On the 'Chineseness' of Chinese Contemporary Art

Author: Paul Gladston 2006

In recent months two significant exhibitions have been mounted which seek to address the continuing question of the 'Chineseness' of contemporary Chinese art: The Wall: Reshaping Chinese Art at Buffalo Academy of Fine Arts and Entry Gate at the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai. Although the curators of these exhibitions – Gao Minglu and Victoria Lu respectively - openly acknowledge the hybridity of contemporary Chinese art, they also argue that it has been continually misinterpreted by critics who frame its meanings solely from a Western theoretical/conceptual perspective. Indeed, each has asserted in essays published in the catalogues to their exhibitions that there is a pressing need to reassess contemporary Chinese art not only through the application of specifically Chinese philosophical/conceptual paradigms, but also through a more precise understanding of the relationship between the ways in which that art has been both produced and received and the historical development of Chinese culture and society.

According to Gao Minglu, the lead curator of The Wall, Western theory mistakenly upholds two interrelated conceptual models as the sole basis for its readings of contemporary Chinese art. The first is the binary ordering of thought characteristic of the Western rationalist tradition where an understanding of the world is articulated according to opposing, non-identical, asymmetrically valued terms. As numerous commentators have indicated, within the ambit of this conceptual order there is a persistent tendency to think of contemporary Chinese art not only as belated, but also as redundant of the earlier Western 'historical' and 'neo' avant-gardes. The second is the more recent, but now pervasively influential, theory and practice of deconstruction which, it can be argued, has severely problematized the categorical truth claims advanced under the aegis of Western binary rationalism. As advocates of deconstruction would have it, any notion of the straightforward historical primacy of Western avant-garde art can be understood to have been suspended by the evident supplementarity of contemporary Chinese art, whose hybrid status as an extension of, and addition to the Western avant-garde destabilizes any straightforward categorical opposition between the two; a condition often referred to, with reference to Homi Bhaba's notion of 'third-space'.

In Gao's opinion both of these conceptual models are inimical to a thoroughgoing understanding of contemporary Chinese art: the first on the grounds that a categorical ordering of opposing concepts does not coincide precisely with discourse in the Chinese philosophical/cultural tradition, which has (somewhat paradoxically from a Western rationalist  perspective) conventionally sought to emphasize mutuality and reciprocity (Yin Yang) and unity (Yi Ti; He Yi; He, Tai He) as persistent foils to difference; and the second because, as Gao would have, of an ahistoricism inherent to the theory and practice of deconstruction that effaces any precise consideration of contemporary Chinese art's relationship to traditional Chinese society and culture by focusing persistently instead on the present spatio-temporal indeterminacy of its standing vis-à-vis that of the West (a move which can be interpreted, as Rasheed Araeen has indicated, as a perpetuation of Western Orientalism).

In short, Gao makes the point that, despite the counter-foundationalism of the theory and practice of deconstruction, there has been a continuing and paradoxically limiting tendency to assume the universal applicability of Western theory to a reading of Chinese cultural and social contexts which, it can be argued, have developed in relation to their own, distinct conceptual traditions.

What Gao then goes on to advocate is the necessity of an enquiry that does not see contemporary Chinese art simply in terms of its relationship to the artistic discourses of the West, but also (and - as Gao seems to imply - more importantly) in respect of its continuing interaction with a specifically Chinese historical socio-cultural milieu.

Although this intended shift of focus has been presented as a significant development in the debate surrounding contemporary Chinese art, it is in many ways a predictable one. More sober commentators, skeptical of the wilder dealings of contemporary Western theory, would almost certainly look to Gao's intervention as one that seeks to make the now seemingly common sense point that in approaching a given object of historical analysis there is a continuing need for sensitivity to the specific contexts within which it is both produced and received and to the actual outcomes/effects of its production and reception in relation to those contexts. Indeed, more rigorous exponents of poststructuralist theory and practice would themselves - despite their adherence to the serial incompleteness of signification – almost certainly uphold such a view insofar as they would regard it as impossible to detach a text from its interaction with a wider socio-cultural milieu without re-entering into an unduly and arbitrarily limiting neo-formalism.

That said – Gao's positioning in relation to this question is a potentially problematic one. Although the notion that the application of a Western conceptual (dis)order to works of art that have been produced within (or in relation to) a Chinese socio-cultural milieu with its own discernible intellectual tradition is open to criticism broadly in the terms set out by Gao, it is nevertheless possible to advance a number of qualifications which complicate his argument.

First, it is not entirely clear that a Chinese intellectual/cultural tradition can be disentangled cleanly from its Western counterpart. While there are areas of substantial and problematic difference it is nevertheless possible to discern numerous areas of similarity and congruence. Indeed, the fact of their comparability as 'traditions of thought' is by itself an indication of an inescapable degree of resonance. Moreover, it would be wrong to assume that both have proceeded historically in total isolation one from the other. Western philosophy has had a long-standing fascination with a Chinese 'other' which it has attempted both to marginalize (Goethe, Russell) and assimilate (Leibniz). Conversely, the tradition of Chinese thought has been marked by reciprocal strivings to come to terms, amongst other things, with the instrumental force of Western scientific rationalism (viz. the May 4th movement and Mao Zedong's upholding of dialectical materialism). Further to which, while it would almost certainly be wrong to map one straightforwardly and simplistically upon the other, there are arguably undeniable similarities between the seemingly paradoxical modes of thought characteristic of the Chinese intellectual tradition and the counter-rationalism of deconstruction. Here, rather than simply being inimical to one another, the trajectory Chinese and Western intellectual traditions can be understood to have found in recent years a certain degree of common ground.

Second, it could be argued that Gao significantly underplays the potential of deconstructive theory and practice to attend to the 'historical' structuration of conceptuality. Here, it might be averred that rather than simply being a ready means of destabilizing any rational spatio-temporal ordering of the 'present' relationship between the Western avant-garde and contemporary Chinese art, deconstruction also offers the possibility of a close attention to the extended circumstances surrounding an interaction between Western and Chinese artistic/aesthetic traditions. Put another way, while the theory and practice of deconstruction can be understood to severely undermine conventional notions of historical accretion and continuity, they are not, as Gao and others would appear to assume, straightforwardly antipathetic to 'historical' interpretation. Indeed, the most cursory inspection of the writings of Jacques Derrida reveals that the conceptualization of deconstruction is indivisible from a close and extended scrutiny of the historical narration of thought.

Third, contemporary Chinese art is, by dint of its 'historical' positioning, inescapably enmeshed – regardless of any genealogy of cultural hybridity which could and can be drawn up to undermine the primacy of Western art – with the prior example set by the Western historical and neo avant-gardes. Consequently, despite the undeniable, and indeed necessary, openness of that art to reception from a position immersed in Chinese socio-cultural discourse, it is arguably always already, itself a hybrid that, as such, invites attention both from the standpoint of the Western and Chinese social and cultural traditions; and indeed from an undecidable, deconstructive 'conceptuality' that plays across the boundary between the two.

Fourth, there is a danger in relation to Gao's positioning – more sharply drawn by writings published in the catalogue to the recent Entry Gate exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai – of the invocation of some sort of alignment between the presentation of contemporary Chinese art and reassertions of a belief in the distinctiveness of a Chinese national cultural identity. Seen from a Western standpoint - with its now ingrained distrust of ontological certainty – an alignment of this sort runs the risk of an unjustifiable appeal to some form of cultural essentialism.

Gao Minglu's position while a telling and timely critique of the de-territorializing tendencies of the trans-national scholarly and curatorial presentation of Chinese contemporary art, is therefore open to criticism on the grounds that it implies an inversion of the polarities of Occidental-Oriental cultural reception in a manner that does not seem, in its present form at least, to pay sufficient attention to the complex and potentially un-resolvable discursive interaction between the two played out in relation to the corpus of contemporary Chinese art.What remains, perhaps, is then another archeology; one that countenances from the outset the validity and necessity of the reception of contemporary Chinese art from the locus of an engagement with the history of Chinese culture and society, but which does not overlook by turns a detailed comparative study of that reception in relation to the analysis of Chinese contemporary art from a Western cultural and intellectual standpoint; a bifurcation of view points arguably prefigured and embodied by the hybrid standing of contemporary Chinese art. More grim workers in this field will surely follow.

Paul Gladston – The University of Nottingham Ningbo, China

Related Artists:
FENG Mengbo
LI Shan
WANG Youshen
YANG Fudong
ZHAO Bandi
Related Exhibitions:
The Wall