Framing the Improbable

Written by David Ho Yeung Chan

It is impossible to summarise neatly the multifaceted and vast metaconcept of ‘Chinese contemporary art’ or the art world from which it emerges. Rem Koolhaas(1)

Why is there so much interest with contemporary “Chinese” art at this moment? Once we frame an exhibition in terms of Chinese art, we inevitably enter the situation of identifying art and artists relative the geopolitics of place(s). And in light of economic globalization, cities have become open nodes for artistic production that are increasingly central to the discussion on a glocalism.

One may ask how different is an exhibition of Chinese art than a new form of Chinatown, whereby various degrees of chineseness are represented to the public? With reference to an article written by architect An Te Liu, Liu’s interest is not so much on the traditional Chinatown, but rather on the new Asian malls that have emerged in the outskirts of Canadian cities. The way in which the “poly-colonial” Chinese subjects reinvent public spaces is described as a state of “ether”, something which is similar to being glocal. Liu writes: “Amidst the ether, these places are simultaneously foreign and domestic, familiar and strange, non-urban and kind of urban, somewhere, nowhere, anywhere.” (2)

In many ways the fast changing boomtowns offer such an experimental test bed, and the sudden outbursts of creative energy are creating a necessary space to reflect on the different permutations of globalization. The romanticism associated with nostalgic themes like dislocation of the 1990’s has finally waned; different strategies for countering placelessness are becoming outdated. We are now enduring the ambivalence of a post-nomadic/post historic self; the ceaseless travels inside and outside of the city have neutralized our experiences. For a city likeShanghai, this moment is one of schizophrenia all to make up for lost time in the making of a “global city”. What can an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art convey to the audience at this moment besides projecting various imaginaries of a socialist turned ultra capitalist state? How can we inscribe individual subjectivities under such an entrenched landscape?

2. Enough, it’s time it ended, in the refuge too. And yet I hesitate, I hesitate to – to end. Samuel Beckett (3) 

We live in an era bombarded with possibilities, at least this is what we have been led to believe. Conversely, the speculation of an end seems inappropriate at a moment of tremendous cultural anxiety, when we are all busy coming to terms with differences in fragmented times and places. Nowadays, we are not encouraged to consider an end altogether. An end is always left as a series of questions. If there is ever a common end, it is the expiration of the colonial empire only to be replaced by a more potent and microscopic form of territorial control as determined by transnational capitals. In order to grant one a sense of security in the demise of the new “glocal”, we are entering a time of vigorous re-narrations. As claimed by Stuart Hall, what is spoken is always at the expense of the silenced.(4) What is that silence behind the infatuation for contemporary Chinese art? To whom does one claim oneself as a representative of a locality? The void of the post colonial subject creates an urgency to devise a ‘new ethnicity’ in response to the demand of a burgeoning global ‘cultural’ economy.

On one hand, we need to abandon the idea that identity as something stable, but to acknowledge its flux or as something always in the process of formation, therefore resorting to a live of total contingency. On the other hand, we are also met with a growing fatigue with speaking about our experience on behalf of an increasingly fragmented collectivity.

Chinese art exhibition may have reached an impasse; the loop has gone through too many times. Yet there is a necessity to move on with the discussion, that pressure pushed to the point of oblivion. Yet the show has to go on. We are seeking a moment of freedom to pry open the rootedness of national art exhibition model. The exhibition is a game taken as an experiment which brings forth a multitude that would provoke new forms of criticality towards globalism. Moreover, it is evident that Chinese artists are expected to represent something different on the world stage. Such an obligation is a difficult one for we must respect individual’s freedom. Yet both sides are staring at each other eagerly, with many exhibition projects planned, yet there is a sense of vacuum in between. However, let’s not only fancy new chinese cities as a highbrow site for advancing a discussion on globalism. Have we grown numb with the projected 300 – 500 million rural people that equals to the entire population of Western Europewill be migrating to Chinese cities over the next two decades? (5)

3. A numbing effect… I admit that I am speaking as an outsider, coming to work in Shanghaiby chance and witnessing the daily changes of this crazy city, and feeling increasingly numbed by what is going on. In asking a taxi driver if I can disengage the meter earlier than the arrival of my destination, I asked: “Can I do this,” and the driver replied: “nothing is impossible here.” It is precisely such a belief that anything is possible that questions the role of contemporary art relative to the politics of everyday life? Under the master narrative of a blasé Chinese metropolis whereby the gap between art and public is increasingly blurry, more discussions on issues of cultural production and the relationship between institutional structure and artistic production, the need for new exhibition models are necessary. The 2nd Guangzhou Biennale that engaged the public in a dialogue is a noteworthy and rare attempt to stimulate a discussion on what contemporary art could mean here.

I recall one of the posters in the Utopia Station that states ‘Will plan to plan’.(6) In many ways, this statement encapsulates our ambivalence towards the ever-changing urban conditions. That is, as much as we rely on planning to give us a sense of security and order, there is an equalfaith that whatever happens we will be able to cope with according to the situation. By the time something is planned, what was originally conceived might have become obsolete for the current circumstances? It is time to refocus on our will. The “will” to plan necessitates a dialogue between individuals and a larger collective in order to realize a more socially adaptable solution. I believe that the exhibition is still a viable apparatus for doing so. If we still hold dear to the belief that the primary function for contemporary art is to “open spaces for new negotiations of social life”, then the public must participate in the formation of such a process.

David Ho Yeung Chan
Aug 25, 2006


1. Rem Koolhaas,“Junkspace,” in

2. An Te Liu, “Chinatown in the Ether,” in Public 32: Urban Interventions, (PublicAccess-YorkUniversity, 2005) 89

3. Samuel Beckett, “Endgame”

4. Stuart Hall, “The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity,” in Culture, Globalization, and the World System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity, ed. Anthony King (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997)

5. Info quoted from financial times newspaper

6. Quoted from a poster by Gabriel Kuri, an artist based inMexico City.

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