Fillip

Fillip 2 — Winter 2006

The Long March Project
Lu Jie

On the evening of October 12, 2005 the Vancouver Art Gallery presented “Dialogues on Art: Lu Jie in Conversation with Shengtian Zheng and Hsingyuan Tsao.” The presentation was organized in conjunction with the exhibition Classified Materials: Accumulations, Archives, Artists.

Lu Jie: The Long March Project was initiated in 1999 when I was a curatorial studies student at London University. During that time I developed a critique of the representation of politics in the context of international Chinese art exhibitions. I was thinking about the ways that contemporary art practice could connect with social development and social change. I developed the Long March Project as an organic structure that could parallel the grand narrative of the historical Long March initiated by Mao Zedong. I developed the idea that a number of sites could be created according to this historical Long March—this search for utopia, this sharing of resources, this going beyond the limits of body and ideology.

After several years of preparation, the Long March Foundation was established in New York in 2000. I spent two years visiting the six thousand miles historical Long March route. In 2002, we established the 25,000 Cultural Transmission Center in Beijing before launching the project that summer. After a three-month journey, twelve of the twenty planned sites were completed. We already had the contribution of two-hundred-and-fifty local and international artists. People thought that the government would stop us, but there were no political problems.

In the Yanchuan papercutting survey—which we believe is a milestone of the whole Long March up until today—we asked questions such as: what do we do with the so-called folk artists who live in China, whose life and profession is all based on an aesthetic that we do not value? This work is something that other curators and institutions do not deal with. But for the Long March Project—a project that wants to face reality—the different social hierarchies and historical frameworks all connect together to create a new understanding of contemporary Chinese art. So we believed from the very beginning that folk art, such as paper-cutting, is something that should be re-examined.

The project started in January 2004 and was completed in August of that year. We worked with one hundred volunteers and artists, and after five years of surveying, the results was a collection of fifteen thousand plus six survey forms and samples of work.

[...]Yanchuan County is located in Northern China in Xinjiang Province. It is closed to Yan’an, the final destination of the historical Long March. The county has eight towns and nine districts, and three-hundred-and-forty-six administrative villages. We sent artists to Yanchuan to connect with the community so that people would feel comfortable participating in our paper­cutting survey. There is a very strong cultural folk art tradition in these areas, including dance, singing, storytelling, papercutting, puppet theatre. All of these art forms are connected to papercutting. It is the visual foundation of these other cultural forms in this region.

[...]Our policy was to visit (with the help of one hundred volunteers) every village, every family, and every single human being in Yanchuan. We encountered huge challenges because it had to be a very organized governmental action. For those people who had been totally abandoned, whose art had been totally forgotten, an encounter with people from Shanghai, Beijing, and New York made them anxious. People would often run away. They would say, “I need to go to the toilet,” and they would not return. It was very challenging for our artists, curators, and volunteers. The issue became one of how to work with the community.

The survey form we designed tried to incorporate more data than just art. We were interested in gender, ethnic origin, education, economic situation, and even political point of view. We tried to allow people to communicate and choose how they would like to be recorded for the urban audiences of the Shanghai Biennale or the city intellectuals in Taipei. It was a very important moment for both groups[...] The papercuttings that we surveyed were a combination of different genres, styles, and motifs. In this art form we see traces of the modern artists from thirties Shanghai, who answered Mao Zedong’s call to change society. In 1930, intellectuals, writers, and composers all rushed off to join the revolution. The contemporary papercutting work shows these past influences translated by Shanghai modern artists (mostly printmakers), the traces of German woodcutting, of social realism, the influence of 1950s social campaign, and the urban intellectuals in the villages. To the local community, papercutting has always been the most sensitive expression of their life experience, knowledge, and history.

Hsingyuan Tsao: As an art historian, I am always very skeptical of the archival, particularly when archival activity is conducted by artists who have read a lot and are very conscientious of contemporary cultural issues (either Western or Chinese) and who go into rural areas to collect and re-enact how Mao and his comrades went to this area seventy years ago and tried to work the people up and make them collaborate with the Communist Party. How do you see the parallels between Mao’s grand narrative and your Long March Project? The curtain of the grand narrative fell long before you started this project. Yet you are making another narrative—following the route of the grand narrative. But your goal is to collect, to archive, to bring the native, to bring the local, the folk art into the contemporary art scene. What are the issues or agenda behind this parallelling of two grand narratives?

Lu Jie: The entire Long March Project is parallel to, not following, the grand narrative of the historical Long March. However, our contemporary project was a totally new interpretation of the historical Long March. For example, when we were given one thousand square meters to show the Long March Project, and we were told that we should only write one sentence describing the historical Long March, the curator, Fei DaWei, wrote “Mao Zedong’s Long March.” I said “No, the whole generation’s Long March.” This is a completely different interpretation of events. Our contemporary interpretation of the Long March is about cultural translation and transmission, about movement—not only linear but taking a departure point as a returning point—making all different levels of engagement and communication sensible, not setting things into binary oppositions. Although the historical Long March was later promoted as a heroic, romantic military campaign, to us it is more important as a methodological framework. We are definitely not following Mao Zedong’s tactic of using art as a tool of propaganda.

Hsingyuan Tsao: The historical Long March should perhaps have been redefined as the Great Escape, because the Nationalist Army launched five big campaigns trying to finish the Communist Party. Then there was the Japanese invasion[...] The issue now is: do we leave this as a grand narrative? Or as a grand escape? The Long March really was—as Mao Zedong said—a seeder of the Communist ideal. Now you are taking this Long March and touring your exhibition around the world. Do you have any idea of how your project acts as a propagator of some idea beyond itself?

Lu Jie: That is a very interesting question. We can trace back my experience to a day in London when I was buying lunch in the dining hall and my British schoolmates invited me to join the Communist Party. I guess it was popular for Communist Chinese citizens living abroad. My answer was quite arrogant: “You want me to join the Communist Party? I am from China.” That was quite an important moment for me. I began to reconsider the Chinese Revolution. I agree that our Long March Project does, in certain ways, suggest that the Cultural Revolution’s generation has a certain power and passion—things that we have inherited in our collective memory. It is not necessarily purely negative or positive, but it is there[...] Mao Zedong’s Revolution was actually successful, although later on there were many problems with it. So yes, in a certain way, we do believe that the historical Long March is a metaphor for the international arena—one of the very rare things about modern China that is not so negative.

Hsingyuan Tsao: When I began creating the China Art Current website (http://china.arts.ubc.ca) many years ago, I was debating with people about when contemporary art started in China. I settled with 1940. The reason was that this was the year when the Long March succeeded and they moved to Yan’an. This was the first time the non-Chinese ideal—the Western ideal that is Marxism—was really put into practice and this is probably the best place to define the beginning of modern Chinese society, because the ideology totally changed art practice[...] The moment you started your Long March Project was the very moment when contemporary Chinese art was starting to embrace the international art market. By 2000, contemporary Chinese art became relatively well established in the West. However, many people both inside and outside China were becoming worried that this was a situation of co-optation.

Lu Jie: The issue of what Chinese art should be was a very important departure point for the Long March Project. When tensions between so-called underground art—avant-gardism—and the mainstream—socialism, the official culture—dissipated, Chinese curators and artists started to rethink what constitutes a local context. It is crucial to question the whole system of contemporary art in the global context. These were issues that were brought up at the Zunyi Symposium—Site 8 of the Long March Project. I do not think that it is wrong to try and celebrate China’s place within the global context. But the Long March Project is quite different from the current discussions being put forward by critics and curators in China. These discussions have tended to be very nationalistic and narrow-minded.

Shengtian Zheng: You mentioned the 2002 Zunyi Symposium. Ken Lum, myself, and some other curators joined Lu Jie for this international symposium. It was a very interesting gathering. At that time Ken Lum, Jo Anne Birnie Danzker, and myself were co-curating a show called Shanghai Modern about 1930s culture in China. At the same time that Mao led the Red Army—bringing this imported ideology of Marxism to rural China—there was a group of intellectuals who went to Europe and North America and brought back modernism and Western modern art into China. The contemporary art that we now see in China—beginning in the 1980s and 1990s—was actually a continued development of this 1930s cultural Long March. So it is very interesting when Lu Jie and Hsingyuan raise this question. We saw in the 1990s many conservative critics in China criticize Chinese artists for producing for Western collectors and not for China. And we have to admit that there was this tendency. But it is not fair to say that all of Chinese contemporary art is designed for the Western market.

I think Lu Jie’s Long March Project is a demonstration of the border of Chinese contemporary art. This border is the site of a wide variety of practices; it includes many other views and methodologies. When we brought the Long March Project to the Shanghai Biennale, the first criticism we heard was that “this is not contemporary art!” and, “How come you have papercuttings as your first project to display in the Shanghai Art Museum?” But after a while, many people began to realize that this was a very interesting part of the Biennale. The project raises questions about the definition of contemporary and of the difference between professional and amateur art. In this way, it has been a very important development for contemporary Chinese art.

Hsingyuan Tsao: I took my graduate students to the Shanghai Biennale last year and we were so impressed by the Long March installation. On one of the survey forms there was a photograph of a man with scissors in his hand smiling to the camera. With his fountain pen handwriting, he said, “I love papercutting. Since I was very young, I have cut a lot, but my parents didn’t like it because I was a boy. My wife doesn’t like it because I am a man. My daughter doesn’t like it because she thinks it’s woman’s work. But, sorry, I just really like it.” I was so impressed by the bravery of this man. I was also struck by the fact that paper-cutting is a gender-divided art. How are you using this feminine art to parallel the masculine activity of the historical Long March, which lead to the grand Chinese Communist Revolution? How do you see this contradiction?

Lu Jie: This contradiction is very important to point out. Most papercutting is done by women and hardly ever by men. And yet papercuttings done by men are considered the “best,” better than the best woman’s papercutting. This is not my opinion. It was the conclusion reached by the members of the Long March survey. Of course, what is the “best”?

Hsingyuan Tsao: There is a very simple explanation to this. The social pressures against men doing papercuttings are very severe, but there are some men who take large risks, and show their talents. They come out looking better than the average woman. I believe there are women who are as equally talented as these men.

I just suddenly realized there is another issue here. The Communist Party is very effective at utilizing people. They take on this very feminine art form—papercutting—and pair it with communist ideals so that it will go to the bottom of the grassroots, which in turn will help stimulate support for this revolutionary project. If they only concentrated on male members of the society, they would only be able to succeed with half of the revolution, so to speak. Now I realize why Mao Zedong later came to say that in China, “women are the ones who lift half of the sky.” That really started with this project—getting women involved with the revolution, getting women involved in the communist idealized society. There are more women in the Communist Party than in any of the other parties in China. Do you see this whole eighty-year period of the communist art and cultural movement as one where gender divisions in China were blurred? Or was it just rhetorically trying to do so without achieving those ends?

Lu Jie: We did make an effort to debate these issues surrounding gender and communism. We tried in Site 6—Lugu Lake—which is the last matriarchal society in China. Our original idea was to invite both American and Chinese artists to examine the differences between American gender discourse and Mao Zedong’s ideals around femininity. We invited Judy Chicago from the United States with her background in 1970s feminist discourse. This was a turning point. We asked Chinese women artists to join the Project. It was a moment for them to declare if they were feminist artists or not. But many, like Lin Tianmiao (who had participated on the Long March Project in other sites) refused to come to Lugu Lake. Eventually forty-five Chinese women artists declared their feminist perspective. It’s interesting that the majority of the forty-five artists copied Cindy Sherman, Judy Chicago, or other American feminist artists in their work. Of all the portions of the Long March Project, this was the one that failed. At the same time, it was this failure that made it the most celebrated portion of the Project.

Image: The Long March Project, sample survey form from The Great Survey of Papercuttings in Yanchuan County (2004)

About the Author

Lu Jie is the founder and director of the Long March Foundation, New York and the 25,000 Cultural Transmission Center, Beijing. Over the past six years, Lu Jie has been concentrating his efforts to produce the Long March Project, portions of which have been exhibited internationally including in the 2004 Shanghai Biennale, the 2004 Taipei Biennale, and most recently at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

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