The Alien Land, the Other, and Self Reconstruction: Reflections on the Art Activity
Source:Artintern.net Author:Huang Zongxian Date: 2013-12-12 Size:
We live in an age of consumption, in which art works are degenerated as consumer products circulating in markets. Many artists are at the mercy of the market, or manage to have a share by pandering to the vulgar taste, or cater to consumer’s fetish by making or copying fashionable mark in the name of avant-garde art. Consequently, the popularization of main-stream culture and commercialization of avant-garde art have pervaded today’s art circle. Sincerity, imagination and the essence and spirit of art have been undermined by materialism. This phenomenon emerges because we are besieged by urban sensuality, and metropolises, meanwhile, have turned to a material world, a spiritual waste land constrained by the rules of consumption.

  “Mind’s Eye Open - Looking back at Daliang Mountains”

  We live in an age of consumption, in which art works are degenerated as consumer products circulating in markets. Many artists are at the mercy of the market, or manage to have a share by pandering to the vulgar taste, or cater to consumer’s fetish by making or copying fashionable mark in the name of avant-garde art. Consequently, the popularization of main-stream culture and commercialization of avant-garde art have pervaded today’s art circle. Sincerity, imagination and the essence and spirit of art have been undermined by materialism. This phenomenon emerges because we are besieged by urban sensuality, and metropolises, meanwhile, have turned to a material world, a spiritual waste land constrained by the rules of consumption.

  Out of the besieged city, going to a distant place or alien land may be an approach to the renaissance of Chinese contemporary art. Perhaps this is the original intention of the curator of art activity “Mind’s Eye Open: Looking back at Ta-liang Mountains”.

  Daliang Mountains, located in the frontier of southwest China, are remote “alien land” to the urban artists. An “alien land” is a key to restart introspection, to reactivate imagination, the passion for investigation and creativity. Going to the “alien land” doesn’t mean the artists’ spatial translocation, but their conscious estrangement of their living circumstances, their transcendental indulgence of spirits and minds. In other words, this is a voluntary attempt of self-reconstruction.

  The “alien land” is a remote, strange place in which an urban artist is forever the strange “other”. “The other” is an onlooker who doesn’t belong to this “alien land”, but s/he also might be a devoted pilgrim. In an unacquainted world, “the other” is curious, fresh and sensitive. In the alien land, his/her visual sense and exploring spirit are stimulated by the local customs and landscape, and his/her affection also stirs in him/her. Ta-liang Mountains boast infinite temptation to the far-off artists, because it is home to spectacular scenery and ethnic minorities who inherit different cultures and faith. The residents here lead a completely different live in a totally different living condition. Novelty, originality and freshness are always lures to artists. As Xu Zhimo once argued, in answering Xu Beihong’s attack to the new school of painting, “liking novel things, pursuing alteration, this is the nature of man.” To the artists, the scenery and local people of the remote Daliang mountains are always new and charming. One day, the alien land and the other may disappear, and Daliang mountains may lose their dream-like lure, this, of course, will happen only if the world is really “unified”— cultural and religious diversity has vanished, various geographic features have been “unified” by urbanization. Then, Ta-liang mountains will be a relic in our memory, just like any other disappearing regions that once maintained their primitive ecological environment. When this day comes, it will not only be a tragedy of Daliang mountains, but also a grave lost of human being. Without culture diversity, without various living styles, without different kinds of geographic features, we will lose the colorful cultural landscapes in a monotonous, boring world. Except an alien land, where can be a home for the artists’ passion and harts? It is more frustrating that, without an “alien land”, the world is homogenized by flattening its diversity, and consequently our culture and art will be deprived of its vitality and innovation capacity. Obviously, inbreeding and homogenization are the roots of the retrogressive succession of life. Hopefully, Daliang mountains will always maintain their own cultural identity and living environment against the background of globalization. May Daliang mountains are always the “alien land” to “the other”.

  Throughout the length and breadth of the world, there are countless “alien lands”. Then why are Daliang mountains unique to the artists? Daliang mountains are unparalleled. Locating in west China, Ta-liang mountains boast splendid towering snowy mountains, undulating hills, deep gorges, and precipitous Hengduan mountains. This place features meandering rivers and valleys, silver white snow, bright moon and blazing sun. This is an unparallel varied terrain that appeals to the artists. But its greater charm lies in the people here. Daliang mountain is home to the majority of an ancient nationality—the ethnic Yi people. With blood and gene of great antiquity, the Yis feature sculptural faces, as if their images are carved by God. Their clear-cut faces are engraved with the impact of nature, glowing with the splendor of sunshine, bearing the imprint of time, which stimulates the artists’ visual sense, and vibrates their passion as well. Moreover, it is the enduring, mysterious, cultural spirit, with its esteem of life, combined with the harmonious relationship between man and nature, yet full of mutual impact, that is attractive to “the other”, and can provoke our thought on the relationship between man and nature, man’s will of life, and the ultimate value of life. Therefore, be it out of curiosity, for visual impact, or for the lifeblood of culture, no matter what purpose “the other” has, to him/her, Ta-liang mountains are an ideal “alien land”—a paradise for liberating cultural imagination. In an economical world full of sound and fury, when we are lost in the high tide of modernism, the remote, beautiful, graceful and mysterious Daliang mountains, are a dreamland for “the other”—the city dwellers. The yearning for getting closer to her, embracing her, is a lingering feeling of the passionate and dream-pursuing artists.

  Can an artist—as the subject of art creation, “the other” in the “alien land”—really walk into the Ta-liang mountains? Within this process, can the identity of “the other” shifts to a union of “I” and “the other”? This shall be decided by the artist’s motive and attitude. Being a stranger here, without the inherited gene and culture, an artist, fundamentally, is always “the other” in Ta-liang mountains. On the one hand, an artist is “the other” here; on the other hand, Ta-liang mountains are also “the other” to an nonnative artist. It is such relationship that is the most charming and exiting in the field of art.

  Perhaps, there are three kinds of attitude an artist—“the other” in an “alien land”—may take when confronting Ta-liang mountains. The first one is to observe the “alien land” out of curiosity, which is the aesthetic attitude that anyone will produce in an unfamiliar place. For instance, the tourists who travelled all over the world are still passersby in haste. The passersby can only cast a passing glance, searching the exotic things curiously, hunting for the superficial façade of life that is strange and novel in their eyes. What the passersby have captured and manifested are broken, fragmented and shallow, just like the photos shot by the tourists. To be frank, these paintings are the majority of the art works depicting Daliang mountains and other ethnic minority regions as well. Instead of walking into the mountains, these artists are merely watching it from the other side of the river. Without profound emotional experience and spiritual devotement, art works can never be really touching.

  The second kind of attitude is to observe the “alien land” from the standpoint of the artists, in other word, the “alien land” and the artists are assimilated into each other. In this way, cultural recognition is replaced by imagination. Consequently, such attitude is manifested in two ways. In the first case, the artists regard the alien land as an entirely heterogeneous, unfamiliar object, craving novelties curiously, arrogantly or sympathetically looking at the minorities, especially the “alien” or “out-dated” or “rough-and-ready” living condition. In some works depicting the minorities, what we can see is the obsolescence, monstrousness and alienation. In such paintings, the artists divulge the modern people’s sense of superiority and low-priced sympathy. Behind their superiority and sympathy, there are recognition of their own living circumstances, a mockery of the marginalized minorities—“the other” living in the “alien land”, and the feeling of contentment with their own culture consumption. Their longing for exotic atmosphere, just like Eurocentrism, is not caused by any queries about or reform of their own culture patterns, but a sense of superiority and “moral” contentment gained from picturing and casually pitying the “weird” lifestyle of the minorities. In recent years, among the paintings manifesting the life of minorities, including the local people in Daliang mounatings as well, it is not uncommon to see such works, focusing on the artists’ valueless sympathy or the monstrousness of the “alien land”. These artists have no interest in improving the lifestyle and living conditions of the minorities, on the contrary, they don’t want to see such improvement at all. While enjoying their sense of superiority, they wish the “alien land” stay out of the progress of civilization forever.

  Opposite to such attitude is the approach of “imagining the alien land”, that is, the artists place their own ideals on the distant “alien land”, so that the landscape and life of the minorities are idealized and poetized. Their paintings, portraying the idyllic beauty, romantic and serene atmosphere, express the urbanite’s imagination of an alien culture and complex of constructing one’s own culture. Since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, especially the 50s and 60s, considerable amount of art works have portrayed the minorities, including the Yis, in a romantic and poetic way. This is a Chinese parallel to the European artists in 18th century who, likewise, were full of romantic fanciful thoughts about the far-off Orient.

  The third kind of attitude is to affectionately merge oneself into the “alien land” by “depriving the identity of the other”. The significance of this art activity—looking back at Daliang mountains, walking into it and picturing it—lies in the aesthetic experiences and images regarding the history and current state of this land and the people who inhabit here, instead of depicting the social phenomenon and lifestyle out of curiosity. A diverse aesthetic perspective is offered by the vast expanse of the mysterious Daliang mountains and a wide spectrum of the minorities’ lifestyle. The weather-beaten history of the marginalized ethnic groups, the changes of society and natural environment provide vast room for our meditation over history. We can be profoundly enlightened by local people’s will and wisdom of survival in their struggling and harmonious coexistence with nature. Going beneath the skin of daily life, the façades of vision, our art works shall focus on caring, manifesting and illustrating the minorities’ cultural characters—diligence, persistence, tenaciousness, generosity, optimism—shaped in the civilization of long standing. This shall also determine whether the art works that adopted minorities as their subject matters can be permanent spiritual icons or not. This theory can also be applied to explain the value of some classical oil paintings by Chen Conglin, Gao Xiaohua and others.

  In the special context of this consumption age, the contemporary art in China, like the entire mass culture, is suffocated with sensuality. It is fashionable to be stripped of the depth of feeling and spirit, our humanistic value, our inquiring into the meaning and value of life, our in-depth insight of history. The pestilence of contemporary art, always quick to satisfy urban people’s sensual desire, comes from the inferior nature of cities: vanity, homogenization and complanation. The “dying for fun” social environment has dissolved the artists’ reflection on the struggle between man and nature, the will to live, and their passionate pursuing for the ultimate value of life. Perhaps, there is no other alternative for the self-redemption of Chinese contemporary art but to leave the cities behind and to head towards the marginalized ethnic groups. It is this earnest and passionate exploration of the original history and culture of Daliang mountains, the expression of our spiritual experiences in this mysterious land and our interpretation of the ethnic groups’ faith, and the manifestation of local people’s conception of time and space, belief and values, combined with our reflection on the destination pursued by Chinese contemporary art, and our reconstruction of the humanistic connotation and value, that is the value orientation an artist—“the other”—shall stick to, and the significance possessed by the art activity “Mind’s Eye Opening: Looking back at Ta-liang Mountains”.

  Therefore, rather than body’s involvement and translocation, looking back at and walking into Daliang mountains is a journey of reconstructing and transcending one’s own spirit.

  Huang Zongxian

  Doctor of Fine Arts

  Dean of School of Arts, Sichuan University

  Vice-chairman of Sichuan Artists Association

  Member of Theoretical Commission, Chinese Artists Association


Related Links:

[Editor] 常霞

    Artintern