Breaking Forecast: 8 Key Figures of China’s New Generation Artists is a groundbreaking exhibition presenting new and recent works by the most compelling emerging and mid-career artists working throughout China today: Cao Fei, Chu Yun, Liu Wei, MadeIn, Qiu Zhijie, Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Yang Fudong and Zheng Guogu. The first of its kind, the exhibition affirms UCCA’s dedication to supporting the development of Chinese art. Combining genres of painting, performance, photography, video and installation, this exhibition will define the future of Chinese contemporary art for years to come. [emphasis mine]

And “emerging” is always a tricky word to define, too.

It’s not that I don’t recognise that this is an interesting group of artists (and, in my opinion, it’s always good to see more of Chu Yun), and we’ve all been guilty of the odd bit of hyperbole in our time, but that last sentence…

The self-aggrandisement that’s coming through in this piece, and the way UCCA are presenting the artists in this text, actually seems to be using them as a side-line to UCCA’s own historical positioning statements – and of course that’s exactly the (overt or covert) purpose of exhibitions (and—by association—the artists involved in those exhibitions). My issue is not with the uses to which exhibitions (or artists) can be put, but with this wording that seems to revel in this programme. At the end of the day, it’s quite exciting to find a text which is so blatant about this.

To be fair to UCCA, my issues with them deserve a more considered post, but this particular press release was too galling to let slip by.

“…a distinctly Chinese pattern of thought”?

Module systems do not occur in China alone; comparable phenomena exist in other cultures. However, the Chinese started working with module systems early in their history and developed them to a remarkably advanced level. They used modules in their language, literature, philosophy, and social organizations, as well as in their arts. Indeed, the devising of module systems seems to conform to a distinctly Chinese pattern of thought.1

While I was in the UK I took the opportunity to pick up some new books, one of which is
Ten Thousand Things, by Lothar Ledderose
. I hope to gain some insight into the art from this part of the world from this book, but the statement above troubles me. This setting up of “the Chinese” immediately enforces the relation of “otherness” between the author and the subject. Any utterance is liable to create this relationship, between author and subject, between knowledge and practice, between “now” and “then,” but it seems to me that in this case this relation is not a helpful one.

This book covers a spans thousands of years, a span which is itself intimately linked to Western history:

In roughly chronological sequence, the chapters cover a wide time span. The first case study deals with ritual bronze vessels of antiquity, particularly of the twelfth century B.C. Chapters 6 and 8, respectively, concern and encycolopedia of over one hundred million characters printed with movable type, and a series of bamboo paintings, both dating to the eighteenth century A.D.2

So who are these “Chinese” that the author sets up (or co-opts), that have maintained unique characteristics, deserving of a single name, over thousands of years? That’s many dynasties’ worth of people, with many groups coming and going in the history of the country, a country which has itself been geographically fluid.

Much of this relationship perhaps can be put down to the writer’s understanding of what is pragmatic in the face of his position: he reveals with these positioning statements that he writes for a Western audience.

I don’t deny that this categorisation can be useful and helpful, but what can we do when it becomes problematic? Is it a matter of explicitly positioning all our statements within their context (a potentially infinite task)? There can no absolute form to follow for this, no answer.

I’m perhaps making a small, pedantic point here, about a feature of the text that I have unnecessarily latched onto right at the start of reading this book. I know I will learn much about the objects it describes, I am just wary of how it will present the “whos” and the “whats” involved.

  1. Ledderose, Lothar (2000). Introduction. In: Ten Thousand Things: module and mass production in Chinese art (The A.W. Mellon lectures in the fine arts, 1998). Princeton: Princeton University Press. p.2.
  2. ibid., p.1.

A map of my local area

Beijing's Tuqiao Station and a map of the local area

This is the local area map that greets you should you exit the light-rail Batong line at its terminus, Tuqiao. This is the kind of impenetrable visual information that would have completely thrown me when I first came to China, something I would have generously ascribed to “cultural difference.” Now I know that it’s just a really bad map.

NOTCH: Halloween Sleeping Concert

NOTCH Halloween Sleeping Concert

Last night in the aircraft hanger-like space of The Orange in Sanlitun, the NOTCH Festival of Nordic + Chinese culture held their Halloween Sleeping Concert. Described as having “hypnotic audio-visuals and specially designed air bed by Swedish architecture group Testbed,” it’s not often an event would promote dosing off as part of its raison d’etre. Fortunately falling asleep was impossible as the Orange has loose partitions at the end that provide little to no heat retention, and last night Beijing experienced the first snows of winter, so the cloakroom was probably deserted as people generally kept their coats on throughout the event.

The sleeping premise of the concert was already somehow self-defeating, and in the event the cold prevented the complete absorption into the mood of the evening. Nevertheless it had its moments, when a particularly focused set of sounds and visuals attracted your attention, holding you for a moment. A good night.