Lisbon 2015 – Symposium: “Chineseness” in Contemporary Art Discourse and Practice (Day 4)

The final day of the ‘”Chineseness” in Contemporary Art Discourse and Practice’ symposium but not my final day in Lisbon…that’s actually today, Friday…the end of my literally worldwide research travels from Dubai to Sharjah to Hong Kong to Lisbon. So many more blog posts to come! If you missed reading the write-ups of days 1 to 3, take a look through the link here. Before I jump into the account, I just wanted to say thank you to all those involved in the symposium…from the organisers, to the delegates, to the audience members…it has been great to talk about a subject that is important to so many of us, reaffirming as such…and for 4 days, something that doesn’t happen very often as we all have such busy work-home lives. To new and old friends and colleagues…see you very soon, no doubt in another random corner of the world. I’m already looking forward to it!

Yesterday, after a pinch of blogging (about this event!) and too much green tea drinking, it was time for the last few hours of conversation, beginning with the introduction of Franziska Koch‘s new ‘International Research Network for Modern and Contemporary Chinese Art’, where we had an open discussion into the potential of the network and it’s future.

"Chineseness" in Contemporary Art Discourse and Practice

The network aims to encourage and facilitate a shared dialogue…an academic platform for peer-to-peer dialogue…a focus on career development and professional opportunities…a scholarly network…also linked into curatorship…a website and blog with a documentary function…also a forum starting with a mailing list…regular publications such as aligning with one regular column as part of a journal.

It was questioned as to how would the global network work in terms of collaboration, a point that I was very interested in, especially in relation to the work of the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) in Manchester and the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA) in Birmingham, both in the UK. They stated existing and smaller projects can be linked to the network through its “umbrella”…use it as a hub…also use it to assist with funding/project applications…raising visibility for all involved and the areas of research. They was to use interdisciplinary formats and talks…such as by Skype…with a clear “internationality” of the network. Is there relevance in creating it as an association? Rui Oliveira Lopes stated that a research network different to an association…it’ll work out in a different way…it should work like a cluster of information instead of an institution to gather people from all over the world.

Paul Gladston stated that he has been operating a closed network for the past 4 years…it is difficult to bridge transnational boundaries…feeling a longer term issue that initially thought…issues of shared perspectives, how you can manage alternative perspectives…umbrella structure to support those kind of activities…issue of bringing in the commercial world is problematic. Important to talk about a scholarly network. The key thing is it’s an emerging field, many at a doctoral/post-doctoral level, useful to bring that emerging community together and address some of the issues. The Centre of Contemporary East-Asian Cultural Studies in Nottingham can help. Scholarly work in China can be problematic in China on so many levels. You can’t do this as an individual…and it’s a long haul thing…

Nicola Foster had also set up a similar type of organisation that looked into practice-led research…mentioning the importance of setting it up as a charitable organisation. What we did find was that it had to be academic in order for it to have that kind of status…we found an institution and dealt with institutional deans to host the actual website because it does need money, expertise…agreed and part of the legal side of things. It is very important decision as to the country its registered in.

I went onto mention the ‘Chinese Contemporary Research Network’ that I established and launched in November 2013 during my role as Research Curator at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) in Manchester. I spoke of its aims, past research work including events and conferences, the mailing list, blog and open forum platform through the blog…largely mentioning how much time this type of platform takes to develop and manage. I also spoke about its future as I am to develop this more as a national/international partnership in the UK through a funding bid as part of my work as Coordinator (Research Assistant) for the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA) in Birmingham.  So watch this space!

It’s great to hear about these kind of things developing…reaching out…creating new connections and dialogues that will no doubt “make things happen” in and related to contexts of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and further afield…and the Chinese diaspora…and will be mutually beneficial, encourage and cultivating work in this field.

Paul Gladston introduced the final session of the symposium…a series of artists presentations that ‘line up the challenges the relationship between cultural artistic practice and China…it can be deliberately essentialising, and this can be a forum for challenging this.’

Susan Pui San Lok – SPSL – /A to Y (UK)

Susan Pui San Lok is an artist, writer and researcher introduced a visual index to my work speaking of notions and contradictions of Chineseness…Chineseness is spoken or gestured…stresses on the disembodied, dislocated…provocations, accusations…slogans and fake goods…colonial cliches…exoticising or orientalizing impulses…night visions, dream scenes of lost memories and gestures. What does it mean to care for ancestors and ancestry? Diasporic rather diaspora…often denotes a stable object with unchanging means…migratory flows and cultural transmission…de-centre prevailing images. Naming. Ad hoc, transliteration, translation, name and identification to acclimatise or assimilate to certain cultural contexts…visible and invisible, passing or passing unseen or seeing through lenses…privileged, encumbered, nationalised. Hyphenation as the space and gesture of inclusion…the slash challenges as it turns its back on the hyphen…yet join the words and divide the words. Elaine Chang theory of hyphenation states…

Elaine Chang hyphenation Susan Pui San Lok Chineseness 3

London-Hong Kong and San Francisco…diasporic and co-temporalities in flux…aspirations and can settle and return, and nostalgia ‘loss and displacement…romance and fantasy’. Unified yet isolated. “Tria-logues”…spaces of cultivation…habitual notions of the conversation. The changing name of China from the ROC to PRC…Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China. Post-unification leading to a Hong Kong-China…the development of an ethno-national cultural identity. Classification of archival materials to challenge the preoccupations of categorised material…language and place, by eye and by ear…



Susan Pui San Lok Chineseness 2

Susan Pui San Lok Chineseness

Romanticise and exoticise China…increasingly abstract paradigms…representative of the post-colonial in dialogue. Post-colonial in diasporic translation. Unauthorised translations…over generations, multiplying and condensing. Appropriated and reassembled through to a simultaneity and diasporic imaginaries.

Lo Yuen-yi (Macau/Hong Kong)

Lo Yuen-yi is a writer, lecturer and artist trained in communications and fine arts…”scripta-visual” communication. Before talking of conceptual ideas, she talked about some of her online exhibitions…mapping, graph, artefact, a fragment and utterance…work that she has done over the past fifteen years placed online to be seen in a different dimension. It gives justice to the research she has done into ‘nüshu’ women’s script – a syllabic script, a simplification of Chinese characters that was used exclusively among women in Jiangyong County in Hunan province of southern China. It is a metaphor…also referencing the artist’s social, cultural, political implication in the work. Drawing as a practice and strategy, and drawing with/through language…drawing on paper, working with rice paper, with charcoal and pencil focussing on a series of themes. Obsession with drawing hands…the engagement and physical nature of hands. Abandoned the use of canvas to work on linings…the fabric on the inside of seams…abandoned charcoal to only work with pencil.

Lo Yuenyi Chineseness

After dreaming of  ‘nüshu’…asking friends about this meaning in her dream…she came across this quote:

“…the discovery of a secret script…used only by women, uniting then in ‘an exclusive sisterhood’. This kind of anthropology evidence suggests the possibility for women of articulating the ‘wild zone’ of their own experience, outside the dominant culture of man” – Janet Wolff

She cites ‘nüshu’ as part of embroidery and calligraphic work, also as part of manuscripts as booklets (an autobiography) and the work of Yang Huan-yi (1906-2004), the last woman to communicate secretly with others in this rare script.

“…the heritage of ethnography was an inexhaustible treasure-house not of styles and artefacts, but of ideas.” – Michel Foucault

Drawing point is the entry point for the artist or an extension of something else.

“Living means leaving traces” – Walter Benjamin

José de Guimarães (Portugal)

Renowned Portuguese artist José de Guimarães is fascinated by cultural similarities after travelling globally, seeing his time since Africa as being most important. He is interested in cultural expression and symbols in painting and sculptures more recently with Chinese paintings and symbols. He stated, ‘when I meet a new culture, I try to understand the aesthetics, the alphabet…building a new iconic/pictographic alphabet’. Layer upon another layer, merging the contexts…merging the cultures – anthropophagic – the eating each other. He creates an archaeological survey in terms of culture through the written element in his work. When connecting with Africa, he used his mode of anthropological enquiry to make sense of the culture that he is in…the link of the past of the Portuguese around the world from Africa, Asia, Mexico…following the footsteps of the Portuguese former empire. The meaning and importance of the body…the body as a fragment of something, the body as the structure of a civilisation. When we see the sexuality in his drawings it belongs to the China and Hong Kong series from the end of the 1990s, and developed anthropological research into the migration of immoral representations of the body in China. The influence of paper-cutting from China, Japan and Mexico. Difficult to pick up the archetypes of Mandarin in comparison to Mexico and Africa where he created new alphabets therefore, he decided to use calligraphy as a way to mediate this problem. He is trying to do the reverse in a time sense of the pictograms…put modern things, process, images in their first-day, their birth. Then he can find the archetypes behind the world we perceive. His work has also taken the form of sculptural interventions, public art, signage, and more.

José de Guimarães 1

José de Guimarães 2

José de Guimarães Chineseness

Paul Gladston: Susan, is there a non-diasporic identity?

SPSL: The term diasporic/diaspora is problematic due to its duality…the move from diaspora to diasporic. Even when you shift it from noun to an adjective it still returns to the noun and to an object. More recently heard it in relation to movements, to circularity. It is difficult to use.

PG: The problem with diaspora…an individual or group have left a place of origin without or without the possibility of return…that sense of origin is not clear in relation to a lot of what we call diasporic. Individuals within groups in the PRC, whether they have clear points of origin.

SPSL: Rather than seek some better fitting paradigm there is still time to unpack, multiple and locate the diasporic in a particular context…which diasporic trajectory are we talking about? How do we pick at the finer details…what ends up happening is its disappearance…you can pick out markers of something, yet at the same time, I am very interested in how to disturb those markers, or to make them disappear, to not just invite inversions but to think of impulse and motivations.

PG: It is contingent circumstances that set diaspora in motion.

SPSL: To go back to your question about origins, this is partly why I am looking at semi-mythical, semi-historical narratives that give a romantic identification…yet in the journey of looking at the multiple media encounter you never see or meet a first version of something, its iteration. In terms of ancestry, narratives around affiliation…how do you engage, practice, or contest that? There have always been interruptions…you can’t go back to something comfortably. We’ll always have a problem between practice and writing and theory.

PG: Lo, is the idea of a differentiation between male and female languages that can be shown in practices. Do we need to differentiate further between a Chineseness and non-Chineseness?

LY: I don’t see ‘nüshu’ as a female language to confront the Mainland…I see it as a strategy to do my drawing, something I am working against…it is not about East/West, male/female. It is about the working ways, working something out differently not to do with conventions. I don’t want to phrase women’s script and create a confrontation to language. It is an alternative to practicing.

PG: Linguistic conventions have let us down…we constantly slip back into dialectics subconsciously.

LY: When I do drawings of objects, I do it consciously and subconsciously…I am finding and discovering something that is no doubt internalized in me. I try to make it open.

PG: Do you think the word strategy is right? Or is it tactics? Strategy has an aim, tactic is contingent. I see them as quite tactical.

LY: Maybe I have adopted a strategy from Irigaray.

PG: José, I was interested in the way you performatively go out and use a colonialism to retrace steps. Are you aware of the past baring down on your work and do you deal with this critically in your work? Also the use of signs from different cultures and a relationship to a colonial past.

JdG: The following of the Portuguese colonialism is incidental…I’m not trying to bring a discussion between the colonised countries, it’s my personal enquiry with the culture. When I was in Angola in the 1960s, I was a soldier and an artist. I am trying always to understand a culture. It’s not to do with politics…it’s my own anthropological enquiry. I want to see myself what that culture means and its connections to others. I want to skip the translation in terms of time old by modern historians to see it myself and the only way I could do this is through a pictorial alphabet, to decompose images, to understand each fragment. Through making a colonial perspective and pathway to fully understand the connections that still exists in the contemporary art scene between two cultures. Otherwise I won’t understand the cultural and artistic link.

PG: Is this counter-mapping?

JdG: Yes, it is like the work of ‘The Transcultural Nomadism’ book. My anthropological enquiry started in the 1960s, and recent years I have been collecting historical artefacts and objects…jades, pre-Colombian art, African sculptures…my own counter-mapping.

From the four days of “Chineseness”, the key themes I recognised  included:

  • Performance and ephemeral practice, and the archiving of this practice, through themes of urban negotiation, social interaction and zombie-fication;
  • Place, “placeness” and displacement/rupture;
  • Past, presents and futures;
  • The location and centre of contemporary Chinese art and art practice;
  • Chineseness with the theory of hypenation;
  • The impact of the canons of art histories;
  • Migration, immigration, and diasporic to diaspora examinations;
  • The role of publishing and critique;
  • The role of the curator and curatorial strategy;
  • “Living means leaving traces” – Walter Benjamin;
  • Essentialism and Confucianism.
  • Social art practice and border (crossing);
  • ‘There is no ‘Asia’ in China’ – Baik Young-seo;
  • Role of terminologies and language (as a system) both as textual written and textual visual symbols and characters, thus interpretive and language (mis)translation;
  • Historical ethnography and anthropology…”foreignness” and “new internationalism”;
  • Inside-outside…beyond to an unknown imaginations…unknown possibilities…invisibility;
  • Hybridity and globalisation;
  • Split or hybrid identity – artist-curator, curator-critic, curator-scholar;
  • Gender and the engendered;
  • “Marriage” and the wedding as an act of representation.

1 Comment

  1. Reblogged this on China Avantgarde and commented:
    ‘International Research Network for Modern and Contemporary Chinese Art’ sounds like a great idea. I’m intrigued by mention of Gladston’s mention of a “closed network,” something which is closed by necessity, or choice? I can see some benefit of the the latter (selectivity leads to higher quality), but in this context perhaps open is preferable.

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