My trip to Beijing had several purposes. Chronologically speaking, the first of these, as of Saturday, is over. That was to attend, or better, to witness, this conference called the China Contemporary Art Forum 2010. This I did, or for at least as much as I could muster the endurance, sitting through four days of talks with simultaneous translation and much baffling disconnection between the speakers, with jet lag and uncomfortable seating.
I first learned of this conference when attending the Chinese Contemporary Art open session at last February's CAA conference. James Elkins presented at the session and gave an account of the last year's forum, the first in what is supposed to be a five-year project of annual conferences that bring together Chinese and European and American (and maybe other) scholars, critics, and theorists for substantive exchange.
Elkins described the first conference as a puzzling achievement, an exercise in non-agreement, and even mutual confusion. Knowing enough about the gaps that exist between theory work in China and the West—not to mention the cultural differences in communication styles—to imagine a kind of train wreck, I immediately decided that I needed to see this thing for myself. With the help of Elkins and his co-organizer (and SAIC colleague) Qigu Jiang, I managed to secure a slot as an attendee. I had to do this because nobody (including Elkins) was really clear on admission and registration procedures. I have since learned that this kind of ambiguity—not quite public and not quite private—is frequently the case when it comes to conferences in China. The sponsors are often in a kind of dilemma in which they want some public profile and therefore recognition, but not too much, lest the event be overrun, too closely scrutinized, or whatever.
But having gotten my “in” from the key players of Elkins and Jiang, once at the conference I found myself in the convenient position of being welcomed into the participants' fold, without being a presenter. So I got to tag along when the foreign scholars were taken on tours of 798, the CAFA museum, and the fancy closing party and dinner at the Chi'en gallery. What a nice way to be re-introduced to Beijing, after so many years.
The conference produced the expected confusion, but also managed to lodge at least two remarkable highlights.
The first of these was the most positive development, in terms of offering a constructive way for Chinese and Western scholars to engage with each other and collaboratively map the respective problems, deficiencies, and strengths that the tendencies on each side (porously defined) exhibit. This was during the second half of a morning session chaired by the curator and writer Astrid Wege. A young scholar named Teng Luning listed her Hot Topics for Chinese art criticism, which brought to the audience an overview of specific trends and concerns now facing Chinese art criticism.
Paul Gladston followed that by presenting a highly illuminating outline of what he perceives as the intellectual patterns and tendencies that attach to Chinese and Western (strikethrough his) critics. It was a fairly detailed mapping of the tendencies on both sides—far too much to review here. I am calling it a “map” or “mapping” even though it was in the form of a projected text, because as a series of tabular lists it helped us to visualize the intellectual space. What I can say on the level of content is that by no means did I agree with all of it. Gladston readily admitted that he came of intellectual age during a time when deconstruction and postmodernism emerged as radical methodologies and frameworks for interpretation, and that those trends still inform his work to a degree. I position myself further from those frameworks, and do not easily identify with them. But it was the spirit of collaboration and the admission of provisional knowledge that made Gladston's outline so helpful. He basically invited all present to help build this cartography of agreement and disconnection, so we could eventually be looking at the same field, and understand it as “our” field, no matter whether Chinese or Western, because we will each have authored the map. The essential optimism that lay under his presentation brought forth a kind of possibility of agreement that the more argumentative presentations lacked. This was the third morning, and finally after two days of sometimes bizarre conversations, in which people seemed to be talking right past one another, for those of us fortunate enough to be there a feeling of possible constructive outcome pervaded.
The second highlight was less positive but intensely charged. It happened on the morning of the last day, which was originally scheduled as a day-long roundtable session to close out the conference. But there was a last minute addition: the surprise appearance of a government official named Chen Zhe. He works in the cultural policy and cultural industries sector of the government, and apparently is fairly high ranking Party official. According to some of the Chinese scholars I asked, he makes frequent appearances representing the Party at opening ceremonies for institutions and other kinds of official functions. He was invited by Lao Zhu, the Director of the Centre for Visual Studies at Peking University and the third co-organizer of this conference, to give a government perspective on contemporary art in China.
He went into his official spiel, basically praising the development of contemporary art as a cultural industry in recent years, and touting the government's support for the development of the gallery districts like 798. It was pretty standard boosterism, not unlike what you might hear Mayor Daley saying in Chicago to a similar audience. Importantly, Mr. Chen is widely seen as being comparatively progressive, considering the closed-mindedness of his predecessor. (Mr. Chen, as you can see from the picture, is fairly young—he is certainly no geezer.) Then at one point, Mr. Chen pulled back a bit, saying that even though the government fully supports the development of a contemporary art sector, the government also has a duty to preserve and ultimately favor those kinds of art that champion a Chinese culture and heritage.
That alone would be point of contention for the Western scholars, nearly all of whom favor (or simply acknowledge as a reality) a destabilization of static identities, but none in the room were prepared for what came next.
The first to speak was Qigu Jiang, who throughout the conference ardently defended the integrity of a persistent “Chineseness” in art. He seemed very committed to a kind of cultural nationalism that seemed rather anachronistic if not outright conservative. I have to say, it is not a position that appeals to me. So it was something of a shock when he challenged Chen Zhe to explain the political thinking behind the authorities' decision to ban and deport the Chicago artist Michael Thompson. Qigu had invited him to take part in a show of ink brush painting in China because Thompson is an accomplished guohua painter, with a dedication to the traditional vocabulary. Qigu asserted that in his judgment, Thompson's skills are as good or better than many who practice the art in China, and therefore should have been allowed to visit as an artist. He also acknowledged that Thompson is also known for his artistamp work depicting government repression, including a stamp that used a picture of the Dalai Lama. But he also said that he knew Mr. Thompson had no personal stance or any known public activism relating to Tibetan independence. So Qigu wanted to know, from Mr. Chen, how a contemporary art world can fully develop in China if artists such as Thompson are not allowed to visit, and how can the government profess support for contemporary art if these kinds of political considerations are guiding their decisions?
here I must say, I give credit to Mr. Chen for even coming to the
event. In the US, there are very few occasions when a powerful
government or institutional figure will expose him or herself to
possible questioning. That said, I am quite sure he was taken aback.
Even more uncomfortable was Dr. Lao Zhu, and he quickly intervened.
He deflected the line of inquiry, saying that questions having to do
with specific implementations of policy were within the purview of
neither Mr. Chen nor the day's discussion.
But the foreigners refused to take the cue and could not let it go. Diedrich Diederichsen made the general point that contemporary art is not about consensus, but rather dissensus, that disagreements are essential to the continuing vitality of any contemporary art scene. Astrid Wege went into a pointed follow up having to do with Mr. Chen's own cultural conservatism regarding his position on Chinese culture and heritage.
And then my fellow American Richard Meyer made a last ditch effort to continue on Qigu's point. He observed the apparent irony in Qigu the cultural nationalist also being the one who presented the most direct and political challenge to the government's representative, and suggested that Qigu's starting point made his challenge more difficult to dismiss; this was no easy case of a foreign agitator causing trouble. Meyer went on to say that even if there was no hope or possibility of addressing the specific case of Mr. Thompson, the general subject of how policies regarding cultural production and artistic expression get formulated and why, in China and elsewhere, falls well within the purview of any discussion of contemporary art or art criticism.
All efforts to get a response from Chen Zhe were nipped by Lao Zhu, who very clearly wanted to keep the conversation safe for Mr. Chen (and maybe himself). It did not matter; the moment was recorded, and a spectre of dissent passed through the room, for all to witness and feel.
is Richard Meyer speaking about the conference, including the last