Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Forums in Motion: The Guangzhou Triennial

Report from… Guangzhou

Guangzhou, known to Americans as Canton, is an enormous and very prosperous city.  A world-class manufacturing powerhouse, it sits in the Pearl River Delta, a region that encompasses Hong Kong, Macau and other Chinese economic centers. But compared with its more cosmopolitan rivals, Shanghai or Beijing, Guangzhou has as yet relatively modest museums. The Guangzhou Museum presents magnificent displays of porcelain and natural history exhibits but little visual art. The Guangdong Museum of Art, however, is a three-story building devoted to contemporary art.

Zhang Xinmin's installation, The Countryside, on view at the 2011 Guangzhou Triennial.  Courtesy of Guangdong Museum of Art
Zhang Xinmin's installation, The Countryside, on view at the 2011 Guangzhou Triennial. Courtesy of Guangdong Museum of Art

The goal of the 4th Triennial, organized by that museum in collaboration with faculty from Peking University, New York University and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities, Sun Yat-sen University, was to offer a critical perspective on contemporary art in China, and its relationship to world visual cultures. Accompanied by a large, ambitious art exhibition, the first gathering of this forum took place in Guangzhou, September 23-24; later sessions will appear in New York, June 2012 and Beijing in March 2013. The somewhat unidiomatic name of the conference Forums in Motion, alludes to the ways that visual experience is changing so rapidly at this moment.

The conference was divided into four sections: The end of art, with reference to global capitalism and art production in the age of commodification; “contemporaneity,” which was taken to mean that, with reference to Benedetto Croce, that all history is contemporary history; the city, i.e. urban planning; and art of contemporary Asia. (I report onjust the first three sessions.) These topics are very familiar to American art writers, and so much of the particular interest of this occasion lay in the ways that the Chinese context influenced discussion. Obviously no short report could do justice to the many contributions—my brief commentary merely offers one perspective on these broad themes. Any such summary is sure to be controversial– mine no doubt gives more unity to the occasion than it possessed, as if all of the lectures were presented by one super erudite speaker. In this report, I omit discussion of my “Wild Art: Art outside the Art World” because it is not easy to place in relation to this conference. That lecture, which is forthcoming in Frontiers of Literary Studies in China, is a portion of a forthcoming book co-authored with Joachim Pissarro. Our concern to reject Hegelian ways of thinking about art history and the museum in favor of a return to Kant, is distinctly at odds with the concerns of all of the other speakers.

The end of art, a Hegelian theme associated with Arthur Danto was much discussed. Danto could not be present, but many speakers offered variations on and critiques of his claims.  Zhang Xudong discussed the essence of art, and its boundaries. Taking up this topic Pan Gongkai, after arguing that Danto’s account of Warhol was mistaken, offered a far-reaching discussion of the boundaries of art. What is the relationship, he asked, between normal and abnormal conditions of experience? Art, he suggested, is an essentially abnormal form of life. His richly suggestive analysis, which appealed to Hans Belting’s account of the end of art, was extended by Yasuo Koboyashi, who observed that human beings are the only animals obsessed with the end of history. The commentators, Shu Qun, Pi Daojian and Jiang Hui then offered useful supplements to these claims. Western art uses normal eyes, they said, and Eastern art abnormal eyes: that it was suggested in one way to understand this history. Hegel’s view of the end of art, it was claimed, seems to be happy, even inspiring. Plato was interested in how to control human beings, while for Hegel the end of art marked a confidence. The question then is whether we too should be optimistic if indeed the history of art has ended.

What to me was most striking was how this discussion was focused so closely on readings of Hegel. Pissarro and I think that way of thinking entirely outdated. But while Hegel (like his follower, Marx) thought China of very marginal interest, that Maoism triumphed in this country certainly gives reason for Chinese scholars to look closely at this Hegelian-Marxist heritage. In any event, it’s impossible in Guangzhou to discuss the end of art without reflection upon the thriving capitalist culture, which is controlled, in what seems a contradiction, to use a Marxist term, by an authoritarian communist party run by Mao’s direct heirs. Danto’s account, focused on Western art, claims to apply to all cultures everywhere. Neither he nor Belting developed their claims with specific reference to China, and so the natural concern of commentary now is to understand if in fact their Eurocentric theories apply to art in that culture.

In the next session, Mikhail Iampolski discussed the ways in which Michael Fried’s now classic analysis of 1960s theatrical art has been destabilized by recent photography. Then Eugene Yuejin Wang linked the end of art and commodification, with reference to the parallels between works of art and bank notes. Observing that an artist who designed the Chinese bank notes of the 1950s, and then was severely criticized during the Cultural Revolution for showing outdated imported machinery, he linked art production with representations of economic value. Perhaps, he suggested, a work of art and a bank note are not ultimately different in kind. The commentators, Li Gongming, Yu Ding and Jiang Jiehong extended his discussion of the relationship between production and capitalism. What, it was asked, is the boundary of art? No consensus about how to answer that question was achieved.

Boris Groys then argued that contemporareity is defined by the fact that we are surprised by our own time, not the future, as was the case of medieval Christians. For us, he said, permanent change is the only reality. (How that situation differs in China remained an unanswered question.) Groys considered the differences between mechanical and digital imagery. Today we, like the medievals, are surveyed by someone or something we cannot see, as the web dissolves our individual intentionality in a flow of signs. Extending Groys’s discussion, Tadashi Uchino discussed the account of the influential Hegelian Alexander Kojéve, who believed that modern Japan marked at the end of history, with reference to examples from recent Japanese theater performances. The commentators, Wang Yudong and  Song Xiaoxia asked whether Hegelian views of history make it possible to have great artists; and whether they are consistent with the common sense ways in which we all exist within history.

Qiu Zhijie's installation, Restless, on view at the 2011 Guangzhou Triennial.  Courtesy of Guangdong Museum of Art
Qiu Zhijie's installation, Restless, on view at the 2011 Guangzhou Triennial. . Courtesy of Guangdong Museum of Art

If these discussions of the end of art history took the discussion in an abstract direction, the account of the city by Zhu Tao offered a more concrete perspective. In his richly detailed account, Zhu observed that the Cultural Revolution, by sending thousands of architects to the countryside, meant that in 1977 urbanization had to be rethought. There is no such thing, he argued as a unified Chinese style. Zhao Chen then asked: how should a university campus be designed, a question he answered by offering comparative accounts of Nanjing University, where is president of the school of architecture and urban planning, and foreign cities and universities. And Peter Noever offered a nicely visual account of his practice as designer and curator.  Commentary was provided by Wang Weiren, Wang Mingxian and Feng Yuan.

It is not easy to relate accounts of Hegel’s inheritance, as interpreted by Danto and Belting, to the practice of contemporary architecture in China, which is heavily influenced, perhaps even dominated by practical considerations. However we understand the claim that Duchamp or Warhol concluded the history of art, architecture, which is not bound to any such historicist program, continues to respond to the overwhelming concerns of migration from the rural provinces to cities like Guangzhou. Indeed, though no one made this point, although Hegel, Danto and Belting explain how the history of painting and sculpture might end, it is not easy to envisage a comparable claim about architecture. Urban planning evolves, but there is no obvious way in which that development might create ‘the last building’ in the way that Duchamp or Warhol created the last work of art. This perhaps explains the contrast between the theoretical preoccupations of the panelists dealing with the end of art history and commodification, and the urban historians, who offer critical accounts of architectural practice.

I found it instructive to leave the lecture hall and see the Inauguration Exhibition of the 4th Guangzhou Triennial. Included were Feng Feng’s enigmatic red brick installation at the entrance, whose political significance, alluding to the communist party, is only accessible from the roof as he showed me and my assistant; the photographs by Zhang Xinmin of the village of Liukeng, an impoverish rural site where workers in cities like Guangzhou were recruited; Yang Yong’s three hundred pendant lights containing images of glamorous celebrities; Qui Zhijie’s installation displaying the uses of bamboo in China; Koen Vanmechelen’s “The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project,” a conceptual work dealing with chicken breeding, which you entered wearing a face mask in order to protect the eggs; Miao Xiaochun’s “Metamorphosis,” deformed video images; Zhang Lujiang’s “Dignity of the Daily Narrative,” paintings showing daily lives in the Pearl River Delta; Aris Kalazis’s snapshot-like paintings, “The Real Crash”; and a whole host of other works. Walking through this display, one was aware of the immense distance between the theorizing of the lecturers and the practice of these artists. One necessary task of art writing, I believe, is to link theory and practice, bringing together the abstract concerns of commodification and the end of art history with the perspectives of architectural historians, in a way that does justice to our experience of contemporary art. By presenting these lectures and displaying this art the Inauguration Exhibition of the 4th Guangzhou Triennial made a decisive contribution to this important task.

In the first three sessions, all of the keynote speakers were male, Chinese and foreign alike. (Several women did appear in the fourth session, which I could not attend.) At present, I believe, in China, almost all faculty is male whereas most of graduate students (in the humanities) are female. In this way, the local history seems to mirror American academic life of two generations ago. It will be exciting to see what happens when more women participate in this important debate. Many speakers asked: what is the relationship between art and art theory in China and in the West? That as yet unanswered question needs to be answered by the development of Chinese visual culture.

Yang Yong's installation, Lightscape, on view at the 2011 Guangzhou Triennial.  Courtesy of Guangdong Museum of Art
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