I would like to preface this presentation with how I became involved in Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art. My background is as a curator of contemporary art and while I had exhibited a number of artists of Chinese descent, Chinese history and contemporary Chinese art had not been a main feature of my background. However, in 2004, I received a phone call from the Managing Editor of Yishu, Zheng Shengtian, asking if I would consider taking on the role of editor. My first response was “Why me?,” I had never even been to China. His answer was that he wanted someone who could be objective, but he didn’t really elaborate on what he meant exactly by that statement.
My interpretation at the time was that within contemporary Chinese art there must have been inbred political rivalries, career investments, theoretical agendas, or that the discussion on contemporary Chinese art required some sort of outside perspective, some distance. It has been my belief for some time that an outside perspective can be of great value in seeing, and even expanding an understanding of oneself from the inside. This is not to suggest that this outside perspective is authoritative, but that it carries with it a certain objectivity, however naïve it may at times be. In any case, after thinking about it, aside from the content that I would be faced with, I deduced that editing a journal is not so different from curating an exhibition other than the result being different in form, one textual, the other visual, so I thought why not try it; it would be an opportunity to learn something new in an area of contemporary art that held some interest for me and that was relatively new territory internationally.
Having now been Editor-in-Chief of Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art for more than a decade-and I am not referencing the journal in this talk as a promotional platform, but as something that has served as the vehicle for developing my own knowledge growth within this field-it has mystified me that only once have I been asked to define what is meant by the word “Chinese” in the publication’s subtitle Contemporary Chinese Art, as though Chinese had some universal application. While I must confess that it is somewhat a relief that this is not a question I have had to respond to frequently, it is, at the same time, one that constantly occupies my mind and I have come to realize that to some extent this question, and an exploration of it, is an underlying element that drives much of the content of the journal.
One thing that has become increasingly clear for me-and I am likely as guilty as anyone-is that the Chinese in contemporary Chinese art has indeed become a generalization that sidesteps acknowledgement of the differing, and at times contradictory, histories not only within the geographic realm of what constitutes greater China-mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan-but also its extensive diaspora. The connections or affiliations among these various manifestations of China are not always evident or obvious, and in effect each has its own art history, aesthetic concerns, and cultural ecology. The history of contemporary art in Taiwan is not parallel to that of mainland China. And I have come across curators in Beijing who profess to having relatively little knowledge about art being made, for example, in Hong Kong. The idea of “independence” exercised by Hong Kong and Taiwan in their relationship to mainland China, beginning with the Cultural Revolution when mainland China was devoid of any discernable critical voices, has resulted in a longer, more evolutionary trail of perspectives and strategies within writing on art that reflects for Hong Kong a distinct identity, as fraught as it currently is, and in the case of Taiwan, what they consider to be the genuine identity of mainland China. I believe we as writers and historians need to be more vigilant in acknowledging these differences in how we qualify what constitutes China.
I am not sure from where the contemporary designation of greater China emerged. Its usage goes back to the 1930s as a way to identify territories once claimed by China, some of them the same as today, Tibet-and some different-Hong Kong. More recently, greater China has been used as a indicator of growing economic and corporate ties between mainland China and Hong Kong and, now, Taiwan; ties that potentially have embedded within them political agendas. Issues of sovereignty can become muddled within economic trade-offs.
Within the art world, the designation of greater China is coming into more common use and has its own nuances. During the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century mainland China dominated attention within the realm of contemporary Chinese art-in greater China and beyond-which not only had to do with its aggressive economic boom but also with the world’s fascination towards a nation that has shifted so dramatically from a communist entity that exercised little interaction with the West to one that has embraced capitalism under a euphemistic one party rule and whose presence is ubiquitous with each and every one of our daily lives-with the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the tools we work with, the electronics we listen to, on and on. And while art from mainland China is exported internationally, much like its products, relatively little international art makes its way into China aside from biennials and art fairs.
Art from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and, especially, Macau, culturally seemed to hover uncomfortably in the background of mainland China during the first years of the 21st century. But in recent years Taiwan (Taipei Biennial 1984 and 1992 and pavilion in Venice which was inaugurated in 1995 and only the second Asian pavilion following Japan) and Hong Kong (pavilion in Venice, Art Basel HK) have asserted their presence, and in terms of visual art mainland China can no longer adequately serve as “the” representative of China. Indeed, outside of the context of a domestic market, an arena mainland China continues to dominate, Hong Kong is gaining a foothold in its effort to be the centre of Chinese art, not only with the art fair but with its ambitious program of museum building (M+ to open in 2017 being the main generator), private gallery activity (private galleries from the West opening branches), and auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Referring back to Hong Kong’s sense of independence, M+ has been open to considerable criticism for both by its acceptance of a major donation by collector Uli Sigg of primarily mainland Chinese art, representing a potential symbol of cultural colonialism over Hong Kong art, and the fact that most decision-making staff was hired from outside of Hong Kong. Aside from this, however, Hong Kong’s main rival is no longer Beijing, but Singapore, which is busy establishing itself as the centre of Asian art, andnotjust Chinese art, through developing a strong museum infrastructure, and a significant biennial established in 2006, that is supported by growing private gallery complexes such as Gillman Barracks.
I have introduced some of the complexity inherent in attempting to describe, discuss, or, even more of a challenge, define contemporary Chinese art. Entering into this hazy realm are issues as varied as nationhood, political will, territorial borders, ethnicity, globalization, migration, and cultural investment. Moving outside of greater China, to a place like Vancouver, where I was brought up and continue to live, is but one example of many that brings into play another kind of complexity of what China might be. From the migration to Canada in the mid-19th century of Chinese from Guangdong province who were brought to work in mining camps during the Gold Rush, to later that century in providing cheap labour to complete the transnational railway, to a third second wave of migration after World War Two following the elimination of the “Head Tax,” a tax to discourage immigration from Asia and then an outright ban on Chinese immigration, to the exodus from Hong Kong prior to the 1997 takeover by mainland China, a wave in the 1990s and 2000s of Taiwanese immigrants, to the largest population now arriving from mainland China. And mainland China in Vancouver is not just an example of one of the many Chinatowns around the world, but remains directly connected to the “motherland”; many of these new immigrants have not entirely left mainland China, they have homes in both locations, at times the mother and children live in Vancouver while the husband takes care of business back in the mainland. This temporal and geographical layering brings together the earlier more historical Cantonese language and culture with the more recent Mandarin, which is threatening to replace the once dominant Cantonese, a situation in which often one does not seamlessly comprehend the other. So for me, China was present in Vancouver long before my birth, but in its immigrative waves the question of “what China?” has always been present in my experience. What is it? Is it a real China or a simulated China within a Western context? If the Chinese experience in Vancouver is reflective of the Chinese who live there, is this not then, an expression of China?
This challenge of what defines China, especially within the larger demographic context, slips into the fluid realms of identity-both self-identity and identity as understood from the outside. This inevitably leads to ideas of the cross-cultural, but the cross-cultural often gets spoken of as though it is some new or recent evolution that is the off-spring of contemporary globalization, which it is not. Globalization has been unraveling for a very long time through cross border trade routes, the Silk Road being a prime example, and the tentacular reaches of colonization. China has been cross-cultural for centuries-with India, Greece, Turkey, Japan, Great Britain, and of course Portugal. While mainland China has a history that clearly identifies it as “China” within a geopolitical sense, China as a concept is no longer a geographical, political, ethnic, or race issue.
What China? Australian Geremie Barmé, whose work has been on the minds of many for some time, has suggested in his ideas around the New Sinology that we must consider China from myriad perspectives of history, culture, language, migration, geopolitics, and through both theoretical and personal accounts. So I am looking at some of these issues that complicate the idea of what is China within a contemporary context through personal experience, not only through growing up in a city that has had a contentious and increasingly engaged relationship with China, and Asia as a whole, and is now noticably Asian in its demographics, but perhaps more so through the example of my work with Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art. I will provide a few examples of how we at Yishu approach the idea of China and use the publication to interrogate definitions and cultural constructions of what China might be. In some texts we have published, China is not even mentioned. Now, I will likely dig myself into some awkward holes but I am not here to provide you with neatly packaged answers but to offer some perhaps problematic propositions, that even in my agreeing to publish certain texts, I myself have not resolved. So hopefully some discussion will arise from this that we can all benefit from.
With this preface, I am not going to attempt a definition of what “Chineseness” is; not being Chinese, I am not really qualified to attempt it. In any case, I am not sure it can be defined. So, again, I am thinking of the “idea of China” on more conceptual, but also practical, levels and I am exploring how it potentially seeps into so many aspects of the world. Even within greater China itself one finds the aforementioned differences between mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, and within mainland China itself there are all the various ethnicities, some fifty-six of them, even though the Han comprise over 90% of the population.
This is all part of the bigger sociopolitical picture and within visual art each of these regions have very different histories. Whose work can be considered Chinese? If Chinese aesthetics or iconography or philosophy enters into an artwork, does that render it Chinese? What is authentic? How do Chinese tropes and emblems and icons and aesthetics and mark making go beyond ethnicity, cultural entitlement, or territorial borders? What does it mean to be Chinese with an extensive history in another country-Indonesia, India, Singapore, Canada, or Australia, for example. And, aside from the issue of the diaspora, what is the relationship of greater China with the rest of Asia?
So, when I started working with Yishu, what did I think was China? The six issues that preceded my involvement (by founding editor Ken Lum) offered a rich variety of perspectives on Chinese art that pretty much circulated within the parameters of greater China. Yishu originally considered itself a kind of academic journal, although it was not peer reviewed, but my vision was to open it up to as many voices as possible, for people to approach us when they had something they really wanted to talk about. Thus we publish both well-known academics as well as younger writers that we help mentor. This may reveal a weakness in terms of focus and I admit that some of the published issues might not be as strong as others, but I do believe that the openness of our attitude has found us entering territories other publications, especially those that are more deeply embedded within the concerns of the art market, have not.
What China? Among my first encounters where I had to question what is China came with two texts that weresimultaneouslysubmitted to Yishu in 2006, one on the work of artist Michael Cherney, the other on Robert Majzels. Cherney is a photographer who has made works of art that focus on images of China and are presented in a traditional Chinese-style accordion-fold album, not from the perspective of a documentarian, but as an observer who, through an exploration of photographic processes offers poetic fragments (each album contains slices from one image) of the extended time he spent in China. Majzels, on the other hand, works with text and mixes English and Hebrew letters with Chinese characters that emphasize the differences between these languages while simultaneously integrating them through poetry-at times legibility emerges, at times it slips into abstraction.
My hesitation in publishing these texts arose from the fact that this was the first instance that Yishu presented work by non-Chinese artists that contained Chinese content, but, it was also, me, coming from North America and having experienced the often heated debates in the 1990s over what was called cultural appropriation. These debates occurred over issues of identity politics and who had the right to represent what-many artists were adamant that only an artist of a particular ethnicity or race could represent that ethnicity or race, or even the cultural characteristics they represented, and attempts by those on the outside would be deemed misled and inauthentic gestures. So I had to determine what these two artists were endeavoring in their representations of China. But neither Cherney nor Majzels were intending to represent China, or presume to be Chinese in any way; instead, their work was more a kind of research that drew its content from Chinese iconography and language. Majzels, in particular, was bringing the Chinese language into a larger discourse by presenting it in relation to other languages and their commiuncation systems.
This decision led to other instances of presenting non-Chinese artists in the pages of Yishu. Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul’s 2009 exhibition Super China! at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, in which he examined both the complex intrapersonal relationships within the Chinese art world as well as appropriated the idea of Mao’s Little Red Book with one that contains Rawanchaikul’s own quotations. The exhibition included a Monopoly-like board game with art world gamblings at stake and a 12 metre mural with portraits of those in the art world hierarchy who the artist considered it is necessary to know in order to advance one’s career. This exhibition was a kind of ongoing commentary on an art system, in this case the meteoric rise of mainland China’s art market, that Rawanchaikul has confronted in his own experience as an artist. One thing that interested me here is that it was an artist from Asia making this comment and not one from the West, something I will return to later. Rawanchaikul’s distribution of his Quotations from Chairman Navin to the public, by the way, resulted in his arrest.
An interview we published with the collective Slavs and Tatars looked at Turkish language politics, its evolution, and its connection to the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, in northwest China that extends back to the Silk Route. And in another interview with Shezad Dawood, who was the first non-Chinese artist to exhibit at OCAT Xi’an, he brings up the idea of showing his film, Piercing Brightness-a film made by a non-Chinese artist and about the Chinese diaspora in Preston, UK, a place likely quite alien to most of those who live in Xi’an-and how it might be received in China. He is also producing a film about Xi’an that explores its past, present, and future and its proximity to borders and confluences, a thematic that ties into his interest in cultural hybridity. What I felt was important about all these artists is their making a contribution to China understanding itself and its histories through perspectives from, as I alluded to earlier, the outside, so, what China? All of this begins an expansive discourse that introduces aspects of China that are not always included in the standard narratives that represent contemporary Chinese art. Another example, and here it reverses the narrative somewhat, is the work of Indian artist Lorreti Joyce Pinto whose drawings and prints allude to the thirst of China for iron ore and the agreements for illegal mining extraction arranged by corrupt Indian mining families. This has had a huge impact on communities in the vicinity of Goa, a tourist mecca with endless beaches and historic colonial Portuguese architecture, in which open pit mines scar the landscape and water resources have been compromised.
This issue segues into those artists who represent the vast Chinese diaspora, or, I should say, diasporas. This constitutes another highly complex component of What China? Is it a China by default? Do the Chinese of the diasporas have more of a claim to China, because of their ethnicity, than those non-Chinese artists we have just discussed?
Let’s consider its complexity. There are those who were born in China and left during the Cultural Revolution and whose work evolved into a mix of Chinese and Western influences as they tried to find a footing in another culture; these artist maintained aesthetic aspects of their education in mainland China but also incorporated ideas from the West that were prevalent at the time, especially those of abstraction and expressionism. Examples include a number of artists such as Fong Chung-ray, and Ming Fay, who settled in New York and on the westcoast of North America. Many of these artists were well known in the West through 1950s and 60s, and are still working today, but after the opening up of mainland China following the demise of the Cultural Revolution, all attention moved to Asia. Because of their hybrid aesthetic, they never really entered the mainstream in either continent but in recent years have been receiving renewed attention as scholars and historians dig more deeply into Chinese histories that extend beyond greater China in an effort to understand all of China’s permutations.
Then there are those who left mainland China just before or after 1989, some due to the closing of the historic China/Avant-garde exhibition or the Tian’anmen Square incident, and who maintained strong, though at times indirect, references to China as ciphers within their artwork as they brought with them a certain political currency. Among these artists are Huang Yongping, Chen Zhen, Xu Bing (although he has now returned to China), Gu Wenda, and Cai Guo-Qiang. While some of these artists have been accused of culturally capitalizing on work that flaunts its Chineseness as a requisite for sales in the West, and to quench the thirst of those who want work by Chinese artists that is easily identifiable as Chinese, in many respects such accusations areunfair andperhaps better reflect a globalized market agenda rather than artists drawing upon the iconography that represent signs derived from the majority of their lived experience; after all, if one moves to a different country does one abandon one’s past. So, What China? Where?
Then there are those who were born in mainland China or Hong Kong or Taiwan and immigrated to the West in their youth, so their experience is even more of a hybrid mix of East and West in that they do not feel they have to be representatives of China, and having arrived at a young age they are more naturalized and comfortable with assimilation into the West. In Canada there are artists such as Ed Pien, Will Kwan, and Howie Tsui.
And then there are those artists whose parents or grandparents emigrated from China and so were born outside of China and may never have even been to China but who still identify themselves as Chinese in some way and who are by others given hyphenated identities, for example, Chinese-Canadian or Asian-American. Again, this was a big issue during the 1990s era of identity politics and the critiques of colonial-like multi-cultural policies. While most of the work produced by these artists carries little reference to China, they have in some way and at some point re-invested their artwork with Chinese content in an attempt to recuperate something they felt was suppressed by their Western upbringing and that did not fall neatly into Western aesthetic trends. And perhaps there is a bit of a reversal here in that from their experience might they, as artists, be asking What China? Examples here include William Yang in Australia, Paul Wong and Ken Lum in Canada, and Rutherford Chang in the US.
The difference in experience among these various generations has resulted in work that is equally diverse and nuanced according to each. It is the latter, however, those who were not born in China, who might receive the least acknowledgement of authenticity from the stakeholders in greater China as the diasporic claim to Chineseness might have little to do with the issues that concern the nations of greater China.
And the latter situation is not only the case with the West. It is equally true for Asian nations such as Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand where the diaspora evolved in different ways and waves. There are artists of Chinese descent in these nations who also experience a hybrid existence of living in a nation outside of China, and, again, who may not have been born in China, but who are nonetheless considered Chinese within their own nation. The experience of FX Harnoso and his family in Indonesia, for example, was traumatic as under Suharto’s regime from the 1960s into the late 90s, Chinese media was shut down, Chinese schools and organizations closed, and the use of the Chinese language forbidden. Thus, the Chinese in Indonesia were forced to deny their Chinese identity by changing their names, signing documents disavowing any connection to mainland China and renouncing their Chinese nationality, while still wearing the mantle of Chineseness, and thus not being genuine Indonesians. Though of a younger generation, the family of artist Tintin Wulia experienced similar indignities in having to carry proof of citizenship papers, and not having grown up in an openly Chinese culture, in one installation consisting of 140 international passports, she undermines the idea of a state-imposed Chineseness by the suggestion of becoming a citizen of the world.
And now to return to greater China itself, this leads me to something that has been on my mind for some time; the too frequently explored binary between the East and West, in particular in the context of mainland China. One can’t really argue against the influence of the West upon contemporary mainland Chinese art especially during the 1980s and 90s, when information from the West was flooding in, and Western curators and collectors, aside from the Japanese, and a few in Taiwan and Hong Kong, were really the first to take interest in mainland Chinese art. There was, at the same time, a desire on the part of many artists to be recognized within the Western art system. In another sense this binary is not unexpected or unnatural as so many scholars and art historians who are studying China come from the West. Nevertheless, it has been to the detriment of China’s relationship with the rest of Asia, and through Yishu I have been very interested in exploring this. A number of times we have published texts or special issues about greater China’s relationship with other Asian nations within the context of, for example, the Guggenheim Museum’s Asian Art Council, the World Biennial Foundation, the Asia Art Archive conference Sites of Construction: Exhibitions and the Making of Recent Art History in Asia, or the Long March Project’s exploration of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The representation of artists from greater China also have been examined in respect to international biennials outside of China such as those in Venice, Istanbul, Auckland, Singapore, Brisbane, Lyon, Yokohama, and Sharjah.
A special issue on artist initiated institutions across Asia-Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and India- and how China might fit, or not, into that configuration was guest edited by Shanghai curator Biljana Ciric. The intention was not to assume that China somehow automatically has similarities with these other nations, but that they each have their own specificities, much like greater China itself, and that it would place our understanding of all of them within a broader social, historical, cultural and geopolitical context, something we can learn from-again this idea of bringing the outside into play in order to understand the inside-and is something that redirects attention away from the anxieties inherent in the East/West binary. There was also a panel discussion Global Claims: Local Effects that brought China into dialogue with an expected mix of Korea, the Soviet Union, and Turkey.
I am coming to a close of my talk and acknowledge that I have by no means covered all potential angles: there other things that nudge at the question What China? such as artists who work outside of the mainstream and the market and who bring into question where their work might fit into the history of Chinese art. And there are also those artists such as Li Mu and Jin Le who are not based in the major urban centres but in small cities or even villages, and whose work is immersed in a kind of micro-cultural ecology that is difficult to categorize within the massive art industry that is so dominant today.
Much of what I have been identifying may seem obvious, perhaps even taken for granted, we seem as though we were done with identity politics years ago. But with incidents such as the street demonstrations in Hong Kong last autumn, the trans-national movement of so manyartists, andthe volatility of international markets, both art and othrerwise, reconsidering these many distinctions of What China? may have a renewed resonance.
So when we think about China, do we think about geographies, political systems, culture, ethnicity, race? I believe it is about all of them and in no particular order. This is not to negate the specificities of art in each region or context of greater China, or to deny mainland China as the “mother” of China, but, instead, to see China as an exemplar of where the world is increasingly heading in terms cultures migrating, adapting, and hybridizing. There is no turning back to an authentic culture or nation in historical terms. So what is an authentic China is this era a neo-liberal globalization where any sense of authenticity is subsumed into homogenized and corporatized agendas? And what is an authentic China when one considers the vast political, social, cultural, and economic shifts that mainland China itself has experienced over the past century? The “idea” of China is perhaps the most diverse of any “idea” of any nation, but perhaps it sets in motion the urgency to question the “idea” of any nation, to try and understand oneself by trying to understand others, to try and understand oneself by trying to understand how others understand us. And as the world shifts and nations become increasingly intertwined and interdependent, this “idea” will be one that is never static. And What China? will always remain a question.
Keynote speech by Keith Wallace at University of Lisbon, March 2015.