Lei Xue

Should an artist who is faithful to a particular regional culture and its legacies and practices seek recognition by complying with the standards of the cultural hegemon? It used to be imperative to assimilate to New York or some other international center to avoid the fate of being merely a “national” or “regional” artist. That changed with the rise of multiculturalism and the replacement of the desire for modern assimilation by postmodern differentiation as a strategy for power sharing. But then, in a further twist, some regional artists began borrowing the master’s tools to throw up their own cozy extensions rather than knock down the big house; Lei Xue’s exhibition “Zwischen Ming und Coca-Cola” (Between Ming and Coca-Cola) is a case in point.

As the leveling effects of globalization continue unabated, Xue remains profoundly committed to the emancipation (indeed survival) of his Chinese identity. His gambit is to counterattack with the steadfast use of a traditionalist belief system he describes openhandedly: “For me, poetry is my artistic system of thought, whereas Zen is a measure of my own work depths and faculties of expression capacities. Poetry and Zen penetrate like a path into the thoughts, just as the Chinese perceive the universe. The awareness of poetry perforates thousands of years of Chinese cultural history.”

Nonetheless, Xue sought a more progressive education than what might be available in China, ending up at the Kunsthochschule in Kassel. Germany provided the opportunity to audition his nationalist attitude and, with exhibitions like this one, to judge just how far it would need to be abridged in order to enjoy a response in the West. This exhibition includes scroll-sized paintings of lathery Alpine scenes, each titled Alpenlandschaft (Alpine Landscape), 2003, and an installation of 115 scattered life-size porcelain sculptures of crushed Coke cans, titled Teetrinken (Drinking Tea), 2001–2004, which are festooned with the iconography of Chinatown crockery via the Ming dynasty. The tension between regional and global cultures is a knotty paradox, Xue tells us; this knowledge he wears on his sleeve. When the equation reads Alpine scene + Chinese scroll = X or Coke + Ming = X one need not dig deep to find the aggregate: Today “regional” artists fraternize with the international art world, potentially diminishing the local authenticity which once provided their budding signs of cultural diversity. Xue’s art unmasks substantial and open questions as to how artists can be faithful to their local cultures while meeting the standards of international recognition in the name of cultural diversity.

In this respect, Xue’s art is a meditation on the struggle to maintain the equilibrium between “preservation” and “innovation,” and perhaps it is in his endeavor that we sample the incorruptible path of Zen and his poetic perceptions of our world. Regardless, the preservation of traditionalist standards—methods and iconology, even techniques and materials—while negotiating a warm reception with the international art world is fraught with uncertainties, which Xue’s uneasy exhibition calls out. For example, how much compliance is too much compliance from either side? Might the cultural center even, to paraphrase Jenny Holzer, protect them from what they want, respectfully turning back regional artists to save their art from falling into the general malaise? Xue’s exhibition suggests we are at a tipping point between a moderate interest in preservation and zealous globalization. We have experienced such points in the recent past and the response from the West has often been undignified and usually self-serving. Anyone remember the end of our affair with Australia’s aboriginal artists?

Ronald Jones