Talk notes: ‘A New Chineseness’ – Liverpool Biennial 2016

As part of the supporting events programme for this year’s Liverpool Biennial festival was the talk ‘A New Chineseness’ facilitated by Ying Tan (Curator at Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA), Manchester and Guest Curator at the Liverpool Biennial) in conversation with En Liang Khong (Assistant Editor at Open Democracy, London). I’d recently met En as he’d reviewed my last curatorial project ‘RareKind China’, on show at CFCCA and across Manchester, earlier this year. (Still to blog about the outcomes for that project and share En’s words!) Tan helped to co-curate the Chinatown episode of the Liverpool Biennial festival, inviting En to contribute to the accompanying publication. Here are notes from their conversation…

ELK: Tan, you came and posed the question, is Chinatown in Liverpool or is Liverpool in China? Then more of a general question of UK-China relationships. It is now a new golden age of state-led relations with China, after a long thaw, and after Xi Jinping met the Dalai Lama. There’s a fear-desire complex alongside this that dominates the way the UK talks about China coming out of Westminster, the media, TV shows, newspapers…the piece I wrote for the book was written before Brexit and rise of hate crimes…it’s going to really impact the way the UK deals with China. I began by talking to Chinese writer Ma Jian, an exile writer in London, who described the shocking feeling of seeing Xi Jinping in London…”the sea of red”…seeing the Cultural Revolution appear again…reports on the sea change in UK-China relationships…so many anxieties floating around…

There is a new Chinatown development being built in Liverpool backed by Chinese investors…part of “Northern powerhouse” push. It’s a redefinition of what “Chinatown” means and has meant…a top down redefinition. It used to be a space that migrants staked a claim to…it’s a luxury development…a creation of a development as a financial opportunity with through extreme hyperbolic speech. William Callahan writes on a new Orientalism…privileging the People’s Republic of China…referencing gravitational points of “Chineseness”. Repatriated Chinese communities in 1945 drove home to me that “Chineseness” has always been part of a battle ground, to be contested. I wanted to look for other ways “Chineseness” was being articulated.

CFCCA deals with these complicated essentialised narratives…playing with distance…

YT: I began to understand that art was more about engaging in the tension between the individual and transformative social backgrounds. Within China this is heightened due to its multiple histories…it’s finding myself in this constant negotiation and establishing a critical distance. I’ve always been foreign. When I come into a new place, it’s natural for me to question in the place I am in. If the arts us to help us to understand the world in a more interesting way, it’s because it can help us create this distance to be aware if our position…to create a condition that allows for this distance between two issues…

ELK: It is about trying to create a process of “undistancing” in the work of the gallery. ‘RareKind China’ took an interesting positioning in Stevenson Square in Manchester’s Northern Quarter…a previous site of rallies and protests creating a feeling of being caught between two worlds.  Hong Kong is an interesting places in terms of distance…again caught between two worlds, the West and the Mainland…particularly after the Occupy Movement of September 2014. Nearly 70% identified themselves as Hong Kongers not as Chinese. In the Hong Kong political discourse, it’s very much about “pro” or “anti” China.

ELK: As a gallery how do you decide to showcase artists from the Mainland? You have the power to privilege artists over others. A lot of art criticism in the West treats Chinese arts in an essentialist dominant narrative…dissidents are big business…many times it is often not being able to see the ways they are mutually exclusive…

YT: Journalists like to put things in neat packages so they can be digested and taken back. It’s more complicated and nuanced than that. We try to do more that…to make people question things about Chinese contemporary art.

ELK: It is a “subconscious convergence”. Writers today are even more problematic, more so with a generation who haven’t experienced the trauma of China. You don’t often see writing that tries to get underneath that…under the national allegory. There’s this idea that you can only explain identity through place.

Gordon Cheung is an artist who is charting a new cartography between global superpowers and the space in between “belonging” and “not belonging”, which is why he focuses on virtual worlds…and a politics of ambiguity…


YT: Ma Jian’s book ‘Beijing Coma’ is written from the point of view of someone who was shot and in a coma from the Tiananmen Square…recalling stories and identities from the protest through different narratives.

“…you can never not look Chinese…”

ELK: I spent time trying to erase this, the feeling in between. Anthony Key is an artist who tries to do this too…also lot of these artists are exploring identity through food. Mainland Chinese artists or Chinese artists here feel a pressure to bring in Chinese symbols to their work. Then there is the marginalised and the periphery…the similarities and differences between national diasporas. America has established Asian communities…it’s similar to growing up herein the UK…community, literature, art…isolation even though people are told the opposite…

As I wrote this blog post, it brought to mind The Independent article (published today) called ‘The ‘yellowface’ snapchat filter in nothing new’ by Daniel York, which discusses racial appropriation today through digital and social media applications. To me, ‘A New Chineseness’ therefore, engages in the tensions between the individual and collective transformative social backgrounds of China and an understanding of a global China, through constant negotiation (and re-negotiation). Ultimately, it tries to establish a needed critical distance to understand our different positions in the world. This seems to be through multiple lens – inescapable Orientalism and essentialism; racial cultural appropriation, or through cultural pluralism of ‘A New Chineseness’.

I’ll be speaking about this topic more tomorrow morning at 11am as I am facilitating an ‘In Conversation’ talk with Canadian artist Chun Hua Catherine Dong on ‘The Transcultural Connection: Performing ‘A New Chineseness’ as part of The Cera Project’s seminar series ‘WE ARE ALL THE OTHERS’. Join us if you can! More details here.


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