Issue 2/2016 - Parallax Views

Beyond Ideology

Keti Chukhrov in conversation with Anthony Yung

KC: In our conversation, we want to touch upon the ideological contexts we both have to face. One of the most controversial issues for me is still the division between the East and the West or rather the immediate contextualization of the East within a totalitarian context. Maybe, before we stigmatize historical socialism as a form of outdated authoritarian society we should not forget the following: in the socialist context, the terms East and West were not geopolitical, but rather political-economical; actually there was no notion of the East in the context of socialism, since the realm of socialist influence was treated as a potentially universal condition. As for the notion of „the West“, it functioned mainly as a euphemism for the capitalist formation of society. Historical socialism cannot be identified with totalitarian autocracy just because its political, economic and cultural experiences were too versatile and include various examples of social self-critique, self-analysis and self-reflection.

AY: In China, since the mid-1990s and the dramatic shift of the ideological strategy of the country, intellectuals have sensed the urgency of reevaluating the socialist past, rather than denouncing it as a project that has failed. One of the best-known public intellectuals in China, Wang Hui, said that his job was to constantly reinvent the past, and that in the context of contemporary China, the past is as unpredictable as the future. It is surprising how ignorant we are about the past. Keti has put forth a concern with the term „epistemological gap“ between the Soviet past and the democratic West, which is an important aspect in today’s research. In my job at the Asia Art Archive I have to rely on conventional art-historical methodology, collecting evidence about the past. I find it very inadequate to just collect materials about art itself. I have to borrow methodology from anthropology for instance because it is impossible to truly understand art from a particular time without knowing the other aspects of life of the time. For artists, the „socialist past“ did not only consist of a grand political, ideological narrative, but it was also important in terms of personal, intimate life memories – one could take as an example an image by the artist Song Dong who wrote his diary with water on a stone: practically, what he wrote disappeared immediately. A lot of his work deals with reminiscence and the disappearance of memory. For Song’s generation, memory of the past seems very much like a memory of another life because of the dramatic social changes.
The challenge today in my research is the double lack of the physical archive and the psychological archive. The special scenario in China is that the Communist Party stayed and is still in power. In a way, it makes the situation more complicated than in the „Eastern Bloc“, where denouncing the communist past is easy. On the contrary, when dealing with its own history, the main concern of the Chinese Communist Party is to justify what it has done in order to consolidate its legitimacy today. In this respect, the „socialist past“ of China is full of taboos, events that are almost impossible to be justified, for example the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square incident, which is crucial for the entire development of contemporary China. Yet, these events may not be studied in Mainland China, because archives of this period are not available. In addition, due to the dramatic economic and social changes, I realized that the psychology and memory of the „socialist past“ are also gradually disappearing.

KC: In your work, you deal with the shift from the socialist realist canon to a modernist one in Chinese art. Don't you think that we too straightforwardly oppose socialist realism as part of the totalitarian cultural politics to modernism as something exclusively progressive and liberating? There have been two directions of reintegrating art of the socialist period into the canon of contemporary art: one was the quasi-post-colonial „Jean-Hubert Martin way“ of inscribing exotic specificities into the global art context; another direction is to map local modernisms or latent modernisms evolving despite socialist regimes. After 1989 many museums were constructed on the basis of such an agenda; among the few endeavors of this kind one could mention the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, collecting Polish conceptualism. The same is true for the Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana where the collection is based on conceptualist and radical modernist practices. However, very soon Zdenka Badovinac, the director of the museum, discovered that she had to re-historicize this collection in terms of emphasizing precisely the socialist context. This is because the Cold War watershed had never really been assimilated. „Eastern“ conceptualism failed to enter the global art canon without being inscribed into a certain myth of untranslatability because of its communist background.
But let’s venture the following speculation: Let us assume that modernism was a certain tool for resisting the bourgeois culture; and that socialism (and communism even more so) is a more advanced social formation than capitalism. Then why would a society that had already got rid of capitalism need a resisting tool that is indispensable within the capitalist social formation? It might have its own forms of modernity and modernization appropriate for its own post-capitalist social infrastructure. Consequently, this concerns critical theory as well: it is debatable whether certain emancipation theories of the post-structuralist period were applicable to socialist societies at all. For example it is a question whether Foucault's analysis of power could be applicable to the communist power infrastructure, or whether gender theory as it developed after the 1960s could fit to scrutinize „non-libidinally“ organized economies, etc. Yet, now that the former socialist countries are capitalist, they inevitably reproduce whatever the body of critical theory is and was amidst capitalism.

AY: This is a good analogy to what happened to the modernist project in socialist countries. In the Chinese context, the influx of critical theory, Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and post-structuralism in the 1980s was not used as a resistance to capitalist society, as these theoretical works are „supposed to do“. What they provide is a potential for diversity that can be used to fight the hegemony of the past. They were very popular among artists and influenced their practice. Yet, their use of theory involved a lot of misreading. The problems were the translations and the knowledge background because artists didn’t use them in an „orthodox“ way; instead, new theories usually serve more as a kind of excitement.

KC: I would like to touch upon the overlapping of market economy and „communist“ ideology in China. It is more or less clear why and how socialism could allow a limited market economy or some private property (perestroika was a good example). What is unclear to me, however, is how Chinese neoliberalism – despite its market economy and private property hegemony – supports the political system (communism) that has to abolish private property.

AY: According to Deng Xiaoping, this is a model he calls „socialism with Chinese characteristics“, but this of course explains nothing. Regarding your question there is a lot of debate among the intellectuals in China, too. How to justify the current development of China discursively? This seems almost impossible to rationalize.

KC: What we witness in China now is a legitimized model of what had been happening in the period of the demise of socialist states, when both anti-market and shadow-market systems were overlapping and when the communist rhetoric was still sustained, but functioned just as a façade. It was exactly the inability to modernize the economy and production in the late socialist period that brought forth such a determination to return to the capitalist condition (and according to political theorists and economists this was implemented from above). If progress and advancement is to be judged mainly by technologic and economic excellence, and by autonomous civic institutes, then the transition to the advanced, civilized, capitalist and hence Western dominated globe is inevitable. In fact the only case in the history of modernity when the subject of recognition was not „Western“ was historical communism. But at the center here is not so much the issue of non-Western and Western worlds. Rather, it has to do with the project of emancipation in the history of thought from Plato to post-operaism—the development of thought to construct societies of equality, which territorially might have evolved in the West, but have been too universal to be culturally appropriated by the West. And in this case the dogmatic question of post-colonial theory about the space-based East and temporally conditioned West is not on the agenda; since the ideological rupture and row is not between East, West, North or South, but within the thought and theories about universal justice—be they invented in the West or anywhere else. This row is between Hegel and Spinoza, Marxism and post-structuralism, psychoanalysis and post-operaism, etc.

AY: This brings to mind an artist group from China called Polit-Sheer-Form, a group of five people; they carry on forms of the political past. They imitate activities of socialist political life, like organizing meetings and traveling to rural areas to see the peasants, but they take away all the communist vocabulary. They perform a kind of alienation and displacement between political formality and political ideology.

KC: Maybe it is important to critically revisit certain themes in the emancipation theory after 1960s. The question is to what extent these theories contained their own unconscious support of the capitalist condition along with the critique of capitalist economy and power. That’s why it is very important to revisit these theories from the point of view of their unconscious capitalist construction. On the one hand we are critical about neoliberalism, on the other we are unconsciously contributing to the relativity and permissiveness of liberal democracy, the more so that it has often been converging with the leftist emancipation tools. This is what I try to do when researching the socialist aesthetics, and the socialist ethics of the 1960s and 1970s.

AY: I like to argue that, for artists, what they resist about the communist regime is never about actual politics; it’s more a resistance to bureaucratic control, ideological control, and cultural hegemony. The dissident artists’ works were never against the classical concept of communism itself, but about a society of control, resisting control upon them to not do anything. In 1980s China, the whole project of emancipation and the creation of a new modernity refer back to the hegemony of (a Maoist version of) socialist realism as an artistic agenda. Artistically speaking, I don’t dislike the art produced in China in the 1950s and 1960s. They were brilliant and historically important too. But for the artists back then it was highly problematic as it was the only thing they were allowed to do.

KC: I would like to bring forth the issue of the latent neo-colonial constitution of cultural politics in the frame of global contemporary art. This situation is also due to the fact that there exists an absolute confidence that the art institutions’ goals and methods of work are emancipatory by definition. We talk about new emergencies with the rise of the right-wing tendencies, while we take for granted that our attitude to emancipation is flawless. But one of the reasons for the right-wing upsurge is also due to many failures in the activity of progressive institutions, which, as I said, contain elements of an unconsciously biased segregation and unconsciously biased conformity to class division.
One of the reasons for the emergence of right-wing agencies could be the neocolonial elements within progressive theory itself, within progressive institutions; these latent colonial elements are tacitly inscribed into how certain contemporary activities of emancipation deal with dispossession and with the issue of subalternity. For example, certain contemporary art institutions tackle the issue of segregation so that it only emphasizes such segregation and offends the segregated.

AY: I would like to come back to a historical aspect here. From the perspective of artistic development, 1989 played a pivotal role in the changing of institutions for the Soviet countries. It was a transitional period between the domestic, state-sponsored institutions before 1989 to the international, globalized contemporary institutions after 1989. The transition was intensified by the popular idea of multiculturalism during the early 1990s, which has a lot to do with the triumphal feeling at the end of the Cold War and the neo-utopian kind of imagination. Magiciens de la terre is of course the most obvious example—Jean-Hubert Martin’s idea was that no matter where you come from, your art can be equally good. His curatorial methodology is to bring artists from anywhere in the world, no matter which background they are from, together to prove that aesthetically they are equal. Now we know that it did not work so simply, although I don’t denounce Martin’s idealism. The same thing happened in the 1993 Venice Biennale curated by Achille Bonito Oliva, which has shown many artworks in a political exotic manner.
In the 1990s, Chinese artists who started to participate in international art events felt that they were moving from one kind of control to the next. They felt that they have to perform a certain function in an international exhibition, or even have to do so in order to get into these exhibitions. This is what the painting by Yan Lei form 1996 is talking about when it asks: Are you included in the exhibition in Germany?, which shows a fencing athlete because at that time participating in international exhibitions was like participating in the Olympic games, when everyone sends someone to represent their country. This issue of representedness was a new and important debate for Chinese artists in the 1990s. I think this is something we have to bear in mind when we talk about the notion of global art history today, which is a concept that is very paradoxical because the biggest conceptual function of „global art history“ is the resistance to the Euro-America-centric art history making, and to recognize the singularities of art making of the peripheries, their different modernities and geopolitical specificities. When you put everything under one umbrella, how is it possible not to flatten the diversity underneath? This was not only the problem of the Venice Biennial in 1993, but it is still a problem today. In Biennials and Documentas, you still see this ambition of doing a global exhibition that usually fails.

KC: Okwui Enwezor’s Venice Biennial 2015 would be another extreme of Magiciens de la terre when there is such a big inclusion of artists from wherever, using one and the same lexicon. It really doesn’t matter what specificity they exert. This unified lexicon of representation meets the voluntary desire of the „periphery“ to become part of the global artistic contemporaneity. Such a condition in art is not explicitly colonial in an old sense. But it has to do with a certain mode of concealed colonialism in the midst of an unsurmountable Eurocentrism: the center of emancipation and progressiveness is not speaking the language of subjugation or colonization, it developed the rhetoric of global enlightenment, civil service and solidarity with the oppressed. Unfortunately, often these discourses despite their liberating ambitions only emphasize the class antagonism between „the objects“ to be patronized and the enlightened progressive elite defending the values of a common good. As I already mentioned, among the reasons for the present crisis with respect to the upsurge of right-wing politics is the „gentrification“ of critical theory and of the leftist discourse in the cultural sphere.
Another quasi-colonial fallacy still persistent in left-leaning critical theory is the myth of an alternative Eurocentrism, the belief in Europe’s eternal enlightening mission, but not under EU real policy. One can witness it in the latest discussions elsewhere – in the activity of Krytyka Polityczna, as well as in recent texts by Žižek and the statements of Syriza members.

AY: This is a very serious paradox. Now the institutional assertion is so strong that it is impossible to have something different from what institutions recognize as art. In art one has to always question what individual expressions really mean. In art historical research we still have to frame the practices in a certain context. For instance, when we talk about the value of Eastern European art, we frame it as art form former socialist countries and only with such a background we can talk about art itself – its poetic quality, its intellectual value and so on.
Another issue I’d like to raise here is the one of „second-hand avant-garde“. In China, the avant-garde movement in the 1980s was closely related to the influx of new, mostly Western information after the Cultural Revolution. It was the time when artists started to experiment with different „Western“ modernist and contemporary methodologies, Cubism, Surrealism, installation, performance, video, readymade, etc. This has led to one of the strongest criticisms of the early avant-garde art in China – these are just Western products, and this is enough to give this art illegitimacy. This kind of East-West dilemma has existed in China since the mid 19th century, and it was almost an obsession because of China’s historical perception of itself being a victim of Western modernity. I wonder if this kind of anxiety of taking in Western notions also happened in Eastern Europe and in Russia.

KC: Avant-garde is a concept beyond East and West; it’s an episteme of being ahead of time. It’s a historical condition of revolutionizing and breaking away from the present, which emerged as Western but is quite universal. I would concentrate on the fact that avant-garde is avant-garde by the token of not being confined to aesthetics. Without social reconstitution and the extremity of socializing and communalizing of the society, avant-garde is impossible. Being avant-garde implies power and governmentality in a radical reconstitution of the overall social structure and the bio-political context. What is avant-garde never stays underground and is not subculture. All post-revolutionary avant-garde institutions of art in the early Soviet period were absolutely aware that they were becoming official and they even had it as their goal, since it enhanced their political and public influence in the midst of revolutionary class struggle. The avant-garde in Russia was not only connected to aesthetics but it aimed to recompose the whole ethos of the world, even in terms of a cosmological dimension. If we were to talk about where avant-garde could be witnessed today, this would be not so much artistic practices, but rather alternative businesses or contemporary art's institutional and bureaucratic agencies in re-contextualizing and re-emancipating the social conditions of the global cultural politics. It might be that today the agency of avant-garde manifests itself in the social engineering of various contemporary institutions – be it artistic, social or humanitarian. Whether or not this can be regarded as what avant-garde had or has to be is another question.

AY: I agree that artistic or aesthetic concepts are all universal and none of them belong only to the West. But I’d also talk about such anxiety from the perspective of the artists. When artists from the Eastern Bloc and China started to look for alternatives to individualist expressions as ideological control got looser in their environments during the 1970s and 1980s, how did they find an equilibrium of taking the artistic and conceptual legacy from the Western pioneers and reinventing their local and traditional cultures? At that period, questions like these were important in the intellectual debate. To answer it I want to refer to a work from 1987 by Huang Yongping, The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Painting Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes. This is precisely what we learn from art history: asking questions philosophically, and answering them artistically.

KC: I would paraphrase the moment of translatability and non-translatability with respect to the institute of contemporary art in terms of digestibility and non-digestibility. Specificity is not the problem for the notion of „the contemporary“. It can incorporate and digest anything. Contemporary art is able to be both specific and globally neutral. When it needs to be specific, it emphasizes specificity. When it needs to historicize something on the institutional level it provides the standardized requirements for packaging, which one cannot do without becoming the agent of this institute. In fact, any commodity needs to be both global and specific: it is by the token of being specific that a commodity is in demand, but this doesn’t contradict its distributive validity. Therefore one can say that the institute of contemporary art has the capacity for ubiquity and agencies of global circulation, but it is a question whether it is able to claim universality in terms of the ethics of commonwealth. What is really indigestible for contemporary art is the special touch of the reality, a certain intensity of the dimension of the general. This is something contemporary art cannot digest: some kinds of radical modes of treatment of the event and of reality.

AY: This is precisely the ability of transcending the empirical facts and experience into something that is beyond. To speak in an idealist manner, some of the best works that we have seen usually function on both the specific level and also the general level, being understood in both contexts. The best artists have an ability to transcend such a dialectic.