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“It’s difficult to be Marco Polo.” － Umberto Eco
The regular exposure of contemporary Chinese art in the international arena is a recent phenomenon. Indeed, while a number of international curators now frequently invite Chinese artists to participate in overseas exhibitions, especially in groups (one of their favorite cards to play), the most prominent international exhibitions and art museums still tend to exclude Chinese artists. It is safe to say that Chinese artists—other than a few that live in the West and therefore have somewhat different experiences—still have few opportunities to present their work individually and in depth at prominent Western institutions. Our response to the current mode of participation overseas must not fall prey to a superficial indifference or its polar opposite, blind complacency, as only rational reflection can furnish an apt evaluation of this reality, that is, of the way this “inside-out” paradigm has affected the entire ecosystem of contemporary Chinese art.
1. Inside Out
As a curator, my perspective regarding Chinese art is focused on the dynamic relationship between artistic innovation and reception as seen through its culture of display. What I observe in the current ecosystem of contemporary Chinese art is that art has departed from its audience, moving away from the public toward the elite, from private studios to bureaucratic institutions (authoritative platforms such as biennials and large-scale museum shows, etc.), from China to overseas, leading to a quagmire in which the avant-garde falls straight down to the market, with which it forms a reciprocal relationship.
In what follows, I will use three exhibitions that have moved “inside out” as case studies to discuss the impact of display culture overseas on artistic innovation in China. The exhibition “China: 5,000 Years” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York was the first attempt by a Western institution to mount a major exhibition situating modern and contemporary art from China within a much longer artistic tradition. The exhibition created a context for the interpretation of contemporary Chinese art; in particular, it filled the interpretive void of the current state of ink painting and addressed the profound impact of revolutionary propaganda art on the visual culture of contemporary China. However, the response we heard from our experimental artists was unanimously one of disappointment. Scrutinizing everything through a loose ideological lens and treating the exhibition as a kind of political combat, they criticized the inclusion of revolutionary propaganda art in the exhibition as a form of cultural curiosity catering to the "Western" imagination. Shaped by their ignorance of the significant ties between leftist art, socialist realism, the art of the Cultural Revolution and contemporary art from China, their attitude reveals the mission of the Chinese avant-garde as one of willful severing and escape—not subversion or inquiry—of the link between tradition and present. Their disappointment also exposes a desire to be positioned in and rightfully acknowledged by the Western system. This account, which requires abandoning the cause-and-effect history of visual culture, and their love-hate attitude towards admission and placement in international exhibitions, is regrettably not avant-garde at all, but quite the contrary; this, far from the original intentions of vanguard art, has sadly become characteristic of contemporary Chinese art.
The significance of “Inside Out” at Asia Society New York, particularly its attempts to showcase innovations in Chinese art, far outstrips its muted reception. In essence, it was a retrospective of decades of experimental art from China. But overambitious, aiming at too many targets with its curatorial theme, setting out to encapsulate in one exhibition what could only be explained by several, it passed up the chance to mount any radical inquiry into notions of departure and arrival through an “inside out” perspective to instead become an window for an objectifying interpretive process to look outwards. Its real audience was not there, and the “West” it so painstakingly catered to did not really care. This curatorial ambiguity illustrates a dilemma in contemporary Chinese art today, namely the use of ideology against ideology. What the exhibition accomplished was probably not what it originally intended: the few “manufacturers” and “products” introduced further cast the narrative of Chinese visuality in the West into a state of utter loss in translation.
The most talked about artistic event of late, arguably, has been the Venice Biennale. As a symbol of the system, its long tradition of Western-centrism has been the subject of much criticism, even in the West. In an era that greatly questions authority, the unprecedentedly complex ties between geopolitical and commercial interests, ideologies, and such “universal exposition”-styled exhibitions (originating in the imperialist colonial era) has made the question of the value of biennials a contentious subject for years. Under the direction of Harald Szeemann, a pioneer of independent curating, the latest Venice Biennale sought to break with the biennial’s usual display system—based on national power and the status of participating countries in the West—by shifting emphasis onto multicultural exchange. What Huang Yong Ping’s participation in the French Pavilion and Cai Guo-qiang’s Rent Collection Courtyard did was more than simply to up the status of Chinese artists superficially; rather, by revisiting the intricate context of China’s collectivist past and visual motifs from their individual perspectives, they successfully became the highlight of the entire biennale. In comparison, while more than a dozen artists from mainland China were included in various sections of the biennale alongside “national heroes” from other countries, these were not appreciated for their individual works, but helped to illustrate the curator’s ideas as a collective, mere foils. Interestingly, in China, the art world’s interest in and knowledge of the Swiss collector Uli Sign far surpasses Szeemann’s.
From this Western critique of Western-centrism came multiculturalism. But is this door thus opened to artists in the “periphery” a real one, or just a facade that lets in some air for themselves? In other words, is it sincere or posturing? This is controversial even in the West, for the “peripheries” involved include not just disadvantaged groups from foreign cultures, but all the “Others” outside hegemonic structures and within the West itself. In the UK, artists belonging to racial minority groups will occasionally refuse to participate in exhibitions that would otherwise be cornerstones in their career, on the grounds that they do not want to become mere ornaments sugarcoating real problems. Internationally, however, the trend of exhibiting “peripheral” art based on fixed quotas continues undeterred. Take the newly opened Whitney Biennale as an example: is its welcoming inclusion of non-citizen artists living in the US a true gesture towards the transnational nature of art, or yet another affirmation that "the world is [theirs], and [theirs] is the world"?
In recent years, a number of independent critics and curators from China have participated, proactively or by invitation, in organizing overseas exhibitions of Chinese art. Since their curatorial approaches and the artists featured in their exhibitions have considerable similarity and overlap, and because they almost unanimously look up to the West, though they may aim for recognition and integration, subversion and resistance, or generating new spaces, they are in no meaningful sense different from their “Western” associates who curate exhibitions of European art in China, in that none escape the master-slave relationship between “essence” and “function.” As recent reflections on postcolonialism in various peripheral regions demonstrate, an ostensible dialogue or opposition can in fact serve to affirm the discourse of power that posits the West as “essence” and the Other as “function.” While I do not agree that China’s contact with Western modernity throughout the past century has been a process of constant and gradual defeat, it is crucial for our study of the relationship between China and the West to realize how few people understand the affinity between the argument for Chinese knowledge as “essence” and the discourse of Western powers, for as soon as we recognize the existence of “essence” and “function” we are already looking at our “essence” through the lens of the Western system, a path that eventually leads to the surrender of our right to articulation itself. Such divisions between inside and outside, and the concomitant positioning of China and the West, remain an inexhaustible and insoluble topic. “West” and “Center” are still here.
2. Outside In
The problem of facing the West is essentially that it entails facing ourselves—an old subject, and one that remains a main issue in contemporary Chinese art today. It is also tied to other challenges, such as our living conditions, China’s social reality, the need to rise above misconceptions about ideology, market mechanisms and art education. With all this, the matter of confronting the West remains at a deadlock. This cannot be resolved by convincing ourselves it is enough to say “we must not overglorify Venice [biennales],” or adopt an attitude of “if the West never talks about us, why should we talk about them?” Rather, it is urgently necessary to understand the “West,” because the tendency to reflexively identify with or oppose some version of the West before any proper understanding of it is a main feature of our relationship with it. This explains why, just like the distortion of “China” in the West, the West remains a mere projection for China as well.
The West does not exist as a geographical location, but is psychologically registered as such through displays of cultural signs. The East, on the other hand, is created qua East for the existence of the West. Just as there is nothing essentially “Western,” we ourselves are also always in a state of contradiction and mutation. While those who shaped the arts in China, like the formalists in the West, have always included some social outcasts in their number throughout different historical periods, they have more often than not turned out preachers of conservatism. The avant-garde ends up being assimilated, and the experimental becomes mainstream; be it in China or the West, it does not escape the fate of entering the market as elite commodity, with the only difference being its function in different ideological regimes. During the Cold War, American art movements like abstract expressionism were surreptitiously supported by the extreme right, including capitalists and intellectuals, members of Congress and even the CIA. The Young British Artists risen to international notoriety in recent years have been useful weapons in the British Labor Party’s campaign to recast themselves as vanguard reformists. In other words, despite producing a series of significant works with a direct, participatory and critical approach to contemporary social reality, their roles have nonetheless shifted focus from cultural export to domestic sales with a mouthful of lies. Through circulation, these lies build in power to become truths: what starts as a mere appearance becomes a truth, with a sea of willing believers already in place, and further reproduces itself through this export-import movement. And since the circulation of contemporary Chinese art relies heavily on outward flows, this feature is even more prominent here in comparison.
This circulation is a crucial factor underpinning the ecosystem of Chinese art. The unidirectional, “inside-out” (an “out” pointing rather narrowly to the West) flow of the display, collection and exchange of contemporary Chinese art also has the inverse effect of displacing its own experience. In consequence, in our discussion of plurality,we often lay undue emphasis on the British tradition of opportunism and the American phenomenon of political correctness, while letting our epistemology fall into a Hegelian linear structure or a Darwinian centralized discourse. To me, contemporary Chinese art reeks of a false avant-gardism. Its revolutionary spirit remains a mere personal slogan or theoretical statement, while in practice the more professional the artist the less revolutionary they become. Contemporary Chinese art also puts meaning above experience, favoring didacticism and conceptual rigor. In recent years, it first imported expressionism and combined it with traditional metaphysics to produce a host of flabby imagery; then it replaced New Year paintings, lianhuanhua and illustrations with comics, allowing art to once again become a mere footnote to ideology; what’s more, even conceptual art has fallen prey to abstraction. Is this collective (un)consciousness a uniquely Chinese phenomenon, or is it ubiquitous among regions outside the centers of the post-colonial era? When it comes to questions of tradition and modernity, what are the similarities and differences between these regions and our own? I encourage us to approach these issues by employing an “outside-in” method. What I mean by that is not simply to take ourselves as center and rehash the conflict between essence and function from a different angle, but to reflect on the passage of meaning through extensive correspondences with other histories and geographic regions, instead of a forced comparison and contact with Western centers. In other words, it’s about re-examining the limited standards to which we have become accustomed in the local context. Similar endeavors have found success. For instance, “Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s,” a recent exhibition held in New York City, emphasized the participation of artists outside Western Europe and North America in conceptual art, while the most recent Johannesburg Biennale and São Paulo Art Biennial agreeably focused on exchanges between their respective local contexts and their outsides, inviting international artists to exhibit alongside local artists with new commissions grounded in the local context, while also inviting homegrown artists residing in the West to return and participate together with those back home. This “outside-in” approach, turning the telescope on its head, may well be beneficial for the understanding, digestion and circulation of art from China and abroad.
In the past, the discourse around cultural difference has rarely gone past a catalogue of exploitation and curiosity; often, its emphasis on difference has even become a starting point for conflict. The “outside-in” approach aims at a deeper understanding. While the “inside-out” method of displaying Chinese art over the last decade and more has certainly had some well-known positive results, one cannot overlook its defects, which are no less prominent. In the current climate, superficial representations of ideology are hindering any possibility of genuine understanding, as evident in the ubiquity of shallow criticism and resolution, as well as in an undisputed disappointment with China’s revolutionary legacy, its faith in utopia and dream of an ideal society. As the local context in China has strengthened with time—after confronting modernity for a century, witnessing the coming and going of utopia, complete and incomplete revolutions, nationalism interacting with internationalism—the contribution, displacement, misreading, rebirth, reconfiguration and indigenization of Western ideas in China has also become firmly ingrained in our social and individual consciousness. Our attempt to revisit these in visual terms entails setting off for a new future. This is not only China’s task for itself, but China’s contribution to all mankind. It is imperative to start from here, from our deep internal consciousness, to redistribute power in human society; in this, visual art bears the responsibility of deconstructing that deepest layer of consciousness.