No. 20

A letter from Hou Hanru to Hans Ulrich Obrist

Notes on the dramatic events of the past three months

Dear HUO,

Thank you for your last correspondence. I’m so sorry for the long silence since.

The reason for such a long delay has been rather weird. It has been a time of so many interesting events and exciting subjects upon which to reflect. However, I have preferred to wait until the chaos has calmed a bit and the swirl settled. This is not necessarily a sign of wisdom, and may only be a sign of coming age. At least, it points to the necessity of leaving space for things to fully play out; time is actually the very condition for the urgency of such a space.

The past three months have been full of turbulence and emergency, a period in which one could easily observe – or was pushed to observe – dramatic, traumatizing events occurring all around the world: the March 11 earthquake and nuclear disaster in Japan were broadcast live on TV (while quakes in New Zealand, China, Burma and other places went relatively ignored) alongside daily reports on the revolts in North Africa and the Middle East; street confrontations and armed battles were mounted while tears and blood were shed. This is still continuing, and leading towards an absolutely unknowable direction. Then the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal in New York shattered the hopes of the French leftists for the upcoming presidential election, so decisive to our immediate future (as you and I have been living in Paris, we are emotionally and even morally connected to the politics of France). In the meantime, tornados wiped out a great part of an Alabama town, while the Chinese are debating – in spite of censorship and oppression – the potential dangerous impact of the Three Gorges Dam construction on the climate in the midst of a historically unprecedented drought mixed with floods in the Yangtze River region. The images are spectacular, and the way the media has broadcast these events could not have been more dramatic.

Then, in our little artworld, hurricanes (a word you so cherish!) are also stirring. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was arrested in Beijing April 3 shortly before the director of the Sharjah Biennial, Jack Persekian, was abruptly dismissed from his position over the exhibition of a controversial work, while, more tragically, the Egyptian artist Ahmed Basiony was killed January 28 on Tahrir Square during the protests that finally toppled the Mubarak regime.

There is an urgency to do something about all these tragic events, and people around the world are mobilizing. However, even more urgent is the need to understand the reality of these events – with all their complexities and singularities – in social, geopolitical and historical terms. There are so many distortions and misinterpretations behind the sensational images on “live” TV. These are swallowed whole by consumers, as if the images were depictions of genuine realities. Luckily, bottom-up broadcastings on the Internet via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and so on can provide a much broader range of perspectives and produce counter realities to the often ideologically oriented, if not outright censored, mainstream media.

More confusing reports, and multiple interpretations of these events, proliferate across the globe. This information revolution, on the one hand, helps mobilize grassroots organizations to promote social change and even launch political revolution – as we have seen in the case of Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” – and to apply more pressure on political establishments – as we are witnessing in China and other countries today. On the other hand, these acts, too, are ultimately absorbed and “digested” by the mainstream media. Such distribution of images also runs the risk of perpetuating a certain political voyeurism, one that substitutes for longer term and more profound engagements.

This is fundamentally contradictory. Moreover, it deeply affects one’s sense of reality, as well as morality. This is the most intense and immediate battlefield of power games, too. Most people in the game, including “art people,” who often confuse political art and “art of politics,” also embrace this logic of live-broadcasting, geared towards the “presentistic” and immediate consumption of images, which usurps the complexity of a given reality, or realities.

People tend to trust only the images made for immediate consumption, or tokens, or in some cases, images of dissidence, rather than the complex realities that require intellectual effort, moral engagement and, especially, intelligence and critical distance to fully understand. In most cases, one consumes the very sign or symbol of the real event (and the dire situations on the ground) with a certain degree of sensation and emotion necessary to mollify the inevitable feeling of guilt at seeing such images of suffering. At the same time, it’s largely sufficient to remain symbolic in order to prevent actual encounters with and sharing in the real situation. This consumption can comfort consumers’ moral anxiety and pitiful sympathy about the fate of the suffering other while relieving them from serious, committed engagement and truly sharing in the fate of the other. In the end, the consumer can even feel a kind of moral superiority through the expression of non-engaged sympathy.

This leads to simplification and a reduction of the complexity of diversities – the complexities and real needs of different realities in various geopolitical and historical situations. Art – especially political art – rather than art of political games is hence reduced to representations of such simplified “realities” that meet the consumer’s imaginations and projections of the images of the other, primed by the logic of the mass media. In other words, the value by which an artwork by an artist from the non-Western world is essentially judged and “appreciated” is often its degree of tokenism. This further turns the “strange” and “incomprehensible others” into objects of consumption, while by “supporting” the other, the dominant forces – namely the establishments of the West – gain an opportunity to reconfirm their own superiority vis-à-vis the other. This expresses what Okwui Enwezor calls “liberal reflex.”(1) This situation begs us to look more closely at Immanuel Wallerstein’s critique of the Western obsession with the notion of human rights popularized by 18th-19th century Universalism. One can call it “humanitarian reflex” – the very ideological mental state or instinct behind organizations like Médicins sans Frontiers and Greenpeace, which never questions the internal contradictions of the Western notion of humanity, its values and its means of imposition throughout the history of colonialism and neo-colonialism. Ultimately, it reveals a kind of simulacrum of democracy and human rights, produced by the globalized colonial and capitalist modernity.(2)

The current passions in the art world for rescuing or supporting “dissidents” reflect this in the most typical manner. I personally signed a petition calling for Ai Weiwei’s release – on principle, arresting an artist, without a legitimate warrant, simply in order to limit his capacity for expression and non-violent actions is morally and legally unacceptable. But, I also think one needs to look into the complexity of the situation and understand it from a broader perspective so that our protests against the abuse of civil rights obtain a real criticality. It is here that some crucial questions should be raised.

Contemporary globalization is essentially a form of neoliberal capitalism that seeks to achieve the goal of maximum profit by all means. This includes by the exploitation of other people’s lives and resources, the destruction of the environment, the corruption of political systems and even through wars. Ultimately this neoliberal capitalism acts against its ostensible social responsibility to promote openness, freedom and democracy. In practice, the expansion of neoliberal capitalism leads to gradual destruction of social solidarity and equality in the name of freedom of competition. Worse, it opens paths for corruption by encouraging (often immoral) pursuits of profit and self-interest. Ironically, the “autocratic” powers like the Chinese and Arabic regimes of today, to a great extent, are also in accord with such a model of globalization and have taken great advantage of it to preserve and develop their powers – whether in the name of social stability and harmony, or under the pretext of wars against fundamentalism and terrorism, they resort to violent and unlawful means to control and suppress their own people. Under the pretext of defending human rights and freedom, the West regularly supports political dissidents as bargaining chips in negotiating with the autocratic powers over economic and geopolitical interests. However, when the real grassroots popular revolts against the autocratic powers and their economic and political hegemonies emerge, the West more often than not hesitates to provide real support, or timidly expresses “moral support” when alliances with those in power turn out to be no longer sustainable. Thus, the people engaged in the uprisings are eventually exposed to direct confrontation with state violence…Just look at what’s happening now in Libya and Syria!

Interestingly, the “Global Art World” is actually a part – a typical sector – of the transnational network of global capitalism (see Manuel Castell), dominated by a “Post-Duchampian paradigm” in form and post-Cold War/postcolonial liberalism in political-ideological stances. The fact that the art market is among the world’s least regulated markets is all too telling. Additionally, the Global Art World has also developed a “liberal reflex” or instinct vis-à-vis the other without questioning the intrinsic but contradictory formula of global goodness based on “free market plus democracy,” which has been systematically reduced to the form of direct elections instead of deeper thoughts on social justice, freedom and equality or the wellbeing of the population, while embracing, directly or indirectly, the concept of the “clash of civilizations.”

This explains the essence of the political exoticism that characterizes our time of globalization, and its aestheticization as what we see in the “global art scene.” The interests in “dissident” work that exclaims political contestations in a first-degree and easy-to-consume manner (think “Cynical Realism,” labelled by dealers of the 1990s as the “representation” of “Chinese Avant-Garde”) – derives from this obsession. This is clearly a form of political exoticism and voyeurism that can only tacitly reinforce the feelings of superiority on the part of the West-centric system. Ironically, while these tokenist “artists” are presumed to be struggling against the corrupted dominant powers generated in the process of unifying the interests between “socialist” totalitarianism and neo-liberal capitalism, they are themselves actually products, or profiteers, of such a situation or system of empowerment – in today’s Chinese economic boom, the fact that such artists belong to the new elite benefiting the most from the process of economic liberation clearly proves this point.

Unfortunately, as a quasi-passive reaction to such external expectations and pressure, a large part of the Global Art World in general and the Chinese art world in particular chooses to produce works that can suit the “taste” of the representation machines, namely the mainstream media, institutions and market that seek tokenism rather than essence. Most of the outcomes “represent social and political phenomena and struggles” in superficial, sensational and “performative” ways that are devoid of content, depth and substance, not to mention independence, integrity and real criticality. They are photogenic rather than conceptually, intellectually, politically and ethically engaging. Commonly consumable signs, or tokenist images, replace real individuality and singularity to meet the demand of the market. This is a global tendency that applies to cultural life in general. The British writer Tim Parks recently pointed out that, in the globalized literature world, in order to attract the attention of critics and the media, one has to turn oneself into a “genius of a people,” namely, be representative of one’s own nation, and write specifically on “national topics” rather than stories that are truly personal, or even singularly transnational and trans-cultural. As a result, in order to be “understood” and recognized, one has to give up a great part of intellectual freedom and creativity. Eventually, anything that demands a real knowledge of culture or personal background will be relinquished.(3)

Now, we find ourselves in a paradoxical position: we operate in the “established art system,” but we need to maintain our ethics, independence and integrity. To deal with such as paradoxical situation, one must be aware that the real urgency is not to succumb to anecdotic acts and events that can only create sensations and simulacra of true emotion. The real solution is a critical examination of reality – complex, dynamic and in permanent flux – and to develop more profound reflections on and solutions to the structural problems of today’s dynamics of globalization.

Nothing is more urgent than to downplay the consumerism of the other – political exoticism – and to develop new strategies of critical perception, understanding and evaluation of reality, which can be interpreted in diverse ways, and are open to multiple understandings of “the truth.” This should offer a solid foundation for consideration of the relationship between art and politics and commitment in political art, instead of art of politics (or art of power game). The real political art is to offer visions of ideal political projects for society and humanity. Here, it is important to remember the distinction, much discussed by scholars like Jacques Rancière, between le politique: the real concept and conditions that can guarantee the existence of human society shared by everyone in justice; and la politique: the operational system to maintain the society materialized in concrete power relationships and exercises. Running the risk of short-circuiting such a complex relationship between both, one can easily fall into an entanglement with power games and interests rather than exploring critically the real significance of political engagement. Keeping this in mind, one can now start to understand that the most significant innovation in the work of the art world has been suppressed by the logic of consumerism and the historic heritage of political exoticism, or consumption of the other.

This brings us to realize that it is time to reconsider the importance of Brecht’s concept of creating Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect), which provides a real ethical position for artistic creation as a critical engagement with social issues and sharing with the public in a genuine, interactive way – an opening towards a real democratic space for the multitudes that maintains and shares diversity, complexity, mutual respect and solidarity.

Hou Hanru
San Francisco, 10 June 2011

  1. Okwui Enwezor, “Spring Rain,” in Artforum, Summer 2011. pp 75-76.

  2. Arif Dirlik, Global Modernity: Modernity in the age of global capitalism, Boulder/London: Paradigm Publishers, 2007. Also, William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, London: The Penguin Press, 2006.

  3. Tim Parks, “Les clichés de la lettérature mondiale,” in NRC Handelsblad, Rotterdam; French translation in Courrier International, No 174, 8 juin, 2011, pp. 47-49.

No. 19

Curators on the Move 1-14

Copyrighted Image