Brian Holmes on Wed, 12 Dec 2007 12:06:53 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Lin Yilin

This thread ended a little prematurely (probably because of lack of
time for the participants), but some backchannel discussions convinced
me that it isn't really over. So here it comes back again.

Where the whole thing initially became quite interesting for me was
with Lin Yilin's discussion of the situation or predicament of Chinese
artists today, in a text I found in the "writing" section of his
website. He said that "If Chinese contemporary art cannot develop
a particular theory, then ultimately they would only be expensive
craftwork for this period of history." So what does it take to develop
a particular theory? Of "Chinese" art and society, or of any other?

The question immediately raised in response by Dan Wang was: Yes, but
who are the Chinese artists and theorists? In what farflung systems of
circulation do they exist and signify? And it's a very good question,
particularly when we are talking about a figure like Lin Yilin, living
out the classic pattern of expatriation that has emerged for so many
mainland artists. But then too, variations of that question could be
raised for Dan, David or myself - because I believe we are all somehow
at a distance from the contexts in which we live, having to do with
our own or our parents' emigration, the circuits of communication and
exchange in which we live and work, etc. Then there's yet another
layer if you want to bring in the distinction between those who are
considered "white" (that's my case) and those who are considered
"something else" (you name it). In the Anglophone countries starting
at least three decades ago, the questions of immigration and the
diasporic existence, and of the social norms, cliches and prejudices
that attach to such life trajectories, has given rise to lots of
discussion about identities, about communities that are "authentic" or
not, "exoticized" or "self-exoticized" or not, about the governmental,
political and mercantile currency of certain identity labels, and
maybe most critically, about who has what rights to speak about these
things. So that's definitely another conversation you can have, a real
one which always deserves to be brought up to date. However, and for
whatever it's worth, I was trying to point in a different direction.

The reason I said that if any significant theory of Chinese art and
society emerges, it will be written in Chinese, does not have much
to do with the great paradoxes of identity in the multicultural
Euro-American world. I said it because Chinese is the language of
subjectivity, education and communication for the vast percentage of
those living on the mainland, and also the language of control and
censorship. As with many situations across the world, where there is
censorship, the question of what can be said in the national language
becomes critically important (generally you can say almost anything
in other languages, because then it's not public, it's not taken
seriously, and the national government usually puts a great stake in
maintaining the pretense that only the national language matters). But
the issue is not just censorship either. As anywhere, if the theory
is going to be argued out between people and inside their individual
heads, and if the art that it concerns is going to be perceived, felt
and re-expressed differently by people for whom it matters, then first
both the art and the theory has to touch those people quite directly,
and not necessarily or not only through a self-reflection on their
identity. Rather I would say, in a more general formulation, that it
has to intervene somehow in the ways in which people make their lives
happen on a day-to-day and long-term basis, and in the relations
they maintain to existential problems and potentials (which are also
social problems and potentials). It has to help people question their
perceptions, their imaginaries, their habits and the obedience to
the laws that govern them. For these reasons, I would say that for
theory of the kind that Lin calls for to have any effect on the way
people negotiate the many complexities of life on the mainland, that
theory is going to have to be written in the very language of those
complexities, i.e. Chinese. But the point of saying this is not to
exclude other possible discussions, intersections, networks and so on.
The point is really to say that it is difficult to write significant
theory and to make significant art, you have to go deep into daily
life, popular cultures, generational and philosophical heritages,
laws, everyday rhetorics of manipulation and deceit, class divides,
regional and racial differences, etc. etc. My own diasporic existence
has taught me to be aware of the limits of widely spoken languages,
and of translation: because meaning is always made in a context, a
sentence is always completed in the minds and emotions and bodies of
those who hear it. And the social contexts in which meaning emerges
and becomes useful are very very different between countries and even
more, between regions and continents.

So that's one thing. But the reason I spoke of "semi-secret languages"
of theoretical discussion also needs elucidation. Because not only
do I think you have to talk about society in the very language that
articulates it, I also think that you have to develop languages within
languages. When I look at the avalanche of art-business in China today
- quite comparable for sheer volume of meaninglessness to what's
happening in America and Europe, but also quite different in the way
it's articulated - what I see is a real difficulty to find the time
and the conviction and the extended discussions from which significant
statements and postures and expressions can emerge. How do you get
over that difficulty, especially when it's compounded by political
pressures that make it very risky to take a particular stand on any
problematic issue? The only way I know is to form relatively small
and necessarily marginal groups, that is, to form contexts, where
people start speaking about things so specific that the very language
they use starts to become semi-secret, full of too much implicit
meaning for outsiders to fully understand. This is the only way that
I know to cut down the ambient "noise" and get to something original,
believable and decisive, something that oneself and other people
can act on. Of course this is a paradoxical and dynamic situation,
because ultimately one wants to enlarge the circle, to enlarge it
vastly, to create important images and ideas and to circulate them
very widely. But I think we can all see that the wide circulation
of repetitious, prefabricated ideas and images doesn't do much of
anything except reinforce the primacy of the circulation media over
what is circulated. And even without even knowing Chinese I could see
that there is really a lot of that kind of circulation going on in
China! As in France or Canada or Australia or the US, by the way. So I
suppose if I were living in China, I would try to start this kind of
marginal conversation. And if I were living diasporically (I am, as a
matter of fact) I would start becoming very interested in the contexts
where my expressions resonate, and I would try to engage many singular
conversations, including some in the place where I originally came
from. I would try to engage with multiple contexts, and then maybe
to link them. In fact, a very interesting idea was proposed in the
backchannel discussion that led me to write this post, it's the idea
of a "speaking network" rather than a speech community. But I would
say those two things coexist. There are national (and increasingly,
continental and imperial) speech communities, or language blocs,
where what is said and what surfaces out of the ambient din is really
the normalizing speech of power. And then, fortunately, there are
discreet, marginal and sometimes significant "speaking networks,"
where you still have half a chance to find something original and
useful. Keeping those networks alive is worth the effort!

best, Brian

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