferences in recent years.  Although we gained the support of provincial artists, we encountered much resistance comes from elite artists in the center who feared they were being threatened by us – as if the project was directed against them – whereas in actuality their participation was needed to reform our art community.  We also debated within ourselves if we should ignore the established artists and only work with the grassroots.  However, because artists have already been shifted to the international context, one ended up with works that only looked at the Long March as another exhibition opportunity. Often times, curators would be confronted with a situation where they would have no alternative but to take the place of artists.  For example, Long March Installations, Long March Happenings and Long March Events – which are all works from the curators – were neologisms coined to describe events that arose from the Long March project, but did not have a definite author.  The project also included several important collaborations with community; however, artists were often unwilling to participate, because they were accustomed to the faked interaction with community.  In this case, only the Long March could fill this gap. 

The open movement of spaces, very often resulted with challenges and uncertainty, has brought an enormous impact on the curatorial methods in the Long March.  The relationship between artists and curators has changed along with the changes in the relationships between artists, works and exhibitions, and works, exhibitions, and audiences.  In actuality, the conflict of theory and practice has opened up the relationship between artists’ works and exhibitions, and from the perspective of curators, has opened the relationship between exhibitions and works.  Regardless of whether the exhibition was challenging methods of viewing, challenging art history, interactive, or expanding the notions of “what is art,” these themes required more cooperation between artists and curators, and the methods for exhibiting art led to both artists and curators becoming the authors of the exhibition.  The advance in the field of visuality achieved by critical theory have lead to curating becoming not only about showing works, but rather emphasizing the creative actions involved with complicated exchange. During the Long March, art and life could not be separated, and therefore, curators’ roles in expression and exchange began to substantially overlap with that of artists, even to the point that was a trend of replacing artists.  All of this touches upon the question of authorship. 

If the author of the exhibition is the curator, and the author of art is the artist, we are left with a paradox.  In reality, moving away from exhibitions to “Walking Visual display” have made artists no longer “artists” in the traditional sense of the word.  Their primary job has become similar to that of curators.  Along the unlimited discursive and physical spaces of Long March, there is no “white cube” or tabula rasa in the minds of artists and curators.  The spaces are filled with selection of strategy, and self-evaluation. As such, curating and creating works for Long March become a form of cultural rhetoric, it is creative work that through the extension or challenging of the definition of exhibitions and the definitions of exchange, constructs a mutually imagined and realistic schedule for the work and its final resting place.  The project would often confront the problem of artists strategizing.  Artists did not want to miss out on the Long March, but many were too busy with international schedule, and therefore only gave their works but did not help to realize it. Also, because the team was traveling, practice would often conflict with the curatorial plan, leaving the curatorial team with no other option than to take the role of the artist.  In this regard, artists yielded autonomy to curators.  The dilemma was that curator must not only play the part of the author, but also the unseperatable role of curator being part of the author was used by artists as well as rejected by them.  This is due to the fact that in our world the relationship between curator and the author of the work is forever in name only.  Some artists’ proposal and actual works were aiming at challenging the curator’s intervention in the work, therefore their works powerfully addressing the issues.  Other artists will be threatened by the open structure of the project and chose not to participate, creating very strong resistance of the Long March. 

The greatest contribution of the Long March has been the changes developed through out the movement along the road. Confronted by different regions and cultural systems, the display politics of the Long March opened up a complex and diverse space.  The originally closed relationship between artists and the local contexts has turned into the experience of mobility, which is even more in need of curators to mediate.  Although in the end the process is still characterized by assimilation, at the very least it is beginning to move.  The sharing of knowledge and networks has also brought more translation and greater hybridity.  The common ground of knowledge is moving, while we are aware that the system has problems, we are not careerist in rushing to adopt it, nor radical in wanting to abandon it.  Rather we sought to create an alternative system by examining our own problems.  From the beginning, the Long March has confronted the crisis of the curator, the crisis of art, and the crisis of authorship, striving to peel back layer by layer form (a walking visual display, included exhibitions, residency, symposiums, lectures, community reform, social surveys, visual economy, publishing, the construction of a concrete artistic organizational space), and movement (without limits, continually developing).  In our practice we embody all types of contradictions and conflicts.  Through the use of the collective narratives, and the construction and loss of the individual, what the Long March structure revealed was that curators are not curators, nor are they artists.  Nor are artists artists.  Rather, it is the exhibition that is the artist.  All of the participants returned to the status of cultural workers.  The Long March’s expanse, its alliance, its struggles, created such a relationship between curators and artists that was the work of the Long March.  It opposed centralization through a moving network, coming to a new understanding of areas, replacing and inverting physical and psychic boundaries, and creating a new systemic form that does not rely on the system.  The Long March is a China without borders, and one that extends beyond the boundaries of nation-state.  It surpassed the canonized exhibition form, constructing a complex and multiple hypertexts, an author beyond the substance.  The Long March became a work of art, as well as author of the work of art.  Curators and artists are all authors, and the works are the authors of the exhibition.  No timeframe, no beginning, no ending. 

From the beginning, the Long March “marched” both internationally and locally.  The latest Long March project in the local was “The Great Survey of Papercuttings in Yanchuan County,” which did not have any type of artist participation.  Because of this factor, the Long March curatorial and administrative team worked for half a year with the Yanchuan County government and over 80 volunteers to conduct a comprehensive survey of the 180,000 people of Yanchuan County.  The result of the project was 15,006 individual case studies and their associated papercutting works.  This entire project has come to be seen as a field project that combines anthropology, sociology, as well as art together in one activity.  At the same time, it is also a giant piece of artwork, which was exhibited simultaneously at the Shanghai Biennale and the Taipei Biennale, and whose author was none other than the Long March itself.  The latest developments of the Long March in 2004 has also been the emergence of the formulation artist/author=curartist, which entered into the international space as an independent project.  In 2005, the Long March has already accepted invitations to three biennial and triennial exhibitions, replacing the common custom of having the national museum and the independent curator in organize contemporary Chinese art exhibitions, and even replacing the artist in directly receiving invitations. The Long March is able to curate exhibitions that from art works, but at the same time, can also be an author, and participate in exhibitions in and of itself.