Locating Displacement

Paul Gladston September 15, 2010

spiegel online

Envisioning the Complex 'Diasporization' of Contemporary Chinese Art

By Paul Gladston 

The term contemporary Chinese art is now widely used in an Anglophone context to denote various forms of Western influenced avant-garde, experimental and museum-based visual art produced as part of the liberalization of culture that has taken place within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since the confirmation of Deng Xiaoping’s program of economic and social reforms at the third plenary session of the XI Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in December 1978. The use of this term extends not only to scholarly texts and exhibition catalogues, but also to an ever growing body of magazine and newspaper articles, tourist guides and market surveys aimed at popular audiences eager to learn more about the development of a newly revitalized post-revolutionary China. For writers in Mandarin Chinese (putonghua), the corresponding term is Zhongguo dangdai yishu, which is often translated literally into English within a Mandarin-speaking context as ‘Chinese contemporary art’.[1]


Due to continuing state restrictions on free market enterprise and the mobility of labour within and across the borders of the PRC, throughout most of the 1980s contemporary Chinese art was produced and exhibited almost exclusively within what is conventionally referred to as mainland China (that is to say, those spaces claimed by Beijing as part of the PRC other than Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan). Since the late 1980s, however, the production and exhibiting of contemporary Chinese art has become increasingly internationalized, not only through the inclusion of works of contemporary Chinese art in dedicated exhibitions and survey shows outside mainland China (key examples of which include the now notorious Magiciens de la Terre exhibition held at the Pompidou Centre in 1989 and the widely toured exhibition China’s New Art, Post-1989) and the en bloc emigration of large numbers of contemporary Chinese artists, curators and critics in response to the political crackdown which took place within mainland China in the aftermath of the Tian’anmen killings of 1989, but also through the assimilation of contemporary Chinese art as a highly saleable commodity by the international art market. In light of which, there has been a tendency among more critically informed commentators – including Chinese artists, curators and critics such as Hou Hanru, Gao Minglu, Fei Dawei, Ai Weiwei, Feng Boyi, and Huang Yongping – to view contemporary Chinese art as a suitably transnational focus for internationalized post-structuralist discourse and in particular the critique of Western Orientalism/cultural imperialism associated with the terms post-colonialism and Third Space.[2]


At the same time, however, there has been a durable assumption running throughout much of the published literature on the subject of contemporary Chinese art (whether Chinese or non-Chinese in origin) that the term ‘contemporary Chinese art’ refers more or less exclusively to work produced by artists of ethnic Chinese descent who were born in mainland China and whose careers were initially established there. As a result, there has been a widespread tendency to define contemporary Chinese art as an object of art-historical and critical knowledge in strongly ‘core’ nationalistic terms by marginalizing or excluding from consideration as contemporary Chinese art the work of Chinese artists whose ethnic/cultural identities as Chinese cannot be linked directly to the geographical space of mainland China – namely, those identified with the extended Chinese diaspora and those living and working in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. Moreover, such thinking has also tended to overlook or downplay marked differences in approach toward the production of contemporary Chinese art within mainland China in favour of a more art-historically manageable and, to mainstream Chinese sensibilities, politically acceptable sense of overarching cultural ‘Chineseness’. While mainland China retains a notional identity as a unified geopolitical space under the centralized governance of Beijing (distinct from those of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan), and while that identity is strongly allied to the supposed socio-cultural homogeneity of a Han Chinese ethnic majority as well as the imposition since the 1950s of putonghua as a national lingua franca, it is in actuality the site of numerous historically contrasting regional cultural and social identities, a number of which, particularly in northern and south-eastern parts of China, have strongly informed the development of contemporary Chinese art. Despite the importance of these contrasting regional cultural and social identities to the development of contemporary Chinese art, most commentators have persisted in framing contemporary Chinese art as a more or less culturally homogenous, geographically bounded phenomenon. It is therefore possible to discern a powerful contradiction in relation to the discursive framing of contemporary Chinese art; one which, on the one hand, embraces notions of cultural diversity and interaction and which, on the other, seeks to anchor contemporary Chinese art culturally and historically within the fixed contexts of a particular time – 1978 to the present – and a particular place – mainland China.


Arguably, there is, then, a pressing need to develop alternative interpretative frameworks that give a rather less partisan/managerialist account of the highly complex and uncertain conditions in relation to which the production and reception of contemporary Chinese art now takes place both within and beyond the present-day borders of mainland China. One possible avenue of exploration here can be found in relation to arguments recently put forward by Alexandra Chang with regard to the envisioning of a distinctly ‘diasporic’ Asian-American visual art. According to Chang, Asian-American art, which includes work produced by the Chinese-American cultural diaspora, can be understood to have developed in relation to the shifting of the term diaspora from its conventional function as a noun to that of a verb; a shift in usage that, as Chang would have it, can be understood to signify ‘that which is performed through art, writing, dialogue – performing the untranslatable linkage-unifying of difference through the act of participation’.[3] For Chang the key issue at stake in relation to the interpretation of a diasporic Asian-American art is that it can be understood to go ‘beyond a single aesthetic … into a performative aesthetics  of connectivity and linkage as found in art collective formations and other actively practicing communities of affinity’.[4] Moreover, as Chang avers, by viewing Asian-American art ‘as performative connectivity within a global perspective rather than as artificially cut and isolated from a global Asian diasporic framework’,[5] not only do the stereotypes of Asian-American art posed by contentions of a single Asian-American aesthetic disappear due to its diverse nature, but there emerges instead ‘an aesthetics incorporating constantly shifting identities and social-political and historical issues’.[6] In other words, Chang’s view of Asian-American art is one that sees the performance of dispersal and displacement associated with the term diaspora as a means not simply toward the rejection of cultural homogeneity, but also the imagining of a global network of persistently unfolding cultural decontextualizations and remotivations that is nevertheless able to cohere around a certain, commonly held (though, in this context, undeniably provisional/non-essential) sense of cultural identity. Here, Chang can be understood to have gone beyond a somewhat static view of cultural difference by drawing on diaspora as a metaphor for a persistent state of synchronic-diachronic (spatio-temporal) displacement, one that is arguably commensurate with a Derridean conception of the sign as something that is always-already in a state of deconstructive dislocation (connectedness-disconnectedness), persistently differing-deferring not only from/to other signs, but also from/to itself as it is continually recontextualized and remotivated (translated) along serially incomplete chains of signification (both within and between differing language systems).


To return to the question of the interpretation of contemporary Chinese art, such thinking would appear to be apposite in that it suggests the possibility of an interpretative approach with immediate sensitivity to the distinctly uncertain and constantly shifting boundaries of the field of contemporary Chinese artistic practice both within and beyond the present geographical borders of mainland China – but one that does not lose sight of a necessary practical sense of interconnective ‘Chineseness’ (the locating of displacement, if you will). Crucial here is the notion that diaspora is not an addition to, but a pervasive condition of, Chinese cultural identity both within and beyond the present day borders of the People’s Republic of China. Instead of upholding the somewhat abstract and, it must be said, static internal-external cultural duality that currently informs the discursive structuring of contemporary Chinese as an object of knowledge, it is therefore possible to envisage an alternative conceptual positioning that allows for a rather more far-reaching and dynamic understanding of the relationship between contemporary Chinese art and Chinese cultural identity.




[1] See, for example, Zhang Xueying, ‘Thirty Years of Chinese Contemporary Art’, China Today 57.4 (April 2008): 4.


[2] See, for example, Hou Hanru, On the Mid Ground, Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2002.


[3] Alexandra Chang, Envisioning Diaspora: Asian American Visual Arts Collectives from Godzilla, Godzookie, to the Barnstormers, Beijing and Shanghai: Timezone 8, 2008, 121. Here Chang refers to Brent Hayes Edwards’ conception of diaspora as a metaphor that allows us to consider relations of ‘difference within unity’; that is to say, ‘a frame of cultural identity determined not through “return” but through difference: not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of “identity” which lives with and through, not despite, difference’. See Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translations, and the Rise of Black Internationalism, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003, 11-12.


[4] Chang, Envisioning Diaspora, 121.


[5] Ibid.


[6] Ibid.