Written by Gu Zhenqing
Will the 21st century be an Asian epoch? As one of the motors of the global economy,Asianow boasts a rapid scale of growth that is currently being demonstrated in its abrupt urbanisation. Under these circumstances of intense upgrading, a succession of gigantic cosmopolitan cities is emerging – Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong – evidencing a shift of the worldwide economic, technical and IT centres from Europe andAmericatoAsia. The Asian economy has experienced a miracle, giving hope to all the developing countries that an ultimate solution and a way out of the spiritual crisis is in sight.
Asian cities are the sites for the highest buildings on earth. The towering skyscrapers speak of a fortified regional confidence, and show off man’s delusive urge to conquer Nature. Looking towards a common future, this late-blooming continent has gained an unprecedented sense of prophecy during the course of globalisation. Now, to appreciate the present is to face the future. The question ‘What will it be?’ has constantly confronted the countries and communities in this region, where the narratives applied to assume and imagine the future are the products of various ideologies.
After the Cold War, the global capital system attempted to build the imagination of the future into a common ideological system, which was required by the international communities for political enhancement and cultural hegemony. Accordingly, a theory of the ‘End of History’ has been contrived as the single-pronged fantasy of the future. The post-developed Asian countries currently enjoying an economic boost aspire to incorporate their concerns into these future-oriented world ideologies. On the road to modernisation, nations in this continent are growing stronger. Consequently, to reconstruct the nation and rebuild its confidence from the perspective of access to the future global society has been an inevitable road.
In the post-9/11 era, following the American-revised international order, the blueprints for the future have been severely damaged, and the legend of the Empire is vanishing. Asian countries have no alternative but to forge a distinctive outlook in accordance with this context. With global warming, the energy crisis, the inequality between rich and poor, as well as escalating world terrorism, the continent faces a cloudy tomorrow.
As a way to counter jungle laws and interest-driven motivations, peaceful relationships with ones neighbours is now accepted in the region as the major theme of future development. However, due to miscellaneous ideologies, cultural inertia and a crisis in value systems, Asian countries have failed to integrate with the rest of the world. On the contrary, their endeavours – made on the basis of different politics, economies and cultural orientations – have led to the collapse of a sci-tech, progress-based, global utopianism. This phenomenon seems to mirror the conflicts throughout civilisation. The world’s future – from an Asian perspective – is fluctuating between passion and confusion.
Since the narrative of the world’s future is no longer uniform, many will continue to ask: ‘What will it be?’ How should we define the future, which used to be a shared spiritual terrain, if we fail to take the lead in the creation of a unique future of our own? How should we reconstruct our society? How will we make ourselves part of the forthcoming multi-polar world?
Constructing the upcoming global scene is a national strategy to forge and fortify cultural self-identification in Asian countries. Within the current international political pattern, the vocabulary of future construction takes an unprecedented grip on all aspects of reality: geopolitics, identity, cultural conflicts as well as ideological confrontations.
Let us takeChinaas an example. During the transition from the political society of the pre-reform to a consumer society in today’s global context, the outlook of the state machine was very different from today. Social feedback and reaction have changed its course. Future variations, led by distinct ideologies, are likely to be phenomenal. This speaks volumes for the fact that under different conditions, man’s projections of the future have a remarkable plasticity.
All those Chinese who were born between 1950 and 1970 still carry with them their childhood dreams of the future in Mao’s era. We never stopped looking forward to a bright future. Our greatest ideal at that time was to emancipate all mankind, to dedicate ourselves to the lofty undertaking of the realisation of Communism. In the decades of planned economy, ideology rather than reality shaped future social patterns. The kaleidoscopic, faraway utopia of Communism promised a shimmering future that brightened people’s souls – withered and made monotonous in this time of shortage, when the economy and social progress had come to a near standstill. Owing to the harshness of reality, people had to create an illusion in which the future could be consumed in advance. Just as to a child, the future is seen as an attractive period in which its naive dreams will come true, so these hopes of brighter days provided the spiritual nourishment essential in such hard times. The hope deep in our hearts gave us faith that tomorrow would be better.
Over the last twenty years, during the acceleration of modernisation, the market economy and consumer culture have grantedChinaa unique experience, in which the society dreamed of by intellectuals has suddenly bloomed. Having suffered from a hundred years of poverty and debility, many Chinese have seen their dreams realised. The future no longer seems so distant. Even the most fertile imagination could not have pictured all the social and economic wonders thatChinahas achieved. The pace of change in society is hastening in the swelling Asian metropolitan cities, and reality is becoming more complicated and is shifting all the time.Shanghaiis an outstanding case. With the rise of the Pudong area, the city has undergone tremendous changes over the last twenty years or so, which have stunned the whole world.
But while the speedy economic growth and societal shifts have noticeably altered the lives of ordinary Chinese, a good deal of issues have followed in its wake. When globalisation and urbanisation invade Chinese society, the majority are overwhelmed. Gaining in advance the life they had only dreamed of, they are far from ready, and have trouble in adapting themselves. The result is that they are living under great strain. Tomorrow has arrived like a windfall, and fear of its sudden loss has made people focus more on the present and on valuing the happiness of every day. People have become increasingly down-to-earth, replacing the ultimate concern with the present preoccupation. No longer out of reach, like a castle in the air, the future is deeply involved in real life, but there is the sense that it may be a beautiful mirage.
The modernity and urbanisation that we have achieved today is the present tense of the tomorrow we once looked forward to. Instead of being a castle in the air based on the collective consciousness, the future now constitutes the concrete and true subject of evolution in modern society. How does the future we imagined compare to the prosperity and rapid growth that Asian cities are now enjoying? With the unveiling of new politics and ideologies, we can sense the subtle changes in the future narrative. But when peeking through this materialistic kaleidoscope, we are experimenting with a loss of soul. The future that was anticipated as spiritual nourishment has vanished amidst the hustle and bustle of mundane life. We are scared by the intangible loss in a material-enriched age.
In modern society, then, the concept of future has been rewritten. But future can be defined as both a temporal notion and a spiritual one: the future also serves as an indispensable haven for man’s soul. Even when determined by all kinds of ideologies, it cannot hold sway over individual projection. The former narrative comes out of global integration, while the latter is influenced by monotheism. Thus the single-pronged prospect has evolved into a dual future. Though it is measured differently in the traditional Asian calendar, the temporal future can be translated with a stable coherence. But it is changeable in a spiritual sense. The imagination of a future society, a spiritual homeland, is immersed in different Asian civilisations and thus offers a variety of cultural facades that remain deliberately distinguishable from each other.
The population has no choice but to accept the changes and try to accustom itself to its new circumstances. Intense conflicts in politics, economics, society, as well as the environment, have created huge gaps between theoretical anticipation and reality. Such gaps are not only challenging the emergency plans that China has implemented one after another, but are also testing the perception, response, and tolerance of both artists and the public. Many have not prepared themselves mentally for these changes; they find it hard to face up to them. Artists, however, are at home in a society that is constantly changing, since they have long been used to experimentation and radical behaviour. Similarly, artists happily embrace the diversity of reality, and recognise the huge potential that is presented by social and environmental change. Contemporary Chinese art is thus maturing in this unique, modern and varied age.
Chinese artists today are displaying intense enthusiasm for their culture and society, an enthusiasm that is developing into a kind of ‘Chinese experience’, visible in contemporary art. InChina, with its unique cultural context, the value of this kind of contemporary art is not so-called ‘originality’, which Europeans and Americans hold so high. Under the influence of Duchamp and the Fluxus movement, many Chinese artists continue to investigate forms, methods and ideas that originate from European and American contemporary art. They are often stuck in these reference systems and in the inertia of academic discussion. However, another group of Chinese artists has more crystallised ideas. They understand that practice and improvement of form and method are more important than originality. They have established their own artistic language and system over a long period of time in order to pay attention to logical processes and a sense of continuation. Their creation is a process, not an end product. Through the accumulation of their rich personal experiences, Chinese artists are breaking through the restrictions of artistic formalism and methodology, without depending excessively on ‘originality’. They travel freely within the boundaries of contemporary art, shaping its diverse culture with their own approaches. Their unique living conditions and traditional backgrounds have affected their ideology and revolutionised their artistic performance. The combination of new and old has also provided a turning point, enabling some artists to step out of their experimental transitional period and properly enter the realm of contemporary art. They understand how to adjust the form and content of their subjects to provide both art and reality with a perceptual and continuous renewal. Their intense social concern and their desire to engage in introspection are manifesting themselves on the surface as a continuation of the tradition of realism, a unique contribution from contemporary Chinese culture to the global art scene. Most importantly, these artists dare to face and question modernity, the most pressing issue in Chinese society.
Chinese contemporary artists are wielding their influence through more and more cultural exchanges in the global society. They are providing a vivid profile of the current context of Chinese contemporary art from which international and local audiences can understand their attitudes, their positions, the values of their creative work, as well as the social criticism and cultural rethinking explored in their art. The works of some established artists have become part of the history of Chinese contemporary art. These artists have employed their favoured media and forms to voice their view of tomorrow. Their art-training and creative trajectory has run parallel to the economic miracle in the continent. Nonetheless, each of them has given up the fantasy of the future that was led by a linear narrative and mechanical pattern. Instead, they are questioning the mainstream fantasy of life. Through their persistent pursuit of the special meaning of the future as a specific haven of the soul, they are exposing the future’s duality.
The truth of the future atomises and emerges through the constant refreshment of reality. It is interesting to reflect on the way in whichAsiacontinues to imagine its future. This touches upon both a redefinition of the notion of future and an adjustment to a relevant methodology. A rational analysis is needed to surpass the definition of future as time and to build the notion of future as a symbol of spiritual homeland. Conceptually speaking, this dual idea of future allows us to face the present objectively. As far as time is concerned, we cannot exceed reality. But at the spiritual level, we can carry on the reconstruction and compose new narrative systems based on reality and rationality in an effort to reprieve a metaphysical freedom. The dual idea of future allows people to sense the devaluation of time and revaluation of spirit. In this new context, modern society need not adhere to the physical sequence, but can be achieved by complementing and reconstructing the spiritual homeland.
Today in Asia, imaginings of the future differ widely among the various countries, ethnicities and individuals, and sometimes run counter to each other. Collision and conflicts within concepts, cultures and civilisations are triggered when international exchange occurs. Therefore, the notion of re-appreciating the future that is being raised by Chinese artists plays an important role in reconciling the duality of the future. This may help free people from the Cold War mindset and bring them to a new multicultural context. For any contemporary culture inAsia, reshaping the future at the spiritual level involves the improvement of languages, thoughts and values. In this sense, imagining the future, brewing and activating new ideologies, is likely to forge a new cultural creativity. Any exchangeable and sharable cultural resource that remoulds the future will infiltrate into the cultural and psychological fields in the modern world, and will thereby have an impact on international politics and economies as well as globalisation.
At present, the dialogue or conflict between cultures is a game involving many countries. Influenced by fashion and pop culture, people from Asian countries are developing a similar taste in what they consume, and the various exchanges are becoming more interdependent. Sandwiched by globalisation and geopolitics, they are going farther down the road to cultural self-identification. Can Asian countries gain access to this international game by reshaping their future narrative systems? Whatever the answer, it is clear that the knowledge and expression of artists has the best chance of creating and modifying of the rules of the global game.