Culture and the State in Contemporary China

On Friday, I attended the one-day postgraduate workshop ‘Culture and the State in Contemporary China’ at the very beautiful St Hugh’s College at the University of Oxford. The sun was shining something special that day…not quite sure where it is now. Hmpf. The wonders of the temperamental UK weather!

I presented a paper in relation to governmental, cultural and commercial approaches to the translation of contemporary Chinese art, and was lucky enough to be given extra time, as the speaker that was supposed to come after me cancelled last-minute (he’d actually got E. coli, eek!). Therefore, I was the last speaker of the day with my own one-on-one panel discussion (a very strange experience)…for some reason I always seem to get this slot at conferences and workshops and I always see it as a test…a test of what? I’m not sure…

The day was opened by Craig Clunas, Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford. He spoke of the relationship between the historical and the contemporary in Chinese studies.

“Art historians have to be engaged with the contemporary…All art history is essentially contemporary.”

He reflected on his experiences and some of the ways in which contemporary China has changed since he started to think about China back in 1972. ‘The study of China has changed…there has been the introduction of transnational and transcultural perspectives. In the early 1970’s, it had a hard, impervious shell…one didn’t look at that kind of interaction…what happens in China is no longer just about China.’ He referenced ‘Parting the Mist’ by Aida Yuen Wong as a key and influential text.

“It’s not just about the transnational and transcultural…time to think about the transtemporal…the past and present, the presence of the past in the present.”

Clunas went on to reference examples of Chinese popular culture, including TV series and films, in order to illustrate the uses of the past and history in contemporary Chinese culture and how things examines the transtemporal.

“I don’t think the contemporary is the nowness of now.”

I must say here that I won’t be paraphrasing the papers, rather stating a few keys quotes or themes that I feel appropriate to present and discuss. Session 1 began with four University of Oxford students – Charlotte Bruckermann ‘Positioning the Rural Family House in Shanxi’; Ros Holmes ‘Poles Apart: Visualising wenming in the 21st Century’. She referenced Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s artwork Wenming Gui ‘Civilisation Pillar’ (2001, Human fat from a liposuction clinic, metal structural supports, 4m x 1m) as a visual representation of Wenming. Karita Kan ‘Performing Civilisation: Public squares as a site of citizen-making’, and Christopher Kutarna ‘What Can It Mean to be Free? The several meanings of reform and opening with China’s emerging middle class’. I have met Ros and Karita before…Ros at the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA) 3rd Annual conference in 2009 (I can’t believe it’s been that long!), and Karita through my work and writing for Art Radar Asia…I also met with her in Hong Kong last December. It was very reassuring to see some familiar faces…and they are two lovely, creative and dedicated minds.

Lunch was early, as in 11.45am early…it reminded me of being in China when lunch at work was at 12pm. I really did not feel like eating as, to be perfectly honest, I was feeling quite sick…I think I’ve been pushing myself a little too much during my post-operation recovery period. I am a very impatient patient! So, we were led downstairs in St Hugh’s College to an unexpected formal, sit-down lunch…a complete surprise to many of the delegates. We all wondered where the usual sandwich/canape/finger food buffet was instead of the pork dinner or  vegetable risotto.

Risotto it was…and laced in cheese. We all felt particularly heavy after eating and i’m sure it didn’t help with afternoon concentration. There was dessert too…chocolate and pear tart, which I obviously couldn’t have. Thankfully I’d packed a homemade ginger biscuit. Ros, Charlotte and I decided to escape for 15 minutes after feeding time and went out in the glorious sunshine and gardens of St. Hugh’s College to get a breath of fresh air before returning to the closed atmosphere of a cool, air conditioned conference room for the rest of the day. Well-needed rays on my body and soul.

Session 2 in the afternoon began with Samson Yuen from the University of Oxford ‘The Remaking of China’s Reform Legitimacy’.

“Everything is about stability today…rationalization of state violence…emphasis of stability codified into the Party’s mission of building a harmonious society…but does this achieve social harmony, or merely temporal stability?”

Then onto Giorgio Strafella from the University of Nottingham ‘The Renwen Jingshen Debate 1993-1995: Readings, Re-writings and Methodological Matters’; and Judith Bruhn from the University of Oxford ‘”I want to talk with this world”: China’s Literary Celebrities ‘Thought Negotiation’ with State and Society’.

“Publishing writing online, and online literature, is a site of negotiation…negotiating the governmental perimeters…blogging has bought together the public and private discourses…participating in thought negotiation beyond literary discourse into general society.”

Session 3 was two University of Oxford students Angela Poh ‘Negotiating between the State and Islam: Chinese Muslim Women in the Ox Street Community (Beijing)’ and Hamsa Rajan ‘The Contemporary Social Status of Tibetan Women’. Both papers dealt with issues of ethnicity, female minorities, domestic violence and the presence or non-presence of the state. A few questions surfaced including what does the state see as threatening? Should or shouldn’t they intervene? What negotiations happen between the people and the state in these situations?

“The younger generation may not be as influenced by religion, by the state. The word Chinese is no longer “Chinese”.”

Session 4 included Rebecca Scott from the University of Oxford ‘Intervention and ‘Re-invention’ of Childhood and Images in Chinese Political Discourse Through the Lens of Propaganda Posters (1949-1979)’;

“The posters are a forum rather than a pulpit.”

Xiao Mei from the University of Cambridge ‘Contending Memories of the Cultural Revolution in China Today’.

“We have to look at the Cultural Revolution from different angles and different levels as to how different people construct this event as a collectively shared past through different reconstructed narratives, the production and dissemination process of these narratives in the public sphere and its significance.”

Xiao examined three narratives of the Cultural Revolution in relation to the political spectrum (Ultra-left (maoist), (New) Left, Reformist, Far-right (Liberals)) in China today.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” – W. Faulkner

Then onto Justyna Jaguscik from the University of Zurich ‘Articulating Entanglement: Chinese female authors’ body writing’.

“Rather than criticising the text, they criticised the author…the female author, she had no voice.”

The final session, Session 5, and it was time…a little odd being part of a panel session on your own…it seemed a bit self-indulgent like the “Rachel Marsden Show”, which I really didn’t like. I felt under immense pressure, still wasn’t feeling right and ended up having the longest discussion time. Ros and Karita very kindly took the obligatory blog photographs of me in action (thanks Ros/Karita!). My paper was entitled ‘”Transcultural” China – The Changing Identity of Contemporary Chinese Art’ and examined how the identity of contemporary Chinese art today “transculturally translates” across different curatorial platforms for exhibition from a Chinese to Western perspective and context through the use and understanding of three different translational approaches – governmental, cultural and commercial. Different parameters of these contrasting approaches to translation (governmental, cultural and commercial) were investigated, such as, political limitations and censorship due to the Chinese governmental infrastructure; transcultural feuds; the representation of contemporary Chinese art in the global art market and the role of the contemporary Chinese art collector. Furthermore, to provide additional contextualization to governmental, cultural and commercial translation, appropriate examples of curatorial past-practice were cited, including the recent political situation surrounding contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, The Real Thing on display at Tate Liverpool in 2007, and the recent ART HK 11 art fair. These examples presented new perspectives whilst critiquing the problematics of translation as part of the curatorial process, examining the loss of context and interpretive value, the lag in analytical discourse regarding contemporary Chinese art, and how these terms currently influence and can impede its art historical development.

I received positive feedback and there were some very interesting comments during the panel session. I like the photo below as I’m deep in thought, trying to frantically write down feedback and questions…some thoughts included the general examination of “transcultural” disciplines is not a new phenomenon, it is a network interaction globally and is the best approach for the new development of contemporary Chinese art; two ways to further develop the study, firstly the interchange between East and West as a “transcultural” approach, how the Western influence has changed Chinese art, do you think the Western media is in a way shaping the face of contemporary Chinese art? Secondly, the identity of the artists, immigrant to the West, does this change the shape/affected elements of their work? For example, Cai Guo-Qiang examinations of nationalism from the early 1990s to today; Make more reference and interaction within exisiting scholarship by looking into the origins of contemporary Chinese art from revolutionary art in the 1930s…freddom comes from this, how has this changed over the decades?; look at the setting of the economic reform in more detail versus the cultural reform; is the art market a cultural product?. One question referenced the censorship of contemporary Chinese versus that of religion and Christianity in China…art is more subversive and interpretive so less controllable by the state than religion. One interesting quote that came out of the panel was…

“If you begin to be “transcultural”, it becomes universal not foreign.”

I must say a BIG thank to my friend Sarah Mayhew who let me stay over the night before the workshop and at such short notice. I used to work with her at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, in fact I replaced her as Assistant Curator of Exhibitions and Displays there when she decided to move on to Oxford. It was lovely to catch up with her and her chap. Here are a few final thoughts, phrases and stories from my Oxford experience – Shockheaded Peter, scrilff (did I get that right?) in the OED, haddock for Craddock, glovebox bacon sandwich, OD on cheese, lactose intolerant French cat, dyslexia, Frank Bruno in Champneys, “don’t wash his jeans”. If you have any questions about these random statements, please feel free to contact me. Below is the ridiculously expensive and tasty flapjack I got for the very delayed train journey home…I think I’d like some now please.

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