AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 82

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Session 82: The Multiplicity of Visual Arts: Critiques, Witness, Commodification, and Envisioning

Organizer: Chao-mei Tu, National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan (R.O.C.)

Discussant: Aihe Wang, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Visual arts in modern China have been a central component of ideological control, and recently, of a state sanctioned mainstream culture and market apparatus. Yet at the grassroots, at the fringe, or across the borders, artists have also used the visual to subvert and transfigure the establishments of the center. This panel focuses on interactions between the center and the fringe, the state and the grassroots, and the national and the transnational. It explores the multiplicity of visual arts in such interactions – as critical resistance to the mainstream, as creative envisioning of alternative subjectivity, as an evidential counter to official media, or as self-commodification for a world capital order. This interdisciplinary exploration integrates cultural and visual analyses with historical, sociological, and political perspectives. Lei Jin demonstrates how, following the Sichuan earthquake, victims and independent filmmakers have used visual technology to witness, record, and present the catastrophe against oppression and official media. Chao-mei Tu studies Tsai Ming-Liang’s film “The Hole” as a criticism of the media, the state, and global capital. Ruth Hung analyzes how the unified cover designs of memoirs of the Chinese Cultural Revolution lure history into capitalist systems of production and consumption of meaning. And Aihe Wang presents an underground painting group during the Cultural Revolution as a visual critique of revolutionary modernity and an envisioning of alternative subjectivity. In all these multiple forms of visual practice, we recover the creative autonomy of human agency.

Engaging Technology and Multiplicities: Recording, Presentation, Testimony, and Commemoration of the Sichuan Earthquake
Lei Jin, College of Charleston, USA

On Feb. 2, 2010, the HBO documentary movie China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province (2009) was nominated for an Oscar at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards Ceremony in the Documentary (Short Subject) category, and consequently drew significant overseas public attention both to the film as well as to the subject with which it dealt. By comparison, similar documentary films made by Chinese independent filmmakers remain largely unknown to public audiences and offer only limited access to scholars both in China and overseas. One could not help but wonder how the devastating Sichuan earthquake which claimed over sixty eight thousand lives is remembered in an age of high technology and media. How does technology such as video cameras, the internet, cell phones, etc, impact the shaping of our memories? How does the media respond to trauma? What cultural dialogues and critiques of the media arise? Finally, what are the roles of visual culture and technology in transforming modern identity? Focusing on the documentary films of independent filmmakers and the commemorational internet project and blogs, this paper attempts to explore the way in which the traumatic Sichuan earthquake was witnessed, presented and testified by media outside the mainstream. The discussion centered on the non-official media memory of trauma leads to an investigation of the relationship between trauma and the official and non-official media in contemporary China.

Tsai Ming-Liang’s the Hole: A Critique of Globalization and Civilization
Chao-mei Tu, National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan (R.O.C.)

Commissioned to produce a film about the millennium, Tasi Ming-liang presents to the world a film that represents his criticism of the media, the state, and the transnational circulation of the capital. In The Hole, the excessive progress made by the human is satirized in the sense that it envisions an end to the world as a tell-tale woven with and by the discourses of the media and the state. To resist against the domination of the media as state apparatus, the movie starts with a black screen filled with the voices of the people who refuse to be evacuated from the allegedly plagued area. And more details in the film also portray the sound of the media as the white noise, constituting only minor disturbance. In addition to its rebellion against its orientation to serve the power, The Hole formulates its own cinematic discourses, with the hole as its symbol, to create a connecting point inside the world that is sealed up and isolated from the outer world. The lack, of both communication and f resources, is compensated by human subjectivity and creativity. Arts, a pop art actually, serves to internalize the inner thoughts and emotion that otherwise would have been hidden and unknown, and then brings about a salvation to the community besieged by the discourses of its lack and its loss. As the hole on the floor is gradually and further enlarged, the music and its lyrics, and the relation between the protagonists change and enhance accordingly. A return to the state prior to the civilization, an insect-like lifestyle, enables the two protagonists to see what they have not been able to see.

Wuming Art – A Visual Critique of Revolutionary Modernity
Aihe Wang, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

This paper studies an underground art group active in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, named Wuming (meaning No Name). It breaks with the analytical discourse of “dissidents”, “victims”, and Chinese “modernity”. Instead, it treats Wuming art as a visual critique of that modernity – of industrialization, the destruction of traditional culture and communities, alienation, the exploitation of nature, the formation of mass society, disenchantment and loss of meaning, and the cult of progress in continued revolution. The paper explores three promises of the Wuming case. As a history, it challenges the master narrative of the Cultural Revolution depicting subjects as brainwashed victims and mobs, by disclosing creative agents and self-inventing subjectivity. As a community, it reveals novel social forms and forces from the grassroots, and new kinds of social identity. And as art, it critiques revolutionary modernity, creating other visions, other images, and other projections of modernity.

Chinese Memoirs and the Politics of Writing: Commodification, Standardization, and Intertextuality
Ruth Hung, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong

For a long time during the Cold War era, readers from outside of China found it hard to “make visible, intimate and immediate the pain and horror that are cloaked in the silence of China’s [modern] history” (Review of Wild Swans). The situation began to change in the early 1990s. In 1991, for example, Jung Chang published in New York her award-winning memoir and international bestseller Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. Following Jung’s success, a number of Chinese authors began to write from and in the U.S. about their experience of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and did so with close attention to the demands of writing in a specific geopolitical space, that is, in the U.S. as a liberal society; one that popular imagination understands as having a foundational ideology that is in conflict with communism. In other words, the act of writing implies the need to subscribe the self to not only a foreign language but also a different socio-political construct. My paper is a critical study of these memoirs. Examples of the memoirs studied in this essay include Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai, Gao Yuan’s Born Red, Zhai Zhenhua’s Red Flower of China, Wu Ningkun’s A Single Tear, Ji-li Jiang’s Red Scarf Girl, Rae Yang’s Spider Eaters, Ye Tingxing’s A Leaf in the Bitter Wind, Zhu Xiao Di’s Thirty Years in a Red House, Da Chen’s Colours of the Mountain, Xu Meihong, and Larry Engelmann’s Daughter of China. Using the unified design of the book covers as a case in point, this essay tries to show how the Chinese memoirists attempt to lure history into commercialized systems of signification and meaning production. Nearly all the memoir covers have on them three decorative details -- the color red, old photographs, and some brush-written Chinese characters. The consistency in the cover design leaves on the readers the impression that the memoirs work on the basis of a common denominator and they are situated in the realm of a collective mentality where all personal narratives coexist in a single discourse and become more significant when read with reference to one another. In addition, extracts from reviews printed in visibly catchy spaces on the covers make cross-reference to other memoirs, giving readers reassurance as to what they are buying. Ultimately, the essay attempts to describe both the dynamic relations between US consumerism and the Chinese memoirists’ decision to turn towards the market. It also wants to explain how this US/PRC dynamic, rooted on each side in long and recent histories, effectively forms and operates within a new world capital order.