Where’s theory?

. . . the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that. (Foucault, 1989, p. xvi)

Now I’ve visited China, I’ve got a better impression of the way things are with art there.

I saw very few works by Chinese artists that particularly interested me. I saw a lot of interesting architecture, some good sculpture, some nice photography and media art, and a lot of poor paintings. However, many of the things I liked were usually not by Chinese artists.

One exception was Li Zhenhua’s “Sustainable Imagination” at Arario Beijing (in the interests of full disclosure, my partner is working with Li Zhenhua at the moment). This was a selection of installations and video works by Chinese media artists which had some really fascinating pieces, including Wang Yuyang’s (王郁洋) “Moon landing project” – it’s naive, almost childlike stance and extreme literalness with respect to the documentary evidence that was it’s material seems to reflect a view of the world vastly different from that based on Western assumptions.

This was a very short trip so I probably missed a lot of other good stuff, but one point that became clear to me was that in general there seems to be a distinct lack of theory being applied by critics and writers (this has been raised by Barbara Pollock in a recent article in Art in America, but unfortunately I can’t find a copy of it at the moment to check). But perhaps Chinese artists and critics don’t really care about theorising the work? It makes you wonder “Who needs theory anyway?”, which really puts the cat amongst the pigeons in my head.

What would an art scene be without theory? What does theory do, or give to it’s subject that makes it indispensible? What would Chinese artists need from it or why would they ignore it? How much of this very conception of theory depends on a Western point of view?

I think these are the interesting questions when posed in relation to Chinese art. But I am aware they are coming very much from a relatively uninformed position on my part. This is all part of the fascinating encounter with China that I’m having, and it forces me to confront many assumptions I make when I’m sitting at home (London) in my Western context. Many of my value judgements are being called into question by the Chinese work, and I am very aware that something is going on in China that feels completely “other” to what I am used to, and it will take me some time to understand it and understand my reactions to it. I am also wary of trying to force this situation into an existing understanding that I may have, dependant on the Western systems. This may be inevitable to some extent though but it could potentially strip much of the nuance away from the experience.

This process that I feel I’m going through reminds me of Foucault’s “laughter that shatter[s]” when he considers Borges’ Chinese encyclopedia. I find myself with the consequences that result from this consideration of a similar disordering system.

FOUCAULT, Michel (1989). The Order of Things. London: Routledge.

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Where’s theory? by escdotdot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International