Long March on the road of Revolution

Lu Jie 

The idea for the Long March Project first sprouted in 1998, in response to the growing interest in contemporary Chinese art, specifically around a narrative of post-colonial discourse and identity politics.  This intense struggle by Chinese artists to engage with the Other of the “West” only served to strengthen China’s identification as the “Other.”  Grounded in a narrative of contemporary Chinese art as underground and anti-mainstream, the emergence of Political Pop, Cynical Realism, and the culture of consumerism came to represent the rise of the individual against mainstream culture vicariously lived out through the oppressed identity of the artist.  The resultant narrative of “avant-garde” applied to artists since the 1990’s, and continues to predominate today, simplistically combined ideas of historical avant-garde, aesthetic avant-garde and social avant-garde.  In this way, art was made once again into a footnote of ideology.  In the same way, conceptual art has devolved into a fixed canon of visual and linguistic devices.  The question of how we face up to "the West" is in reality the question of how we face up to ourselves, and only a revolutionary self-understanding and revolutionary practice will provide the foundation for an answer.  It is within this context that I formulated the Long March Project.  The Long March (1934-36) spans multiple temporalities, narratives, disciplines and processes, and as such provided a metaphor which enabled me to see  the current expression of contemporary Chinese art in a globalized context.. Within the Chinese collective memory, the cultural meaning of the Long March is of something that is still in progress, pursued but not determined.  Issues of utopia, foundation, borders, crossing, local context, identity, migration, body, and methodology, are topics engaged with, and by, the historical Long March, and continue to form a vital part of our imagination today.  The Long March – A Walking Visual Display placed artistic practice into a relationship context with visual culture, through the linking of art works, examination of texts, visiting historical and geographical sites, and re-tracing memory through the format of visual display.

 

The Long March – A Walking Visual Display, undertaken from June – September 2002, was the culmination of four year of research and preparation that confronted the major issues facing contemporary art today and through juxtaposition, appropriation, and mis-reading situated them geographically along the Long March route.  Over 250 international and Chinese artists took part in this project realizing several hundred works.  When the team arrived in the city of Maotai a “Long March Glossary” was developed which sought to define key terms of the project.  One term was “Long March”, its explanation presented in four intertwined layers:

 

1) a process of movement through space, time, or thought without a fixed beginning or end, particularly one that involves excessive hardship or multiple transformations; 2) short form of "The Long March: A Walking Visual Display," a series of activities designed to interrogate Chinese visual culture and revolutionary memory, circa 2002; 3) an historic event in which Mao Zedong led a flailing Red Army over six thousand miles from their base in Ruijin, Jiangxi province to Yan'an, Sha’anxi province, simultaneously suffering tremendous casualties and developing the ideological and organizational structures which would come to serve as the basis of the People's Republic of China.[i]

 

From the beginning, the Long March Project has engaged the triangular relationship between art, revolution, and society in both “Western” and Chinese contexts. Through an engagement with the international communist movement and its influence and expression in China, site specific works were realized by participating artists and discussions took place that interrogated text and context, as well as the dynamic relationship between different historical periods, and the different multi temporal and multi-spatial modernities of Chinese history and their corresponding versions of revolution.  “Revolution” enters China in the beginning of the 20th Century, in the 60’s it is exported, and in the 80’s exported again.  The 20 sites of the Long March – A Walking Visual Display was based upon this linked, mutually influencing imagination of the Other and the Other’s imagination of ourselves. Through a metaphorical journey, these two strands of imagination were juxtaposed and allowed to interact: 

 

The Long March “looks to review the cause and effect relationships between revolutionary history and cultural ideology in P.R. China, especially Mao Zedong's ideology of "art for the people," in conjunction with ideologies that were prevalent in the West during the Mao era, including some that were inspired by Maoism. It looks to analyze how "Western" thought and art have influenced the creation and reception of art in China in the past and present. It sets out to re-examine how our reading and rewriting of things Western and the Western reading and rewriting of things Chinese has affected the self- and mutual understanding and the further creation of the West and China. Just like other simplifications and misreadings of Chinese culture, Western Maoists also set out to reinterpret Chinese history based on their own power. We must raise a new inquiry, seeing misreading as misreading, and acknowledging the creative power implied therein. Thus, the Long March includes artworks from other countries, just as the historical Long March involved contemplation of foreign thought and the integration of "sinicized" readings of such thought into Mao's guerrilla warfare tactics. The Long March examines the influence upon history of these shifts in thought, along with that of the process of national migration, capital flows, cultural changes, and the engagements, intersections, exchanges, and connections between human and supernatural, individual and collective, and reality and utopia. This will not only be a process of yearning and following the original Long March-a historic journey that deeply influenced human society-but one of searching and building the historic journey into something new.  One aspect is application, which is the translation of context.  Another is to utilize this application and contextual shift to stimulate new productions and realities.  From such a thing, till today, running throughout its structure, what is opened up is not only a curatorial method, but also the relationship between creation, interpretation and display, individual and collective, and finally, artist and visual, and the architecture of knowledge production and their relationships.[ii]

 

In September 2002, the team of “The Long March – A Walking Visual Display” returned from Luding Bridge (site 12) to Beijing, and entered into a period of reflection and strategizing.  In 2003, the Long March Space was established in Beijing’s Factory 798, re-situating the Long March Project as a continually ongoing multi-dimensional art and social project that functions between Long March Space (Beijing), the public realm (rural areas, coal mines), and the “Long March international”.  Today, the Long March Project continually revisits different contexts across the borders and limits of cultural forms, working to construct meaningful links between history and the present; international and local; urban and rural; theory and practice; individual and collective.  The Long March Space in Beijing is a visual arts center and a comprehensive platform.  It is the headquarters of the Long March Project, from which different projects are continually radiated out to the countryside and internationally.  At the same time, it is also an entity and space inside the urban center, organizing exhibitions, lectures and symposia, curating and consulting, building a collection, and pursuing residency, publication and education programs revolving around the issues of visual economy and production. The Long March methodology here is charged into a focus on the historical consciousness and social nature of artistic production and exhibition, exploring how art can build a broader and more meaningful relationship with society. 

One major aim of the Long March Project has been to re-appraise public space, to research and document public resources and to study and exercise the connection between display culture and artistic originality. The discourse generated by the historical Long March and the visual representation of folk life following the revolution demonstrated that elite art and folk art could co-exist and bond in an interactive and dynamic way. The success of this time period or revolution proved that the tension experienced between art and society, and the anxiety of the Chinese art community towards the West, is not necessary when facing the conflict between the traditional and modern. Hence, as the Long March Project brings art to the public realm, it also brings “folk-art” and “non-art” into “contemporary” art space, creating a dialogue focusing on “what is art and what is contemporary.”

 For example, in 2004, the Long March conducted The Great Survey of Papercuttings in Yanchuan County, a complete survey of 180,000 people with the cooperation of the Yanchuan County government.  Over 15,000 individual survey forms and papercutting samples were collected, forming an alternative art history.  The Great Survey of Papercuttings in Yanchuan County is one of the largest archives of papercutting in the world; a massive social project that mobilizes artist and cultural workers to return to the villages; as well as an artistic display that provides a case study of the current state of folk art.  It is an artwork and a comprehensive report of the development of folk art.  It is a never before seen collaboration between an independent art organization and a Chinese county government.  It is a creative initiative, vision, organization and mobilization, which demonstrated the power in implementing revolutionary action that builds subjective consciousness from the grassroots.  Regardless of whether it is the field of art or social sciences, the Yanchuan Papercutting Project continues the unification of theory and practice from which the historical Long March arose; it is the locating of art without borders. Arising upon the papercutting survey, the Long March Project has initiated a three year pilot art education program and curriculum based on this magnificent continuing folk practice.  Starting from one site, this constructive project utilizes local cultural resources to address the lack of teachers in rural areas, as well as the lack of a national art education program, creating a sustainable model for art education that takes folk art as its basis in rural areas.

The Long March Project has sought not only to “bring” contemporary art to the countryside in a ‘from top to bottom, outside to inside’ approach, but has also focused on the construction of a ‘from bottom up, inside out’ subjectivity.  The public nature of art must begin from and enter into the public realm.  The Long March Yan’an Project (May 2006), Why Go To Tibet – Survey of Tibetan Subject Matter in Painting (2006-2007) by artist Qiu Zhijie and students from China Academy of Fine Arts, the coalmining project by Yang Shaobin (2004 – ongoing), and Migration (2004 – ongoing) by Chen Qiulin are examples of the complex, demanding and challenging Long March Projects implemented in the public realm. The artists’ physical experience and the artworks, social research, objects and literature gathered by the curatorial team, and the Long March’s role as mediator and creator, are expressed in exhibitions, media reports and publications. Through out the multi-layered, multi-spatial, multi-linear process, art and society, international and local, tradition and contemporary, urban and rural, individual and collective, elite and public, professional and folk, delivery and reception is reversed, shifted, and replaced to become a more complex and productive communication.  In reference to the Long March Project, Charles Merewether has stated:

 

The manner in which I understand this project is that the local is being translated through the metropolis, into the international sphere, and the international being translated back into the local. And what strikes me about this project is that it seems to me-someone said that this is an issue of the domestic, a domestic issue-In English there's an expression which is "getting one's house in order." So the thing that I find most significant is that this project is actually an act of recovery of historical consciousness, that is, how does one recover historical consciousness without forsaking modernity”.[iii]

 

The ‘Long March International’ can occur in numerous spaces, from museum and biennial/triennial exhibitions, to an artist's studio, or in the private happenings of a notebook.  It can be a cooperation between Chinese and international artists, it can be a collective collaboration, or an assemblage of individual works.  It is an ongoing art project that investigates stereotypes by widening and expanding the methodological understanding of the history and geography of visual culture in the commission of specific works within specific contexts by specific artists.  For example, the Long March Chinatown Project (2005 – ongoing) which has been realized in Yokohama, Japan (Oct 2005), San Francisco (Nov 2005), and Auckland, New Zealand (Mar 2007), engages with the metaphor of repetition through the “globalization of Chinatown.”  This (self) imposed geography without borders is also an expression of the highest form of grassroots subjectivity.  This type of experience of ‘foreignness’ is a process of imagination, translation, accumulation, re-construction, arrival and return. 

Korea 2018 initiated in 2005 with its first site carried out in 2007, is an ongoing Long March Project that engages with the future of the Korean Peninsula.  Over the next 10 years, the Long March Project will collaborate with people from cultural fields and the general public from across the Korean Peninsula and around the world to carry out research, meetings, site visits and varied artistic projects with the goal of facilitating a process of imaginative and real production of cultural forms that challenge the current framework of understanding dominated by oppositional politics. Taking the year 2018 as at departure point, the project will retrace back to the year 2008 rewriting the future of art history, transforming Korea 2018 from an impossible ideal to a productive reality.  The Ho Chi Minh Trail Project, currently underway, examines the geopolitics and historical consciousness of a particular South East Asian region, through a connection with past and present.  Using the Ho Chi Minh Trail as a departure point for artistic investigation and theoretical discussion, the Long March team, will set out from the Chinese border, journeying across North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  The process is not a linear journey, with fixed departure and destination, but rather a rhizomatic pathway that hopes to weave a re-interpreted narrative of society and art.  By challenging and confronting the complex cultural and social narratives of this region, and by engaging historical, geographical and political landscapes it is hoped this process will build supportive networks for further creative collaborative discussion and production.

The revolutionary nature of the Long March Project is not about changing political regimes, nor is it of the nature of Sun Yat-sen’s attempt to change the basic structures of society, it is a re-organization and restructuring that takes apart and reassembles the historic Long March.  Its focus is “Long March” itself, but the target of its investigations and observations is the architecture and structures of society, thought, and historical consciousness that is accomplished through visuality. One hundred years of revolutionary struggle and the lived experience of socialism not only influence every facet of contemporary society in China, but have also left a deep residue in the memory of the people. This permeates every corner of Chinese contemporary visual culture, becoming a resource —sometimes apparent, sometimes not — for Chinese contemporary art. Revisiting revolutionary memory in this way, is neither to parody nor to subvert the conservative or authoritative elements of socialist life. Nor does it seek to  turn history into mythology by simplifying the past, maintaining the integrity of the grand narrative via creative nostalgia. Our working method is to subtly explore this historical revolutionary period's traces in contemporary visual culture, re-organizing the chaos and rescuing it from overused, canonized discourse. We must search for the points where historical memories converge with contemporary ideological trends, re-sensitizing ourselves to the subject and bringing the past into the present so that we can examine the traces' effects, both negative and positive. This requires the integration of fieldwork and linguistic analysis, of the archaeology and architecture of knowledge. The theatricality of the stories of the Long March Project, the richness of the locales into which it extended, the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of the questions it raises-all of these provide us with a roadmap for reconstruction.  As Sarat Maharaj has summarized:

 

…retracing is not only about touching base with actual spots on the original route but also about its various ‘ideological appropriations and re-routings’.  At any particular site en route, project participants join in with the locals’ daily activities or their special crafts as, during one sojourn, with the paperwork skills of villagers. The encounter becomes a collective knowledge production and performance, with the potential for sifting through history, personal lives, vagaries of political regimes, issues of human rights, armed struggle, censorship. This is sometimes further relayed through installations, shows and debates through the internet, mobiles, videos. Everyone becomes a participant-observer analysing both their immediate situation and the heroic march that symbolized an approach to modernization and development which had now lost its appeal. These ‘consultation exercises’ can sometimes faintly echo the ‘correction sessions’ of the original bands of Maoist cadres and activists working the countryside with fervour to raise political awareness. The project also resembles a tableau — not unlike Stations of the Cross — where each stopover is occasion for soul-searching, for delving into the current state of material and spiritual affairs.[iv]

 

 


[i] A Long March Glossary http://www.longmarchspace.com/english/e-discourse8.htm 

[ii] The Long March – A Walking Visual Display exhibition catalog, Long March Foundation, 2003; pg 9.

[iii] Charles Merewether, from “Curating in the Chinese Context - Zunyi Symposium”, The Long March – A Walking Visual Display, 2002

[iv] Maharaj, Sarat and Gilane Tawadros, ‘We were nobody. We were nothing’: North/South soundings of modernity & ‘memories of underdevelopment’. 

 

shengtian zheng © 2014