Branching Paths to Self-Liberation

Written by Lu Mingjun

In May 1989, three artists from China – Gu Dexin, Huang Yongping and Yang Jiecang – took part in the highly controversial exhibition Magiciens de la Terre curated by Jean-Hubert Martin at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. This was the first time Chinese contemporary art was featured in an international exhibition. Not long after the exhibition opened, the ‘Tiananmen Square Incident’ broke out. The gunshot set off by Xiao Lu at the China / Avant-Garde Exhibition earlier that year in Beijing was seen by many as a harbinger of the incident. This sudden event affected the trajectories of all three artists to varying extents. Huang and Yang (as well as Fei Dawei, the curator who had accompanied them) chose to stay in Paris, and began their careers as overseas Chinese artists. Gu resolved to return to China. Several months later, the Berlin Wall fell, and East and West Germany were unified. And a few months earlier, Francis Fukuyama had published his essay ‘The End of History?’ in The National Interest. The essay declared Communism bankrupt, and posited that liberal democracy was possibly the ‘end point of mankind’s ideological evolution’ and the ‘final form of human government’. In 1991, the Soviet Union declared its dissolution, bringing the Cold War to an end and ushering in the ‘post-Cold War’ era. A year later, Deng Xiaoping toured southern China to promote reforms to the economic system, and marketisation came to occupy the mainstream of ideology. Soon afterwards, Chinese artists made their first group appearance at the Venice Biennale, and began taking the new path of ‘internationalisation’.

If Magiciens de la Terre was an omen of globalisation, and the ‘end of history’ – and the total victory of neoliberalism it represented – was the mainstream ideology of the post-Cold War era, then Samuel P. Huntington's book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order stood as a sweeping diagnosis and criticism of this period’s ‘universal optimism’. Magiciens de la Terre was also an omen of the postcolonial era that began post-1989. As Rasheed Araeen, founder of the journal Third Text pointed out, Martin's self-declared ‘good deed’ not only failed to cast doubt on Western dominance, but also denied ‘other cultures their ability to question their domination and to liberate themselves from it’.[1] In 1997, a year after Huntington published Clash of Civilizations, artists Wang Jianwei and Feng Mengbo took part in documenta X in Kassel, becoming the first Chinese artists to be featured in this exhibition. The reason why this instalment of documenta, curated by Catherine David, was of groundbreaking significance in the history of the exhibition, is that she pulled it from its Western-centric modernist leanings into a framework of global politics, society and culture in order to examine the differences, shifts and complexities within. Coincidentally, it was also in this year that ‘A world economic crisis forced people to consider the destructive force of international financial capital flows on society and economy.’[2] The journal Frontiers published Wang Hui's essay The State of Ideas in Contemporary China and the Question of Modernity,[3] which sparked a battle between left and right that continues to this day, and provoked reflection on global capitalism, neoliberalism and the hegemonic inequality of the entire modernisation process. Nevertheless, the rise of such schools of thought as the ‘New Left’ and democratism were accompanied by the total, unstoppable invasion of globalism. Even anti-globalisation itself was a global wave.

On 13 July 2001, International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch announced in Moscow that Beijing had been selected to host the 2008 Olympic Games. On 10 November of that year, China officially joined the World Trade Organization after years of difficult negotiations. For a time, the whole nation celebrated. These events also brought legitimacy to contemporary art. Before this, the only such legitimising event had been the Shanghai Biennale, and contemporary art had been in a ‘half underground’ state, but now it had become a part of the government's cultural strategy. The West was unstable in this year, especially the United States, where the 9/11 terror attack led directly to a resurgence of the right wing. Empire, the book by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri released by Harvard University Press the year before, attracted much attention as a result. The two authors viewed the multinational system of global capital as a new form of ‘empire’ distinct from ‘imperialism’.[4] One could say that the 9/11 attack dealt a fatal blow to this ‘empire’. That same year, Zhao Tingyang published the essay ‘System Under Heaven: Empire and the System of the World’, replacing ‘empire’ with the traditional Chinese concept of ‘under heaven’ and discussing it as a possible new world order.[5] In late 2003, the 21st Century Business Herald published an interview with the activist intellectual Gan Yang titled ‘From ‘Nation-State" to "Civilization-State”’. In the interview, Gan held that the central issue facing China in the twenty-first century was to transcend the logic of ‘nation-state’ and consciously move to rebuild China as a ‘civilisation-state’. This would, to a great extent, depend on whether China could consciously root the ‘modern nation’ of China in its longstanding ‘historical civilisation’. He then used this as a lens through which to re-examine Huntington's ‘clash of civilisations’, and to attack the Western neoliberal and academic left’s fantasies of ‘universal Westernised civilization’ from a conservative perspective.[6] This interview marked the rise of ‘neoconservatism’ in China.

That year, the group exhibition Prayer Beads and Brushstrokes, curated by Li Xianting, opened at Beijing Tokyo Art Projects and Dashanzi West Art District. Six years later, Gao Minglu curated the large-scale exhibition Yi Pai (Today Art Museum, Beijing, 2009). This had profound implications, since these two figures who were once the heart and soul of the 85 New Wave movement and the leading promoters of avant-garde art in China, were now attempting to retrace China's historical traditions to find a new understanding and establish a discursive method for Chinese contemporary art. In this process, as the art system (including galleries, museums and art fairs) grew more established, Chinese contemporary art could not avoid being drawn into the global capital system, and the market came to dominate its structure, exemplified by the rise of such art districts as 798 in Beijing, and M50 in Shanghai. During this time, virtually all acts of criticism and rebellion against the market and capital were in essence dependent on this system, and even strove to become more correct components of it.

Today, we are still mired in the financial tsunami that struck the globe in 2008, and the global crisis has only been intensified by the growing strength of ISIS and increasing ethnic conflicts. The crisis rapidly wiped out the ‘frenzied spectacle’ that had defined the Chinese art market from 2005 to 2007. Luckily, it did not reach the roots of China's economic growth. That fact, alongside the successful hosting of the Beijing Olympics, allowed nationalism to rear its head once again, leading to a debate on the ‘Chinese model’ and a struggle between the theory of the ‘peaceful rise’ and the ‘Chinese threat’. This was one aspect. Another aspect – and one that cannot be ignored – is that the nation’s economic rise, aside from bolstering national confidence, also led to severe social imbalances, community stratification and widespread anxiety. These intertwining conflicts and contradictions touched off a fierce ideological debate. Though the debate ended inconclusively, it demonstrated that whether in the West or in China, the decoupling of political form from social form meant that the ideological framework of old could no longer explain the world of today. Liberal or socialist, radical or conservative, none could adapt to this state of affairs.[7]

Also in this year, Gao Shiming, Sarat Maharaj and Johnson Chang curated the Third Guangzhou Triennial, titled Farewell to Post-Colonialism. The exhibition intended to effect a thorough departure from the politicising, ideological artistic framework and perceptual system of ‘postcolonialism’ and the ‘ideological readymades’ and ‘undigested realities’ that emerged from it.[8] However, what appeared to be an attempt to return to the essence of art and politics, to the politics of art, also seemed to conceal a nationalist narrative. Gayatri C. Spivak once said that the whole world is postcolonial.[9] In a sense, globalisation and postcolonialism are two sides of the same coin. Thus, to bid farewell to postcolonialism is the same as to bid farewell to globalisation. Or perhaps this theme is little more than discursive posturing. The complexity of the issue, however, is that even as we stand in this ‘China’ today, it is very difficult to give it an essential definition. It actively takes part in the game of globalisation under its own volition, but it is not limited by it. It completely follows the so called universal logic of the game, rather than playing the narrow role of resistor. It has its own unique regional political circumstances, as well as a complex, multi-layered inner structure. As Maharaj said, there could never be a total farewell to postcolonialism. Instead, the exhibition lent flexibility to the concept of postcolonialism, allowing it to engage with more realities.[10] Yet, when we are establishing cultural orientation and emphasising differences, we consciously essentialise the self, while also essentialising globalisation and the West.

The reason why I am reconstructing this oft-discussed period of history is that the Chinese contemporary art practices of the past twenty years have been unable to escape from the historical structure and ideological system dominated by globalisation/postcolonialism. And whether they proactively engage it, or are passively drawn in, most artists and curators are chasing after self-liberation. It is merely a question of different paths. What returns me to the late 1990s and early twenty-first century is that this period produced the murkiest, least certain and most tense discursive realm within the systematic observation and thinking of ‘art (text), thought (subtext), and action (event)’.[11] Many of the issues we face today were already apparent or beginning to emerge at that time, and more importantly, they had already begun to decouple from this ideological framework, or to treat it as the object for rethinking.

In the first half of 1999, two experimental exhibitions opened in temporary spaces in Beijing and Shanghai, respectively: Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies & Delusion, curated by Wu Meichun and featuring writing by Qiu Zhijie, and Art for Sale, curated by Xu Zhen, Yang Zhenzhong and Alexander F. Brandt. Forty young artists took part in these two exhibitions, and today, most of them (including, along with the artist-curators listed above, Liu Wei, Yang Fudong, Zheng Guogu, Kan Xuan, Zhang Hui, Zhu Yu, Wang Wei and Sun Yuan) are now leading figures in Chinese contemporary art. Meanwhile, far away in London, Lu Jie was planning the Long March Project as his thesis curatorial project at Goldsmiths, University of London. Three years later, Long March – A Walking Visual Presentation, curated by Lu with Qiu Zhijie as co-executive curator, officially began. The project continues to this day.

The reason why I have selected these three projects as the focus of this discussion is primarily because they took place simultaneously, and though they had clearly different directions, this was no coincidence. Post-Sense Sensibility was directed at the local conceptual art that was then in the process of being absorbed by the international art system or was intentionally catering to an international vision. The exhibition aimed to return to experiments within the scene and within sensory perception. Even its later theatre performances (SpreeNemesisInside Story and the ‘Complete Art Experience Project’) were a resistance against the ossified and competitive exhibition system of international art. Art for Sale looked at ways of intervening in everyday experience and the lives of urban residents through individual means, and how to use new exhibition language to try to break through the orderly restrictions of the system. The Long March Project was directed at the art and exhibition system against the backdrop of globalisation, at once attempting to present a fresh, fluid model for artistic creation and exhibition that is rooted in folk tones and regional environments, as well as a new cross-media model of art history and theoretical composition. It also aimed to reassess and sift through a century of revolutionary and socialist life experience.[12]

Secondly, the year 1999 was just a beginning. Not only were these experiments sustained, but they had a profound impact on the individual practices of the participating artists. In Beijing, after Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies & Delusion, Qiu Zhijie, Liu Wei, Wang Wei, Shi Qing, Zhang Hui and Wu Ershan curated and executed the exhibitions Post-Sense Sensibility: Spree (2001), Post-Sense Sensibility: Nemesis (2001), Post-Sense Sensibility: Inside Story (2003), Post-Sense Sensibility: Fearful (2004) and Post-Sense Sensibility: Black and White Zoo (2006), as well as the ‘Complete Art Experience Project’ series (2005) and other experimental performances. At that point, however, the Post-Sense-Sensibility Group was beginning to  disband, and core member Qiu Zhijie's interest was shifting towards ‘total art’. Likewise, in Shanghai, after Art for Sale, Xu and Yang went on to curate many similar exhibitions, such as Useful Life (2000), Fang Mingzhen and Fang Mingzhu (2002) and the 62761232 Courier Exhibition (2004). Particularly noteworthy is the conceptual influence that Art for Sale would have on Xu Zhen's later systemic turn. Many of his practices, from Art for Sale at ShanghART (2007) to Shopping Gallery (2008), MadeIN Company (2009), the ‘Xu Zhen brand’ (2013), MadeIN Gallery (2014), Xu Zhen Supermarket (2016) and Xu Zhen Store (2016) were all inextricably linked to Art for Sale. The Long March Project aimed to draw attention once again to the relationships between the elite and the masses, and tradition and modernity that had receded from the public eye or been replaced by the debate between China and the West (as seen in the discussions on the critical scene around the year 2000 over whether or not to promote a ‘China brand’).[13] Here there was no dichotomy between China and the West, no battle between left and right, no Cold War or post-Cold War logic of ‘socialism vs. capitalism’ or ‘globalisation vs. localisation’, much less a retreat to a ‘conservative’ state. This was clearly an attempt to break through the existing, dogmatic cognitive framework and seek new strongholds and pathways for action within a state of change.

Finally, and most importantly, these concepts and practices were deeply embedded within the political context of art and culture in the late 1990s, yet were not constrained by that context. Instead, they intended to provide critical experiments and creative discourses pointing towards the future. The year 1999 was a dramatic one, in which NATO engaged in the Kosovo War on 24 March and the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was bombed on 8 May, sparking protests among university students and residents in Beijing and other cities. The balance between ‘nationalism’ and ‘imperialism’, and whether human rights could or should override sovereignty, became the focus of debate. Meanwhile, as reforms continued, unemployment, systemic and increasingly internationalised corruption, economic inequality, environmental crises and other social issues intensified, smashing any naive or theoretical illusions about modern society, while also demonstrating that globalisation was no longer an issue external to China. Now, it was not a question of whether or not we would become involved, but an issue internal to society.[14] Interestingly, neither Post-Sense Sensibility nor Art for Sale were swept up in this ideological struggle; they did not intentionally cater to any particular ideological needs. It was precisely these complex circumstances that led them to focus on ways of liberating themselves from existing art, culture, society and political or ideological systems. This is not to say that they did not touch on these issues, but that they approached reality and its complexity with more microscopic and individualised perspectives and linguistic methods. Their contribution was not a particular political stance, but fluid, hybrid and dynamic perceptions and thoughts. This was also the practical idea behind the Long March Project, though its methods and approach were different.

Around the year 2003, with the establishment of the art system and the rise of museums, galleries and art fairs, increasing numbers of artists became involved, though this does not imply that they fell under the control of capital. In a sense, as capital and the system provided artists with the platforms and conditions to realise their individual potential, it became more difficult for collectives or small groups to continue. As a result, they chose to leave a ‘correct’ temporary group in order to enter into an ‘incorrect’ system. According to Liu Wei, however, the market is a fundamental reality, and if we ignore this true universal face of the world, then our art will lose its truthfulness, and will thus be unable to touch on the tender and painful spots of reality.[15] Since 2000, virtually all of his practices have been rooted in Beijing's urbanisation campaign against the backdrop of globalisation, in the urban spectacle, the everyday experience of the outskirts, and the aesthetic forms of stratification, and his works have always met with affirmation from the market. Xu Zhen's Pop-oriented practices are even more all-embracing. Since his establishment of MadeIN Company in 2009, his innumerable experiments and creations have all touched on commerce and capital, and in his reckoning, commercialisation is the most irrefutable reality of Chinese contemporary art since 2006. Thus we could say that Xu's practice is the most fitting presentation of the symptoms of contemporary Chinese society, culture and the art system, a kind of ‘capitalist realism’.[16]

In early November 2016, during the West Bund and ART021 art fairs, more than sixty exhibitions of various sizes opened in one week in Shanghai alone. Compared to the 1990s and early 2000s, with the shortage of spaces, paucity of exhibitions and lack of a market, this can be considered something of a ‘frenzy’. It was at this time that the ‘Xu Zhen Store’ opened, an expansion of his artistic system and industry, as well as a subtle intervention into the surrounding commercial circumstances of art. Its attitude may be ambiguous, but this ambiguity is precisely its means of interfering with capital from within.[17] Here we finally understand the relationship between the Long March Project and Long March Space. The Long March Project was first motivated by a desire for a critical rethinking of the neoliberal-driven art system, but when it became the gallery known as Long March Space, it became a part of that very system. Lu Jie does not see it this way. He feels that there is no contradiction between the two. Long March Space is merely a part of the Long March Project, and a necessary source of support for the latter. Of course, conflict between the two is unavoidable. Perhaps it is precisely this ‘ambiguous’ relationship that allows for the emergence of an open, fluid and uncertain discourse and politics.

Since 1989, a cage of ideology has ruled over the concepts and practices in Chinese contemporary art. Within a world system and an art system dominated by globalisation, artists fear only political incorrectness. This has been the source of their artistic initiative, and a fixed mechanism of subjectivity. Neither Post-Sense Sensibility, nor Art for Sale, nor the Long March Project deny this world system and reality of art. Instead, they hope to return to the subject of art, and art as the subject of politics, through different perspectives and paths, and to reconstruct internal connections between global politics, culture, society and change within a reality ridden with contradictions and difficulties. What follows is not only artistic liberation, but also political liberation, and more importantly, liberation of self.

[1] Anonymous, Magiciens de la Terre, the Pioneer of Large International Contemporary Art Exhibitions (Dadi Moshushi, Dangdai Guoji Yishu Dazhan de Linghangzhe), on 99ys Art Website, 19 May 2015: Accessed 1 May 2017.

[2] Wang Hui, Depoliticized Politics: the 1990s and the End of the Short 20th Century (Qu Zhengzhihua de Zhengzhi: Duan 20 Shiji de Zhongjie yu 90 Niandai), Beijing: SDX Book Company, 2008, p. 137.

[3]  Wang Hui, pp. 58–97.

[4] Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

[5]  Zhao Tingyang, System Under Heaven: Philsophical Overview of the System of the World (Tianxia Tixi: Shijie Zhidu Zhexue Daolun), Nanjing: Jiangsu Education Publishing House, 2005.

[6]  Gan Yang, Civilization, Nation, Learning (Wenming Guojia Daxue), Beijing: SDX Book Company, 2012, pp. 1–15.

[7] Discussion between Lu Mingjun and Wang Hui, Beijing: Tsinghua Institute for Advanced Study in Humanities and Social Sciences, 3 April 2016, unpublished.

[8] Gao Shiming, Sarat Maharaj and Johnson Chang, ‘Concept: Farewell to Post-Colonialism’ (Zhuti Gainian:  yu Houzhimin Shuo Zaijian) in Farewell to Post-Colonialism: the Third Guangzhou Triennial (Yu Houzhimin Shuo Zaijian: Di San jie Guangzhou Sannianzhan), Hangzhou: China Academy of Art Press, 2008, p. 3.

[9] Gayatri C. Spivak, ‘Gayatri Spivak on Politics of Subaltern’, Socialist Review, Vol. 23, No. 3 (1990), p. 94.

[10] Guangdong Museum of Art, ed., Farewell to Post-Colonialism: The Third Guangzhou Triennial Reader 1, Macao: Macao Publishing House, 2008, p. 195.

[11] Zeng Nianchang, The Poetry of Rupture: the Literature, Ideas and Actions of 1998 (Duanlie de Shixue: 1998 nian de Wenxue, Sixiang yu Xingdong), Beijing: SDX Book Company, 2017.

[12]   Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie, Long MarchA Walking Visual Presentation: Exhibition Foreword, 2003, unpublished.

[13]  Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie, Long MarchA Walking Visual Presentation: Curators’ Statement, 2003, unpublished.

[14] Discussion between Lu Mingjun and Wang Hui, Beijing: Tsinghua Institute for Advanced Study in Humanities and Social Sciences, April 3, 2016, unpublished.

[15]  Guangdong Museum of Art, ed., Farewell to Post-Colonialism: The Third Guangzhou Triennial Reader 1, p. 203.

[16] Xiaorui Zhu-Nowell, Capitalist Realism, 2017, unpublished.

[17]  Ibid.

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