One Hand Clapping: Proposing
Visions of China’s Future
One Hand Clapping
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
04.05.18 – 21.10.18
Translated by Bridget Noetzel
We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?
The title One Hand Clapping can be associated with the Chinese phrase, ‘it’s hard to clap with one hand’ ( guzhangnanming ). Xiaoyu Weng, the exhibition’s curator, began with this point, revealing possibilities beyond the idea that ‘it’s hard to clap with one hand’. We can see this as a metaphor for the collision between Chinese culture and the Western world, asking how the West will respond when Chinese culture decides to signal its cultural independence. In other words, in the context of cross-cultural exchange, one side might decide to abandon considering the differences in cultural identity between the two sides and, in internal discussions, completely ignore the theme. Was this the kind of ineffective communication that inspired One Hand Clapping?
In realising this idea, the primary difficulty is that the theoretical world has repeatedly emphasised the ‘identity-lessness’ of artistic expression in cross-cultural exchanges, but in practice there is always an existential issue. When the curator attempts to lead the viewer into engaging in direct dialogue with the work of art, the viewer will habitually focus on discussing questions of cultural difference, regardless of the creative context of the works and the artist’s intentions. For example, in October 2017 the Guggenheim Museum took down three works involving animals from their Art and China after 1989: Theater of The World exhibition, as a result of protests from animal rights groups. After this event, the majority of the debate about the exhibition was about art and ethics in general, and any discussion of the works of art themselves hovered on the surface, or was summarily incorporated into the casual musings of Western scholars on issues related to the use of animals in art. Unfortunately, the curators’ original intention may have been to present these artists’ works as a local branch of global conceptualism, in an effort to prove that Chinese contemporary art was a form of resistance, thereby bringing it into the larger global trend of revolutionary movements around 1989. However, we might equally well envisage another exhibition of Chinese contemporary art by women and marginalised groups, criticising Theater of The World for placing an exaggerated emphasis on the influence of political events on artistic creation.
In fact, ever since the moment that Chinese contemporary artists landed in the ‘theatre of the world’ in the 1990s, they have had to react passively to the varying impressions that their work has made on observers in the West and find other ways of responding to them. Willingly or not, curators and artists constantly have to renew their expressive methods and themes, and this accounts for numerous misunderstandings, meaning that they have to spend their time clarifying stereotyped impressions, explaining their creative motivations, rejecting labels, pretending that there is no superficial relationship between culture and art and Chinese politics and economics, and falling back on the kinds of phenomena that are condoned in Chinese cultural circles. After all, whatever the true purpose of an art exhibition, people attribute meaning to it, as an embodiment, or expression, of cultural identity, and this meshes in with the logic of globalisation that is still dominant in the West today.
The failure of the China Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale in the eyes of the public is a good illustration of this. Even if the curators had assumed they were working from a position of mutual regard, this was not enough for them to identify a suitable point of entry, for developing a dialogue of adequate discursive authority. Moreover, this is not the place to discuss whether the inclusion of intangible cultural heritage in an exhibition of contemporary art reflected the curators’ personal preferences or whether this imposed an artificial constraint on the significance of the work on display. Simply attempting to incorporate the concepts of ‘an assembly of scholars’ ( yaji ) and ‘being expelled from office’ ( zaiye ) into the global context was as difficult as it would be for an old man to move a mountain. The Pavilion did not employ the now-popular working methods of socially engaged art, nor did it fit in with the vision of Chinese contemporary art that is held by international curators; and we don’t even need to go into the awkward position of handicrafts in the Western world, or the Pavilion’s disconnection from hot issues in the West. Although the works in the Venice Biennale were undoubtedly from China, perhaps they lost the ability to deepen the dialogue, because they were altogether ‘too China’.
Issues of identity are exhausting for the ‘Other’, in a Western context. Like a hovering ghost, whether or not you attempt to disregard its influence, everyone around you can see it. A ghost represents the unfinished business of a deceased person, just as the identity of the Other is intimately linked to the past. Such identities solidify divisions and become cultural signs that artists cannot escape from, accompanied by an interpretive black hole that cannot be avoided.
What should curators do, when history becomes a brand, when identity becomes a burden, when communication becomes a soliloquy, when background stories become small sub-branches in the larger spectacle of globalisation, and when globalisation has already become a historical product dominated by the West? How should they treat identity and the gaze of the Western Other in cross-cultural practices? After the Theater of The World at the Guggenheim, Xiaoyu Weng was confronted with these difficult questions, and she proposed a seemingly simple, yet profound, solution: trying to understand the future.
The ingenious side to ‘understanding the future’ is that the future is bound to the chaos of unknown objects and future events. When faced with the future, the similarities between human beings can perhaps transcend cultural identity, gender, race, and many other historically constructed differences. We are all condemned to the same ignorance; we have few clues to share, and we are all equally perplexed. Technology, machines, artificial intelligence and other factors have had a predictable influence on the world today. Under these circumstances, once issues of identity are buried away in visions of the future, this creates the possibility for reciprocal communication in the context of unequal rights.
Importantly, One Hand Clapping does not attempt to discuss a cyborg future that is entirely devoid of identity, thereby emphasising the concept of a ‘future China’. As the philosopher Yuk Hui wrote in ‘Moving Toward a Fork in the Technological Future’: ‘The future is actually a product of globalization.’1 He proposed that visions of the future full of Western technology are more often constructions of a globalised vision led by the West; academia must question this conformist idea of the future, investigating visions of technology within conceptions of the universe in different cultures, abandoning linear models of technological development, and re-conceptualising a multicentric technological future.
But in today’s context, thinking through the logic of technology and its derivations is not an artist’s strong suit; in Chinese antiquity, artists promoted ‘writing the soul in form’ and no artisans had invented the camera, or used it to create works of art. However, now that artificial intelligence, virtual reality and other modern technologies have entered into contemporary life, it is unrealistic to think about a future China without them. Even in One Hand Clapping, the works of Lin Yilin, Cao Fei and Samson Young all draw on symbols of a vision of the future, such as robots, virtual reality and sound synthesisers. When artists consider the future, the problem is knowing how should they handle these tools, which come from the West.
In response to this issue, the interpretations of the artists in One Hand Clapping take several different directions. The works of Duan Jianyu, Samson Young and Lin Yilin still emphasise the identity and mission of future artists – a marginalised identity that uses multiple media to explore the possibilities of primal senses. As the curator suggested in ‘Poetry and Place Afar’: ‘Although today’s discursive system of the humanities tends to place socially engaged artistic practice on a par with open political resistance, One Hand Clapping suggests another possibility, which is that removing oneself is an alternative mode of resistance.’2 Perhaps, in a future surrounded by the virtual world, digging deep into humanity’s primal senses is the final solution to classic romance.
Wong Ping and Cao Fei escaped the role of the artist long ago, becoming visionaries and writers of the future. The wonderful thing about their work is that their understanding of the future does not involve considerations of the future development or destiny of art, or a vast spectacle of some kind. They reduce the future to an independent script of a single individual life, whether absurd or sentimental, but they regale the viewer with deeply felt emotion and profoundly meaningful reflections.
If we accept Yuk Hui’s argument, we may conclude that investigating China’s future is still important, even though that future is bound up with the concept of globalisation. It is worth debating whether China has a tradition of thinking about the future. The utopia presented by ‘removing oneself’ is more like a spatial concept – an alternative world, in which time stops, and which may not even need to be prefaced by the idea of the future. Rooted in Chinese, in the logic of China’s culture, that ‘those who submit will prosper and those who resist shall perish’, I feel that the logic of life and death can provide the core underpinning for visions of the future. At all events, thinking about the future, as a way of intervening in the future, is a precious and valid means for Chinese culture to communicate with the Western world. When the organisers of the next ( 58th ) Venice Biennale came out with the title May You Live In Interesting Times, this suggested that the need to reaffirm Chinese notions of time and space, and life and death, felt more important than ever.
As proposals for a vision of China’s future, the visual spaces of One Hand Clapping are like harmonics, lingering endlessly in the air.
1. Yuk Hui, ‘Moving Toward a Fork in the Technological Future’, in One Hand Clapping, eds Hou Hanru and Xiaoyu Weng, Guggenheim Publications, New York, 2018, pp. 107 – 13. Translator’s note: It was not possible to obtain access to the English in the original translation.
2. Xiaoyu Weng, ‘Poetry and Place Afar’, in One Hand Clapping, eds Hou Hanru and Xiaoyu Weng, Guggenheim Publications, New York, 2018, pp. 19 – 34. Translator’s note: It was not possible to obtain access to the English in the original translation.
2018 年5 月4 日—2018 年10 月21 日
“单手拍掌”这一标题多少会让人联想到成语“孤掌难鸣”。而“单手拍掌”的策展人翁笑雨正是从此切入，揭示存在于“孤掌难鸣”之外的某种可能。我们可以将此标题看作是中国本土文化“碰撞”西方世界的隐喻，即追问当中华文化向西方世界传递某些陌生的且独有的文化信号时，西方世界将如何回应? 换句话说，在跨文化交流的语境下，如果一方决定放弃考虑双方文化身份的差异，全然以圈内人的沟通方式对话，这场看似如“孤掌难鸣” 的无效交流是否会擦出“单手拍掌”的火花?
为了实现这样的想法，主要的困难在于，尽管理论届屡屡强调跨文化交流中艺术表达的“去身份化”，但是在实践过程中总是存在问题: 当策展人试图引导观众直接与艺术品发生对话时， 观众仍然会习惯性地围绕文化之间的差异展开讨论，罔顾作品的创作语境和艺术家本人的意图。例如，在2017 年10 月纽约古根海姆美术馆举办的“世界剧场”展览中，由于动物保护组织的抗议，美术馆方撤下了三件使用动物创作的艺术作品。此后，关于这场展览的争论大多围绕艺术与道德问题，而对于艺术品的解读却流于表面，甚至有可能被轻描淡写地纳入“使用动物创作艺术” 类别下，供讨论相关问题的西方学者随意调遣。可惜，策展人原本的努力可能在于将其归于全球概念主义的地方分支，试图证明中国当代艺术作为某种抵抗形式，汇入1989 年全球革命运动的大潮——但似乎很快就可以构想另一场关注中国当代女性艺术和边缘群体的展览，批判“世界剧场”过分夸大了政治事件对于艺术创作的影响。
事实上，自从上个世纪90 年代中国当代艺术家登上所谓“世界剧场”那一刻起，就不得不被动地直面西方投射的各种印象并做出回应。无论情愿与否，策展人和艺术家们都在持续更新表达方式和主题，在重重误解中辩白——澄清刻板印象，还原创作动机，拒绝标签化，撇清文化艺术和中国政治经济间的浅层关联， 还原中华文化圈相对认同的现象。毕竟，无论出于何种目的，艺术展览都被无形赋予了文化身份展示或表演的意义——这也符合今天西方仍然占主导话语的全球化逻辑。
第57 届威尼斯双年展中国馆在舆论上的失败碰巧揭示了这一点。即便策展人摆出了平等交流的姿态，却并没有足够有力的话语权及合适的切入角度开展对话。先不提强调非物质文化遗产参与当代艺术创作是否属于策展人的个人行为且意义是否有限， 仅试图将“雅集”“在野”等概念引入全球语境难如愚公移山。此提案不符合当下流行的“社会介入艺术”的工作方法，也不符合国际策展人眼中的中国当代艺术的面貌，更不必提手工艺在西方的尴尬地位，以及这一话题与西方热点议题的脱节。尽管威尼斯双年展中的作品毫无疑问属于中国，但是可能由于“过于中国” 而失去了深入对话的可能。
身份问题使西方语境下的他者疲惫不堪。如同一个背后灵， 无论本人如何试图无视它的影响，身边的每一个人都看得到它。正如幽灵源于已故之人的未竟执念，他者身份紧密地连结着过去， 固化区隔，成为艺术家无法回避的文化标记，伴随而来的是其无法逃离的阐释黑洞。
当历史成为烙印，当身份成为负担，当沟通成为自说自话， 当背景故事成为全球化宏大景观的细小分支，而全球化已经是西方主导的历史结果时，策展人又该何去何从? 如何在跨文化实践中处理身份和西方他者的凝视? 同在古根海姆美术馆，紧接“世界剧场”展览之后，翁笑雨面对这样的难题，提出了看似简单实则深刻的解决方案: 思考未来。
在这个问题上，“单手拍掌”的艺术家们的解读展现了不同的趋向。段建宇、杨家辉、林一林的作品仍然在强调未来艺术家的身份和使命，一种身处边缘状态，利用多种媒介探索原始感官的可能。正如策展人在《诗和远方》所暗示的那样，“尽管今天的人文话语系统倾向于把‘社会参与性艺术实践’等同于公开的政治抵抗，‘单手拍掌’暗示了另一种可能性，即‘抽身而出’ 作为一种另类抵抗形式”。2 也许，在虚拟世界包围的未来中， 深掘人类原始的感官始终是古典浪漫的最后栖身之所。
基于上文许煜的观点，既然未来是一个全球化的概念，也许考察中国的未来观是一个同样重要的议题。甚至，值得商榷的在于，中国是否有思考未来的传统?“抽身而出”代表的桃花源式乌托邦更像是一个空间概念，一块时间静止的异世界，甚至不需要“未来”这一概念作为引导。而立根于中国文化“顺时者昌， 逆时者亡”的逻辑之中，笔者感到，存亡逻辑可能是未来想象背后更为核心的话题。无论如何，“思考未来”这一切入手段对于中国文化沟通西方世界而言，是一次宝贵而有效的尝试; 而当58 届威尼斯双年展提出“愿你生活在有趣的时代”这一主题时，重申中国本土的时空观及存亡逻辑似乎有着更为必要的意义。