Jane DeBevoise (JD): Tonight I am delighted to introduce someone I’ve known for quite a while. Here I must mention Carol Lu Yinghua, your wife and partner, and someone I’ve worked with in the past. Carol was a researcher at Asia Art Archive for a couple of years and we made some really interesting research trips together and it was at that time that I got to know Liu Ding who is an artist and works on his own practice but is also very much involved with Carol’s curatorial work. Liu Ding is originally from Changzhou, spent a lot of time in Shanghai, and is now based in Beijing. He has exhibited widely including at the Venice Biennale, and at the Tate, and he now has a project at a biennale in New Orleans which is the reason that he’s here. We are so glad you could make this side trip to New York.
Tonight Liu Ding will speak about his art practice and a number of projects, but in particular I have asked him to focus on one in particular which looks back at Chinese history, and in this case the socialist realist history of China, which is one of the reasons we invited Boris Groys to join us as respondent. Perhaps Boris does not need an extensive introduction, but for those of you who might not know, Boris is now Professor of Russian and Slavic studies at NYU, and has published extensively. In fact I just finished your book The Total Art of Stalinism. And there’s also Art Power. If anyone hasn’t read these books, they are both must-reads. [As an] expert in Russian social-realism and Stalinism as it relates to philosophy and art, we look forward to your reflections and thoughts not only on Liu Ding’s work, but on the subject in general.
I also want to introduce Xiaofei who takes care of the AAA in A office, doing most of the heavy lifting here. Xiaofei is from China and will do the translation. Although Liu Ding’s English understanding is very good, he will speak in Chinese.
Liu Ding (LD, translated by Xiaofei Mo): Sorry, I’ll speak in Chinese tonight because my English is not very specialized. Talking about these kinds of questions is better in Chinese. Thank you Xiaofei for translating and to Jane for having me here to talk. I want to share with you all tonight a couple projects I’ve done in the past as well as a collaboration with Carol Yinghua Lu and Su Wei. The first project I want to talk about today is called The Meaning of Revisit and Thick Description. I want to start with historical research; I will elaborate more on socialist realism later. Three decades have passed since the end of the Cultural Revolution and people are getting more and more conscious about subjectivity. When we talk about subjectivity we seem to start with the end of the Cultural Revolution and forget that there were three decades of history before that. I wanted to explore this idea through The Meaning of Revisit and Thick Description. When you actually do historical research you will encounter lots of complex issues, and details, and different characteristics, which will help us understand and engage with history. The method by which we can broaden our perspective and look beyond history is quite central to my project. However, as we follow the logic of history, we must think about its relationship with contemporary art and that’s very important to our work right now. In contemporary art in China today there is very limited discussion of history and the construction of history. At the same time we are facing this problem of subjectivity. The situation is even worse if we think about the theorization of art history, of intellectual history. The discourses around history still very much follow two threads — one is the grand narrative of modernism and the second is the revolutionary narrative. In the case of China, the grand narrative of modernism and the revolutionary narrative are deeply embedded in each other. Sometimes they even look like the same thing and are indistinguishable. Discourses around contemporary art usually incorporate a rebellious attitude, but because the grand narrative of modernism and the revolutionary narrative are entangled together, it’s very hard to find a ground for this rebellious discourse. I’ll follow up with an example later.
Last year we published a book called Individual Experience. That’s how we started the research for the 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale, and the book was the outcome. This book was mainly about art practice in the 1990s and the reason we focused on this period and practice is because it is not well written about in typical art histories. When I say it’s not written about in typical art histories, I am not talking about inclusion or exclusion. What I mean is that there’s no proper way to look at its position in the whole historical narrative. This problem is not just relevant to the 1990s, it’s relevant to the 1980s, and even before – in the period following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. A lot of the practices have never had a proper place in the history. After we published this book we decided to push the timeline to 1949, to look beyond the Cultural Revolution, and not just about the idea of leftism or rightism.
Now I’ll start talking about socialist realism. When we look back into the 1940s we can’t avoid the term ‘realism’, but the complexity lies in the fact that realism was not really the main discourse or narrative at that time.(remove extra space)In the 1940s there were many different influences at play — from France, from Japan, from other parts of Europe — but the idea of realism developed alongside the development of the government and the state power. As the state took shape, socialist realism became more prominent. One important moment was when Xu Beihong visited the Soviet Union (he visited twice), and soon his opinions were adopted by the government. They had very similar ideas.
This is a painting by an artist called Dong Xiwen which depicts the ceremony of the founding of New China. Dong Xiwen was one of the artists who painted the Mao Zedong portrait in Tiananmen Square in 1949 but in Chinese art history there are limited accounts of where Dong Xiwen studied and about his family background. Dong Xiwen’s family was actually [in banking], and they had an amazing collection of traditional Chinese classical art. The National Palace Museum in the Forbidden City has even borrowed art from their family collection. He also studied in Vietnam and majored in French art, and he did sketches in Dunhuang, including Buddhist images from the Tang dynasty. So [we can say that] his painting style definitely does not come from the Soviet Union. In his work he also combined elements from folk art in China. There’s some romanticism in it too. But this painting here is the climax of his artistic career. Because he considered himself a pioneer and a progressive he joined the Communist Party in 1949. People seldom talk about the social situation between the 1940s to the 1960s. When people talk about realism they are mostly referring to the Soviet style of realism, but Dong Xiwen actually got a lot of pressure from the Soviet style realism. He faced the same problem as other artists of his generation and those older than him who studied in France and Japan and other countries.
In the mid-1950s Dong Xiwen wrote a self-criticism and mentioned [that he was quite moved by] Impressionism. The situation he faced was that there were artists younger than him who studied in the Soviet Union and those artists brought back only one kind of realism. But the realism in this painting is not Russian per se; it isn’t even avant-garde or experimental art from the Soviet Union. But all sorts of different pressure and elements forced him to suppress his own thoughts and ideas about realism which have now become sub-currents and not visible in the discourse. The prominent style at the time [Soviet-inspired realism] was very rough, very simple, and effective.
This painting is full of stories; it has been be repainted and revised three times. You can see that at the back of the painting, among the people standing on the left, one person disappeared [in the second version.] His name is Gao Gang. In the next painting, Liu Shaoqi who was once the Chairman of the CCP disappeared and the person standing behind him took his place in the painting. And then [in 1972] it was revised again. Because the original painting had been repainted so many times, they could no longer repaint on the original painting, so they had another artist, Jin Shangyi make a copy of this painting and remove Lin Bogu. A lot of the discussion about this painting has revolved around the history of repainting and revising, and now if you go to the Museum of Chinese Revolution the two paintings that hang there are not by Dong Xiwen. The original painting was so damaged that it can no longer be exhibited to the public.
I did an experiment last year. I hired a very skillful painter and he painted these two paintings. The title of this work is A Message. I had been thinking about the revising of the Dong Xiwen painting and realized that after so many revisions the painting contains another kind of logic that goes beyond the surface. When we think about the art style in terms of realism we are often thinking about the Soviet-inspired style, but actually the socialist realism in China has a lot to do with Mao Zedong’s imagination, about the sinicization of Marxism in the 1940s. So I used two methods to do this painting, one was ‘romanticism’, and I was thinking about how to use this flower to replace Gao Gang, the man who disappeared in the first repainting. In the second painting I used the Soviet socialist realist style of Maksimov.
JD: Maksimov was one of the teachers, from Russia, who came to China and taught an elite class on how to paint in the Soviet socialist realist style.
LD: I combined the two paintings to become one work. I have an extremely long description next to the painting telling you what kind of techniques I used, what kind of knowledge system I’m referring to, and all the materials, all the meanings, all the references. What I find interesting when we revisit history is how we review this complexity and how much we can encounter the differences [of the past].
This is another experiment. Again, I hired very good painters with different skill sets to help me finish this painting. These paintings are called ‘Class A’ and ‘Class B’ but because of limited time we can’t really talk about this work.
Now let’s go to another research project. This one we started about a year ago. The current status of the project is an exhibition and a publication which will come out very soon. The title of the project is ‘From the Issue of Art to the Issue of Position, Echoes of Socialist-Realism.’
That’s the floor plan for the exhibition. We included 23 projects in the exhibition. I’ll give you two examples. The first one is also about Dong Xiwen. In this part we look at Dong Xiwen’s experience after he painted the famous founding ceremony. Although he had a role at the Central Academy of Art in Beijing, he didn’t get promoted to a more important position because at the time the Soviet-style socialist realism was very strong. Nevertheless he was supported by the Cultural Administration and went on [a trip to retrace] the Long March, together with a group of other intellectual and cultural workers in China. The purpose of this trip was to re-experience life because all these artists had come from a bourgeois educational background.
JD: To experience life is a bit of a euphemism; it means to get in touch with the real people, tough it out a bit. Perhaps you could also say it is a process of ideological training.
LD: In the exhibition, we presented a set of sketches Dong Xiwen did in Tibet and along the Northwestern part of rural China. These sketches actually represent a very important aspect of his artistic career because he found a position in this set of paintings. Later he went on many trips to the rural part of China and painted a lot of landscapes and portraits. Those paintings were simply sketches of landscape, not really creative artwork. As artists, we often wonder, after one encounters the high point of one’s career, how does one come down, how does one find a position to release one’s energy and one’s thoughts? Actually, this set of paintings that focus on landscapes in the rural areas, as well as farmers and people, was very visible in the late 1970s and 1980s and even today in the art academy. This idea of exile and of submerging yourself in a different environment was very important in Chinese contemporary art in the 1980s. Almost all the artists who participated in the 1985 New Wave have done extensive studies of landscapes in rural areas.
I’ll give you another example. Another project in this exhibition pertained to a magazine called Meishu (or Fine Art). This magazine was founded in the mid-1950s, although it existed before this time under another name. We exhibited all the covers of Fine Art from 1954 to 1966 and also selected all the relevant titles of articles that related to socialist realism in Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. It’s important to highlight these relevant titles because you can see clearly all the hesitation and confrontation and thought that had been going on for two decades. If we look at socialist realism today, it looks like something incomprehensible, but this selection of articles shows very clearly what the pressure points were.
We also exhibited some paintings by the Stars and the No Name groups. What’s interesting to me is that all these paintings are from artists living in Beijing. The discourse around Chinese contemporary art always starts with the life of these people and Beijing as the center, which is something I don’t agree with. Beijing is not the only center. Every country will have multiple centers, just like L.A. and New York, and it’s the same with China. But in China there’s a very strong view that there is a single center and it is Beijing.
We did extensive research on this group of painters, especially the Stars, their identity and background, including articles published in the newspapers about their protests. By looking at their identity and motivation and how they executed the protest, it’s very clear that they’re not at the exact opposite position from the state power, nor do they have a clear position of their artistic view. It’s an imaginary protest and rebellion because they’re imagining this bourgeois art that was criticized by the state.
Lastly, I want to talk to you about an experience I had last year, when I visited Marx’s tomb in London and I encountered a group of Chinese tourists. The title of this work is Karl Marx in 2013. It’s very interesting that groups of Chinese Communist Party members fly to London and visit Marx’s tomb, and I happened to encounter a group of them and in fact ended up having a fight. This work is a video installation, and again it’s related to this important question of subjectivity. On the one hand within China there’s a heightened sense of subjectivity but at the same time [the Chinese] people are very sensitive to and distrustful of the outside world. Their behavior shows that they never thought that they would be part of the world. This is similar to the development of realism. It was only considered as something internal to China but never as a problem that is part of the greater world. What I mean to be part of the world is not just to do some very rough comparative studies. What I mean is to think about how to add complexity and details and knowledge to this comparison. It’s not just a position or attitude. Thank you everybody.
JD: Thank you very much Liu Ding. You have given us a lot of things to think about. This is probably the first time Boris has heard this talk so we’re going to put you on the spot and ask you for your thoughts.
Boris Groys (BG): Maybe I will start with a couple of words about Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery because it does belong to the topic in a certain way. You know that Karl Marx [1818-1883] was not a very wealthy guy. He had a rather modest lifestyle supported financially by Engels and after he died he was buried in an unprestigious place in Highgate Cemetery, far from the central area. Later the Soviet Commission came to London and they wanted to build a monument for Marx, but were told that ‘Marx is somewhere over there.’ The location [of the grave] was a bit far and not so prominent, so [the Commission] actually bought a piece of land in the center of the cemetery for a huge amount of money and [in 1954] built a monument for Marx there. So Marx’s body is actually lying in the same cemetery, but in a completely different place. His monument is a fictional grave marker belonging to the Soviet government and still to the Russian government. It was paid for from Moscow and the monument was built by Russians. I think it’s an interesting story because it shows the two sides of socialist realism. [On one hand] it is realist, it’s about a monument, it’s about Marx’s body. No Soviet author would say that Marx went to heaven; that would be idealist. This shows a very realist attitude towards the historical existence of Marx and his death. On the other hand, the story is completely fictionalized and in all its elements, it presents what should be and not as what it actually was. I think that is the difference between socialist realism and realism.
Realism is about how it is, socialist realism is about how it should be, although the image of the desired world has a realistic form. The official formulation of socialist realism is socialist in content and realist in form. Thus, socialist realism is pure form; it has no claim to reality or the truth; it’s only a form that creates some kind of illusion of reality but in fact it’s completely fictitious and its goal is to be a vehicle for some kind of ideology. The form is not so important. That’s why the same painting can be repainted many times. It’s actually very much like icon painting, icon painting from old churches, which were also very malleable. If the teachings of the Church changed [the painting changed]. You have this [priority of the] content, of the message, over the form, that has of course to do with the domination of ideology.
It seems to me that in contemporary China, what is privileged is the market, and the market is not about content, the market is about production of beautiful objects, so it’s about form, not about message. Every artist participating in the art market has to produce something seductive, something beautiful, something likable, something that people would like to have and to buy, something attractive. A message is never attractive. A couple of months ago I was at a conference in Hong Kong discussing three components of Chinese art — traditional art, socialist realist art, and modernist or contemporary art, bourgeois art or art for the market. It was discussed as if, even if it’s not very clear formally, that they are valid to the same degree in the Chinese context. But that is actually not my impression. I think that tradition, in a traditional sense of the word, belongs to the past, so I think my first question, to open the Q&A would be, do you think that socialist realism is still present, still of value, still a force in Chinese culture or in Chinese art?
LD: It’s very hard to say whether socialist realism still exists today in contemporary China but after the Cultural Revolution, there were at least three times when intellectuals used realism to go against socialist realism. The idea of socialist realism was founded and reinforced around the 1940s during the founding of the People’s Republic of China and so before the Cultural Revolution socialist realism already existed and it had very strong influence on the narration of the modernization of China. Regarding the marketization of art, the way this entered the minds of the Chinese people had the same logic as socialist realism. When China started to have a market in the mid-1990s a lot of artists gave up their artistic career because they thought they wouldn’t be able to deal with capitalism. Then by 2004-2005 a lot of these artists went back to their art practice when they saw the art market ascent. The question for artists in the 1990s was not just about marketization, it was about art as a career. The forming of the art industry put a lot of pressure on certain artists, artists who are not very competitive. Artists who were not feisty gave up their careers; but artists who were feisty persevered. Zeng Fanzhi did a painting about the Xiehe Hospital, Wang Xinwei did a huge portrait of different art professionals in the art scene in China, Zhou Tiehai also did a work in response to the forming of the art industry. One obvious characteristic of this development is exclusion and singularity. It’s exactly the same as the introduction of socialist realism in the 1950s. If you look at the art discourses in China, it’s obvious that most of the discourse is very exclusive and singular. There’s a lack of complexity, details, and individuality. Socialist realism might not exist as an art form today but its logic is still at work. For example, there hasn’t been a single book describing how individuals have hesitation. It’s always thinking about the precision and attitude.
BG: If we look at the development of this kind of realism, socialist realism, it also emerged in Europe and the USA in the 1930s. In the 1930s here you had a kind of socialist realism movement, a movement of left engaged realist art, which you can see here at Rockefeller Center, a kind of American socialist realism. You have an early form of socialist realism in France, and you have Nazi art in Germany, which is a version of socialist realism, a fascist version, the same in Spain. At that time there were revolutions, mass movements, a collapse of the market in the 1930s, and WWII. And it is at this moment that you have this prophetic, engaged, ideological form of realism. The same is true in China in the period of war and conflict up to the Cultural Revolution. But when this period came to an end you have a return to art as the production of beautiful objects, the production of attractive images, the peaceful production of artistic values. I think if you look at the development of art in the 20th century, it was always looking to the next revolution or the next war. As far as there will be no revolution and war, [there will be no socialist realism].
LD: I think China is an exceptional case. It’s a very serious question because capitalism has been adopted and controlled by the state, so before we start the discussion, we have to lay this foundation, this question of party or state. If it remains unchanged, if we continue to have a single party and state, in reference to the cultural and intellectual field, it will be very hard to have an opposite position. Most of the time it would be revising what already exists. The arrival of capitalism in China is similar to the arrival of the Internet. From the question of the Internet you can see very clearly it’s a problem of boundaries. The same with capitalism. It also has a very clear boundary. One example would be in China even if you have a lot of money, you have limited investment options. The only major ways you can invest are you either buy real estate, send your money abroad, or you buy paintings. So capitalism has actually accelerated this combination of state and party from the 1970s to the 1990s. If you look at the struggle within the party, you will see that there is a balancing point.
BG: So you think that capitalism in China is more ideological than reality, so it’s like Marx’s grave, capitalism is hiding the body?
LD: Exactly right, it’s very symbolic.
JD: Well, because of the translation (thank you very much Xiaofei for that) we have run a bit over. So let us have a break, and we will continue the conversation downstairs. Thank you very much Liu Ding, and thank you Boris for the interesting presentation and exchange.
Disclaimer: Watermarked images are the exclusive property of their respective owners. Asia Art Archive in America does not hold copyright on them. All other images courtesy of Liu Ding.
Liu Ding is an artist and curator born in 1976 in Jiangsu, China. Selected solo projects include ‘BMW Tate Live: Liu Ding Almost Avant-Garde,’ Performance Room, Tate Modern, London, UK (2013); ‘Liu Ding’s Store: Take Home and Make Real the Priceless in Your Heart,’ Frye Art Museum, Seattle, USA (2012); and ‘Liu Ding: Conversations,’ Moscow Biennale for Young Art, Aftergallery, Moscow, Russia (2010). He has exhibited extensively and represented China at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009. Liu Ding lives and works in Beijing.
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise.