The question of space for art in China is one of the most expansive around. These days, so are the spaces—or at least so the adage goes. But beneath the proliferation of venues in the last decade or so there lies a fundamental lack, less a function of China than of our general global condition, whereby no one quite agrees on how to do anything. You don’t need to read our cover package on “alternative spaces” to get a sense of this; look simply at our reviews section in this issue, not so different from any other issue, which traces a progression from big biennials in state institutions, through ritzy solo outings in re-gentrified heritage buildings, to the now standard autumn output of the ever maturing gallery system, to a festival in a village outside Guangzhou where a bunch of kids are making art on a dime. We call that pluralism, and we call pluralism good.
In the early 2000s, the lack was simply one of space. Rented film studios were good enough for exhibitions; restaurants owned by sympathetic artists played host to panels and press conferences. One induction for me came at an August 2002 symposium staged by the Long March Project in Zunyi, Guizhou province, site of Mao’s ascension to the Party helm. Experts were convened in a new version of the famed “Zunyi Meeting,” and the topic of “Alternative Spaces and Consolidating Resources” was debated on the second floor of a local English school. New to the language, I couldn’t quite make out all the semantic nuances of this word “resources,” that vague currency in which the Chinese art world has always dealt. (Hint: it’s not so different from the resources you see being mobilized in our portfolio of images from Lucy Raven’s China Town.) “Alternative spaces” were then called tidai kongjian, a translation that plays on the “replacement” valence of alternative, as if some newer, brighter way of working was just around the corner.
It was a paradoxical coinage, because so little existed from which to seek an “alternative,” let alone replace. The name itself grew out of the New York conversation at a moment when a third way out from under the ossified museum and gallery systems of the late 1970s seemed extremely urgent. But here, then, things were downright embryonic. The simultaneous confusion and elation with which Fredric Jameson’s 1985 Peking University lectures on postmodernism were received comes to mind—the excited difficulty of applying a concept two steps ahead of where one stands as a way of moving one step forward. Needless to say, there’s nobody in China who doesn’t intuitively understand the postmodern today. But these days, replacements are nowhere to be found. The now preferred translation of alternative space, linglei kongjian, picks up on the “alternative rock” sense of the word, in which denotation as “alternative” is actually the peg by which the thing is made intelligible to the larger system. And in China, we have nothing if not a system.
The artists in these pages work at once inside and beyond these systems, from Chen Xiaoyun’s poignantly iconoclastic video practice, to an entire realm of contemporary mineral-pigment painting more or less unknown beyond China, to an artist collective’s intervention in the real-estate politics of Wuhan, to Huang Weikai’s attempt to make documentary films, in Zizek’s coinage, “from behind.” It’s the end of the Gregorian year, and as we complete our first volume, we’re happy to take a moment to think about how it all fits together, and where we fit into it all.
November 27, 2010