The New Normal: On Dissidence, Apology, and Transcendence in Contemporary Chinese Art

By Henry ZhangJune 25, 2017

The New Normal: On Dissidence, Apology, and Transcendence in Contemporary Chinese Art
IN 1968, an Asian-American man reclaimed a Chinese stereotype by writing Yellow Peril Supports Black Power on a sign at a Civil Rights march. At the time, Californian nativists said they were sick of having their jobs taken away by a growing body of immigrants — sound familiar? In 2015, I saw Chinese-Americans holding up the same sign at a Black Lives Matter rally. My parents had warned me against going — against making a fuss. I wanted to tell them to stop being so damn polite. Respectability politics had become odious to me. I no longer wanted to ask nicely for a seat at the table while saying How rude! to those whose precarity forced them to shout. Look long and hard at the head of the table, I wanted to tell my parents, at the hand that you say feeds you, the hand you are so terrified to bite.

Earlier this year, in Beijing, I saw another riff on reclaiming Yellow Peril, in the form of an hour-long pseudo-documentary called Sinofuturism by the video artist Lawrence Lek. Sinofuturism is narrated by a text-to-speech software which sounds like Portal’s GLadOS. Lek has a diasporic Chinese identity — he has lived in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Britain, the United States, and Germany. He takes the stereotypes that he has collected about Chineseness, and, in a mock-Kantian move, universalizes them. Chineseness covers the world, becoming “a spectre already embedded into a trillion industrial products, a billion individuals, and a million veiled narratives.” I loved this inversion, because it felt like the perfect revenge for my long and tortured years trying to be polite, to say little about the place I came from, to look down, to be one of the good Asians.

“Yellow peril supports Black power” Oakland, California, 1968. Photograph by Roz Payne.

Sinofuturism is the final piece in the current exhibit, “The New Normal: China, Art, and 2017,” at the Ullens Center of Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing. “New Normal” is Xi Jinping’s coinage — he used it at the World Economic Forum, to explain China’s economic growth rates. These are lower now, says the guidebook, “than during the exuberant years of the early 2000s.” Exuberant, of course, recalls Allan Greenspan’s 1996 concern about “irrational exuberance” in the sector. That bubble burst and then ballooned again until the 2008 collapse and the long crisis from which the United States has, arguably, not recovered. Economic downturns are always connected with political turmoil. In China, the CCP’s almost unlimited power has been founded on its ability to provide almost unlimited economic growth. Xi’s words were sterile and technocratic, but they signaled, ominously, downturn and the end of sterile technocracy — no longer content to sit and let the market do its work, Xi’s government has been responsible for huge nationalist, nativist upsurges, with poorer rural migrants and expats bearing the brunt of the negative attention. Weak growth and increasingly strident political turmoil: This, the UCCA exhibit suggests, is the new normal.

The Chinese title for the exhibit is lìwàizhuàngtài, which translates to “State of Exception,” after Schmitt, Benjamin, and Agamben (yes, in that order). One benefit of UCCA’s bilingual mission — press releases, guidebooks, tours, are all given in Chinese and English — is that this point can be made bilingually. The point of course, in both languages, is that there is nothing normal here. The words “business as usual” often serve as a totalitarian lullaby.

Many of the pieces in the exhibit obviously critique current political and economic realities. Liang Ban’s A Poet Who Never Saw the Ocean Wrote a Novel about the Ocean includes sound clips of various beaches where refugees have landed. Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho’s LEAK LIGHT DEATH TIME HEAT is a kind of disco-tent, hung with sketches of drug users killed by Rodrigo Duterte’s death squads. Yao Qingmei’s Solar Spectrum — Royal Ballet of the Night II features a female opera singer belting out a Foucauldian analysis of Louis XIV, and slips in, edgewise, the comment that Mao was called the Red Sun of China. 

It wasn’t difficult to locate my own American concerns in “The New Normal.” Donald Trump, who just withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, has ensured that the number of climate refugees will increase. He is pals with Duterte. His charismatic leadership and mirrored halls — despite every attempt the left makes to disparage him — have given him power that borders on impunity. As the UCCA press release says, 2017 is the year “ideals of freedom, equality, and openness, once held by some as universal values, give way to mass shootings, aborted ceasefires, violated norms, and tainted elections.” Isn’t Trump the largest exception in recent history, as we wait to see which rule he will prove?

I can hardly exhaust Sinofuturism in this essay — but the best part of it, I think, is its lampooning of UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle’s thought experiment, “the Chinese Room,” which claims to debunk the theory of strong AI. Many AI theorists believe that if no one can tell the difference between a program and a human, the program would become, in effect, human.

screenshot, "Sinofuturism," Vimeo

Lek uses footage of a British news team that has staged a room and sent a reporter inside to act out Searle’s thought experiment. A man is locked in the room with nothing but a table and an instruction manual telling him, in English, how to respond in Chinese. An interrogator stands outside the door, periodically slipping him questions. If you are not familiar with the argument already, I’ll jump to the punch line: the instruction manual is an algorithm, the room is the computer’s shell, and the bumbling Englishman inside is the CPU. The interrogator is trying to figure out whether or not she is speaking to a human (on, say, the internet), or an ingenious AI — giving a version of the Turing test.

Searle’s point is that, just as the bumbler can pass this test without knowing Chinese, a computer — or android — could pass the Turing test, feign human intelligence and emotion, and yet feel nothing (nor speak Chinese). Searle’s experiment is vulnerable to many responses, and Lek made his film before Searle’s scandals at Cal. But the lowest blow would certainly come from his old nemesis, Jacques Derrida, who would probably point out that what Searlians would claim is an incidental feature of the argument — Chinese script — partakes of a centuries-old discourse, beginning with the Enlightenment, in which Chinese script is exoticized. Leibniz saw it as a perfect philosophical language; others, like Hegel, found it a cumbersome, irrational set of icons, too rooted in similitude to get at real, abstract truth. In the 20th century, the focus shifted to Chinese faces and voices, with Marguerite Duras, whose lover, effete and strange, is “the voice of China,” or Virginia Woolf, who endowed Lily Briscoe, the artist in To the Lighthouse, with “Chinese eyes.” Re-contextualized by Lek with reminders of this long, Orientalist tradition, Searle’s “Chinese Room” stops seeming so innocent.

In the West, art made by minorities is often written off as mere autobiography (tokenized representation or social testimony, not art) or mere virtuosity (the genius lies with the composer over the violinist). Sinofuturism, however, like other work by people of color, tries to punch through this glass ceiling — it is, without a doubt, autobiographical and virtuosic. Lek’s training is in architecture, and his films typically feature tours of depopulated future cityscapes — as in a strange, first-person dystopian shooter whose inhabitants have all disappeared — yet he is also Malaysian-Chinese. Sinofuturism, for all its technical difficulty, has taken for its model none other than Afro-futurism, an aesthetic of difference whose dream is of a half-black, half-cyborg archeologist, sifting, in the year 2240, among the rubble that was our white supremacist world. Lek’s avatar of whiteness is ill-equipped for the SinoFuture — a balding, bumbling reporter, who is locked into a room, given a Chinese instruction manual, and forced to take Searle’s test. Through a slot in the door, he’s slipped sheets of paper with questions, in Chinese, like “Do you speak Chinese?” and “Are you a computer?” They are so easy that Siri could answer them. Nonetheless, he seems overwhelmed. Hey buddy, I wanted to ask him, did you know that I could answer that question when I was four? The post-Fordist, 21st-century stereotype of Chinese people is a student in a tracksuit who spends inhuman amounts of time gaming or studying for a slew of tests he will ace, but unable to make it through the most basic of social interactions. Someone, in other words, who wouldn’t pass the Turing test. After all, the word chink, even prefixed by the words, Are you a, is a trick question. But in Lek’s SinoFuture, the robot has triumphed over its master, and the tracksuited gamer wins. The world has become Sinocentric. I was overjoyed.

Yet when I watched Sinofuturism a second time, with my partner, she was nonplussed. “What do you mean, we’re robots?” she asked. She has yet to leave the country, and wasn’t familiar with all these ethnic stereotypes. After all, in China, where everyone looks like her, she is neither ethnic nor a minority. This is a gift, because she hasn’t been saddled with my identity issues. It is also, however, a curse, since in the West, confronting these stereotypes can make your voice heard. This means that my partner, who is considering studying in the States, would find herself not only at odds with white Americans, but also with Chinese-Americans — doubly silenced. Despite the ways that hyphen in my name — that sign of diaspora — has hurt me, it has been an incredible privilege, too.

Screenshot from Vimeo video

It’s a privilege the average, Chinese audience member at UCCA does not have. It seems to me that only highly educated Western audiences — Chinese-Americans and other hyphens among them — can appreciate Sinofuturism. This made me uncomfortable. Mary Xue, then the CEO of UCCA, has claimed that the goal of UCCA programming was “to promote the development of contemporary culture, presenting an inclusive, cosmopolitan vision of China.” Yet when you enter the “Pavilion of Exception” (the nave, rethemed for this exhibit), which proclaims itself “a public space for discussion, reading, and exchange,” you see a long shelf on the wall, decorated with books — Théorie des Exceptions, Nationalism, Genuine and Spurious, Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History, Mathematics and the Roots of Postmodern Thought. These books were not meant to be read, but winked at, knowingly, by an in-crowd — cosmopolitanism as intimidating coffee-table book.

Photo taken by writer at UCCA

It was in this room that I got to meet Lawrence Lek, whose vision of cosmopolitanism also seemed to exclude Chinese locals. “I am someone who has willingly left the Malaysian-Chinese community because I don’t think it’s very liberal,” he said. It’s an easy thing to think. I am a translator of Chinese poetry, and I have often found myself surprised when the poets I meet disavow “politics” the second I bring up a politicized reading of their poems. My knee-jerk response is to imagine telling them about Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s body, about Schutz’s deeply problematic claim that the artist is a transparent subject who can take on all types of grief. Art is never apolitical, and our bodies don’t leave their racialized communities of origin for some apolitical cosmopolitan ether. I often long for these Chinese poets to claim a politics.

But of course, they have a politics, even if it doesn’t translate easily into English. Words like “politics,” “conservative,” and “liberal” don’t have exact substitutes. I recognize that in the States, I internalized a racism that became resentment against Asians who weren’t assimilated — they frightened me and showed me what I might become, if I hadn’t worked so damn hard, and been lucky enough, to learn good English. One of the ways I found to efface Asian immigrants was by calling them “basic” or “conservative.” Only now that I’ve moved to China do I see the complicated politics behind Western demands that Chinese people be “cosmopolitan.”


In 1968, the year Yellow Power Supports Black Power was invented, the Cultural Revolution was going on in China. The event which triggered it was a play called Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, which Mao claimed was a direct attack on him. Whether or not it was, Ma’s response meant that for the next 10 years, any art, as long as those in power did not like its “politics,” got you beaten, your livelihood or your life ruined or ended. Is it any wonder that for the art professors at the time, and their students, all things referred to as politics, were forever tainted? A cat which has been scalded on a hot stove will never go near a hot stove again — nor will it go near a cold stove.

When the Cultural Revolution ended, in 1976, and Deng’s reforms started to sweep through the country, the chastened party relaxed its stance on censorship. European and American art began coming in, from Guangdong and Shenzhen, and later, from European and American artists. Robert Rauschenberg was perhaps the most prestigious visitor. He came to Beijing in 1985, as part of the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange project, based on Rauschenberg’s belief “that a one-to-one contact through art contains potent and peaceful powers, and is the most non-elitist way to share exotic and common information.” If the adoration with which young Chinese artists greeted him seems, to me, naïve, it was also unsurprising. Here was someone who spoke of how art — meaning Western art — could transcend politics and become autonomous.

Rauschenberg visiting the VIP compound, Jingxian, China, 1982. Photograph Collection. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives.

Rauschenberg disappointed some of his admirers, though. At an underground art exhibit, where artists deemed too “abstract” — even for the ’80s — held salons, he met the artist Zhang Wei. Zhang had gone several times to see his show at the National Chinese Museum of Art. Rauschenberg managed to get into a fight with him. There are two reasons for this. The first was that Zhang, whose work had been officially banned, had discovered that Rauschenberg had thrown a party for government officials and was going to do a portrait of Deng Xiaoping for Time magazine. Zhang had thought Rauschenberg was not that red-hot stove, “politics.” He felt betrayed. The second disappointment was that Rauschenberg thought Zhang Wei’s paintings — which he called “Abstract Expressionism” — were behind the times.

History and art history are constructed as Western and unilinear. China, if it hopes to even be a footnote in such a history, must Westernize — a process which will leave it forever behind.

Difference, according to the unilinear model that SinoFuturism pushes against, must be nonthreatening and commodifiable — flavors of pie, but not an alternative to the main course that is the forward march of Western civilization. It’s quite alright to be a good artist, or writer, in the periphery — as long as your work is described with words that mark you as peripheral — just look at words like “magical realism” and “cynical realism.” Mo Yan is great — but Mo Yan, it is often argued, is essentially, ethnically Chinese.

But what if the periphery starts dipping into the vocabulary which the “center” has claimed for itself — and using it in a way totally foreign to the center? What if history isn’t Western or unilinear? Zhang Wei, I think, had no interest in Rauschenberg’s aesthetic standards. He was interested not in the guiding principles of “Abstract Expressionism,” but in the bulwark those words provided him — a bulwark inside of which he could breathe. He wanted, I think, a room of his own, the thing which Virginia Woolf has shown us has never been just a space where one sleeps, but a sanctuary, a metaphor of one’s subjective self, both open and invulnerable to the outside world. I, too, wanted a room of my own, as a hyphenated child living in the American South, yearning for ways to exist in a lived present tense.

My partner is, one might say redundantly, Chinese Chinese. Good, respectable Chinese-Americans might call her a FOB — radical ones might call her conservative. Both might risk simply not understanding her. The guilt this makes me feel is enormous. Do we not have some kind of duty, I asked Lek, not to merely to speak of, but for people like her?

Image found here.

Lek was ambivalent. “Guilt is very strong in diasporic communities,” he said. “I’ve escaped yet there are those, relatives and so on, who are still in what I perceive as a bad situation. The problem I have with that mentality is that, same with rich black people in America, there’s that feeling that to be prosperous is somehow wrong. I think the most important thing for this community before it can move on is to be absolved of guilt, to be absolved of that trap of the master-slave mentality.” He was not claiming, he said, to speak for, mainland China. It’s true — his film makes the disclaimer: “Because Sinofuturism has arisen without conscious intention or authorship, it is often mistaken for contemporary China. But it is not.” Yet such disclaimers are in danger of being forgotten in the sheer joy of seeing Lek’s deft détournements. Orientalism, as many scholars have noted, has become a hip weapon of critique which, ironically, absolves the wielder of knowing anything — other than stereotypes — about the Orientalized Other. Lek claims to speak of (these stereotypes), not for (their human referents). Yet I could not help but worry that these two meanings of the word, represent — an ambiguity present as well in the Chinese word for represent, dàibiǎo — would be conflated by his viewership.

Lek is right that he shouldn’t have to speak for anyone — to be a token Asian artist, a spokesperson — but his words did nothing to alleviate my guilt. As Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown recently said to Eddie Glaude of Princeton, another African-American, “You ain’t teaching at Howard, and neither am I. […] All of our hands are dirty.”

For today’s American or European art critic, there are only two types of Chinese artists: dissidents or apologists. Before 1989, artists could be poor mimics or cheerful natives. The dissident category arose after Tiananmen Square. Artist Xiao Lu’s experience helps to illustrate this shift. In the mid-’80s, her European teacher, Maryn Varbanov, told Xiao Lu something akin to what Rauschenberg had said to Zhang Wei: “He said Picasso, Duchamp, all of them were old news […] Don’t use this kind of form to express yourself — the world is this big, any kind of material can be used.” He called her a poor mimic. Her performance piece, Dialogue, showed two months before Tiananmen. Dialogue consisted of two telephone booths, doors pasted with drawings of a man and a woman, back turned, hands holding phones. Between them, on a table sitting before a mirror, a telephone receiver has been left dangling from its cradle. What made Xiao Lu famous was the piece’s finale — without telling anyone what she would do, she fired two gunshots into the mirror. The government tried to arrest her. She fled the scene and ran to Varbanov for help. He panicked. “You shouldn’t have come to me — I’m a foreigner.” As a horrified Western observer, he saw only a dangerous, authoritarian tendency in the government and all artists as dissidents.

Ai Weiwei, China’s dissident artist par excellence, agrees. “China’s art world does not exist,” he has said, consigning to opacity all Chinese art that is not protest art, art done by tens of thousands of Chinese people who do not have Ai’s advantages — he is the Western-educated son of a high-ranking cadre. In the Western world, Ai has become an idealized symbol of dissent; yet despite all his critiques of the CCP, he has not once spoken ill of the countries who profit from the international division of labor, whose markets import not only iPhones, but also commodified dissent. This does not mean, of course, that people do not deserve to live and speak without being beaten up or jailed or killed. Power does not concede without a demand. Those demands are rightly called “dissent,” dissidents risk their lives and they deserve support. But the question remains: What is the content of that word, human, whose rights we wish to draw attention to? Does it matter only insofar as it can stand in front of a tank, under a bludgeon, become an abject body? Isn’t one way for art to help us think about those rights to express a subject’s interiority and agency, not merely as a victim or a spokesperson?

The art market for spokespeople and victims is fickle. “Purely aesthetic” reactions to Ai Weiwei’s and Xiao Lu’s work are simply politics by another name. Just look at the article, by Jed Perl, called “Ai Weiwei is a wonderful dissident, terrible artist.” In it, Perl describes Ai’s art as “highly diluted Dadaism” and the later work as “postmodern minimalist political kitsch, albeit in the name of a just cause.” Or look at what happened to Xiao Lu when she moved, alongside many other Chinese artists, to Australia. Once “free,” she nevertheless became a second-class citizen, struggling to make ends meet, unable, for nearly a decade, to make or sell any art. She’d said, in early interviews, that she saw Dialogue as a meditation — with a bang — on a disintegrating relationship. But no one seemed to want to listen. Only, later, when she finally caved, and began echoing commentators that her shots were “the first shots of Tiananmen,” was she rewarded. Dialogue sold in 2006 for $400,000 US. Xiao Lu, alongside many other Chinese artists, moved back to China, in the 2000s, where she would face, again, the choices offered by Varbanov, by Rauschenberg.

Image found here

Ai Weiwei’s statements suggest that Chinese interiority does not exist. But one artist at “The New Normal” focuses on it. For this reason, he will probably not be very popular outside of China: Ma Haijiao. Ma told me, when I asked him about the art that hyphenated people made, said this: “They’ve been to all these huge exhibits, with world-class artists’ work on display. But one thing that these will never talk about this, this sense of interiority, a sense of the everyday rhythms of life, of identity as a kind of inward thing.”

His piece, Family Separatism, is a trio of films and a letter. The letter, which Ma received by mistake, accused the sender’s grandfather of trying to split up the family. “Don’t look down on dad,” it fumes, “just because he’s disabled.” Ma briefly entertained the idea of tracking down the sender, but decided not to. He chose, instead, to make it into a fictional documentary of a Chinese family. The grandfather is an embittered Christian intellectual. The father, like most people who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, seems deeply wounded. The sender, a son in his mid-20s, has just enlisted in the army. We see the son, in what might be northern Hebei, home to many military compounds and blanketed with snow. He does drills, cleans his gun. He is, we might say, the soldier who might carry out the invasion which Sinofuturism promises — yet here his slow, thoughtful pauses seem anything but inhuman.

The films corresponding to the father and grandfather play simultaneously, on adjacent screens. The grandfather, who we learn has recently died, is present only as a small, aged photograph, where he and his bride, young forever, pose in a Christian church. During the cultural revolution, “the picture caused a lot of troubles for the family,” says the son in voice-over. It is suggested that the grandfather — who, Ma reminded me, was old enough to have lived in the Republic of China, when children could still study abroad — resented the father for his disabilities. We see the father searching the grandfather’s house, as if for clues. It seems they never managed to reconcile.

Suddenly two screens fill with a room piled to the ceiling with tables, chairs, and other miscellaneous articles of furniture. The father lives here. Numerous chairs, some on their sides, some upside-down, are stacked in a mound. The father, who has not spoken a single word for the entirety of the film, climbs up this mound, the camera remaining at shoulder-height, so that, after a moment, we lose sight of his head. His torso and legs follow. As the third film lingers on a now-empty room, the second cuts to the exterior of the house, which looks like a construction site, covered with pipes, next to a dirty lot. A house is partly underground. The father emerges onto a stack of debris, as though from a window. It seems he had to climb, awkwardly and unnaturally, out of the window of a room which has no door — one which, in normal circumstances, he would have never been able to leave. Ma’s film allegorizes its own conditions of possibility, re-presenting a Chinese room that is impossibly opaque to the average Western viewer — cosmopolitan or not.

"Family Separatism," 2016, courtesy of the artist

My partner’s father lived in a Chinese room during the famine in the ’50s. He chose to leave during the coldest winter of the great famine because he decided he would rather freeze than starve to death. When he was small, he practiced violin for hours before his father smashed it. It was in this room that he began to draw, paintings that, when the gāokǎo was reinstated, earned him admission to the Sichuan Institute of Fine Art. He didn’t know this, because the head of the factory where he was working had intercepted the letter and hidden it away, not wanting to lose another able hand. By the time he found out, he was already old.

He isn’t so bitter now. His daughter gets to do what he couldn’t — art — and someone’s even writing an essay about him. Yet sometimes, still, when he burns the pan cooking, or stubs his toe on the wall, he shouts in sheer frustration about the backwardness of the country which produced this pan, this wall, a country infinitely worse than the West. He knows nothing about the West, other than the fact that it is the negation of his life’s troubles.

It is for her father, and for the father in Family Separatism, that I speak now. I do so not with the confidence that I have understood them perfectly — for what I know is so limited — but with the knowledge that, no matter who my words reach, however far away, he stands behind them as a referent.

Courtesy of the artist

The UCCA guidebook speaks of “a linear pathway determined by the works’ narrative cues [tracing] a temporal progression of historicized forms, present conditions, and speculative futures.” Does UCCA believe in unilinear history? And yet the path through the exhibit doesn’t seem unitary at all, but doubled, from the beginning. It’s as if two very different embodiments of the human, always and already walking alongside each other, can not fully recognize the other here. You can’t watch Sinofuturism and Family Seperatism side-by-side on your computer. The former is on Vimeo, which is blocked in China. You need a VPN — a software which links computers to foreign servers in a foreign country — to watch it. And the latter, on the Chinese site Youku, won’t load unless you’re off a VPN. To watch Family Separatism, you must disconnect yourself from those distant places — Hong Kong, Tokyo, Los Angeles — and that dizzying, global network, and place yourself firmly here. The gallery space at UCCA manages to bypass this wall. The next step — perhaps too much to ask of UCCA, of any museum — might be to ask how to make art that bypasses or dissolves the division between these two embodiments, the hyphen and the hyphenless.

I thought of this, as I drove to meet Ma. He lives on the outskirts of Beijing — a dustbowl, as he affectionately called that part of Chaoyang. His road is lined with poplars. He says he’s bad at lying. When I asked him about Western perceptions of the country where he lived, he demurred. He said, “I don’t really know what it’s like in foreign countries, but in China…”


Henry Zhang is a master’s student and interpreter in the Department of Chinese Literature at Beijing Normal University. His poetry translations have been nominated for the Pushcart prize, and he is a recipient of the 2017 Henry Luce Translation Fellowship.

LARB Contributor

Henry Zhang is a master’s student and interpreter in the Department of Chinese Literature at Beijing Normal University. His research on late-Qing China and post–Cultural Revolution Chinese culture has appeared in Drunken Boat Magazine and Music and Literature Magazine, his poetry translations have been nominated for the Pushcart prize, and he is a recipient of the 2017 Henry Luce Translation Currently, he is working on a long-form essay on traditional Chinese Medicine’s “diaspora.”


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