Can Contemporary Art be Reborn?

Lu Jie


(This article was published by the Art Newspaper China on its official WeChat account, June 20, 2017 as a part of its “Questionnaire 2017” series.)

Following a global convolution of art in recent months, from Art Basel Hong Kong in March and the series of spring auctions in Hong Kong and New York to the opening of the Venice Biennale, Documenta Kassel, and Art Basel in May and June, Art Newspaper China is launching the “Questionnaire 2017” series. In our present moment, marked by the increasing impact on the art world of political and economic upheavals in Europe and the US, the continued expansion of the global art network, and the erasure of time difference by digital communication—and with the efficacy of Chinese contemporary art facing new challenges—we will interview several eyewitnesses to three decades of contemporary Chinese art and ask them to share their opinions, questions and observations on the current state of affairs. Today Lu Jie, Founder of Long March Space, answers our Questionnaire.


At Poly’s spring auction, Baron Guy Ullens sold nearly all his collection of Chinese contemporary art. Ullens’ move to clear out his collection, along with the change of hands now faced by the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (which he founded), perhaps evinces the end of an era for Chinese contemporary art. No longer in the hands of Western collectors, the Chinese contemporary art market has become increasingly dominated by Chinese collectors subsequent to the 2008 financial crisis. Since 2013, a wave of art museums centered around their owners’ private collections have opened to the public, and while these nascent private museums may seem to focus on exhibiting and cataloguing Chinese contemporary art, they also (in the spirit of Lu Xun’s famous coinage “Grabbism”) immediately started importing large-scale exhibitions of foreign art. In the constantly shifting art system, the questions facing Chinese contemporary art and its strained relation to social change differ starkly from what they were a decade ago. In this new ecosystem for art exhibitions and an art market marked by increased East-West exchange, amid a discourse where decentralization is constantly left out of focus, what do the older generations enmeshed in these currents, eyewitnesses to the change, make of these developments?


Following the last few months of art's global convolutions, from Art Basel Hong Kong in March and the series of Spring auctions in Hong Kong and New York to the opening of Venice Biennale, Documenta Kassel, and Art Basell in May and June, Art Newspaper China launches the “Questionnaire 2017” series. In the present moment, marked by the continued expansion of global art as the new normal and the erasure of time difference by digital communication, we will interview several collectors, critics and galleries who have been eyewitnesses to three decades of contemporary Chinese art and ask them to share their opinions, questions and observations in the current state of change.


Responding to our Questionnaire today is Lu Jie, Founder of Long March Space. In his two-decade-long role as Initiator and Chief Executive of Long March Project and Founder of Long March Space, Lu has organized a rich slate of Chinese contemporary art exhibitions since launching Long March Project and serving as its Chief Curator from 2002 to present. His résumé includes “Long March Project—The Great Survey of Paper-Cutting in Yanchuan County” (2004); “Long March Project—Chinatown” (2005); “Long March Project: Yan’an” (2006—present); “Long March Project—800 Meters Under” and “Long March Project—X-Blind Spot” (2004—2008); “Long March Project—Ho Chi Minh Trail” (2008—present); among others. Established in 2002, Long March Space is one of the most important contemporary art galleries in China.


According to Lu Jie, he has barely accepted any interviews in the past two years. “Little by little,” he says, “contemporary art has become something I believe it ought not to be.” What’s being disseminated about the art system is always talk of auction records, the market, various data and hype; self-aggrandizing and flattery; a slew of fast-food-style exhibitions, and gossip about certain eye-pleasing events, all of which is underpinned by a lack of genuine appreciation for art, let alone any real discussion of it.


As early as some twenty years ago Lu was already making attempts to break from the parochial circle of contemporary art and its superficial discourse, to use methods only contemporary art could afford, to demonstrate the bright side of Chinese history and recent innovations to the world. In 2002 he convened 250 Chinese and international artists to revisit the historical route of the Long March, organizing hundreds of exhibitions as well as activities including folk art surveys, performances, film screenings and visual culture seminars along the way. The much celebrated “Long March Project” later found its physical incarnation in the 798 Art District of Beijing as Long March Space, but Lu insists on clearly distinguishing between the two. “Long March Space is about relations of production, about the link between art, capital and society. The core of Long March Project, on the other hand, is establishing a distinct view of history,” Lu emphasizes during the interview.


Long March Project intends to continue working on newer projects in the coming years, including “Ho Chi Minh Trail” (launched in 2010), “Rhizome Forum” (2011-2012), and the ongoing “Shengtian Project” (working title). All these projects operate with the shared goal of linking art and culture to history at multiple levels of society.


Lu jokes that, in the past couple of years, a lot of new art media unanimously follows a certain template for the sake of luring in readers: sensational title, followed by opening paragraphs of harmless empty talk, plus a GIF. “Can we be more serious?” As for what will happen to the world in 2017, he has something to say.


The Art Newspaper China

Exclusive Interview with Lu Jie


Q: What are your observations and thoughts on the changes in the art scene over the past few years?


A: My personal observation is that our mode of operation in the past years has amounted to a continuous historicization of ourselves through the means of utilitarian consumerism. Voices in the art world are becoming more and more unanimous, its texture thinner, and the road ever narrower. People talk about price instead of value, hardware instead of context, exhibition instead of curation, there’s even reckless talk about the market being the true author of art history. These numbers and labels surrounding the Chinese contemporary art system are, to me, trapped in a paradox. If the premise of all this is a celebration of the peaceful sharing of capital’s bonuses, a sort of self-historicization, then it’s nothing more than the distribution of profit under the illusion of the full-fledged victory of liberalism and the end of history. The downside is that contemporary art has lost its radical essence and criticality, becoming a product of revisionism and a theory of reflection lagging behind historical development. But that’s not what society is like, nor the world, and art certainly shouldn’t be acknowledged and displayed in this way. So in 2017 all the problems are laid out on the table.


Q: What are these problems, specifically?


A: The aphasia and absence of Chinese contemporary art in the international arena, where it’s entering a severe state of isolation and parochial self-complacency rather than autonomy. In 2015 I had the opportunity to take part in the 60th anniversary conference of Documenta Kassel. With a total of six editions, we were broken into six groups, and the curator of each edition invited other curators, critics and artists to discuss and revisit the trajectory of art over the previous two decades. Wang Jianwei and I participated in a discussion about the 1997 Documenta. That the curator Katherine David invited two Chinese for a conversation in an attempt to bring the Chinese context into a global dialogue. After those few days I had a strong realization: although Western-centrism has fractured itself into pieces with discourses of post-colonialism and multiculturalism, the politically correct call for resource distribution, and the politico-economic variant about “specificity,” it is still keenly aware of its own crises, which are embodied in international political, migrant and cultural conflicts, the crisis of the Western Left, and the crisis of representational politics and management, and this “international” at least includes different knowledge systems and visual experiences and attempts to see the problem with the entire world in mind. It struck me that China is completely disconnected from these dialogues and thoughts. The world is no longer an independent, isolated system, and the energy exuded by China’s political, diplomatic, economic, commercial, human rights and environmental issues in the global context is in stark contrast to the isolation of its contemporary art on the global stage.


Q: Why art alone?


A: This is something we need to repeatedly ask ourselves. It’s incredibly complicated, as it’s deeply connected to various aspects of China’s reality, such as through its art education and educational system more generally, but the most fundamental problem is the severe lack of art historical research, art criticism and curatorial practices. For instance, for over two decades visual art in Europe has been ahead of the curve, developing itself into a remarkably vibrant and energetic field of production. Those in literature, philosophy, cultural theory, even those studying technology, media and science have all looked into art for resources and points of contact, introducing into art a degree of openness and ascent it never had before. In China it’s the very opposite: in contemporary art, the ways we speak and think are decidedly conservative. Another key issue is the market and its strong self-colonizing frivolity. Its so-called internationalization is simply putting a mask on the surface and exporting a stream of data. It may be inevitable, as a means to showcase big-name artists and mount picture-friendly exhibitions, but these should not be the only options. Foresight should not be reserved for projection or representation, but used for production. Excessive display and clamor only further flatten contemporary art, draining the ecosystem of its blood.


Q: So, how would contemporary art evolve differently in 2017?


A: In 2017, the epistemology and practice of the entire art world will see further disjunctions and deepening contradictions. The general conditions for this are radical changes to the global political economy; the particular condition is that the issues with art’s ideology, superstructure, and base—long quantified—will finally reveal themselves to us. At the very least, this should be the last time people still have heated debates about documenta and the Venice Biennale; the inefficacy of the exhibition system will be felt clearly. This year’s large-scale exhibition of Chinese art at the Guggenheim will enrich our understanding of the course of Chinese contemporary art. Such a research-heavy project will ensure that contemporary art discourse returns to a kind of rigorous, process-oriented method and eschews historical determinism. Whether in China or worldwide, art will rise from the ashes of the past, and various historical junctures will become accessible in different spaces. Retrospective exhibitions about the October Revolution and Russian avant-garde art, currently running in London and New York, are a typical example of this. Artistic media will necessarily go through revolutionary changes.


Today’s Trumpism is cut from the same cloth as yesterday’s reactionary forces, Thatcherism and Reaganism. We need to understand this particular historical juncture—to look back at the political landscape of the 1980s, then analyze the changes to the art environment then, to conceptualize global capitalism’s structure at the time, how the Right manipulated everything, how this related to the Cold War. The allocation and distribution of artistic resources and the transformation of cultural strategies were all influenced by this overall structure. This  global political economy resulted in enormous ripples in the artistic sphere: new forms of practice and new forms of writing history. Many of the things we think of as cliché today were organic, novel products of that era: artistic movements and self organizing, independent curating and the development of the Venice Biennale, decentralization, art’s intersection with other disciplines, identity politics, and visual culture. These were incredibly complex, multi-faceted, and challenging instances of a global artistic practice; they laid the groundwork for so  many vitally important international exhibitions and curators, as well as much of the curatorial practice, artistic practice and artwork since. The process has also involved very concrete, systematic and comprehensive criticisms: for example, of art’s elitism, collectors’ power, and culture and capital. So if we look back at the changes that the US underwent in the past twenty years, as well as the discussions and applications of theory currently underway in Europe and Latin America, then we can imagine from this year on, events, people, exhibitions, and art institutions will all produce different thoughts and different work; it will be another ten-year process. In China, our own immersion in the ten-year period from the market’s initial flourishing in 2006 to now, and our investment in the affairs of the time, also need to be roughed up and interrogated.





Q: Regarding the historical turning point you just mentioned. While changes started emerging in the West over the past two years, do you think it will still take a while before they manifest in the contemporary art scene in China?


A: The Chinese art world has never stopped its speculative thinking or lost its creativity; it’s just that the external forces obscuring them are too strong. Among art practitioners today, the proportion of those who are really doing something interesting with art is outrageously low. What I have witnessed in the past ten years is an all-out effort to reduce our understanding of art. Reduction only works when we have profits and pyramid schemes as goals, and it strips the resources of art itself in the process. 2017 is the time to bring out these issues.



Q: Has the impact of art increased or decreased in the past 20 to 30 years?


A: All mankind will together—the word “together” is important here, because we can’t do it if we remain separate—enter a new era to rethink, experience and put into practice our historical viewpoints and understandings of art. In this process, cognitive and creative systems of art will definitely develop into a new configuration. This is my point of view. Artists must strive to provoke, and participate, to intervene sincerely, thoroughly, proactively and with dedication, in order to make a mark on history.  (Interview, writing/Mona Qian)