A pivotal figure in the intellectual and critical examination of Chinese Art, Carol Yinghua Lu writes about her research which reveals the complex sources, influences traditions and narratives which look beyond the familiar ideological and national rationales.
On the afternoon of January 28, 2018, two keynote speeches and a dialogue under the theme of “Universality and Particularity: What is Asianness?” took place at the Inside-Out Art Museum. The two distinguished speakers were Professor Sun Ge, Researcher at the Literature Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Professor Naoki Sakai from the Department of Asian Studies and Comparative Literature, Cornell University. These two scholars, both with long-termed commitment to academic research and articulation of Asia-related issues, presented their latest thoughts from their work. What was especially provocative was both scholars’ critical reflections on the fundamental mental-framework of Eurocentrism accepted uncritically as certain existing criterion by Asian intellectuals. Professor Sakai suggested it is the common fate of the critical intellectuals of the Western world who, in their criticism of Euro- or American centrism, are forced to speak in the framework that has been agreed upon. Thus, he concluded that if we were to overturn the presuppositions that have been imposed upon us for centuries by Eurocentrism, we would first need to clear away race-based classifications such as Europe and Asia.
Professor Sun Ge, a Chinese scholar of Japanese intellectual history, cited a discussion among American geographers at a time when the ideology of science was still in its heyday and all disciplines were looking for laws and regular patterns. The heated topic of the time was whether geographers should, in their geographical research, collect geographical features shared by all regions or focus on those peculiar features. Interestingly, geographers reached an agreement that what geographers really like are those features that are seldom known and seen and it is only through the study of such features that we may find something new, something that no one had known before that can help us form new knowledge. Seemingly contradictory to Professor Sakai’s call to clear away race-based classifications, Sun Ge proposed instead, to place emphasis on the necessity of Asia as a conceptual existence. What she means by an “Asian” way of thinking is not equivalent to the way “Asian people” think. It is rather a reflective construction in contrast to any substantial mode of thinking: In other words, Europeans, Africans and Americans can all think in an Asian way. She emphasized that the “Asian” mode of thinking”, instead of a transcendental logical inference, is by nature based on Asian history, a result of regional circumstances.
The words of both scholars encouraged us to look closely at the specific experiences of each of our regions rather than amplifying the universality of a so-called Western model and framework. This way of thinking can be a paradigm shift in the field of historical study on contemporary art in China and underlines my practice of the past decade. In the past six years, together with the artist Liu Ding, we have jointly launched this research series entitled “From Issues of Art to Issues of Position: Echoes of Socialist Realism,” to analyze and rethink the historical narratives and conceptions of contemporary Chinese art based on the particular historical facts, contexts and logic in China.
The current framework for Chinese art history and criticism has been developed from two traditions, historical positivism, since 1919 and Marxism after 1949. Much research is grounded on the presumed duality of the “subjective and objective” and on the tacit acceptance of evolutionary logic as a universal law. The common art historical narratives emphasize fractures in historical courses and usually perceive the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 as a brand-new start for art in China. Instead of following such narratives, the third chapter of our study “Salon, Salon: A Profile of Modern Art Practices from a Beijing Perspective, 1972–1982” focuses on the decade from 1972 to 1982 as a period for research and discussion, as well as a space for historical imagination. We see this period not only as a politically and historically significant transition, but as a relatively integrated period of art. In studying this period, we scrutinized its concrete appearance and multilayered practices to analyze the mentality of individual art practitioners in this time of tremendous political changes, as well as the standard with which existing art historical narratives represent the relationship between creative practice and political controls.
Examining the concept of “contemporary Chinese art” within the historical time-frame of sixty-seven years of art under New China (1949–2016) has great practical significance. Artistic practices from the People’s Republic of China to the present have formed an extremely complex structure, replete with internal contradictions. The over-simplistic perception, that contemporary Chinese art is a fracture from the artistic traditions since the founding of the new state, and that it is the art of a “transitional” period in relationship to art from prior to the end of the Cultural Revolution, is obviously inadequate in interpreting the many movements and tendencies of the past thirty years. Although the “binary” narrative models of politics vs. art, orthodoxy vs. heterodoxy, suppression vs. obedience, independence vs. dependence and so on, have a certain historical rationality under specific circumstances, these models are far from adequate in describing the multifaceted, complex and fluid state of historical reality. Such structures of “binary opposition” form a kind of basic description and awareness, which are inert extensions of a type of “revolutionary” narrative plot. They artificially exclude various factors that have long rubbed along together in time and space. In narratives of modern and contemporary Chinese art history, such “revolutionary” narratives have been transformed into a kind of “avant-garde” rhetoric, wherein “avant-garde” emphasizes resistance to old ideologies. However, such historical narratives treating the “avant-garde” as the basis for the legitimacy of contemporary art and as the motivating idea in the work of art practitioners have long since revealed their limitations and narrow-mindedness.
In this study, we primarily focused on the artistic phenomena occurring in Beijing, to observe the creative works and practices of the older, middle-aged, and young generations of artists then active in art circles. From these, we selected the practices of several art groups and a small number of individual artists emerging in the late 1970s for study and display, such as the Beijing Oil Painting Research Society (as well as the New Spring Exhibition), the No Name Group, the Stars Art Group, the Friday Salon, and the April Photo Society. The artists and individuals who took part in these groups include artists trained prior to Liberation, and artists trained after Liberation and prior to the Cultural Revolution, as well as amateur painters who emerged around the time of the Cultural Revolution, along with young artists and artistic youths who graduated and began practicing in the later period of the Cultural Revolution and after its conclusion. The diverse backgrounds of these artists mean that their artistic exposure and references were largely different. In the exhibition, we displayed a number of pieces created by relevant artists in the period of 1972–1982, and also used textual sources to examine the historical context created by these pieces and their artistic practices, thereby reflecting on how artists and their pieces engaged in “internal exile” wherever possible amidst a harsh political environment, feeling out and defining the tense relationship between art and politics or adjusting their individual standpoints, in this period from the middle and later stages of the Cultural Revolution to just prior to the Opening and Reforms. Here, we focused on discussing the contradictions, conflicts, entanglements, reconciliation and deviation between mainstream ideology and the modernist experiences left behind by the Republican era, within the framework of the People’s Republic of China.
In this research, we examined various actions by art officials rehabilitated after the Cultural Revolution and professionally trained artists to promote the reorientation of art within the system, as well as the reverberations and echoes of these actions within society. At the same time, we displayed the bottom-to-top, autonomous practices of art practitioners from outside the system, allowing art to become the common point of origin for two forces from within and outside the system. We attempted to take an “integrated” perspective to observe the basic patterns, motivating impulses, and process of evolution of art within the same artistic system and ideology. We emphasized and incorporated chance and heterogeneous factors to reflect on the multiple trajectories of interaction between art and politics within the larger framework of “national transformation.”
We drew on details and sources, examining specific cases to recontextualize abstracted experiences in contemporary art, amplifying the sense of historical presence and displaying scenes that have been generalized, omitted and obscured, including concrete thoughts, emotions, ambience and other factors. In unearthing what has been lost from general historical narratives, along with heterogeneous elements which have been ignored and obscured after being denied legitimacy, the objective is not to construct an adversarial or oppositional history (in opposition to something else); in most situations, we are merely presenting nuances and complexity, thus challenging the structural orientation of mainstream narratives and experiences, in an attempt to discover hidden crevices in existing narratives, to serve as new starting points for reflection.
To sum up, our practice consists of two folds, both revisiting historical facts and particularities that were left out by the dominant framework of art historical narratives and contributing to establishing or broadening a framework and even a rhetoric that allows for more nuanced and sophisticated stories, within which such individual specificities could be recognized.
Carol Yinghua Lu is a Beijing based curator, art critic and writer. She is a contributing editor at Frieze.
 The author is the director of the Inside-Out Art Museum and conceived of this event.