Why Do We Long March?

Long March- A Walking Visual Display

Lu Jie


Over the past four years, people’s first reactions when I spoke about my curatorial proposal inspired by the Red Army’s Long March was: what does this have to do with art? I didn’t ask them what they meant by art and why the Long March was irrelevant to it. Instead, I am more concerned with their reactions – surprise, reflection, recollection, and imagination – as well as their ultimate participation. The Long March represents the collective memory of many generations of us, and this memory is embedded in our collective subconscious. How could it not have a profound effect on our artistic output? The Long March was the response of the nation and the state to the historical epoch with its consciousness, discourse, stamina, and vigor. Moreover, it was the foundation for the process of establishing the new order, it revealed the collision between the Chinese nation and modernity, and it was the site that witnessed ongoing cultural progression. The Long March is remembered as romantic and imaginative, a metaphor of epic encounter entangled with the individual suffering of an era. This feeling is constantly developing along with our current reality, evolving into a new kind of Long March. The new Long March stays not only on the socio-political level; it also dwells on the cultural and artistic, the cognitive and epistemic, the individual and familial, the center and periphery, the Chinese and the international. Long March belongs to all and it is for all. It is an everlasting retreat and an endless departure.

Four years ago, I pursued a M.A. in Curating at Goldsmiths, University of London. “Long March” was my thesis project. To me, however, it is not a graduate work, a capstone of my education, but a summary of a stage in my life. From polytechnic school to the art academy, I had been studying and practicing Chinese painting for over ten years. I learned English, read about theories, and became an editor at a time when everyone began experimenting with Chinese ink painting. After publishing a series of books on art theories, I started working for a commercial gallery. Then, after five years in the art market, I left the job to travel and then enrolled in a curating course. Now my job is to manage the Long March Art Foundation, which I established. I consider myself a professional but not a careerist, advocating for working on amateur things professionally and working on professional things amateurly. Every step in my trajectory reflected what art in China was demanding at that time; like Tiger Balm, I am a jack of all trades and master of none. Luckily, I was not constrained by the need for professionalization or fame. What I abandoned was useful to others, and what I did was welcomed by the people. I abandoned what was useful to others, but I did what others needed. Everyone gained. Just as I said, the historical Red Army’s Long March as well as our Long March Project, are both supposed to be of their own time and reflect the collective consciousness of the people, all the while remaining personal.

I first linked my curatorial practice, Chinese revolution, and socialist memory together when I was asked to join the Communist Party at Goldsmiths’ cafeteria. Initially I was confounded by the idea of British students talking about revolution with the Chinese. Like everyone who carries the burden of the Chinese communist revolution’s legacy and is seized by both pride and sorrow, I was naturally supercilious toward those students who were engaging in idle theorizing. However, the debate made me keenly aware of the connection between China and the world for the first time, the influence of our revolution, and the new interpretations on Marxism. This process of recognizing the self in a foreign context was the impetus for what would eventually become Long March Project. Cultural translation, misinterpretation, post-colonialism, immigration, urbanization, tourism, etc. are all artistic materials at the moment. I was shocked by the requirement from tutors of our curatorial course to apply anti-curatorial concepts in practice, from renowned art theorist Sarat Mahraj’s remarkable idea of “mistranslation”, to Irit Rogoff’s “I only teach geography”. I often asked myself, “why am I here?” Previously, I’d held an attitude that utility is inversely proportional to relevance. Over time through self-interrogation, I changed my attitude and became concerned with the unity of utilitarianism and relevance from an academic standpoint. Simultaneously, my interpretation of art grew to include visual and cultural studies. In this way, the Long March Project emerged the night as I witnessed London become paralyzed when artists, anarchists, the Green party, intellectuals, students, and hippies gathered at an anti-global capitalism protest. What I had been feeling in the underflow for a long time had accumulated and surged up. I set down the bulk of my curatorial plan overnight: a walking visual display that connects memory and display through art and text in historical and geographical contexts and places art practice in direct relation with visual culture. I instinctively felt that from my memory, the Long March is about the uncertainties and shifting meanings of culture. Every topic that was central to the old Red Army’s Long March is relevant to the contemporary situation. Taking steps along these paths, I put current debates in contemporary art and Long March’s historical narratives in juxtaposition, relocation, mistranslation, and geographicization. This became the new Long March we are currently conducting. Ruijin[1] is the new context of utopia and Chinese society. I think of Jean-Luc Godard’s film La Chinoise calling students in Paris to Beijing (site 1). Jinggang Mountain is both the base and new practice produced by the dialectical relation between theory and practice. I think of China and Chinese art in Michelangelo Antonioni’s documentary Chung Kuo, Cina (site 2). The crossing of Xiang River and passing through the junction of three provinces is an expedition, a pilgrimage, and a walk, the quest for the self and for idols and the relations in between. When the ideal and reality collide, relations between quantified knowledge and the field/border are enmeshed with the co-construction and rupture of space, culture, and memory. What comes to mind here are Cai Guoqiang’s Rent Collection Courtyard in Venice, David Hockney’s Day on the Grand Canal with The Emperor of China, and the wunderkind Wang Yani from Li River who came to Guilin to paint with me when I was young. Zunyi Symposium is a symposium about curating, spatial interpretation and the right to speech. We originally envisioned a holy space with an altar as the backdrop, but when we actually reached the site that was a former Catholic church used as the Red Army’s headquarters during the historical Long March for preliminary field research, the church had been Disneyfied in its refurbishment. In the square in front of the building stood an advertisement for a hair salon featuring a Caucasian infant. On the spot we decided to invite the owner of the salon to curate a display of celebrity portraits (site 8). I think of the battle Four Crossings of the Chishui River, the legend of Maotai, the making of heroes and geniuses, and relations between individuals and society; of how Ernesto Guevara and Jackson Pollock became symbols of their own respective societal values; and of the trend of cloning and reimaging heroes in contemporary art in China (site 9). Criticism on the institutionalization of exhibitions and elitism in art along with the attention on public discourse inspired me to curate an exhibition in the dining car on the train connecting Guiyang and Kunming thinking about bringing contemporary art language and form to the masses and the tradition of revolutionary art in China, coming from the people and serving the people (site 7). I think of the geography and history of Yunnan, Kunming’s current state as a regional art center and the city’s position in the context of the criticism of the centralization of art as well as its resources (sit 4). I picture Shangri-La and think of the western imagination of and writings on China; of colonization regarding time, ethnicities, and ways reflected through cultural characters and in the localities of Lijiang and Zhongdian; of the Flying Tiger aircrafts left by Claire Lee Chennault at Tuofeng and Zhenchi; and the Sino-American honeymoon period and mutual misinterpretations (site 5). I think of Lugu lake and feminism (site 6). I think of “Long March” rockets in Xichang, of the appropriateness of ideology manifested through matter within the new Long March context, and of the relationship between the art market and originality. The discovery that a scientist (working at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center) accustomed to a highly-professionalized and universal scientific language would spend his/her pastime practicing peacock and peony ink paintings, a subject matter in an artistic language commonly considered “outdated” in the art profession. Westerners would not fully understand the value of Chinese ink paintings even if they were given lectures by master painters such as Xu Beihong. Such awkward situations in China and Chinese culture cannot be resolved easily or simply by intellectuals who preach at libraries and schools in Beijing about alterity in postcolonial criticism. How to present the context in which Chinese art dwells, so that the art is not suspended, removed, or fragmented in disparate spaces, audiences, and contexts? This issue cannot be solved by the strategy of pop-ificaton or marketization of politics, nor by curatorial methods currently in vogue. I think of an exchange of ideas and discussion between scientists and artists, and I think of the dynamic relation between the exchange and a future exhibition about this exhibition (site 10). I think of Luding Bridge and I think of the avant-garde (site 11). I also think of how different ideologies come into collision with each other while I consider the Red Army forces meeting under Snow Mountain. There is a noticeable lack of research and writing on theory of contemporary art in China, that is communism and leftism, which, internationally,were both prominent in laying the groundwork for modern art and powerful in contesting the logic of capitalist culture. Formism and ultraliberalism, however, hegemonize the art discourse in China. Could we organize a workshop to discuss this issue at the end of the bridge where the Red Army’s Long March forces were joined (site 13)? I think of the crossing of Zoigê Marsh, of human physical limits, and of expressions of this through art. Should we continue using our body to perform the competitive game of escape and kill, or should we turn to ourselves, to new interpretations on body awareness and on its relations with text, phrases, time, and space (site 14)? I think of Nanniwan; of the mass production campaign, self-reliance, and exploitation and distribution of resources; of DIY in contemporary art in England and of the growth of independent and artist-run spaces in China (site 16). When I think of northern Shaanxi Province I think of folk art. What do folk traditions become when folk art that is not accepted in the canon of high art is reorganized and vectored by former ideologies and today’s market? I think of name, anonymity, and signature; of schools of painting and the nameless painters of the Dunhuang cave paintings, of the collective creation after the founding of the country, and of the creative collectives in the Western avant-garde tradition that fought against the capitalist mainstream and the institutionalization of art (site 17). I think of Yan’an and of Yan’an Forum which continue to be the guiding light in Chinese literature and arts and as a reference for contemporary artists who live abroad, such as Xu Bing, as well as how it acts as a theoretical basis for many artists worldwide (site 18). I think of Yan’an; of our incomplete process of modernity; and of reasons why after the Cold War there continues a dubiousness in the “democracy” practiced and in the quest for alternatives. What is the possibility of a trail that only China can blaze?

“Long March Project: A Walking Visual Display” is now under implementation. Two days ago, artist Wang Jin presented Hanging Swords on the Wall, While Swords are Hanging Upside Down on Jinggang Mountain. The visual dynamic generated by the swords, land and roots is incredibly powerful. There will be over 100 artists participating in our four-month-long journey, including established practicing Chinese artists of which the majority had participated in the exhibition “Right Now” and São Paulo Art Biennial, along with artists who are still students or just graduated; we treat everyone equally. I also introduced the concept that any artist who submits a proposal is by default considered as a participating artist, thus rejecting the credibility and legitimacy afforded only by realization of the proposed project. This concept invites a scholarly understanding to the questions we have regarding curatorial practice and reality. We put enormous effort into research and investigation. We invite artistic talents from rural regions whose thinking on art in their own respective local context will touch the elites from metropolitan centers. In order to achieve maximum interaction, we organized two large-scale academic symposia, dozens of exhibitions in varied scales, several workshops and seminars, as well as postcards and posters that will bring art to the local people. Meanwhile, such a large number of artists participating in the journey signifies the return of a way of working that has long been neglected in Chinese art: going “Down to the Countryside”. It has been a long time since there has been a Down to the Countryside action on such scale. Much of the art exhibited has high mobility; for example, the re-playable nature of sound art and moving images; Long March Propaganda, a performance/installation by Shen Meng and Xiao Lu which has already taken place in New York and will continues globally; and remote work that does not take place on the physical Long March route, such as that of the American artist Ingo Günther who will receive satellite positioning data collected from my body and walk the Long March on map remotely and synchronically in New York.

This project has been criticized from the day it was proposed. Desire for criticism is part of the plan. I start with the conversion of the contradictions between the old and the new; the latter is the product of misinterpretation and imagination. The second day after writing the curatorial proposal, I presented it to my class. Some cried (excuse me for being sensational but it is true), some were enraged, an Italian classmate Savino revealed his communist identity and called me a revisionist. I did not expect to hear this word in London, so it surprised me. Then began the process of constant absorption, recognizing the universal significance of the subject matter of the Long March and how it is, in fact, relevant to everyone. Preparation for realizing the project started in 1999 and continues until now; long and arduous, it has become a Long March itself. 1999 was devoted to theoretical research and material gathering. I came back to China six times in 2000 and conducted four investigations along the route of the Long March and met with Chinese artists and introduced the project to them. In 2001, I was in New York to work on the curatorial materials which include both the textual and the visual, on organizational structure, and publicity. During these three years, the list of artists has changed in accordance with the progress of contemporary art practice in China. Additionally, conversations and interaction with museums, curators, artists, and theorists also occupied much of 2001.

At the end of spring and the beginning of summer 2002, I decided to put my plan into practice. With luck I met another true Long Marcher. Qiu Zhijie and I started collaborating at the beginning of this year; he assists me and took on the position of co-curator. For half of the year, our work felt as if we were following the road. The meaning of the saying “following the road” is to subject yourself to and actively go with the flow. People and the project are in a dialectical relationship. It is not a single event occurring just once, but a penance, a lengthy process of painstaking self-organization and apprehension. Through working together with him, I experienced/saw the difference and similarity of the relation between our working methods and contemporary art in China. [OR: Qiu and I have different working methods. Through our collaboration, I saw the difference and similarity of the relation between our workings/practicing methods and contemporary art in China.] What Qiu has been working on for years is itself a Long March. His work is consistent with/in harmony with mine. While proudly showing me his best yet also his worst work The West, he shouted at me “Long March is a brilliant idea, I will help you!” Now, Long March has occupied all of his past six months. In the age where artists live under the white terror of suddenly losing their position should they leave Beijing and Shanghai, Qiu was excited to find a revolutionary base area in the countryside, devoting half of a year on preparation, four months on implementation, and an indefinite time on the final phase of the Long March project. He and I have transformed ourselves from destined Long Marchers to practicing Long Marchers. I have not worked in the contemporary field for six years, and this mental distance helped to bring about the Long March. Qiu Zhijie has been closely involved, and thus Long March could be realized on such a scale. 


Long March is now a collective creation. It allowed each individual to switch between the romantic imagination they had in the beginning and the sense of responsibility during project execution. The light in the office of Long March is never off. If it wasn’t a collective effort, no individual could endure. Many ideas considered and materials employed in the Long March Project are academic achievements and artistic creations shared with me in the last four years by people around the world when they heard me describing Long March for the first time, and who promoted my work and provided me moral support. The longer it takes to prepare, the greater the engagement, expectation, and criticism – more suitable to Long March’s symbolic power. Long March requires us to face reality and be bold in the creating process. It asks us to turn the impossible into the possible. It encourages us to look out to the world and compels us to examine theories in the context of China to create a singular way of working. Long March is a manifesto, a propaganda team, a seeding machine. Nonetheless, what it is preaching is not opportunism (although those opportunists are the most vocal in criticizing Long March for embedding opportunism), but creative imagination and cultural idealism. It effectively and genuinely helps us to decipher our confusion, to deconstruct the shallow criticism of the far right and utilitarianism, rather than superficially teasing out and deconstructing the revolution itself. We use our rich memory of the revolution as resource, separating those one-sided criticisms from the real issues in contemporary art and finding a new base site for Chinese contemporary artists. I understand this process as cultural construction, an imperative collective contribution that is the duty of the intellectuals.

[1] City in the Jinggang Mountains in Jiangxi Province where the historic Long March began.