Guest Author of July 2010
GAO Shiming is one of the leading theoricians of contemporary art in China today. From 2007 on, his work has been guided by certain topics such as curatorial practice which he introduces as a cultural discourse of its own. He has been participant of the third GAM Platform which, in May 2009, took place at Goethe-Insitut Hong Kong. In the following text he analyses the relation between cultural homogenization and heterogenization. Hybridity in his view, no longer signals the negotiation of difference but rather describes the present cultural production and its mobile state. In particular, Gao Shiming rethinks the interaction between global and local. In this context the audience plays a leading role. “The key to the reconstruction of the local subject is whether the local narrative is about China or from China.” It may be important to follow his argument that today we have to “create our own meaning in the current environment of global production and the flow of signs, images, and meaning.”
The Unweaving and Rebuilding of the Local. Or, A Be-coming Future
At the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, the London city government used a sightseeing bus filled with people of different nationalities and ethnicities to present a multicultural spectacle to the world, a gesture that attempted to depict peaceful co-existence among diverse nationalities and cultures. Yet the notion of a harmonious postcolonial world is to be found not only in the post-imperialist West, but also in supposedly de-colonized non-Western societies. The greatest benefit of this notion is that it prompts a continuous questioning of centuries of exclusionist policies and conventions in the West and the desire for a heterogeneous, tolerant, pluralistic, and open society. In the postcolonial West, policies of multiculturalism have been aimed at guaranteeing an open, viral, civil society and a new West that would emphasize tolerance and diversity. But is it really time to celebrate the victory of this utopian ideal and of postcolonialism?
Postcolonialism has earned a place in the enclosed and dominant worldview history of nation-states. It has been integrated with various social movements in the past forty years and cleared new critical and narrative ground. Its merits are obvious in literature, the arts, and politics. However, these merits have quickly degenerated to one of routine within the last twenty years. We often see and hear symbolic forms of cultural critique in various international exhibitions and symposiums labeled with key terms such as: “identity,” “the Other,” “translation,” “immigrant,” “migration,” “indigenous,” “difference,” “diversity,” “hegemony,” “marginalization,” “minority,” “oppression,” “visible/invisible,” “class,” “sex,” and so forth. Today, given the existing postcolonial toolkit, these concepts and ideas that once possessed revolutionary critical force have assumed another dominant form of discourse, this time, in the name of “political correctness.” The formerly deconstructive and anti-hegemonic critical strategy is setting up its regime, a “regime of the Others,” within academia. For over a decade. postcolonialism has become an aggregate of theoretical criticism and strategy, a eatchall field of a “politics of discourse.” What this politics of discourse has created is a society formally free to realize a society that praises difference, but that cannot create difference itself.
Multiculturalism and political correctness, in essence, allows every one the right to safeguard him- or herself, and that every one should tolerate all others. However, once politicized and transformed into an ideology, diversity and tolerance can quickly degrade to cultural relativism, or even cynicism, thus constituting the emasculation of the cultural ideal. Politics and capital will quickly occupy territory upon the retreat of value judgment, forming the hegemony of managers and the tyranny of Others. Unfortunately, it is only the combination of power and self-interest that sustains the industry of major international art exhibitions, endlessly creating the typological stars of multiculturalism and the “post-colonial subject.”
Multieulturalism no longer seems to be a threatening and dangerous “virus,” but, rather, a “vaccine” that has helped a still-powerful organism called “the West” develop “antibodies.” Indeed, through the apparent pursuit of this ideal of harmonious co-existence among an increasingly diverse citizenship, a newer, upgraded “post-West” version of multiculturalism has emerged. In this version, the ideals of postcolonialism and multiculturalism have been skillfully transformed through propagandistic strategies in order to manage difference, while concepts of identity, hybridity, and diversity have gradually evolved into lofty-sounding, but increasingly hollow, political statements.
On the one hand, in contemporary everyday life in the West, coexistence with difference or the Other is now inevitable. On a social or existential level, diversity is a fact of life. On the other hand, the ideology of multiculturalism has also been embraced by global capitalism, which has transformed it in order to safeguard and develop multinational interests. As a result, a “multicultural management mechanism” has replaced critical multiculturalism, and the negotiation of difference has resulted in a new policy of domination. Calls for diversity, tolerance, and for letting the Otber speak in the halls of government have become tools of political propaganda as well as of a new ideology of global capital. The task of the artist exposing the complexities and contradictions of this political predicament is significant once again.
However, in the last forty years, politics has been transformed into politics of discourse, which is an assembler of identity politics, representation politics, and translation politics. In the realm of politics, art is an agent of control and, in the realm of art, politics become a prosthesis of significance. A prosthesis implies some sort of handicap. What is the apparent handicap within contemporary art that requires a prosthesis? Can the artist’s critique of society and history be effectively applied in the real political world? Or is artistic discourse and action (handicapped or not) doomed to remain outside the realm of politics?
Today, when multiculturalism has witnessed a transformation from critical enlightenment to a politics of control and management, can we still talk about creativity, discourse among equals, and the voice of the Other? In an age of value negotiation, in the condition of multi-vocal modernity, and a non-linear historical view, can we still speak about the future?
Today, what is important is not the definition of “here” and “now” within a dualist paradigm of the global and the local. What is imperative is to develop a long-term historical vision and to approach our different pasts and our collective futures. What kind of society is possible if we abandon the national state and the temporal world view that structures the modern world? In the struggle between global capitalism and the aspirations and doctrines of an ideal, multicultural society constructed on the premises of inclusion and equality, have we lost an emerging world? Has the Other, who once signaled the crossing of known boundaries, the transcendence of the living space and the realm of the imagination, been institutionalized, and lost his or her identifying characteristics and become homogenized? How do we talk about the forthcoming “order” without relapsing into the language of imperialism or tribalism? Can we reconstruct our history, plan an open future, and create a diverse and undetermined pact with the present by going beyond the cultural mechanism of nation and country?
Over the past twenty years, two influential discourses in international academic circles – multiculturalism and “the clash of civilizations” – have conjured up different pictures of the world. On one side, some discussions around multiculturalism attempted to represent a positive statement about the postcolonial global village; on the other side, the theorists of “the clash of civilizations,” led by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington (1927-2008), revealed new global tensions of ideas, values, and beliefs after the end of the Cold War. At the forefront of intellectual discourse today, we can find clear arguments that counter these two discourses. Regarding the former, the Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Zizek (b. 1949) questions whether it is multiculturalism or the cultural logic of transnational capitalism. Regarding the latter, the Vietnamese American artist Trinh T. Minh-ha (b. 1952) has shown us the first world in the third world, and a third in the first. In the face of the current global financial crisis, the discourses of Zizek and Trinh T. Minh-ha are especially significant. Within what framework should we discuss the present world – this pluralistic global-local conglomerate – carrying as it does the collective fate of mankind? East and west, south and north, developed and developing countries, First World and Third World – these traditional dualist models no longer seem adequate to describe today’s world where culture and politics, power and capital, self and Other are intertwined. We need a system for reconfiguration of cultural identity and new mechanisms for knowledge production. This requires the establishment of a new cultural subjectivity.
The Turkish Sinologist Atif Dirlik (b. 1940) has explored an important antinomy in the globalization process of the capitalist market that exists between cultural homogenization and heterogenization. He points out that whether the world develops towards homogenization or heterogenization depends on which aspect we look at, and what sort of meaning we assign to what we see. This is because homogenization and heterogenization not only take place with the progression of the logic of the economy and race, but also as a consequence of the development of culture that grasps and manipulates difference. Dirlik’s discussion of homogenization and heterogenization implies an anxiety about the modes of production of globalized culture. Complex cultural integration is taking place everywhere in the modern world and is known as “cultural hybridity” in the jargon of contemporary cultural studies. Hybridity is not the same as the theory of “cultural integration” that was highly influential in twentieth century China. As a concept within cultural criticism, hybridity eliminates the tension and conflict between identification and difference and between homogenization and heterogenization, as though all intricate contradictions and differences are recognized. But the question is, does cultural hybridity suggest the possibility of a new mode of cultural production? The concept of hybridity is so general as to be superficial, and does not resolve the question of what constitutes cultural homogenization-heterogenization, but, instead, seems only to sidestep and eliminate it. One might say that hybridity is becoming a synonym for a confused, abstract, mixed notion of culture that is not bound by values. More importantly, hybridity no longer signals the production and negotiation of difference, but, rather, is a rough generalized describing on a present situation. As such, it disguises dialogue and struggles between different cultures in the global-local context; it deflects the possibility of cultural production in the global flow of symbols. forms, and ideas.
We must confront the far more complex and mobile state of cultural production in the global-local context. Here, what we should consider is no longer hybridity and “creolization,” but re-signification in the interaction between global and local. In this process of re-signification and cultural recoding, the issue of homogenization-heterogenization becomes part of the production process of global capitalism, and is no longer just an introspective postcolonial self-imagination.
James Cantalupo (1943-2004), the former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of McDonald’s Corporation, once said: “It is the aim of McDonald’s to become apart of local culture as much as possible … People call us ‘multinational.’ I prefer to call ourselves ‘multi-local’1.” Cantalupo’s remarks clearly point out the multi-local character of today’s capital, which is totally different from what we usually call international. In contemporary life, international has little to do with the Internationale anthem and its revolutionary ideals of liberating all mankind, where, in China, its sentiment is still manifested as a concept and desire of current development. From Shenzhen’s Window of the World amusement theme park to Yiwu’s international small commodity market, from the contrasting sights on either side of the river at the Shanghai Bund to the theme song of the Beijing Olympics that promotes “One World, One Dream,” the idea of the “international” is manifested in different ways in contemporary Chinese society. Cantalupo’s reference to the multi-local implies more than just transnational capitalism in the post-Cold War era with its hegemonic overtones. Indeed, transnational is often the subtext of “international,” presaging the capitalist cultural strategy of localization in the process of globalization.
This cultural strategy is applied within a post-international context or the complex interaction between global and local. In a canonical “international space” such as an international airport, we see identical multinational brands, unique local specialties, and travelers with suspended identities. Here, there are dear distinctions between homogeneous and heterogeneous, between international and national. But in the post-international context, everything is ambiguous. Nationalism can be a feature of the cultural policy of a nation or the cultural marketing strategy of multinational capital. By re-packaging themselves with local cultural elements, multinational enterprises redefine the cultural character of their products. This strategy greatly enhances the ability of capital and consumption to penetrate into quite diverse local societies. In this process of localization, global capital reinvents itself and becomes multi-local.
Globalization not only creates sameness, it also creates divisions. Over the past few decades, production of difference has been a core concern of intellectuals. But today, the most important differences of time. space. And society are realized by the production and consumption of global capitalism.
A few months ago, the Hollywood animation film Kung Fu Panda became a worldwide hit and had an especially enthusiastic reception in China. Its American director, John Stevenson, remarked that the film was a tribute to Chinese culture, a “love letter written to China.” Indeed, the movie abounds with typical Chinese elements from the panda to martial arts, landscape to architecture, Chinese characters to firecrackers, chopsticks to noodles. In its soundtrack with a distinct Chinese flavour, scored by the Hollywood-based German composer Hans Zimmer (b. 1957) and the British composer John Powell (h. 1963), and in its use of Chinese terms such as shifu (master), we can feel the sincerity of this “tribute,” However, this “love letter written to China” is a hybrid of Chinese vocabulary and Hollywood syntax.
From the much criticized Mulan2 to the acclaimed Kung Fu Panda today, Hollywood has apparently deepened its understanding of China. This is shown not only in the more accurate use of cultural signs, but also in the creation of authentic Chinese settings and mood. More important, unlike Mulan, Kung Fu Panda does not simply employ a Chinese story and Chinese symbols, but it also borrows heavily from the camera style and forms of Chinese film, especially Hong Kong action cinema. Those familiar with Hong Kong films can easily detect the influence of actors Jackie Chan (b. 1954) and Stephen Chow (b. 1962) in the film. It is said that the two characters K. G. Shaw and J. R. Shaw are the director’s tribute to the Shaw Brothers, the largest producers of Hong Kong kung fu movies in the 1970s. An Internet article reveals how Kung Fu Panda drew on the conventions of Hang Kong film:
From the director’s interview, we know that the scene where Shifu gives the giant panda Po training in martial arts through the game of snatching buns was borrowed from a Jackie Chan film. Rather nervously, they asked Jackie Chan to come and see it and he was full of praise for it. Actually, Po the panda is based entirely on Jackie Chan – with his lively facial expression, exaggerated body language, humorous martial arts moves and acrobatic jumps. Po is given all the martial arts skills of Jackie Chan, who was also asked to dub the role of Monkey. The way Po falls clumsily to the ground is just like a trademark Stephen Chow move. Even in the final duel, we can see Chow’s famous trick of stepping on the opponent’s toes. Kung Fu Panda also takes inspiration from Ang Lee. In the opening scene, the panda, wearing a cape and a bamboo hat shielding his eyes, walks into a little shop, orders a bottle of wine and then starts a fight with a few challengers … This familiar scene is taken from the inn scene with Jen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In terms of the presentation of martial arts, the trick of standing on a tree branch and flying through the air doing the splits is Chinese kung fu Americans learned from Ang Lee in Crouching Tiger3.
But no matter how much we emphasize the Chinese influence on Kung Fu Panda, the fact remains that China is still an object that is being described in the film, a typical example of representation of the Other. For Hollywood, telling the story of the Other does not involve only the question of who has the power of discourse – it is also a lucrative business. In China, the film grossed over ten million renminbi, its highest box office revenue worldwide. The overwhelmingly positive reception by Chinese audiences was not a result just of the Chinese subject matter, but of a sense of familiarity brought about by Hollywood’s emulation of Hong Kong cinema. At the same time, we should not forget that Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow have been heavily influenced by Hollywood. Hollywood copies Hong Kong cinema, which used to copy Hollywood, and sells the Hollywood version of a Chinese story back to China. With this reciprocal copying and consumption, the issue of what is typical or characteristic has become rather complicated. The cultural logic of Kung Fu Panda is: I follow what you’ve followed from me, and you consume what I’ve consumed from you.
The cultural logic of global capital is to identify with various “local” cultural environments. Such localization can change its mode of operation, but it will never give up its power as subject. Despite the vast number of Chinese elements, the spiritual core of Kung Fu Panda is still American. Po the panda is actually a street-dancing American youth – fat and free with a Hip-Hop spirit. The story of the panda learning martial arts is really an old-fashioned Hollywood tale whereby an ordinary youth defeats the monster, saves the world, and thereby proves himself. It has nothing to do with the Chinese martial arts spirit that stresses “crying out against justice and avoiding the use of force as far as possible.”4
The box-office success of Kung Fu Panda has provoked much discussion in China. Some observers argue that it promotes Chinese culture and is “more Chinese than the Chinese,” while others call its representation of Chinese culture superficial and “another cultural and capitalist invasion5.” But today, we can no longer judge cultural production and consumption simply from a nationalist or traditionalist stand point. Whether we consider identification or difference, identity politics or symbol economy, internationalization or nationalism, they have all been assimilated into the marketing strategies of global capital in various local markets. Can we say that the Chinese elements in Kung Fu Panda, the localization strategy of MeDonald’s, and the cultural codes of Chinese contemporary art follow the same logic? What is the difference between cultural and economic nationalism and putting a local brand on global products? It is hard to differentiate between the recoding of cultural meaning and the manipulation of meaning in the marketing of goods. What is global and what is local? This is now the major question. The relationship between cultural resignification of the local, nationalism, and the localization marketing strategy of global capital, is equally complex and difficult to determine.
In the 1950s, the renowned Sinologist Joseph Levenson (1920–69) refers to how the West has changed China’s language, while China has expanded the Western vocabulary. Half a century later, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas (b. 1944) laments that China has changed the world, but does so without a blueprint. The remarks of Levenson and Koolhaas represent two different Western views of China during different periods. However, in the face of the present global flow of symbols and capital-cultural production, these two views of China are too simple. Kung Fu Panda has created a new global fashion of chinoiserie. It is said that Hollywood versions of The Tale of the White Serpent, Journey to the West, and Dream of the Red Chamber will be made in the next few years. As long as the Chinese economy continues to boom, this vogue will continue. But this new vogue in China for things Chinese is very different from the passion for chinoiserie popular in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Its site of consumption is first of all in Chinese territory, and its production mechanism is also far more complex, involving, as it does, continued reciprocal copying and consumption.
In a 1983 article, the Italian author Italo Calvino (b. 1923) reminded us that in the Odyssey, the story of Odysseus’s journey home already exists before the protagonist’s return6. That is to say, the story precedes the events that it narrates. One needs to find, remember, and think about the journey home, since there is a real danger that the return journey may have been forgotten before it even takes place. To trace the return journey, one cannot rely on simple memory alone. Memory matters only when it has condensed past traces and future plans. The return journey must be planned and repeatedly told. This telling is not a review of the past but a preview of the future. Thus, the return journey becomes the exit from the labyrinth that is reality –both the point of departure and the way out.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus’s faithful wife is an important character. Her name, Penelope, means “web” or “wool” in Greek. To fend off her many odious suitors, this faithful and clever wife devised the trick of weaving a burial shroud by day and undoing it by night. This is not the decisive stratagem suggested by Odysseus to end waiting (the Trojan Horse ended the stalemate in the Trojan War), but a strategy to buy time for the sake of waiting. In the Odyssey, Penelope is a metaphor for the native land and home. If Odysseus’s fate is to become lost on his return and to make discoveries during this return, Penelope’s is that of waiting and of deconstructing and reconstructing while waiting.
In the end, Penelope decides that whoever can string Odysseus’s bow will be her husband. This is the real moment of reconstruction and choice-making. The criterion of reconstruction depends on the rigid bow that only Odysseus can string. This is the moment when Penelope becomes an executor of fate, and Odysseus can finally move from being a wanderer, and a stranger, to become the returning hero. The return also signifies rebuilding and proving the self. At this moment, Penelope’s reconstruction of the native land merges with Odysseus’ rebuilding of the self.
With respect to the issue of contemporary Chinese culture, the key to the reconstruction of the “local subject” is whether the “local narrative” is “about” China or “from” China.
We may believe that we are starting with the local, but this local does not consist of an existing base. Instead, it too is still in the process of deconstruction and reconstruction, departing and arriving. Reconstruction of the local subject implies the construction of the subject’s introspective space. Here, discourse finds its base, and a local perspective is established. With the establishment of a local perspective, the coding of the tension between Chinese and contemporary changes. In the contemporary local context, the interpretative anxiety and the question of the legitimacy of “Chinese contemporary art” can be substituted for by a question about the creation of “contemporary Chinese art.” From this perspective, we will find that “contemporary Chinese art” has a more diverse, complex, and profound meaning than “Chinese contemporary art.”
The point is not whether China is the Other in modernity. The question is whether, despite the huge success of “Chinese contemporary art” in the international arena and the capitalist market over the past twenty years, it appears that Chinese contemporary art was merely successful as an alternative modernity, as a local version of contemporary art. Its success was the result of identity politics and the playing of the “China card.” Today, we are above celebrating the success of this cultural-political strategy. We are no longer satisfied with fighting for space and rank within the globalized edifice in the name of the Other and in the name of fairness. Now, we are considering building a new home, a different system, a historic site for cultural creation and for subject renewal. It is the site of contemporary Chinese art. However, till today, we still lack an in-depth understanding of contemporary Chinese art. We even lack the basic discourse and framework for understanding the operative modality of contemporary Chinese art.
Contemporary Chinese art is pluralistic, quite different from the empty designations of hybridity or multiculturalism, both of which have become little more than a propaganda strategy of global capitalism. Pluralistic Chinese art, contemporary Chinese art, retains an inner tension, and is an ambiguous mess given the total lack of exchange between Chinese painting and contemporary art and between academic painters and experimental artists. The question is whether we can create a meaningful dialogue between these different systems.
When we discuss the choices embedded in art within the complex Chinese context today, we should examine three areas: first, the institutional experience and the value of Chinese painting both in the academy and in the market; second, the status of contemporary cultural production in the mass media and the consumer context; third, the modernity of consultation in confronting the heritage of art history and ideas in the last century, and how to create our own meaning in the current environment of global production and the flow of signs, images, and meaning.
Contemporary Chinese art no longer refers to a cultural import, the cultural practice of an alternative modernity, or a local version and localized model of contemporary art that originates in the West. Moreover, we don’t need to worry about whether it is a Western form or a Chinese form, or how to define “national character” or “Chineseness.” Contemporary Chinese art is an unfinished project, a world of possibilities. By virtue of being about possibilities, contemporary Chinese art has nothing to do with any form of nationalism or fundamentalism.
Neither East, nor West,
Neither South, nor North,
Now, I am here7.
The poetry of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (b. 1940) celebrates an awareness of the subject’s state of existence. The subject is not a given, a natural self. Instead, the self is established through continuous liberation and practice of freedom. At work in this open-ended self is not the enlightenment of the object but the enlightenment of the subject. Thus, the subject becomes self-renewing, rather than an agent in the field of ideological flow.
This is what the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-84) ealled “technologies of the self” or “topology of the subject,” an ethics of circumstance and related to the subject’s aesthetic of living. This is not a standardized system composed of values and rules, but an open system of various possibilities involving a new understanding of enlightenment. For Foucault, the ethics of enlightenment consists of two parts: the subject’s critique of reality and the subject’s self-reconstruction. It also implies a deconstruction and reconstruction of the cultural subject. In 2003, the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo held an exhibition entitled China: Crossroads of Culture. With a large number of historical relics, this exhibition showed the remarkable tolerance and diversity of Tang China. It was a “global village” of the eighth century. The exhibition reminds us that “China” is a cultural subject represented in terms of “civilized rule,” a community of the imagination and an all-encompassing open subject. This calls for us to imagine the future in terms of the repeated deconstruction and reconstruction of the “local” and the “subject,” and to actively discover the things that are “coming” and “forthcoming.”
I recall the poet Xiao Kaiyu (b. 1960), an artist who took part in the 3rd Guangzhou Triennial in 2008. While on his way to Qinghai to research local customs, he spoke at length with various local Uighur and Tibetan poets and became intensely aware of the “inner frontier” of the native land. He wrote: “Ethnicity and fatherland is doomed by birth. It is an accident at first, then we get accustomed to it and identify it as destiny … Don’t we belong to a nation not yet named? As I pass through city streets, wander around icebergs, deserts, beasts, and temples, reconciliation and dreams move naturally inside my body8.”
1 Li Conghua, Revolution of Consumption. Beijing: Renmin University of China Press, 2007. p 138.
2 Mulan (1998) is an animated feature film produced by Walt Disney Pictures. It is based on the legend of Hua Mulan.
3 “Why do we like Kung Fu Panda?,” From the blog of Xiao Yaochi, July 3, 2008.
4 In Chinese, Bu Ping Ze Ming, Zhi Ge Wei Wu.
5 “Why do we like Kung Fu Panda?,” From the blog of Xiao Yaochi, July 3, 2008.
6 Italo Calvino, Why Read the Classics? New York: Pantheon. 1999. p 21.
7 Abbas Kiarostami, With the Wind: Poems of Abbas Kiarostami, Beijing: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2006, p. 85.
8 Farewell to Post-colonialism: the Third Guangzhou Triennial, ed. Gao Shiming, Sarat Maharaj, and Johnson Chang. Guangdong: Guangdong Museum of Art, 2008. p 560.