Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Art of na lai by Zhao Chuan

After all, we shall have to na lai (bring it in). We'll have to use
it, store it or destroy it. If the owner is the new owner, the house
will become a new house but, first of all, this person has got to be
cool-headed, courageous, discriminating and not selfish. Without na
lai (bringing it in), one cannot possibly become a new person nor can
art and literature start anew.

── Lu Xun

〈na lai'ism〉

7 June 1934

Since the late Qing Dynasty, China has been gradually pursuing a new
cultural target, that of 'modernization'. For this reason, China
has always had to face the source of imagination about this target,
the West, by thinking about various possible inter-positional
relationships between her and the West. In the May Fourth and New
Culture Movements in the early twentieth century, a number of young
intellectuals took the lead, who actively sought a clean break with
the thousand-year-long tradition in which they found themselves
through subversion and fracture, much the way one cuts the messy hemp
with a sharp knife. However, at the same time when they looked for a
West-style cultural knowledge and social formation, they had behind
them a strong nationalistic appeal for social change as they were
urgently hoping for the day to soon arrive when they could run neck
to neck with the Western powers. That revolution that, to this day,
still has not had China run out of its tracks, is considered as a
radical culture movement and has led to a genuinely political Chinese
revolution. After liberation in 1949, the target of
'modernization' in Chinese society turned into a full-scale left-
wing socialist ideal based on the theory of class struggle. By the
end of the 1970s China had experienced the Cultural Revolution and
the closure of itself against the Western capitalist world after
liberation. Before the door of the nation was thrown wide open,
intellectuals and artists were acutely aware of an urgent need to
return to the target of 'modernization'. The pursuit all the way
for new art began then in such a trend that thought took. They first
passionately wanted to break with the new fine arts tradition of
China in which they found themselves, a fake realist art serving
politics, and they then wanted to push for change in social thinking.
Back then, because of our consistent imagination of modernity, we
directly took up in hand a weapon that was Western philosophy and
literature that was hardly explored in depth, particularly the kind
of Western modernism and its subsequent art trends that were almost
out of touch with the contemporary society. In addition, all weird
impulses and things that defied understanding were categorized as
part of Western modernism or had found a basis there. Even then, this
is still na lai, a consciously chosen scheme for transformation.

In that process, artists and commentators in China used terms such as
modernism, modernists, new wave, avant-garde or vanguards to refer to
new art and to define the art that was happening, references that,
judging from today's vantage position, did not quite match the
Western context that they had wanted to quickly enter into. These
Western artistic terms that came mainly from the West were, for the
most part, outdated for the West in the 1980s and 1990s. However,
this was not a real issue in the 1980s when there was a relative
distance between China and the outside world and when the focus was
on its own problems. The title of the most important exhibition,
Modern Chinese Art Exhibition, at the end of the 1980s, was not
rendered as 'China Modern Art Exhibition' in its English
translation. In the words of Gao Minglu, its curator, it was
translated as 'China/Avant-Garde Exhibition', based on 'its true
original meaning', that is, 'China Avant-garde (or Vanguard) Art
Exhibition'. Obviously, when one is aware of a global context, the
word 'modern' sounds outdated and out of place. But why 'avant-
garde'? What is the true original meaning of these new arts in
China? In their understanding then, the word 'modern' had an
absolute evolutionary meaning. The new-wave art in the entire 1980s
China was an effort made to welcome its arrival, which made a major
contextual difference from modernist arts that were opposed to the
materialistic capitalist society subsequent to the industrial
revolution in the West. Even though Western modernist art process was
in fact one of our main references, the word 'modern' was a
Chinese term in the unique Chinese context. If one wouldn't mind
sounding extreme one could say that it would be xiandaism, not
modernism, if written into a history of art in English. It wouldn't
be 'avant-garde', either, because it was an artistic formation in
a seriously Western context although it did display the radical
relationship between art and the society in which art found itself.
In the early 1990s, the 'Chinese Avant-garde' was used in the
local art circles and the exhibitions that went to the West, becoming
internationally known. By the early twenty-first century, the new art
has not only been found conditionally acceptable by the official
Chinese art institution but has also basically collaborated with the
globalized contemporary art system. For this reason, no-one actually
disputes the replacement of 'modern' or 'avant-garde' with the
term 'contemporary art' that follows the current international
trend. For art in the previous hard process, it is its own new art
but with embarrassing old garments and hats as they were once used by
others. These are terms that have their own specific meaning in the
process of na lai as they have their equivalent fixed usages in their
Western source that refer to a certain age. Under the global pressure
that includes a postcolonial consciousness, it is either easy for
these appellations to induce simplistic reading or hard for them to
identify themselves.

It is an adventure to use 'radicalism' instead of the terms that
have been habitually used for decades, not accurate for me but used
in a fixed manner, such as 'avant-garde' or 'modern art'.
Meanwhile, this naming provides a clear link with the modern cultural
and ideological trend in China. As some scholars say, rationalism and
radicalism are either face of a coin. For this reason, the
ideological base for radical art is rationalism. However, because it
is art, it inevitably moves towards a political romanticism by
believing in abstract liberation and passionate impulses in concrete
terms. Although this radical art can keep creating new patterns, it
is not art for art's sake as its ideological trend is of particular
importance, that is, its combat with the orthodoxy, which becomes a
harbinger of liberation. For this reason, this art in the 1980s
lacked a creation of genuine formalism as it was not the Western
modernism that had entered formalism but it intended to guide our
society in its movement towards 'modernization' through gaining
various kinds of liberation. The desire for liberation came not only
from a rebellion against long-term political restrains but it also
touched upon the understanding of the absolute importance of free
will in Western modernity. From the late 1970s to the early 1980s,
when radical art grew generally clearer about this issue, its
distinct ideological trend naturally joined forces with the
ideological liberation movement as one party to the then mainstream
politics in China and with the more minjian new enlightenment, in the
direction of total values, turning into the actively rebellious 85
Art New Wave Movement that spread across the country in the 1980s.
After radical art suffered a setback in the aftermath of June 4th,
1989, part of it was engaged in soul-searching around the time,
struggling to move ahead, and another part changed with the
transformation of the Chinese society or was abandoned. It is not
till the mid-1990s and the late 1990s, when the overseas market and
contemporary art system arrived wholesale, that the remaining 1980s
interest, in the face of a changing environment and changing issues,
gradually moved onto the next generation of art with renewed ideas.
The simple initiativeness of na lai, as proposed by Lu Xun, the flag-
bearer in the New Culture Movement of the last century, has now
become murky in the face of the West that is so important to our
'modernization', getting stuck in the deep entanglement of giving,
taking, buying and selling, colonizing, postcolonizing and
Radicalism as a term is not something entirely new. In the past in
the accounts of this area, it most often referred to a localised
direction in some time segments and was occasionally used as an
adjective. The radical art that here attempts to sum up and discuss
is not a school but a summary of forms of artistic practice in that
generation or over a longer period of time. It is characterized by
its concept and scope that emphasize its own ideological trends
although it certainly does not include all of the new-wave art in
those days. Before its diversion, turning away and wearing out, the
features of its vigorous action had actually provided an upsurge of
artistic energy for Shanghai and for the whole of Chinese society.

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