I. Yunnan’s Contemporary Art on the Move
The “going out” and “coming home” are two mutually reinforcing and contradictory behaviors. The reason why I use them to make analogy is I want to borrow these two concepts to discuss the development of Yunnan’s contemporary art, the process from the “Art in Series” from 1980s to the “Art Homecoming” that now has been featured in the “Loft” and other art communities at Dali, Lijiang. It’s a two-way, interactive artistic and cultural exchange process, with a dimension as such I intent to explore the development of Yunnan’s contemporary art in the 1980s within its context. It also involves the locality of art development and the sense of cultural belonging of artists, as well as other sensitive and dynamic academic topics.
As for the beginning of Yunnan contemporary art, both the academics and critics currently agree that the “New Concreteness” artistic activities around the mid-1980s in Kunming and Shanghai served as the dynastic mark in the art history. The “New Concreteness”, and subsequent “Southwestern Art Research Group”, had transformed Kunming and Yunnan from a landscape scratching destination for the curious and sightseeing outsiders to an important site and breeding ground for China’s contemporary art events. In the context of ideological emancipation of the Chinese society at the time, “New Concreteness” and “Southwest Art Research Group” could be regarded as the cultural events equivalent of Enlightenment from the perspective of history of ideas. Interestingly, the premiere of Yunnan’s native contemporary art movement was not in Kunming, but in Shanghai, the coastal metropolis with the most “modern disposition” in China. I was told by Mao Xuhui and Pan Dehai, the two initiators of the “New Concreteness” program, that the contacts and visitation among the young artists from various places were actually very close during the time they were planning the “New Concreteness” exhibitions at Shanghai and Kunming. At a time when communication was extremely inconvenient and goods insufficient, young artists from all over the country insisted on practicing “Art in Series”, thus maintained a spiritual life that was high-quality, vital and people cherish its memory even today. Were it not for these high standard spiritual and cultural exchanges as a result, the look of Yunnan’s contemporary art might be totally different.
After 1989, another “Going out” practice for Yunnan’s contemporary art was the participation of “Chinese Experience” Exhibition held in Chengdu that Mao Xuhui, Zhang Xiaogang and Ye Yongqing participated in 1990 and the Guangzhou “Biennial” in 2000. And more artists chose to “go away”, moved to those cultural and commercial centers like Beijing, Shanghai, to look for new opportunities of their artistic development. There were a number of them even went overseas to the United States and Europe. For example, it was during this period that Zhang Xiaogang, Pan Dehai, Ye Yongqing, Tang Zhigang, Luo Xu, Sun Guojuan, Zhu Fadong and other artists experienced various migrations and wandering, and thus accumulated valuable experience in both life and art, foreshadowing their growth in arts as well as the development of Yunnan contemporary art later on. About the same time when Zhang Xiaogang and others “went out”, there were a number of artists moved to Yunnan from other places, among those typical ones were Liu Jianhua, an artist who was born in 1960s’, the Beijing artists Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, and the Taiwanese artist Han Hsiang-ning.
In the late 1990s, Yunnan’s large scale modern “Art Homecoming” campaign was highlighted by the iconic event of the establishment of the “Kunming Loft Art Community” on Xiba Road, Kunming. I can still recall the moment when I was in Guiyang when Sun Guojuan called me. My first response was: the wandering-ghost-like Chinese contemporary art had finished its phase of “encircling the cities from the rural areas”, and entered into an era of urban, everyday and legitimated public space. In the historical process of the transformation of Chinese contemporary art, Kunming stationed itself again at the forefront of culture and arts.
To date, the “Spiritual Homecoming” campaign of Yunnan’s contemporary art has not stopped. The cycle of “Out and Home” is still interactive in progress. A group of artists born in 1970s’ and 80s’, such as Xue Tao, Liu Lifen, Shi Jing, Zi Bai, Guo Peng and others have been frequently appearing on the cultural stages of the key cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other contemporary art centers. At the same time, Yunnan’s local communities, particularly with the establishment of a number of artist-run spaces and alternative spaces in Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, and other places, have provided a broader and more diverse platforms for the development of Yunnan’s contemporary arts. “Out and Home” is, among other things, about the indecision and hesitation, exploration and identification on the path in between the two poles. Comparing to the increasingly unbending and rigid cultural system, the true artists are a group of the most unsettled people. It seems that they do not know how to bow to fate, even though they have been positioned in a certain link of the social system, they probably still do not want to settle down and simply get on with their pursuit. In the depths of the souls, they are always wandering around, constantly looking out for the destination of life and home of spirit in their journeys as vagrants.
II. Journey of Spiritual Homecoming
I vaguely remember what the ancient Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius said in his book the Meditations something like this: life is like staying a home, you’re going out and coming back.
In this context, I actually regard “going out” and “coming back” as adjectives. Think about it. From birth to death, for the circle of life, how should one spend time and live in it? There are some who left home at a young age and gone missing. Perhaps they have become homeless, and have no choice but to wander around? Still there are those who returning home with glorious gray hair, roaming around in town, gathering friends and joyful, drinking and merry, inditing poetry and happy, and how delightful that must be?
When it comes to the sense of belonging, either geographically or spatially, however, the true artists, scholars or revolutionaries are the ones who though have no home yet desperately seek for the sense of home: they have never learned to regard themselves as a member of a community, but indulge themselves willfully, freeing themselves from any restrictions, lingering on the edge of the state apparatus, social institutions, rural and urban areas. Or shall we way, it is precisely because of this “I don’t get it” or “I don’t want to grow up” kind of attitude that leads to the youthful confusion and impulse of going out, as well as the adventure and passion along the way, and consequently the warmth and emotionality of coming home.
As a stranger here, I too left home at at a young age. It’s been more than 30 years, I am still on the way of “coming home”. For this reason, what’s the “Out and Home”, the exhibition and its texts, trying to tell are the stories of nine artists who share the same feelings and similar experiences as me. Most of the narrators of these “stories” experienced vagrancy in one way or another. They were born in 1970s and 80s, and for the most part have lived in Yunnan. For a variety of reasons, as a curator, I cannot nor do I intend in this exhibition to present a panoramic view of the phenomenon of the “exile” in China’s contemporary art from the 1970s and 80s to the present day. It is about the “cultural nomadism” and time conversion – which in themselves constitute the important factors of historical writing and action. All I can do is to capture subjectively a few droplets and fractions in the torrent of this era, reorganizing and piecing them together. What I would like to do is, by combining my own experience, to present to the viewers in a narrative style that resembles sections the pictures of the “spiritual homecoming” campaign in Yunnan that I perceived since the 90s.
These nine artists, namely Xue Tao, He Libin, Zi Bai, Liu Lifen, Guo Peng, He Ling, Su Jiaxi, Cao Ping, and Cheng Xinhao, belong first and foremost to a generation who wander in between the “hometown” and the “alien lands”. Wander is about rootless. To go back to the roots, they are making home everywhere, living in exile. For them to receive institutional education, it’s simply for the purpose of dealing with another kind of life. The failure and destitute in hometown have forced them to run away and lead a passionate life. They are strong on the inside, and cannot stand to look at the society as calmly and peacefully as the generation before them. There is always a sense of insecurity and anxiety in their eyes, and a hard-nosed struggle and anger within. For them to wander is more like a forced exile. They resist, but being overwhelmed. They are exiled by an era, but who can say that they should not be blamed partly for it? Their roots have been pulled out by a pair of invisible hands, away from the body and soul, having no place to rest. Thus, the suspicion has become pervasive, and their criticism nowhere to go, there is no other way but to continuously leading a wandering life.
Such a bodily as well as spiritual vagabondage makes one strapped in the cloud castle, too ethereal to be down to earth. They stuffed the image of their home into the trouser pockets, as if it’s a piece of luggage. It may be a handful of soil from home, about smelling the odor of it, hearing the news about it, yet it’s never a place putting your feet on it as a hometown. Being homeless, they are moving from one city to another, with an attitude and emotion, keeping on moving forward without knowing exactly what and why.
They have tried to identify themselves with others through arts. They don’t want to be irresponsible heroes, yet they end up being deceived. With that, they learned in horror that they are exactly the same as others. They don’t know where they are and where they are going? They constantly assume opponents and enemies for themselves, even at the expense of opposing the society, only to preserve their own independent personality. They have their memories rest in childhood, though in flesh they are thousands miles away from it.
The materialism began in the 1990s has made everyone restless, yet they strangely prefer a life that is full of risks. They keep wandering, and looking for thrill. It seems that only in dreams, in an on-and-off manner, could they find something real – fantasy love, childhood memories. Perhaps they have come to know the reality better than anyone, but they continue to deny its very existence. Rather they still choose to fantasy, and continue to deceive ourselves as well as others. Or let’s put it this way, it’s true that Yuanmingyuan, Songzhuang and Loft Kunming were indeed the pure lands in their former days. Nevertheless, when people realized the “artists” are pouring into these places like the beasts after their preys, these places have in fact died. And the youngsters left behind in the communities begun to embrace art capitalism, opportunism, cynicism and guild Conservatism.
The idea of art utopia since 19th Century believes that artists are living in a world that both surpasses the time and includes all times. While a world as such must be good, it could be incredibly empty too. It’s not possible for human to escape from survival, after all. Be it a scared artistic temple or the primitive and simple rurality, there is never a permanent haven. For an artist forever “on the road”, time is indeed a tyranny should be repealed, yet it also serves as a downstream buoy on the way home.
Like different voices in the polyphony, everyone’s life has its own pattern, and each one is an exception. To my mind, all stars up there are so amazingly on display, I dare not to discard one or reject the other. This era has made the artists in our time, just like how the artists in this era made our era. Perhaps they have never gone out yet, then there’s no need necessarily for them to come back home. Or they are coming back in order to go out again. Because the final stage of an adventure is often time the initial phase of another adventure. “Out and Home” are the two forces that constitute a perpetual golden band that intertwined, and going in opposing directions, bringing us the surprises of outing and affection of homecoming.
“Do not ask where I come from, my hometown lies far away.”
While “going out” is for “coming back home”, our mind would still be impressed by the beauty and touch along the way.
Midnight, December 03, 2014