Yunnan Contemporary Art within Relational Aesthetics
–Foreword to Luo Fei’s To Start from Art
Dr. ZhaChangping (Critic, Biblical Scholar, Chief-editor of Journal for Humanities and Art)
To date, the developmental history of Chinese contemporary art has gone through at least three phases. In 1993, the inclusion of thirteen Chinese artists in the Venice Biennale implied a shift in the circumstances of Chinese contemporary art from the passive reception of the West to active presentation. Meanwhile, five southwestern Chinese artists held the “China Experience” exhibition in Chengdu, marking the collective emergence of the inner, individual explorations of Chinese contemporary artists, subjectively bringing to an end the trend of imitating the artistic styles of the West from the fall of impressionism through modernism and postmodernism that had defined Chinese art since the ’85 New Wave①. In 1997, the pioneering artists in Chengdu were engaging in artistic creation in public spaces such as streets, alleys and libraries, using the forms of performance art, installation art and new media, culminating in the “Origin-Life” exhibition held at the historic Dujiangyan site. We have come to define this exhibition as the key point for Chinese contemporary art, because it was the first time that the state media organization CCTV covered an artistic event involving such forms as performance and installation art. In that same year, Wang Lin curated the “Urban Character Group Exhibition,” inviting artists from all over the country to take part in their own cities, with many of them choosing to use installation and performance art to express the problems on the minds of urban residents. In 2000, the emergence of the Loft Artist Community in Kunming and the 798 Artist Community in Beijing integrated independent artist studios with galleries and other exhibition spaces. These places would eventually develop into cultural communities that combined artistic creation, production, exhibition, dissemination and tourism. The third Shanghai Biennale opened with the title “Shanghai Spirit – A Special Modernity.” The government had officially accepted the “biennale” as a platform for the exhibition of avant-garde art. Since Chinese society as a whole is still in a period of transition from the age of power politics to the age of the capital economy, most of the biennales that have emerged across China still have the feel of the old “National Fine Arts Exhibition.” The artworks, heavily filtered for ideology, lack social critical content, and performance art, because of its uncontrollable spontaneity, has been shut out. In the essay Chinese Contemporary Art in a Transitional Era Luo Fei sums up the situation thusly, in 1990s “artists changed their focus from national thinking to individual experience, from revolutionary aesthetics to daily aesthetics. Their mission also turned from promoting truth, kindness and beauty to addressing social problems. From singing the praise of political figures to gazing intently at ordinary people. From the ‘Public Square’ to the home. From a political event to an unintended yawn. From the vague and general cultural sayings to a practical exploration of the possibilities of varied media.”②
So what, then, makes a true artist?
“Artists are essentially those individuals in the minority of the human race who never stop chasing the sun/the ideal, many of whom are eventually melted by the sun or perish of thirst on the road. The staff that they hold in their hands is art itself, which turns into a guidepost that encourages those that come behind them to continue their pursuit of the ideal.” He continues, “True artists live in this world, and don’t belong among the people of the world that the rest of us live in. They are caretakers who wander in all directions searching for dangers to the human spirit; they are destined to drift.”③
Rooted in the relationship between man and God, Luo Fei has compared the role of the artist to that of the prophet: “The artist begins to dig deeply where he stands, seeking out the root of his role.” Then, he says, “The prophet is interested in speaking the words of God; the artist would rather speak the words of art.” Moreover, “When artists use their works as a way to participate in public discourse, my duty is to enter into these works in a responsible manner. For example, I have to consider whether creating this work is in line with the rest of my artistic vision. I’ll say it again, artists should return to their role as priests. The priest is that person who stands between man and his fellow man, and between man and God.”④
He believes that there are four dimensions to the artist’s duties: “The artist as formal experimenter, the artist as guardian of the heart, the artist as one who cares about culture, the artist who gives voice to the people. These four dimensions form the core of contemporary art, with formal experimentation as the core within the core, in that it sets the artworks of one artist apart from those of other artists and other times, and bestows the other three dimensions with lasting vitality in time and space.”⑤
Luo Fei has such penetrating insights into the identity and duty of the artist because he himself is a true artist. He stirs “Dull roots with spring rain.”⑥
Even more, his book also contains narrative commentary on the “Jianghu” exhibition scene, but it is more of an allegory for the “jianghu nature” of Chinese contemporary art groups—he encourages artists to create original schemas of their own, but he is against artists diminishing their creativity in mechanical reproduction. He is not only a curator with a sharp eye, he is a critic with a strong sense of justice as well. Through Looking at the “Art Whore” Performance and Other Problems through the Lens of Art, Ethics and Faith, he points out that “When Cheng Li tore down ethics and created the possibility of keeping one’s distance from the divine, he in fact gave up on the possibility of faith, on the knowing of the Word, on his confidence in the Holy Spirit and on the meaning itself of freedom in artistic creation.”
In this bilingual book To Start from Art, Luo Fei grasps the Word, rebuilds artistic morals, and listens to his conscience about what moves art and artists, forging the stories of Chinese and international artists into his view of the artist’s prophetic role and his critical insight into artistic phenomena. The book records the contemporary art events of Yunnan over the past decade, and stands as a local art history with global vision, complete with documents, ideas, views and original accounts of many exhibitions and scenes of creation. If you only read one art micro-history this year, it should be To Start from Art.
As a practitioner of relational aesthetic criticism and as a young curator at the TCG Nordica Gallery in Kunming’s Loft Artist Community, Luo Fei uses his editorial approach to present us with his understanding of the four relationships in the world-picture: human-thing relationships (Chapter 1: “Landscape in Transition”), human-human and human-divine relationships (Chapter 2: “Artist as Prophet” and Chapter 5: “Using Art to Build Bridges”), and human-temporal relationships (Chapter 3: “Past and Present”). The fourth chapter of this book is titled “Local Experiments,” which looks at the exhibition as the focal event of artistic phenomena, placing it in the research category of “event aesthetics.”
As a theory of contemporary art criticism, relational aesthetics is based on an ontology rooted in the logic of the world-picture, with its teleology aimed at the people behind event aesthetics. Its methodology includes the ascertainment of the relational dimensions of artistic phenomena, the discovery of original schemas and the interpretation of emotional culture. According to the logic of the world-picture, the world in which we live comprises seven forming factors, being language, time, the individual person, the natural world, society, history and God. As individual lives, we form seven types of relationships with these factors, being human-linguistic relationships, human-temporal relationships, human-self relationships, human-thing relationships, human-human relationships, human-history relationships and human-divine relationships. But when a person uses his own beliefs and concepts as the impetus for existence, he lives within a supposed world-picture logic, and his relationships with the seven forming factors are supposed as well; when a person uses his instinctual awareness and habits as the impetus for existence, he lives in an actual world-picture logic, and his relationships with the seven forming factors are as they truly are. Thus, people have different destinies defined by their personalities. The first half of most people’s lives is marked by the former, while the latter half of their lives is often marked by the latter. A small number of people may live in a constant state of struggle and wavering between the two, living within a supposed world-picture while yearning for a real one or vice versa. An even smaller number of people examine and transcend their actual relational world-picture from the perspective of their supposed relational world-picture. The philosophers, artists and religious adherents among the human community are such people, and contemporary art critics and curators should be as well. On the other hand, most people try to make the supposed world-picture subject to the actual one, dismantling and forgetting the supposed world-picture within the actual one. This is the life of the mediocre individual, as well as the state of existence for many so called artists who strive so hard for fame and fortune.
But when a person uses his own faith as the impetus for existence, the supposed world-picture logic of his life, and his supposed relationships with the seven forming factors of the world are determined by the object of his faith. The object of his faith determines the supposed content of his world-picture logic and guides his encounters with others of the same faith, as we see in different religious groups and artistic groups. The latter is the “jianghu” phenomenon in the Chinese contemporary art scene.
In fact, the aim of contemporary art is to open up the sky of supposition within an actual world.
Luo Fei uses the phenomena of Yunnan contemporary art as a window to lead us to the world, to lead us as far as the nations of Scandinavia, to encounter the poet Tomas Tranströmer: “Poetry is the experience of things; a dream, not the recognition of reality… The most important task of poetry is to recreate our spiritual life and reveal its mysteries.”⑦ He calls us to return to ourselves, to return to the depths of our sacred creator to examine the authenticity of human nature. He “Holds firm to the bottom line of the era among the weeds.”⑧
October 5, 2013, from Aoshen Old Town.
① ’85 New Wave’, also called ‘85 Thought’, refers to a kind of Chinese artistic thought that arose in the mid-1980s. The young people of that time were not satisfied with the conservative art guidelines. They grew tired of Russian artistic patterns and some of the values of traditional culture. They tried to seek new elements From Western modern art and generated new artistic thinking in the whole country.
② Luo Fei, To Start from Art. All Luo Fei quotes below derive from this book.
③ Luo Fei, The Man from The Wilderness: He Libin’s “Wilderness” Painting Series.
④ Luo Fei, Digging Where You Stand: An Interview With Josef Mellergård
⑤ Luo Fei, The Dimensions Of The Contemporary Artist’s Duty: Reflections on Lei Yan’s Art
⑥ T.S. Eliot, Wasteland.
⑦ Luo Fei, The “Bridges” Project Journal II and “Happiness, A Five-Year Plan” Project (Sweden)
⑧ Yu Xinqiao, Selected Poems of Yu Xinqiao, Wuhan: Yangtze River Arts and Literature Press, 2013, p. 21.