Soil for the Cultivation of Values
Luo Fei, TCG Nordica Gallery Director
Through thirty years of reform and opening, China is now the world’s third largest economy, and is expected to overtake Japan next year to become the world’s second largest economy after the United States. While this rapid and effective economic growth has brought the richness and convenience of the material life for many people, haste and competition have left deeps wounds in many places; the crisis of social and individual values is a wound that is festering quite viciously. A series of shocking public incidents in 2008, including tainted baby formula and poorly built schools and dormitories in the Sichuan earthquake zone sounded the alarm of a crisis of values for those people nonchalantly riding the rocket of the rise of a great nation. In a column for Lianhe Zaobao newspaper published on June 9, 2009, Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asia Insitute at the National University of Singapore, said he believes this is a reflection of the “disintegration of China’s social trust”.
Naturally, reforms that placed economics ahead of governance as well as the rapid pace of economic development over the past thirty years cannot take all of the blame for this crisis in Chinese social values. Frequent wars since the turn of the twentieth century, all kinds of disastrous political movements since the establishment of the People’s Republic and cultural confrontations between East and West have all led to confusion and a lack of confidence in traditional values, manifested in either self-consciousness or blind confidence about traditional culture, a lack of trust for other people or the rampant violations against others, blind worship of outside culture or outright xenophobia, or a lack of courage when faced with true faith, to name but a few phenomena. The crisis in values is not unique to contemporary China; it is a universal symptom of modern societies (especially postmodern societies) that follows the disintegration of traditional values systems. High divorce rates, high crime rates, family relations centered around consumption and the carnal city life have become the reality faced by every nation.
The values crisis also affects artistic trends. Since the New Wave in art, art forms led by political pop, cynical realism and kitsch art have garnered massive success on the art market, turning them into archetypes and models for success in contemporary art, but the spiritual character and the ways of life among artists over the whole art world in the past twenty years have revealed naked emptiness and cynicism. There has been no sacred or profound undertaking in the construction of values. As a result, since the rise of the art market, the exploration, discussion and practice of art have been superficial and fruitless. It was only last year with the rut in the art market that people finally got off of the highway to riches and returned to plowing the fields of art, and that more and more individuals and groups began discussing values issues.
The exportation of values has always been the historical imperative of responsible, economically powerful nations. The pursuit, reconstruction and maintenance of values must first take place on one’s own native soil before their export can be considered. They cannot be just blindly snatched from one’s ancestors. The efforts of folk-based groups have become an extremely powerful force in the reconstruction of values. Just as the broad international success of Chinese contemporary art was the result of folk-based efforts and all international exchanges and presentations of contemporary art began through folk-based channels, the importance of folk-based exchange platforms to the renewal and exportation of values cannot be denied. The folk realm is where values take root, grow and bear fruit, the soil for the cultivation of values, where organic, non-abstract cultural dialogue can be realized, where the concrete work of values restoration can be carried out, as opposed to simply moving troops around on paper. The folk sector is where values and beliefs are translated into action, and the place where values come to rest.
This essay will share the case of Kunming’s TCG Nordica International Culture Center in its work related to the restoration of values in the values soil that is the folk sector. The reason that TCG Nordica has been selected for exploring local values construction is because TCG Nordica’s values vision and work methods have had an undeniable impact on the local cultural arts environment. I have had the opportunity to take part in this work, and have an acute sense of the meaning and challenges involved. This essay will share the experiences of TCG Nordica on three levels: values vision and cultural exchange; the local art environment; and social responsibility.
The TCG Nordica International Culture Center is a non-profit international art gallery and culture center. The locals simply call it Nordica, and that is what we will call it in this essay. Officially established in 2000, and invited to move into the Kunming Loft Artists Community in 2002, it was one of the first folk-based art spaces to rise in Kunming. Today, it is still Kunming’s only platform for art and cultural exchange between China and the West.
Nordica’s values are expressed in the following statement: “Stimulating Reflection on Human Worth as Expressed in Various Art Forms”. From this statement it is easy to see the founders’ acute awareness of the contemporary crisis in values. In another important Nordica text, there is an explanation of the term “human values”: Respect, Friendship, Honesty, Integrity, Mutuality, Care and Openness. This implies that this is a cultural arts organization based on human relations and dedicated to the ideals of reconstructing community values. That is to say that cultural and artistic exchange and presentation is not the goal, but a way of rethinking values. Art events are not the most exciting part of it, it is about human stories. For all of Nordica’s art and cultural events, values come first, whether it is for cultural exchange, art exhibitions, music concerts, theater events, educational programs, poetry festivals, English corners, cultural tourism or team building. Such a concept has laid a universalist foundation for this region-based international exchange organization, one which permeates every aspect of its work.
It bears mentioning that in the countless art and cultural exchange events over the past decade, the principle of putting values first has not led them down the slippery slope of moralizing or evangelical dogmatism. Instead, it has laid rich soil and an ideal space for people, cultures and arts to encounter one another, and to help restore broken links between them. Prejudice disintegrates in the face of respect; enmity retreats in the face of friendship; coldness is transformed in the face of empathy; isolation unfolds in the face of openness; perplexity becomes potential through creativity…. This space is not just for the exchange and exhibition of arts and cultures, it is for fermenting culture and art, placing it into people’s hearts, and allowing the values within art and culture to spread to the community and inspire new ideas.
This concept did not arise out of desperation from the market rout of recent years, it was a vision that arose from deep insight into human nature and history. What will amazes people of the future will not be the fluctuations in the art market, or the eastern and western shifts of the center of world culture, or the rise and collapse of the globe’s superpowers; it will be the silent crumbling of values and the massive, towering, dazzling Tower of Babel with its rotting inner core.
Cultural exchange between China and the West is the most central and most textured component of Nordica. Nordica has erected a bridge between China and Scandinavia, and over the past decade, the majority of international cultural and artistic exchange events in Kunming have taken place at Nordica. Examples include the exchange between famous Swedish symbolist poet Tomas Transtromer and local Kunming poets such as Yu Jian; projects such as Log Book, Sugar and Salt and Love Protection, which entailed cooperation and visits between local and Scandinavian female artists; a residency program that brings dozens of artists from Scandinavia and other regions to Kunming each year; arrangements for inviting many local artists to participate in exhibitions in Scandinavia; the ten to twenty Scandinavian youths who come each year to study Chinese culture and history and work as part of the Nordica team; the many local youths who come to work in Nordica, taking part in specific cultural exchange projects, and creating a third culture out of contact and cooperation between two cultures; the ties of cooperation and trust that Nordica has worked to establish between the government of Yunnan Province and various regions of Scandinavia; cooperation between Nordica and the embassies of the Scandinavian nations…. It could be said that every aspect of what Nordica does, both on stage and behind the scenes, takes place within the context of international exchange.
Cultural Exchange is no longer the cold mutual translation between two vocabularies, discussion between the cultural representatives of two nations, show games between two national teams, tributes or clashes between two national TV stations. Because of the deep and rich participation of many local youths, cultural exchange turns into stories with a heartbeat, and those stories are brought back to us, and brought out to the distant Scandinavian Peninsula. No longer is cultural exchange a secret war of cultural permeation between the soft power sets of nations; it is now the process of people coming to know and trust each other. Eva Taitai brought me a bag of fermented chili beans to boil into a hot-pot and save me from the paucity of flavor in the Scandinavian palate; Anna Mellergård helped us to clean the dust from those corners of the gallery that the Chinese could never find; the Scandinavians hung up long white scroll-paper banners of Tomas Transtromer’s poems, and the neighbors thought we were holding a funeral; Janeric Johansson met five Chinese girls in Kunming…. Because of these stories, Janeric Johansson told Kunming artist Tang Zhigang, “I don’t believe that China and Scandinavia could ever go to war, because we know each other too well. Our friendship will be a lasting one.”
Because of Nordica’s persistent efforts in cultural exchange, local artists have had far-reaching contact with western art and artists, and learn that in western art, aside from Germany, Great Britain and America, there is also Scandinavia, where artistic methods stand apart from the western mainstream. These long-term observations showed Tang Zhigang a universal problem in art today: as art becomes increasingly international, where are the differences between individuals and between regions?
Local Art Environment
If it can’t inspire a strong passion for local culture, then an international platform becomes nothing more than a place to find a blonde-haired boyfriend; if it can’t inspire a sense of responsibility in the reconstruction of local values, then an international platform becomes nothing more than a diving board to jump out to the creature comforts of the western world; if an international platform can’t provide nourishment for culture in the local art environment and work together with local artists to explore regional humanist values, then where is the value in having a regional international platform?
Since the New Wave in art, Yunnan art has had a unique character that has been a source of inspiration in China for its focus on the individual state of existence, the relationship between living consciousness and nature, and on Yunnan’s unique geography and multi-ethnic culture. As one of the first folk-based art spaces there, Nordica has witnessed the passion and transformation of local art, from the first exhibition of Yunnan installation art at the T Café Gallery (Nordica’s first incarnation) in 2000, to such large scale exhibitions of new forces in Yunnan art as the “Physical Exam” and “Here Come the Sheep” exhibitions in 2002; from witnessing artists’ explorations in image methods to their first-ever exhibitions at Nordica; from the first-ever solo exhibitions in China for Tang Zhigang and Mao Xuhui to the Swedish tour of the Chinese Contemporary Art – Identity and Transformation exhibition; from artists organizing their own exhibitions and holding a creative market, to Nordica’s curation of local themed exhibitions; from artists born in the 1950s to artists born in the 1980s….The majority of local artists have exhibited their works at Nordica, and Nordica is always looking for new forces out there. Averaging one music concert a week, one art exhibition a month and one large-scale event every two years, Nordica continues to be the most vibrant cultural arts center in Kunming, providing the people with a fresh and eclectic cultural scene.
Aside from focusing on the local art environment and individual cases, and supporting new artists and female artist groups, Nordica also works in the field of art education, holding regular exhibitions to foster and encourage creativity in children, providing free guidance to local schools, including the international ones, and helping people to know art and its joy and value.
I think that if you water and care for a plot of soil, not to grow vegetation that is suited to the locality, but to grow Scandinavian berries, then it is no longer a plot of land that you are cultivating, but a botanical garden that has no value beyond appreciation. It takes many years of cultivation and labor before one can gain a sense of its true value.
Here it must be noted that all soil is local in nature. There is no international soil hanging up there in the sky. If there is, it’s only good for tourist souvenirs. The work of refreshing values and establishing people’s faith and belief in values, however, must be carried out in a specific place. Interestingly, when we look back at all of the Scandinavian art communities or museums we’ve come in contact with over the past decade, such as Vestfossen, the so called art capital of Norway, the FOLK outdoor art festival at the Lista Fyr Gallery, the biennial-scale art international art festival at Mriannelund in Sweden, the museum at Uddevalla or the collection of wild Yunnan mushrooms at the Bohusläns Museum, none of them are in major cities. Some of them are even in little villages of just one to two thousand people that don’t even have their own police department. Those art communities in little villages aren’t neo-pastoral constructs, they are international-level art communities in their own right. While the international field of vision has provided local communities with a window on a diverse world, international art has gained an opportunity for rethinking, deepening and modification in local soils. While the internationalization of art has made it easier for the people of the world to understand art, and made it easier for artists to travel abroad, does it also imply that a unifying world is whittling away at local cultures and their essences? Can we find valuable components inside? An artist once referred to the Kunming Loft, a flexible art space adapted to local characteristics, as an “alternative space”, using a central yardstick to lower the status of a unique method of growth. I think that the ten year history of Nordica can at least affirm that this is actually an “irreplaceable space”, because its methods and values are perfectly suited to this unique soil.
As a local enterprise and cultural center, we are concerned with the question of how to carry our values vision into social groups, rather than just to people in the cultural arts field. Aside from encouraging people to come to this community to sit down for a cup of coffee, look at art and listen to music, is there some broader effort that we can engage in? How do we bring the needs of marginalized groups into the hearts of artists, and take the richness and power of art to these marginalized groups, rather than keeping the two separate? As a public platform that builds relationships between individuals, between individuals and groups, between people and governments and between disparate groups, cross-field activities are taking place all the time. The act of caring naturally moves from the humanistic to the humane.
Out of concern for the serious trends in AIDS infections in Yunnan, and out of care for AIDS sufferers, Nordica spent three years implementing the benefit project “Contagious Love: Artistic Reflections on the HIV/AIDS Situation in China”, drawing people’s attention to the AIDS problem, in the process establishing a bridge between culture workers such as artists and poets, AIDS workers and AIDS sufferers, promoting mutual understanding. We held a series of events such as AIDS seminars and discussions as well as interactions with AIDS sufferers and drug addicts to dispel a lot of the fear and misconceptions artists had towards AIDS, and used actions by cultural workers to bring joy and hope to the lives of AIDS sufferers. In the end, the project was presented in a series of art exhibitions, poetry events and music concerts, and enjoyed broad support from local and international artists, governments and organizations. Through the cultural arts, this project altered the coldness and ignorance of many people including ourselves, and we were greatly moved by the diligence of these artists who creatively explored ways to break the chains of prejudice and open the gates of love.
Aside from the AIDS project, we have also engaged in many other similar efforts, such as establishing interscholastic ties between a school for handicapped children in Sweden and the Kunming Huaxia Vocational School; since 2004 we have been using the Christmas Market to provide poverty-alleviation organizations and weak social groups with more opportunities; the 2007 “From the Polar to the Valley” project brought together ethnic minorities from Sweden and Yunnan, focusing on ethnic rights; then there was the 2005 project to promote children’s rights in honor of the 100th anniversary of Astrid Lindgren’s birth…
I believe that these actions are more than just activities for the public good. They’re more like local applications of Joseph Beuys’ concept of social sculpture.
Actually, Nordica has done so many things that I’ve only been able to list a few of them here. As a cultural arts organization that has maintained non-profit operations, in its move from a supported organization to an independent one, it experienced more than just the dazzling spectacle of one cultural event after another and the steady accumulation of accolades; there was also the hardship of Anna Mellergård and Wu Yuerong and the daily efforts of every team member, their bravery, wisdom and love in breaking through the obstacles before them. But every living thing is reshaped, modified and refreshed through exchange. The soil goes from hard to soft, from strange to familiar. It has become the motivation for everyone to pick up the plow, and a cause for celebration.
“Micro-variation” has become the basic method for folk-based action, as opposed to massive, one-time banner raising efforts to push drastic change. When one repeatedly cleans one set location in a filthy city, repeatedly wipes the dust off of a single table, that table becomes respectable, and many people will sit at the table and get to know each other. That is the meaning of cultivation.
The experimentation on each plot of soil is indispensable. Each action carried out with values and beliefs brings the possibility of renewal to withered land. The restoration of values does not need to wait until total collapse happens to begin. Just as we can’t just plant seeds today because we want to eat an apple tomorrow, the cultivation and renewal of values requires a place and sufficient time, and attentive people to feed the soil. Cultivation and maintenance is not a one-time effort; it comes with challenges and concern, miracles and disappointments, hardship and patience. It is because of this that the work of restoring values inevitably becomes an everyday, local and normalized working mechanism that spreads to every corner. What really needs to be cleaned, watered and refreshed, the real soil of values is not the city, the village or the art community, but our own hearts.
Completed on December 9, 2009 in Liangyuan, Kunming
translated by Jeff Crosby
Photo from “Contagious Love 2006”