Rehearsal, or, Art without Artwork: a presentation by Gao Shiming with a response by John RajchmanAAA-A New York, December 14 2011 Transcribed by Xiaofei Mo, edited by Daisley Kramer
Bernard Shaw, The Art of Rehearsal. Image courtesy of Gao Shiming
‘I would like my books to be sorts of scalpels, Molotov cocktails or minefields and for them to fall to ashes after use like a firework.’
‘We still by no means think decisively enough about the essence of action.’
Gao Shiming (GS): It is my great honor to be at Asia Art Archive in New York. Thank you very much to Jane DeBevoise, Professor John Rajchman, and all of the friends here tonight. This evening what I would like to share with you first are some anxieties and discontents from a curator of so-called contemporary art. Contemporary art is a very problematic field right now. Once a journalist asked me why I became a curator of contemporary art. My answer was quite simple, because of my discontent. Discontent with what? Permit me to share this video, which should provide some insight into my feelings.
A: Don’t you think we are getting stupider? B: People are clever. They only become stupid when they become artists. C: You don’t think the problem with contemporary artists is that they’re too ‘clever’? D: Actually, artists are very anxious, and lost. Simply put, they feel like they have no direction. B: What makes you think curators have any clarity? D: Curators are just as lost and perplexed. They don’t know what questions to ask, or they only have questions, and no answers. C: Are there answers? D: We are perpetually unsatisfied, but unable to say why. A: We can do anything, but nothing has any meaning. C: B: Individual creativity seems to have dried up; we can’t find inspiration, everywhere we look is cosplay. D: Business is everywhere. Advertisements for galleries are plastered all over, magazines seem to report nothing but auctions, critics are hand in glove with the galleries, curators conspire with collectors… B: It’s all ‘standardized contemporary art.’ C: Can there be ‘standard’ contemporary art? D: I guess we’ll find out. ABCD: It’s a nightmare. ABCD: It’s exhausting. ‘Nothing to be done.’ E: We seem to have lapsed into some kind of malaise, but we can’t clearly describe it. Where does our lack of direction come from? Every day we have to struggle against the heavy hand of the art market, the end of art history, a confusion of values, the strategies and language of curators… F: Actually, in the contemporary moment, isn’t it right that we should be lost and directionless? In the 1980s and 90s, artists had an explicit goal. They had things to do. It was because they had an enemy, a target. Today, art seems to have been smoothed out, and there are no enemies of art to fight against. D: That’s only natural. One of the functions of contemporary art is to make shifting sands out of what used to feel like solid earth. It simultaneously creates confusion and faces up to that confusion. C: Are you confused? B: I’m mainly lacking in direction. A: Everything seems to have been pre-allowed. C: Have you been allowed? A: What’s important is that even though everything is allowed, it’s all meaningless. We don’t have the impulse to break the rules any more. B: Anything can be said to have meaning, but there’s nothing really important. D: The artist’s individuality is not solid; it’s incomparably hollow. F: The individual can be a desert, can be a wasteland, can be diseased. What we can’t be is healthy but empty. E: This is a moment of crisis for artists. Of course, art history since modernism has been full of psychological crises, but the situation today is different. It feels like we’ve been sucked dry, like we have no energy left. C: ‘How to do nothing.’ B: Have we forgotten the reasons we became artists in the first place? A: Wait! Always, wait! What is it that’s just about to happen? ABCDEF: It’s exhausting. ABCDEF: It’s a nightmare.
This text has been written by me, but the content comes from many conversations with artists over the last three years.
The last three years have witnessed the latest series of global crises. As if on cue, and almost concurrently, a crisis also befell contemporary art on a global scale. This was unlike the spiritual crisis experienced by modernists, but can be described as a malarial torpor, a malaise of the system. Today the creativity of individual artists fails to match that of the system or machinery of the art world. Artists cannot rid themselves of the sinking feeling that they are fundamentally cogs in the wheel, working in and for the system like employees. Their art feels made-to-order by the cultural machinery at large. Everywhere we look, artists are capitulating to this role. This is the reason why I started my project, Rehearsal.
‘Rehearsal’ was the theme of the Shanghai Biennale 2010. It was not only a theme, but also a working method. Rehearsal is not the art of performance in the sense intended by George Bernard Shaw (1922). The idea of Rehearsal is derived from the work of Bertolt Brecht, meaning ‘experiment.’
As the space of communication between art and the public, an exhibition, particularly a biennial mega-exhibition, is like a specially enclosed space that seems to transcend everyday reality. On the one hand, it is located within the quotidian, yet it attempts to go beyond it, to provide a threshold to an experience outside of it. The exhibition not only aspires to reformulating or representing the world beyond art, but also provides a vehicle for articulating its own particular structures. That is to say, by and large, exhibitions have become exceedingly self-referential systems of representation.
Exhibitions can be about more than releasing artworks into the wilds of the public domain; rather they can be about the creation of a situation in the sense that Guy Debord intended, ‘to construct situations aimed to produce new social relationships and thus new social realities.’ The exhibition’s modality can be compared to theatre. In many critical writings, exhibitions are often claimed as a spectacle of artists, artworks, and the audience. What I intend here is something different—that the exhibition can become simultaneously theatre and ‘anti-theatre.’
After Brecht and Artaud, the theatre as a stage for representation all but collapsed. Where theatre collapses is the place where ‘rehearsal’ starts. ‘Rehearsal’ is not a formal performance. It is repeatable and ephemeral experiment; rehearsal can turn any social space into a theatre and vice versa. During rehearsal, the theatre is no longer the domain of seeing and being seen, or a performance space that excludes real life reality. It is rather a space subjected to constant self-immersing, interruption, and deconstruction. Rehearsing finds itself in the transfer station between the onstage and offstage, theatre and real life.
In Ingmar Bergman’s film Efter Repetitionen (After the Rehearsal), everything that matters happens outside the theatre. Theatre, rehearsal—and real life—Bergman shows us that they cannot by definition be rehearsed. They are all intertwined. At the end of 8½, after a ‘heteroglossia’, Federico Fellini places all of the actors and roles onto the stage for a carnival. They are both the roles and the actors’ own selves (isn’t an actor a kind of role in some way?). This is a ‘rehearsal’, a drill, an ‘intermediate state of expression’, towards the compromise and self-liberation, with all of the anxieties and obsessions of the lost filmmaker in the film.
Entering the theatre, all members of the audience wear the ‘mask’ of spectator. There is no theatre without the spectator. We have no choice but to become spectators, the passive viewers entrapped by the medium and its protocols. As viewers, audience, or, as the public, we are led into a limitless series of endlessly proliferating scenes of scenes, and on the gigantic broadcast set of society, we participate in this endless media ritual. Even as society turns around to look at itself during this ritual, it constitutes itself.
The fate of the spectator/audience/viewer is the most important element of the spectacle society. ‘The more we contemplate, the less we live’, Debord says. ‘The spectacle is the sun that never sets on the empire of modern passivity.’ Or in the words of Jacques Ranciere, ‘What human beings contemplate in the spectacle is the activity that they have been robbed of; it is their own essence become alien, torn against them, organizing a collective world whose reality is nothing but their own dispossession.’
What happens in the age of spectacle-capitalism? In the society of spectacle, our internal spaces of creation, passion for narrative, the capacity for action are dispossessed. We are utterly disconnected from them. We have no choice but to become the passive spectators.
In his famous essay ‘The Emancipated Spectator’ (2004), Jacques Ranciere compared Brecht’s ‘epic theatre’ and Artaud’s ‘theatre of cruelty.’ They both had attempted to overcome this spectatorship of theatre. ‘On the one hand, the spectator has to become more distant; on the other hand he has to lose any distance. Theatre is an assembly where the people become aware of their situation and discuss their own interests,’ says Brecht. ‘Theatre is the ceremony where the community is given the possession of its own energies,’ Artaud states. ‘According to Brecht, theatrical mediation makes them aware of the social situation that gives rise to it and creates a desire to action in order to transform it. Or, according to Artaud, it makes them leave the position of passive spectator; instead of being in front of a spectacle, they are surrounded by the performance, dragged into the circle of the action that restores their collective energy. Both wanted to abolish the conventions of the theater to re-imagine it and to enable the spectator to re-imagine a more active situation for him or herself. Both of them wanted spectators to cease being spectators.’
Ranciere questions the preoccupation of passivity of spectator. He argues that ‘Being a spectator is not a passive condition that we should transform into activity. It is our normal situation. We learn and teach, we act and know, as spectators who link what they see with what they have seen and told, done, and dreamed.’ Ranciere added, ‘We don’t need to turn spectators into actors. We do need to acknowledge that every spectator is already an actor in his own story and that every actor is in turn the spectator of the same kind of story.’ The emancipation is the assumption that we have same activity and equal capacity for intellectual adventures.
But, is this assumed equality between actor and spectator a mere assumption? For Ranciere, it’s a self-evident presupposition. But how about the emancipated spectator? Is it also self-evident? Or, is it just another assumption? Yes: without the inside-out struggle of self-emancipation through self-understanding (Brecht), without linking with the active bodies of the ‘living community’ (Artaud). The emancipated spectator is yet to come. It is by conceiving of theater as a continuing, non-ending rehearsal.
Rehearsal is a reversal of the logic of theatre in the site of daily life. A theatre without a spectator and without a spectacle – that is a rehearsal. Compared to the theatre performance, the rehearsal is grounded in the lives, experiences, and desires of all involved. Yet, while it draws upon the everyday, it is not the everyday; the everyday has already turned into a theatre. It has been occupied by spectacle. Our bodies are both camera and projector. The world outside the theater is like an unfinished old movie; it is boring, gloomy, lacking a theme, and fragmentary. The rehearsal enables us to extricate ourselves from the old movie, from the theatre of everyday life, and then enter into the moment of liberation of the bio-politics. It gives back to us our self-consciousness and agency through a community action of self-rehearsing.
‘I would like my books to be sorts of scalpels, Molotov cocktails, or minefields and for them to fall to ashes after use like a firework,’ Michel Foucault stated in the 1970s. For me, this could be recognized as a manifesto of ‘art without artwork.’ Nearly all authors hope that their works can be passed down forever. However, Foucault expressed something different.
‘What does a philosopher demand of himself first and last?’ Nietzsche asks in the preface to The Case of Wagner, ‘To overcome his time in himself. With what must he therefore engage in the hardest combat? With whatever marks him as the child of his time.’ What Nietzsche tries to highlight in this sentence seems to be that the artist is not only the stylist of his time that is capable of curing the malaise of the era, but the artist himself is the most profound ailment of his time.
Rehearsal, as a kind of self-exercise of our time (the historical present), is not only a curatorial theory, and not even a critique of the exhibition system of contemporary art; it is a different kind of practice and activity. With the industry of capitalist culture reaching every corner of the globe, the art world is in complete overproduction mode. During a rehearsal, one faces continuous interruption, missed cues, and self-observation. A rehearsal is a process of simultaneous assembly, performance, observation, and dissemination. It is the marshalling and mobilizing of thought and expression, an action born out of form, a departure and arrival at something beyond expression, a criticism and self-criticism amongst artists, audience, and curators, and a suspension and dissection of these social roles.
A rehearsal is a countermovement to self-proliferated artistic production. It is a preparation for some kind of ‘event’ (not making artworks)—we begin with the space of artistic production and then walk backwards into the rehearsing of mass media-art-society. The theatre of the art world operates in an economy of symbols, meanings, forms, values, and powers that lies within a larger context of social circulation, and to enter the ‘event’, one must first pass through this huge vortex that surrounds and engulfs the theatre of art. Then, by piercing through the seamless surface of illusory meanings in the global art system, one is able to return to the silent middle, where one engages in reconstructing a space of self-reflection and self-empowerment, in which the audience/stage relationship is publicly and actively engaged. Just as in ancient Greece, the poems were not only texts, but were first experienced in the agora (an open space of assembly), in a public ritual with performance; the poet brought the community into a collective experience.
In this manner, we are forced to turn our attention from the exhibition as a parade of artworks into an ‘art moment’, or rather, an art event. Here, I am not talking about any kind of ‘event arts’, that is ‘event as an art form’, but art as ‘event’ in its essence. At the moments of art, ‘art event’ makes a live, active response to a live ‘social event.’ An art event sweeps up artists, audience, media, and everything else in its path. Art ‘events’ begin and end in the public realm of the society. Each art event remolds society and our ideas of the social and the public, pluralizing them and setting them in motion.
Exhibition as rehearsal is a collective and performative action. In the name of rehearsal, I hope to connect up all of our friends who are dissatisfied with the state of art today, so we can think together about our historical predicament and rehearse for the future. Here I would like to raise the stakes by calling for a ‘politics of rehearsal’ that takes this ethos beyond exhibition making.
The politics of rehearsal is not necessarily a call to activist action. As Martin Heidegger said, ‘We still by no means think decisively enough about the essence of action.’ For Heidegger, the essence of action was bringing-forth (vollbringen), and bringing-forth means: to unfold something into the fullness of its essence.
Today, we watch as a global capitalist system replaces politics with policing, value with exchange value, and faith with calculation, tacks copyright onto creation, and creates brands for labor. The politics of rehearsal is not about getting directly involved in real politics. It is also not about providing a vision of a ‘politics of aesthetics’ or a ‘political aesthetic.’ The politics of rehearsal is opposed to prepackaged politics and to all ready-made political products of so-called ‘political art.’ We have seen how activist art has been tacked on the wall of art museums, in the name of ‘participatory art.’ Participation has been used only for documentation. We are not looking for new political issues or new political spaces. Following Jean Luc Godard, I would like to say: Don’t make political art, do art politically! In order to do art politically, we need call forth an art-politics through rehearsal, and the content and mission of this new politics will be to create political subjects continually. Who is the new political subject? People who are at the art moment of self-rehearsing.
As an exhibition, the Biennale is finished in January 2011. For me, however, the rehearsal is still at its starting point. Rehearsal is a daily re-engineering, a re-assembling, a re-uniting of people who resist being constantly re-distributed as individuals within the capitalist spectacle society. To rehearse is an intellectual and political commitment that cannot be limited to the art world system. As a certain form of practice, exercise, of a disposition that tries to resist the shortcuts of spectacle, Rehearsal, or art without art work is not only for artists. Rehearsal is a strategy of self-emancipation to liberate us from the distribution of distinct roles of artist and audience, producer and consumer. In this sense, none of us are artists yet; we are only preparing to become artists. We are marching forward toward our future as artists.
‘We are the residue of the history, but, we should change ourselves to become transformers.’ (Chen Chieh-jen, Report on Rehearsal). The politics of rehearsal requires that we use our bodies and our memories to measure our historical-political situations; to constantly seek to position our own reality within a historical context of being; to discover the historical-political links of the global system of spectacle capitalism which has already extended into our body (the system is not external, but internalized); that is, to constantly ask: ‘Who am I? What’s my political situation? What kind of reality do we live in? What am I living for?’
From artwork to art moment, to art event, the rehearsal calls forth an ‘art without artwork.’ Rehearsal is not a ‘jouissance installation’; it is without any connection with the fetish of the ‘one percent of the people.’ It is an effluence, refraction, and the redeemed process. Rehearsal is self-empowerment, self-organization, self-reconstruction, and also the mutual learning of the re-embodied multitude, of the people – the collective heterogeneous community. That implies that, to rehearse, is to re-exhume the mental power, the intellectual energy, the internal activity of self-emancipation and self-reinvention of the people, who are burned out by the consumption-production of spectacle-capitalism, and defeated by the tedious, trifling daily life.
This is my rehearsal.
The rehearsal is unfinished.
We are undefined.
Not just an exhibition of artworks, the Biennale was a site of questioning and reflection. It was divided into five acts of which the first was the Ho Chi Minh Trail project, in collaboration with the Long March Space. For this project we invited 25 people, including artists, scholars, and curators, to travel together for 22 days from Cambodia to Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand to revisit the Ho Chi Minh Trail. During this time, we re-examined our collective memories and historical narratives, to reflect on our own historical experience and political situation. We walked the Ho Chi Minh Trail for just six hours. It was a performative act.
Walking the Ho Chi Minh Trail, courtesy of Gao Shiming and the 8th Shanghai Biennale
Works from Act Two were exhibited at the Shanghai Art Museum, the main venue of the Shanghai Biennale and included this one by Liu Wei. It was a tribute to Soviet architecture seen along the Trail and for him a metamorphosis of formal fallacies. Another work is by Madein.
Liu Wei, Formal Fallacies, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and the 8th Shanghai Biennale
MadeIn Company, Action I: An Art History Growed up together with my Ideology, 2010. Courtesy of the artists and the 8th Shanghai Biennale
Act Two was a joint project between the Shanghai Biennale and Performa. (Thank you, RoseLee.) For this project we invited Liam Gillick and Anton Vidokle as well as other artists and critics based in New York to respond to a letter from me to them. In this letter I ask two questions: 1) what does capitalism mean to artists today, and 2) can artists reach the destiny of formlessness? These are big and strange questions and we received many wonderful answers.
Dear Liam and Anton, Question 1: What does capitalism mean to artists today? … We wish to reflect on our historical situation beyond the discourses of ‘Post-Cold War’, ‘Post-Revolution’, and ‘Post-Colonization.’ Nowadays, the function of coordination of art history has failed, artists are swept into the system of the artistic exhibition-market, artistic social practices are kidnapped by identity politics and discourse politics, contemporary art is becoming increasingly routine, everyone is doing his/her work according to the logic of the free market economy… All these are political questions. Is there a ‘(verbalized) artistic politics?’ Since the politics of today’s world are highly mediatized and spectacularized, and politics have become propaganda, advertising, and even soap opera… So what kind of politics should an artist confront and practice? Should he/she confront the politics of life in an aesthetic way, or, on the contrary, face the aesthetics of life in a political way? We cannot simply pose empty questions. Can today’s art and critical thinking imagine a new political space? To address this, we need to explore politics within our sense of politics, not the ‘the given politics as ready-made’ (neither the left nor the right, whether ideological, or post-colonial, or new social movement), we should use our own bodies and memories to measure history and politics, and to depict the upcoming history and politics. Regarding these thinking, WHW is rethinking about ‘Sweet Sixties’; Raqs Media Collective of Delhi is working with Chinese intellectuals and artists on ‘Communist Latento’, featuring collective writing; Chinese scholar Lu Xinghua will discuss ‘the Upcoming Chinese Left’ in the journey of ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’, the ACT 1 of the Rehearsal. Question 2: Can artists reach a destiny of formlessness? The word ‘Formlessness’ might not be accurate, but I am willing to try to express myself through it. Art, under control and consumption by the capitalist apparatus of economy-culture-media, produces ‘Work’ as a commodity ‘Body’, as for this ‘Object’, ‘Form’ is the most important quality (conceptual and post conceptual art alike), and is locked in as exchange value. This is a fact we cannot ignore. In the past decade, works by the Superflex, The Yes Man, and many other artists manifest a non-territorial, non-work quality, which interests me. In the framework of the Biennale, I intend to use ‘Rehearsal’ to redefine, not just the exhibition, but also participant artists’ working process itself. ‘Rehearsal’ asks where the ‘Work’ of art is located. The turn from exhibition to rehearsal, from artwork to rehearsal, may exactly emphasize the importance of work as an art ‘labor’. Can art activities and practices exist without the guarantee of ‘the artwork?’ It aims not only to escape the commodity fetishism of capitalism, but also to cherish the more valuable thing hidden in all art activities – can the three areas divided by Kant (the intellectual, the ethical, and the aesthetic) be reunited in art activities today? Turning from exhibition to rehearsal, from artifact to art activity, from acting to action, is an attempt to put ‘aesthetic-political-ethical’ into practice in art activities.
Here is the response from Liam Gillick and Anton Vidokle.
Liam Gillick and Anton Vidokle, A Guiding Light, 2010
Act Three constituted the main exhibition of the Biennale, and included works by Yang Fudong, Qiu Zhijie, and Chen Chieh-jen, among others.
Yang Fudong, The Fifth Night, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and The 8th Shanghai Biennale
Qiu Zhijie, Latern Festival, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and The 8th Shanghai Biennale
Chen Chieh-jen, The Route, 2006
Act Four was entitled West Heavens and was a collaboration with my colleague Johnson Chang from Hong Kong and scholar Chen Guangxin from Taiwan. Conceived as a dialogue, we invited 8 scholars from India, who came one by one to Shanghai every two weeks during the course of the Biennale to give lectures. Responding to these lectures each time were 5 or 6 Chinese scholars. In total 80 scholars from China were involved in these events.
West Heavens project, courtesy of the 8th Shanghai Biennale
For Act Five we collaborated with the radical curatorial collective from Croatia WHW. When I wrote to them and invited them to this project they responded, ‘Why not?’ But they rent artists, and the artist they rented was Gernot Faber who is a figure without ground, a fictional artist. The first part of the performance took place in Shanghai, the second part in Zagreb, which was called Sweet Sixties. We revisited minimalist utopias in the 1960s.
GERNOT FABER for WHW, An Artist to Rent, 2010. Courtesy of the artists and The 8th Shanghai Biennale
I look forward to your comments and questions. Thank you.
John Rajchman (JR): First of all, I would like to thank Jane for the invitation and the opportunity to meet Gao Shiming and to develop a sense of this very interesting project. As far as the project goes, I haven’t been to the Biennale, I haven’t seen the works, and I haven’t even gone to Performa, so I am judging only from the documentation of the discussion. Shiming presented a little of the actual exhibition, and in the second part an interesting reflection. For me, in my work, I am trying to encourage awareness of artistic creation in Asia, and in particular the role that mainland China plays. I have questions about Act One The Ho Chi Minh Trail, as well as Act Four The West Heavens Project. Both parts of the exhibition strike me as involving specifically Chinese questions: how are Chinese artists relating now to Asia? How they are relating to India or Vietnam? Is there an Asian component? In the presentation you explained that there has been a deficiency in both Acts. Chinese intellectuals and Chinese contemporary artists have too often been trying to define themselves in terms of the west. Now it should open up. This is the question I found particularly interesting and would like to get back to it.
On your reflection, of course, I found it very pleasing as my own degree is in philosophy. Besides that it involved Heidegger, Nietzsche, Wagner, etc., let’s just focus for a moment on Ranciere. For me there is a little bit of a tension in the way Gao Shiming uses this interesting essay by Ranciere published in 2007 in ArtForum. The problem I have is that we are very accustomed to not liking the spectacle society, but the critique of it has just been absorbed into the spectacle society itself. It’s the most standard critical attitude that you can take. Some people, I would count Ranciere among them, have argued that maybe what Guy Debord said in France about this counter-colonialism and breaking the alienation of the consumer society is no longer a model. We need a much different and a more specific model to understand this enormous machinery of art production. In the article, Jacque Ranciere said among other things that it has become a very clichéd discourse, like a little game where your position seems very radical but nobody really gets out of it. For the concept of rehearsal as Ranciere develops, I think the key element you develop in using it as an exhibition strategy is the active and passive viewing. I see it a little differently. What Ranciere is saying is that Brecht’s take on this active/passive relation that we have this active-passive relationship, but let’s get us out of this passive state and let’s become more active, is an insufficient model, and what we need to think of is this set of institutions that produce and determine our sensibilities and in terms the roles we play. Then he imagines moments of emancipation when these institutions are broken up. That’s sort of a different model. It leads me to my first question, if you apply this Ranciere model, did the exhibition Rehearsal break with the institutions? Second, if it didn’t change the institutions, did it lead to a critical and ongoing discussion?
GS: These are great questions. I try to answer them in a very simple way. In my essay, I disagree with Ranciere. What I try to discuss might be very old-fashion, but I think we should take the spectacle much more seriously. I also think Act Three is very problematic, or even a total failure, because we did a lot of rehearsals before the exhibition, but in the end we came back to the museum to present artworks. I don’t believe that we can change the game inside the system, and of course the spectacle does not only exist in art production, it’s in our everyday life. Last month in Performa Liam Gillick asked me a question, has anything changed in rehearsal 10 months after the exhibition? I emphasize several times in my essay, rehearsal is not a method limited to curating or art making, but in our everyday life, sort of like social engineering.
JR: Okay. Another question I have is what is Asia, and whether China plays a specific role in Asia. I see that both Ho Chi Minh Trail and West Heavens projects are both about that. In reading materials about Ho Chi Minh Trail published in Yishu, there is a letter, in which it says maybe we can have a yellow light commonwealth as opposed to imperialism.
GS: That was Wang Jianwei’s idea.
JR: Yes, but it struck me as the history of the yellow light commonwealth is very strange, and again it’s a very specific thing. What does this yellow light commonwealth mean for Chinese intellectuals? And for West Heavens, I found that conference very strange. Before you curated the 2008 Guangzhou Triennial Farewell to Post-Colonialism. Part of the argument I am sympathetic with is that the history of modern China, even the history of the Communist Republic, raises a much different question. So it wasn’t a colony. Johnson Chang might be a good person to talk about this, as Hong Kong was a colony. But if you go to Beijing, you talk to people like Wang Hui, etc. In a fact people who participated in the conference are post-colonial theorists, and what they say is that if you look at these two countries, India and China, what we see is that we Indian have managed to understand critically the specificity of our modern period, while you Chinese haven’t been able to do that. I want to get your reaction to that. From my point of view, I am very sympathetic to your initial, the skepticism of post-colonialism, but I think one of the reasons why post-colonialism has been so successful is that we are essentially talking about post British Empire. If you look at Chinese contemporary art and it’s implication of the idea of Asia, what you find very strong is that big Asian culture, the language, calligraphy, etc., which is connected to the specificity of Chinese culture. Chinese artists do not have to speak another language.
GS: For the question about Ho Chi Minh Trail, the context is in Saigon at Dinh Q Le’s space. We were talking about censorship. It’s not Chinese artists who talked about censorship, but Vietnamese artists. That’s why Wang Jianwei talked about yellow light, it’s not red or green, but yellow. We only walked on the Ho Chi Minh Trail for about six hours. Whether or not we revisited the historical trail is not that important, because every corner of Saigon is Ho Chi Minh Trail. It’s not for the history, but for today. We invited many Chinese intellectuals to join the discussion, for example Lu Xinhua, who is wonderful and gave a talk on Laos. Some people think he represents the new left-wing intellectuals, and he is now a big issue on Weibo. We have lots of debates among Chinese intellectuals on the so-called local. For me both Ho Chi Minh Trail Project and West Heavens are the same thing, so is the 2008 Guangzhou Triennial Farewell to Post-Colonialism. They all belong to one long-term research project, to reunite the local experiences into one, and to share these local stories in an international platform. India is so close but so far. At least for me I have learnt so much from my Indian colleagues, maybe not in the name of Asia. As Jane knows, my first curatorial project was called Edge of the Earth, edge meaning inside and outside, but not the local. During the Guangzhou Triennial, I asked Alexandra Munroe about her understanding of Asia, and how it is different from the conception of Asia in the framework of Asia Society. It’s very different. For we Asian people, maybe we can speak very roughly that there is no such thing as Asia, but only Asians. I think Asia is always inter-Asia, it’s not a container for national states. By way of a little advertisement, ymy colleague Guangxin Chen just published a new book last year through Duke University, called Asia as Method. The Farewell exhibition has two sides, one is that the decolonialization has not finished, but stopped, because people are eager to announce their post-colonial status; on the other side the discourse has become an intellectual and institutionalized game. That was my question.
JR: Maybe we should stop here and open for more questions.
Audience: You very nicely survey a lot of very key modernist strategies from defamiliarization to distantiation, to dematerialization. In fact in your answer you went to this dissolved distinction between art and everyday life. Of course that is something that has been pursued for decades by many utopian aspirations of the 20th century. Maybe you can elaborate a little further on, especially in response to John’s first question, how you differentiate between what the aim of rehearsal was or is to those utopian or in fact totalizing aspirations.
GS: I just said it’s an old story from the very beginning of the 20th century, and for Boris [Groys] it’s even earlier. We revisit constantly the historical points, and invite the past to unpack and reactivate our present. There is a kind of hospitality to the history. That’s the first point. I do think there are some major differences between rehearsal and the old stories of the avant-garde. To put it simply, the avant-garde believes that art can save the society. But for rehearsal, the current society can save art. So what I am talking about is not utopian at all. Let me use an example. Let’s come back to the Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-jen.
Taipei City is a small corner of our world, where we can find many historical clues. In the recent ten years Chen Chieh-jen has revisited these historical sites through a film, which he calls Guerilla Report. For Chen Chieh-jen and his friends, filming is a way to re-assemble people. None of the participants in his films are professional actors; they are laborers. Every year they gather together for one or two months to make films. It’s not only a time for interaction, mutual opening and connection, but also an opportunity to reexamine and re-narrate their own stories and histories. Filming is a type of action to collect the image residue and acoustic residue of people’s collective memory. Filming is also a process of self-organization and mutual learning. They discuss the history surrounding them, politics linked with them, they do social analysis together, they make props together, and they play the roles of themselves with self-criticism. They have changed each other in the last ten years. From my viewpoint, this is a good example for the intelligent equality claimed by Ranciere. But it doesn’t happen between the actors and spectators in the theatre, or the artists and the public in the art system. It happens during the filmmaking. It starts from our concern with reality. I think Chen’s film action is not about the production of film, but it’s a historical inquiry starting from our own lives.
JD: Thank you very much Shiming and John, you have both given us a lot to think about. We look forward to continuing this discussion.