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Is Chineseness too big for China? Chineseness in negotiation in minoritarian practices of Organhaus art space (Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, 3: 1+2, pp. 13–26)

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This article aims to bring to light the heterogeneity and nomadic character of 'Chineseness' by mapping the curatorial practice of the Chongqing-based art space Organhaus. Their curatorial projects involving Xinjiang and Iran shall be
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  13 JCCA 3 (1+2) pp. 13–26 Intellect Limited 2016 Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art Volume 3 Numbers 1 & 2 © 2016 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/jcca.3.1-2.13_1 KEYWORDS Contemporary Chinese artcuratorial practiceChinesenessempireminoritariannomadic MI YOU Academy of Media Arts Cologne Is Chineseness too big for China? Chineseness in negotiation in minoritarian practices of Organhaus art space 1 ABSTRACT This article aims to bring to light the heterogeneity and nomadic character of ‘Chineseness’ by mapping the curatorial practice of the Chongqing-based art space Organhaus. Their curatorial projects involving Xinjiang and Iran shall be examined through the lens of ‘minoritarian practice’, which at the same time affords a tool  for unpacking the notion of Chineseness as related to empire, state and in an inter- Asian context. It shall be argued that it is through minoritarian practices that nego-tiation and actualization of Chineseness emerge. INTRODUCTION This article aims to bring to light the heterogeneity and nomadic charac-ter of ‘Chineseness’ by mapping the curatorial practice of the Chongqing-based art space Organhaus. It does so by analysing a few curatorial projects 1. Based on a paper presented at ‘(In)Direct Speech. ‘Chineseness’ in Contemporary Art Discourse and Practice: Art Market, Curatorial Practices and Creative Processes, 16–19 March 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. JCCA_3.1&2_You_13-26.indd 138/31/16 11:08 AM  Mi You 14 Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art 2015, University of Lisbon. undertaken by Organhaus that show affinity to a Deleuze-inspired ‘minori-tarian politics’, based on which a trajectory with articulated concerns for minorities within China and of China’s Asian neighbours could be discerned. ‘Chineseness’ will be examined in this dynamic minoritarian network – indeed, its validity will be questioned and reconciled only inso-far as it gets fragmentized and reactivated in the face of such minoritarian networks.To set a stage for my rather dramatic title question ‘Is Chineseness too big for China’, which intrinsically embeds the question ‘Is Chineseness too big for China as a nation’, and as an offshoot question, ‘Is China too big for Asia’, the article will start with two equally dramatic, perhaps somewhat blatant, yet nevertheless provocative, quotations:The first quotation concerns Chineseness and China as nation, or nation state – ‘ 中国者吾中国人之中国 ’/‘China is the China of the Chinese’. It was a slogan demonstrating the coming of age of Chinese nationalis-tic consciousness from the year 1900, which fitted the progressive thinkers  who found themselves in a deteriorating imperial dynasty fighting a losing battle against foreign invaders. As such it was indeed a powerful political instrument for the circumstances then. Yet it survives conceptual history regarding nation and people until today. It is a nationalistic view that does not account fully for minorities, both in political terms for ethnic minori-ties (Matten 2012: 56) and, as Paul Gladston argues, in a conceptual realm such as contemporary art, where under the definition of ‘contemporary Chinese art’ artists whose ‘ethnic/cultural identities as Chinese cannot be linked directly to the geographical space of mainland China’ are marginal-ized (Gladston 2010).The second claim is Korean scholar Baik Young-seo’s ‘there is no “Asia” in China’ (2002: 277). While oversimplifying, it pinpoints the lack of horizon-tal awareness of Chinese intellectuals on their neighbouring societies, or a horizontal way of conceptualizing Asia altogether, save for a few short-lived attempts, which will be explained later. In a way, the two claims serve as reminders of historical practices concern-ing what ‘Chineseness’ means and what it does, onto which present day poli-tics could be measured. Indeed, to certain degrees, contemporary Chinese society is not immune to regression into those claims. One need only to glimpse into how social media users recently reacted to confrontations between ethnic groups versus Han Chinese, where being of Han ethnicity dominates the discourse of Chineseness. Bearing these in mind, the article  will proceed as follows:First I will introduce the geopolitical as well as social conditions under  which Organhaus Art Space functions, so as to anchor their curatorial practice in a larger context.I will highlight two selected projects that, investigated through the lens of cultural studies and critical theory, present a particular ‘minoritarian practice’ and ‘nomadic practice’. The emphasis of the study here is as much on the curatorial and conceptual set-up of the projects as on particular works that emerge from the set-up and that answer to ‘minoritarian practice’. By mapping the geopolitical outreach of Organhaus, we may come to understand a cultural consciousness in its operation that helps us unpack ‘Chineseness’. Hence, while introducing the work of Organhaus, I will attempt to interrelate this ‘minoritarian practice’ to ‘Chineseness’, problema-tizing and expanding the theoretical scope of the latter. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41. 42. 43. 44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51. 52. JCCA_3.1&2_You_13-26.indd 148/31/16 11:08 AM  Is Chineseness too big for China? www.intellectbooks.com 15 TRAJECTORY OF ORGANHAUS Founded in 2007, Organhaus is a not-for-profit art space dedicated to experi-mental arts situated in Chongqing, a metropolis in the less-developed heart-land of China. The core team of Organhaus is composed of artist YANG Shu and curator Ni Kun. In the inaugural years, Organhaus was preoccupied with organizing general exhibitions of young artists and residency programmes. In retrospect, it seems that this was a much-needed gesture in the city of Chongqing, where nearly no resource was available for young independ-ent artists. Over the years, Organhaus has changed from merely provid-ing a platform for artistic showcase to a full-fledged space with clear visions and sounded plans covering artistic research and production, as well as an exchange network with various international partners (mainly through the international outreach of Triangle Network). All the while, Organhaus focuses on young artists in their 30s and 40s from the region and beyond. The minor geography, combined with lack of commercial and state-support infrastructure for art common in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, affords a ground for Organhaus to position itself uniquely. Organhaus demonstrates keen local awareness in their curatorial and research projects dedicated to nurturing artists from the region. They host annual work-shops for local artists to introduce their works, and have thus fostered a spirit of local community. In the programme 十日谈 /Decamerone, they invite one artist to reflect on his or her practice over a series of talks with the Organhaus team, and at the end a small exhibition will be put up that shows the artis-tic works in relation to this reflection. Another focus point of their work is the social implications of urban transformation, underway at massive scale in the region, under the rubric of which they have supported the works of artist  Wang Haichuan with a Soviet-era working community facing relocation in Chongqing (Figure 1), and artist collective Chen Jianjun and Cao Minghao  with urbanization-bound Kunshan Village outside the metropolitan city of Chengdu. How being outside art world epic centres in China reflects on the local art scene is not just on the level of resources, but it also creates a kind of historical hollowness. Organhaus is critical of the historicization and canonization that derive from mainstream art media operation. The selection and admittance of a particular artwork from a regional context into art world centres flattens  Figure 1: Wang Haichuan, Tongyuanju  (2012). Copyright Organhaus. Courtesy of Organhaus. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41. 42. 43. 44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51. 52. JCCA_3.1&2_You_13-26.indd 158/31/16 11:08 AM  Mi You 16 Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art  2. There is, of course, a need to develop critical theory and cultural studies rooted in the ‘Chinese’ soil. Some of the Vitalist school thinkers such as Spinoza and Deleuze certainly share affinities with Chinese traditional thinkers. Zhuang Zi’s non-representational view on language could be compared to Deleuze’s nomadism. The question is, how to push Chinese thinking into critical theory adequate for understanding and enacting politics today. Fabian Heubel, for example, has devoted much work on this front. Here, for a clear and articulated analytical framework, I mainly draw on ‘Western’ theorists. out the differences and nuances of thinking, and instead creates a uniformed history of practices. What Organhaus strives for is to document contemporary critical practices in the long run, while not attempting to foreclose the poten-tial and the unknown by over-historicization.Regarding this thinking-while-doing without historicization, we could  witness how Organhaus carefully positions itself in working with socially engaged art practices in recent years. It is clear to them that ‘community art’ as a borrowed concept from the West and often mediated by artists from Taiwan usually loses its micro-political edge when practised in China, for there is no space in highly policed Chinese society to exercise such politics. Instead of making ‘politically correct’ community art projects, popularly practised and instrumentalized by the government, Organhaus curator Ni Kun goes into discussions with the artists concerning the particularity of local communities, so that the artists often develop works that come out of the inherent logic of a community. These projects are usually long term and on experimental basis,  which will hopefully ‘contribute to social progress’ (Ni 2014). TWO CURATORIAL PROJECTS OF ORGANHAUS AND MINORITARIAN PRACTICE The two curatorial projects of Organhaus I will draw on for the analysis are the residency programme they have set up with various partners in Tehran, Iran, and ‘ 日常牧场  –  新丝绸之路国际影像展 /‘Daily Pasture – video and photo exhibition on the new Silk Road’, an exhibition in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province where the historical Silk route traverses. In the former, two Chinese and two Iranian artists work, respectively, in Chongqing and Tehran for four weeks to make works; the locally produced work will be shown together with the local artists’ works. In the latter, Ni Kun, curator of Organhaus, worked with Xinjiang Contemporary Art Museum supported by the district-level government to investigate contemporary artistic positions in China, Iran, Bangladesh and Turkey. One of the things that conjoin Chongqing, Urumqi and Tehran/Iran for a study of the curatorial approach of Organhaus is a shared minoritarian stand-ing in terms of locus of artistic action. This is not an absolutist remark on the geo-politics of the cities in their respective state or region, and certainly not intended to discredit the much vibrant art scene in each city (to compare the difference of the artistic productions from these three cities/regions will be but another study); yet, such a minoritarian standing arises in the framework of a more dominant and normative order – in this case against more market-driven centres of the arts: that is, Beijing and Shanghai in China and the Gulf region as a centre of greater Central Asia. To understand the minoritarian standing, I will draw on Deleuze-inspired critical theory that has its resonance in feminism, post-humanism and post-colonialism among other discourses in the past few decades 2 . In Deleuze, a minority is related to absolute numbers but is defined ‘by its capacity to become, or in its subjective geography, to draw for itself lines of fluctuation that open up a gap and separate it from the axiom constituting a redundant majority’ (Conley 2005: 167). On the contrary, ‘[a] majority is linked to a state of power and domination’ (Conley 2005:167). Hence, Organhaus’ curatorial position is to be viewed in its capacity to evolve, to reach out and to react to changing conditions that subsume them into a minoritarian vis-à-vis a majoritarian position. It is on this disparate ground that we could situate the 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41. 42. 43. 44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51. 52. JCCA_3.1&2_You_13-26.indd 168/31/16 11:08 AM  Is Chineseness too big for China? www.intellectbooks.com 17 discussion of ‘Chineseness’, which is not a unitary oneness but is internally differentiated.On a rhetoric level, the Chinese government seems to embrace inherent differences within the country, sometimes evoking the Confucian idea ‘ 和而不同 ’ (‘harmony in diversity’). The nuances in such propagations should not be dismissed; yet it is what goes before, behind and beyond this political wishful thinking that is at issue here: the history of China in the twentieth century as a ‘history of nation’ as well as a ‘history of national coercion’ (Baik 2015: 207) is not only inevitable, but its aftermath is felt. This is due to the historical fact that the nature of nation-building projects is at the same time liberating and repressing (Baik 2015: 207). This history of national coercion is testified by such claims as ‘China is the China of the Chinese’ in the early modernization period, and trickles down to today’s society in various disguises. Indeed, it seems that China, on a state level, is keen to assert – or, shall we say, reassert – itself as an empire, different in form from a unitary nation state, on which the modern world system is based. Yet, as Baik points out, ‘simply reiterating and overemphasizing China’s historical continuity will not enable the overcoming of the dichotomy between tradition and modernity’ (2015: 209). The rhetoric slippage takes no account of the differentiated political status of the ‘Chinese empire’ relative to the changes in the rest of the world, much less its internal discontinuities and ruptures. The successful churning of such an image of China as empire with renewed influence to exert onto the  world constitutes a majoritarian regime, if not yet full-fledged in practice, runs the danger of homogenization of differential thinking. In this way, ‘China’ as a mental construct and its associated ‘Chineseness’ could be read as trans-forming ‘from a concrete geopolitical location, and a specifically grounded history, into an abstract concept and a normative ideal that can be imple-mented across space and time’ (Braidotti 2012: 210). It is worth noting how ‘deconstructive’ or ‘postmodern’ this China has become – in that it encom-passes its own constructed reality of old Chinese empire and has made a new Chinese empire. Moreover, given the basic constituent structure of the empire – that of a centre dominating its peripheries – we should not discount the various activ-ities and interactions among the weaker parts on the periphery. Historians have carried out research on the network aspect of the tributary system, a pillar in the traditional Chinese world order of tianxia  , or ‘everything under heaven’, whereby the weaker countries on the periphery enter into tributary relation with China, the latter being self-positioned in the centre.It is crucial to understand the dynamism in the tianxia  world system. Hamashita Takeshi’s research highlights the network in and off-shooting from the tianxia  world system instead of the centre–periphery dichotomy. In this light, ‘at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the overseas Chinese private trade network successfully transformed the official tribute system into a private trade system, and this was the result of long-term processes’ (Wang 2007: 21). Furthermore, studies suggest that the form of trade activi-ties in South East Asia included smuggling and arms trafficking. This devel-opment signals a breaking out of the tributary system (Wang 2007: 21). Here, the historical development of networks is precisely the result of shifts in the existing relations between centre and periphery (Wang 2007: 22). This signals the dynamic process of becoming in a structurally unstable moment, and this very becoming does not seek to produce representation of the majoritarian structure, but constitutes its own flow of desire. In other words, 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41. 42. 43. 44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51. 52. JCCA_3.1&2_You_13-26.indd 178/31/16 11:08 AM
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