"All Rivers Run to the Sea, One Thousand Cliffs Stand Tall: The Songzhuang Artistic Spirit as a Community of Values" Group Exhibition
The Art of Escape:The Songzhuang Art Model as the Imagination and Practice of Liberalism
“All Rivers Run to the Sea, One Thousand Cliffs Stand Tall” comes from a couplet written for the Great Hall of the Viceroy’s Office by Lin Zexu when he was Viceroy of Liangguang. In full, it reads, “All rivers run to the sea, tolerant and virtuous; One thousand cliffs stand tall, undesiring and strong.” This is both a declaration and the result of self-examination, alluding to the tolerant mentality and tenacious character of compassionate intellectuals. In the Songzhuang art ecology in the broad sense, these two lines can be used to reflect the formal history of Songzhuang Art District and the collective characteristics of the artists in the district.
From the first few scattered artists to arrive, to its development into an artists’ village, to today’s impressive Songzhuang Art District, there has been some bad mixed with the good, but openness, tolerance, and understanding have been important themes in the course of Songzhuang’s development. Both the early pioneers in China’s first group of professional artists and the waves of followers that arrived at different times, these artists actively left behind the jobs, identities, and incomes provided by the system, relying entirely on their own creative efforts. They supported and enriched their artistic careers, but they also impacted and changed the cultural landscape of Chinese society through their work, and contributed to the international reputation of Chinese contemporary art. This actually shows that the artists who have come to Songzhuang Art District in different periods have shaped the primary spirit of what we call the “Songzhuang artists.” These primary traits are persistence, perseverance, and tenacity. Imagine, if they had not had an enduring love for art, a basic sense of responsibility toward society and culture, or immense internal conviction, then so many people would not have lived and worked in a village on the outskirts of Beijing for decades. Without these qualities, some of the classic works of Chinese contemporary art history would have had nothing to do with this little village.
“All Rivers Run to the Sea, One Thousand Cliffs Stand Tall” is the title of this exhibition, which attempts to periodically review Songzhuang Art District’s history as a community of shared values and to present a holistic picture of the spiritual qualities of the artists living and working in this art district.
Today, amidst the national popularity of “cultural industries,” particularly with some local governments, art districts are being developed and established, regardless of whether these new districts have the ability to fully integrate into the art industry. For these districts, Songzhuang has increasingly become a model to be studied and imitated. However, this kind of study and imitation often only references Songzhuang’s current scale and environment. These newer districts easily settle on a target number of artists, aiming to catch up and even surpass Songzhuang. The majority are spearheaded by local governments or property companies that only understand planning and investment. However, what they do not know is that Songzhuang Art District was not the result of planned design and financial investment. In tracing the source of the Songzhuang spirit, we discover that it was formed spontaneously by a group of artists who pursued artistic and creative freedom. In the beginning, Songzhuang was not the art district we see today; it was more of a community. From this perspective, I view Songzhuang’s continued assimilation of artists into its history as the use of artistic methods to “escape.” These artists escaped life in the system, the inertia of working according to convention, a mode of urban living that was increasingly alienated from human interaction, and the reckless coercion of the art market, but this escape was not simply hiding or exile. In removing themselves from the center, these artists obtained personal freedom, which they extended into creative freedom.
Ignoring the spiritual source of Songzhuang Art District and the qualities of the artists who have arrived in the art district in the last twenty years shows no respect for history. It also leaves us unable to clear away the surface noise of Songzhuang to delve deeper into its spiritual logic, such that those local art districts intent on imitating Songzhuang end up the precise opposite.
Frankly, when artists first appeared in the village of Songzhuang, they did not come looking for quiet studios; they came because they had abandoned their work units and their day jobs. In this way, they became outsiders who could not be incorporated into the society of that time. Xiaobao Village is the core of today’s Songzhuang Art District and the first place to accept artists. The villagers were of course originally motivated by the ability to earn a little extra money, but when they accepted these “migrant” artists with the simplicity and tolerance of country people, they touched on the sincerity within human nature. This tolerance and acceptance became a symbol and a tradition in the Songzhuang Art District. For a long time, Songzhuang was a beacon for independent artists. Songzhuang did not just represent a specific geographical location; it symbolized a dialogue of equals between likeminded people and an artistic Mecca in which artists could freely express their ideas.
In his book The Art of Not Being Governed, American anthropologist James C. Scott notes that nations always attempt to bring their people down from the mountains and onto flat land to engage in agriculture; mountain-dwellers escaped this control using a range of methods. Traditionally, mountain people were considered backward and wild, and the extension of a nation’s authority into these regions was seen as promoting progress. However, Scott believed that these seemingly backward mountain ethnic minorities may not be backward at all; they lived in the mountains, choosing modes of living and working that were different from those in the valleys, because they wanted to escape being ruled by mainstream values.
Scott’s view can be used to explain the choices made by those early Songzhuang artists; they chose an independent, individual identity, using a form of escape to distance themselves from the system, its rigid beliefs, and the loss of independent thought that can result from administration. Seemingly passive “escape” behavior was actually an active choice based on individual values and a free artistic spirit. In this process, they distanced themselves from artistically complacent mainstream modes that did not allow for independent thought, as well as ossified academic styles. These artists became “barbarians by design.” In this way, they actively placed themselves outside of mainstream society and mainstream values systems, and the group gradually shaped rules for how to avoid being governed, which seems to have influenced the ways that many Songzhuang artists speak and act. They treat art like life; they are warm with people and feel a responsibility to society. However, there is also a skeptical spirit that seems to have become subconscious habit, which can manifest as cynicism about social interactions or as the deconstruction of the intellectual inertia of power. Sincerity, responsibility, cynicism, and deconstruction can be generally considered the primary traits of the Songzhuang artist.
The tolerant spirit and accepting attitude of Songzhuang has become part of its tradition. Since the first group of artists, and with subsequent arrivals, there have been early followers who came from all over China to admire the greats, there have been people who, after artists were allowed to buy property, abandoned city life for a bit of tranquility, and there were artists who moved in after urbanization meant the forcible demolition of their art districts. Recently, many have been drawn by the vigor of the art market. Every person can find a place in the Songzhuang art ecology and assimilate quickly, which has been permitted by the spontaneous growth of Songzhuang. Sometimes, the abuse has been obvious; chaos and disorder have followed the “barbarian growth” of the Songzhuang art ecology. Perhaps, if we return to Scott’s idea of “escape,” then this superficial chaos may have an internal rationale.
Not long ago, many people believed Songzhuang to be a place where artists could pursue their artistic ideals and it has served as a refuge when many had nowhere else to turn. In his later years, Wu Guanzhong said, “At first, I imagined a very noble, very lofty kind of art, but that was not possible in life. Life is simply suffering, so I returned to the 798 and to Songzhuang, and I felt that this was my place. If I were here, I could not be too lofty.”
Wu Guanzhong’s words actually make an important point: only in an atmosphere of freedom can art reflect truth and have a lasting appeal.
August 30, 2016
Songzhuang Art District
"All Rivers Run to the Sea, One Thousand Cliffs Stand Tall: The Songzhuang Artistic Spirit as a Community of Values" Group Exhibition(Chinese)