Marching out of step

Zoe Butt


The ‘Long March Project’ is an ongoing art project that began with a philosophical evaluation of the complex role and meaning of art and self-hood, in all its political, economic, cultural, and social guises.

The project was founded by Lu Jie. Jie had been a direct participant and witness to the revolutionary zeal of Communist China. He was part of a unique generation of voracious readers introduced to Western art theory and philosophy, and was an active agent in the opening up of an international Chinese art market. In 1999, Lu Jie found himself perplexed and exasperated with the hood-winked motivation of money in the evolution of a ‘contemporary’ Chinese art.

Travelling through the Amazon, across the European continent, moving his life between New York and London, Lu Jie eventually found himself enrolled in Curatorial Studies at Goldsmiths (University of London) where he began historicizing his own life experience by means of research for the first activity of the Long March Project, ‘A Walking Visual Display’. The subsequent 90 page curatorial précis outlined a series of critical engagements and events using the metaphorical and geographical framework of China’s revolutionary Long March. He problematized the co-existence of dualities, such as juxtaposing time and space, reality and imagination, theory and practice, East and West, rural and urban, local and global. In 2002, Lu Jie and fellow artist Qiu Zhijie, accompanied by over 250 individuals from China and abroad (artists, curators, writers, scholars), visited 12 of the 20 historical sites of China’s revolutionary Long March. Working with local communities along the road in a renegotiation of the past and its multifaceted remembering, artworks were realized, performances enacted and issues debated concerning a diverse array of issues, such as the question of authorship, space as a site of memory, and the meaning of social exchange through mobility.

This first journey of the Long March Project manifested numerous challenges that directly and indirectly questioned assumptions and misunderstandings of Chinese society’s relationship with their own history and culture. As a project it also sought to engage China’s attitude towards the ‘outside’ world vis a vis the ‘West’’s imagination of China. Such frameworks were discussed by viewing works such as Jean Luc Godard’s film La Chinoise that was screened in the Luo Family Ancestral Hall in Mixi Village in Ruijin Province, which is a village known as the first Red Army headquarters in 1934. Participating artists, local villagers and cultural officials who had endured the Cultural Revolution, gathered to watch this film and its glorification of Mao Zedong’s political aspirations by French youth, which was followed by heated discussion between local and guest. Such contrast between lived, imagined and assumed experience was similarly undertaken by such artists as Belgian Wim Delvoye and his work ‘The Chapel Series’ which was displayed within the Jinhua Temple in Moxi Province, visually questioning the differences between Buddhist and Christian ritual and principle — two of many international works screened/discussed on the road). The journey included an examination of individual and collective actions which complicated the relationship between artist and curator—numerous artworks were created by curators and numerous ‘events’ were organized by artists. Such investigations were seen as critical to the proposal of an alternate system of contemporary art production and exhibition in China. It was in carrying out these first footsteps through rural China in 2002 that Lu Jie decided this ‘investigation’ cannot end with the mere re-tracing of this national legacy and thus ‘Long March Space’ was formed in Beijing — a contemporary gallery/curatorial lab/publishing house that continues to operate as physical base for the ongoing work of the Long March Project.

Long March Space collaborates with a range of contemporary artists (predominantly Chinese) in a continual unfolding of the artistic self. This self-evaluation of historical consciousness underpins a myriad of its ongoing artistic exercises in China and abroad, most recently the ‘Long March Project - Ho Chi Minh Trail (Duong Truong Son)’. This educational project, currently in research development, firstly asks thinkers in China to engage with the region in which this infamous trail is traced, namely Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It is an undertaking that embraces the existence of multi-histories, desiring the re-negotiation of (H)istory by those that endure and remember.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail is historically understood as a logistical supply route created during the Second Indochina War (1969-74), forming a vast network of passageways across China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This rhizomic map offers useful reflection on the nature of overlapping histories of the region, providing strong metaphor and departure point for critical discussion. This particular geographical area was the strategic battleground between the two Communist powers of China and the Soviet Union during the Second Indochina War, with China’s decision to support Vietnam during this time being instrumental to Mao Zedong’s domestic argument to gather the masses against Imperialist forces encroaching its national borders (e.g, USA). This cunning decision not only announced China’s support for revolutionist forces in Vietnam, but also encouraged Mao’s domestic grand plans for ‘The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’. The ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail (Duong Truong Son)’ project seeks to analyze the metaphorical legacy of this trail as a divergent journey, engaging relevant and pertinent comparisons with broader international movements of social thought, strategy and intervention.

To offer a glimpse of a longer shared history beyond this particular trail it is worth noting the early successive dynasties in Vietnam that had political, economical and cultural connections with China. During this time, Vietnam’s independence was under continual challenge, eventually taken by the French in the late 19th century, forming part of Cochin China along with much of the Mekong Delta region, only to be later subjected to the political whims of the Japanese and the US (indirectly by China and Russia). Going back even further in time, the complex tale of conquest included Kublai Khan’s attempt to invade Vietnam in the 13th Century and the vassal relationship between the Cham Dynasty of Vietnam and China beginning in the first century AD. Such history is still the subject of significant and prolonged cultural animosity.

It is this historical acrimony that is of interest within this project. Despite China and Vietnam having entered a new phase of understanding and cooperation, spurred by politically motivated economic and geographical factors, the movement of people and trade across borders has created a complex web of social attitude, cultural misconceptions and imagined historical facts that continue to stir controversy and angst. Most recently there is a spate of protests over the sovereignty of the Spratly Islands.


Can events of the past be objectively re-written through art, re-interpreted so as to confront, alleviate, or alter an understanding of historical consciousness? How can sensitive misgivings between cultural and social communities be creatively engaged so as to create new identifications, new possibilities of beneficial engagement where psychological and social prejudices are laid aside? How has the historical exchange of knowledge, trade and ideas created, supported, or spurned a sense of mutual imaginings?

The Ho Chi Minh Trail (Duong Truong Son) project continues the Long March Project‘s emphasis on process and exchange rather than object-making (though undoubtedly a valid part of an artistic process). It aims to discard the assumed differentiation between artist, curator, writer, critic, historian or student, searching for educational discussion of ideas and potential artistic endeavors through a mobile ‘residency’ where artistic practice and historical fact is challenged and ‘taken on the road’. This will not only be a physical journey from China through this region, but also a conceptual engagement between creative thinkers that challenge the place of art and culture in contemporary society. Such dialogue could occur at the site of ‘Long March Education’ in Beijing1; it could occur in the home of a Cambodian artist, on a train traveling south from Nanning to Hanoi; or over a blog site ( It is a project that seeks to revisit the ideological motivations behind the origins of the Long March Project.

This project is in development during a particularly fragile period for Chinese contemporary art.  The market has, for too long, dictated the need and methodology of art making and exhibitions in China and in the last decade, China’s wealth of artistic talent has arguably benefited from the machine of money making. It has been a brilliant exponential ride, but at significant cost. The market vehicle has consumed artistic ambition in China, its production overseen with little substantial critique and analytical judgment concerning the role of aesthetics, with the social body turning a blind eye in the nurturing of ideas of contemporary culture, while artists continue to seek validation of their practices by overseas (Western) curators/institutions before seeking acceptance in their own community.

In the last two years, the multi-layered agenda of the Long March Project has been consumed by this international thirst for Chinese art. In late 2008, after presenting a swathe of solo shows at Long March Space with heavy production and local community expectation (Zhan Wang, Lin Tianmiao, Yang Shaobin, Xu Zhen), it felt necessary to re-assess how effectively Long March Space was mediating the artistic motivations of the Long March Project. Critically in need of consideration was the local artists’ understanding of the Long March Project as offering ‘space’ where artworks were given ‘prime time’ for visual interrogation. Though a valid opinion, such a local understanding meant fewer of these artists were participating in the Project’s exploration of artistic mobility. These activities, occurring far from major art centres: such as the ‘Long March Project - Yanchuan Primary School Papercutting Education Project’ is located in Yanchuan County, and ‘Long March Project - Chinatown’ was carried out in Yokohama and Auckland. Such remote locations are of fundamental value to the Long March Project and more critically, are the kinds of investigations of primary interest to international curators and writers.

In noting the dilemma between exhibition site and conceptual motivations; between the desire to enfold practice with theory; in acknowledging the differing perspectives of purpose and need between local and international audiences, it became necessary to re-visit the reasons why Long March Space was created. It was important to remember the Long March Project’s initial critique of the international exhibition system, this ‘system’ (biennales, triennials, art fairs, the rise of the ‘artist/curator’ specter) having arguably become its own subsequent tour de force. As Lu Jie comments:

‘The working model created by the historical 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 still in the earliest stages of constructing a formal system for itself, but it has already 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.’2

It is the rise of neoliberalism that simmers as menace to the creation of a truly independent Chinese art system today. Thankfully, the recent economic downturn gives great pause for artists to renegotiate their relationship to the presumed process of art production and display. It is in thinking through the role and meaning of visual histories that the ‘Long March Project – Ho Chi Minh Trail (Duong Truong Son)’ hopes to reinvigorate the invaluable process of lived experience and self-assessment in the creation of cultural memory that extends beyond the dictation of a presumed dichotomy. However, it will not be an easy task.

In the very beginning numerous artists in China resisted the methodology of artistic enquiry of the Long March Project. Many felt threatened by the open conceptual structure of ‘A Walking Visual Display’ in that numerous works were collectively authored, or at other times the presence of foreign visitors caused cultural friction amongst the locals (as was the interesting case with the participation of Judy Chicago and her collaborative project with the Miao minority peoples of Guizhou Province). There was also considerable consternation amongst artists concerning the differing needs and appropriate acknowledgment of production between collective and individual participation for the Long March Project’s involvement in the 2005 Yokohama Triennial; and more recently there was great vocalized concern over a solo project by Shanghai artist, Xu Zhen in his re-staging of Kevin Carter’s tragic Pulitzer Prize photograph in ‘The Starving of Sudan’ at Long March Space. All of the above issues speak to the collision of local and international contexts of production. There are clearly different understandings of authorship and the right to speak on histories not entirely one’s own. Such topics regarding the nature of exchange and collaboration in the developing Chinese contemporary art scene are crucial.

How to engage a larger number of artists in experiences of localized exchange? It is critical that we new find opportunities for artistic reciprocity that exist beyond the presumed centres of art validation (ie. America and Europe). Thus the ‘Long March Project – Ho Chi Minh Trail (Duong Truong Son) directs the gaze of Chinese cultural producers south to engage the metaphors of a historical trail to re-assess how art can be a tool through which ideas of making – self, thought, object – can be critically empowered and conceived.


1 Long March Education is an artistic program initiated by the Long March Project. Beginning 2009, the ideas and motivational aspirations behind the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail (Duong Truong Son)’ project will be one of the main case studies for critical engagement. ‘Long March Education’ aims to be an open structure of learning — a physical and conceptual place for thought production that will promote independent artistic study through shared discussion and focused dialog. Mao Zedong once said ‘Officers teach soldiers, soldiers teach officers and soldiers teach each other’. It is in this spirit of equal and reciprocal learning that such broad topics as (but not limited to): the objectives of difference between ideas of propaganda and popular mediated promotion; Left and Right politics in an era of extreme liberalism and fear of fundamentalist thought; and the meaning of ‘ideology’ in contemporary life. Participation is open to local and international interest.

2 Lu Jie ‘The Paradox of the Curatist: the Long March as Author’ in ‘MJ – Manifesta Journal: Journal of contemporary curatorship’. SilvanaEditoriale, Milan, Italy, 2008, pg. 205