PRINT Summer 2010

Pi Li

PERHAPS IN PLACES WITH LONGER HISTORIES, history is more easily cast aside. Two socialist traditions, those of Mao Zedong and of Lenin, held different ideas about cultural revolution and history: Mao believed that a thorough destruction of the old culture was necessary in order to usher in the new, while Lenin saw new culture as a “valuable” layer to be added to existing traditions. Mao’s philosophy of culture has seeped into the Chinese cultural unconscious, particularly its contemporary manifestation. After “revolution” is achieved, all that is left is to build monuments from scratch. And so countless private museums, city museums, and art centers have been ushered into existence. If museum tourism in the Euro-American context offers a way for the capitalist or bourgeois class to satisfy its desire for cultural fulfillment and, indeed, atonement, then we might call the Chinese museum-building craze a process of using money to historicize itself. The protagonists of this push for historicization through institution building are wide-ranging, including different levels of government, individual politicians, corporations, collectors, and even artists. Perhaps the most egregious example is the “Institutions of Chinart” cluster of eight monographic museums devoted to some of the nation’s top-selling artists, located in Dujiangyan, Sichuan—the heart of the region affected by the 2008 earthquake—and funded by the municipal government of Chengdu as part of its reconstruction planning.

Despite the breathtaking rise of the market for contemporary Chinese art, the nation’s institutions continue to lag seriously behind. The remnants of an earlier totalitarian politics ensure that China lacks a critical discourse capable of independence from both politics and the market, not to mention nonprofit institutions capable of supporting artists’ experiments. The few museums that have contemporary programming are often mired in problems, dependent on renting out their spaces in order to maintain their operations. This leads to a situation in which public museums are encouraged to put their limited budgets toward media-friendly biennials, and private museums come off as compromised spaces that serve their owners by mediating between the gallery and museum systems, serving mostly as tony containers for the display of private and corporate collections rather than actually engaging a public. Of course, museums everywhere have become urban fixtures akin to airports, with gift shops and restaurants expanding constantly in the name of “the public.” This is the same public that in Beijing was recently presented with an elaborate exhibition of work by Fang Lijun, lasting only ten days. Exhibitions of curatorial value are often confined to the periphery, in the project spaces of commercial galleries, located in, say, some village a forty-minute cab ride from the center of town—left to wait, probably in vain, for the tides to turn. To cite my own experience, I began a not-for-profit space, initially named UniversalStudios-Beijing, in 2005. Without the infrastructure of public financial support and open academic discourse, however, the fully not-for-profit space remained unattainable—an ancillary service of market systems, at best. So we turned to the model of a commercial gallery with hybrid sources of support; the institution survived, renamed the Boers-Li Gallery, and in fact has fostered the coexistence of diverse discourses.

The core value of the museum system as it emerged in the twentieth century is its ability to create, to historicize, and to make public. When these three projects are infringed on by commerce and politics, all we can do is seek to dispose of this model altogether, rather than to superficially mask or euphemize it as a laboratory for democracy or knowledge. This may sound like a tired reprise of 1960s Situationism. Yet it still seems there is a fundamental opposition between the rapid shifts of contemporary art and the museum’s classicizing and historicizing project, which has only accelerated in the past forty years. This is why the history of contemporary art can so easily be revised by private collections, institutions of cultural power, and money. Seen in this light, the task for China is to develop a new model of the museum that can do away with the illusion of historicization as a way of displacing its internal crisis. Cultural atonement and revolutionary consciousness are hardly different when it comes to the specific mechanics of history making. The more important task is to develop a new system of cultural preservation, one with room for winners and losers, for those who make a momentary splash only to disappear completely and for others who are forgotten by history only to be rediscovered. Such a system would allow countless temporaries to come together into a dynamic contemporary, moving ever onward.

Translated from Chinese by Philip Tinari.