Know Thyself – if the Discourse Doesn’t Fit


Last October was not as warm as this year. Halfway through my quarantine, I could smell the scent of osmanthus as I reached out from my half-open window, which had been floating in the air for almost a month now. The sweetness easily slipped into the nose with the wind as one stood on the streets of Shanghai, sending a shiver down the spine, a shiver of joy for living in the humid and warm region of southern China. Under the influence of Heidegger, Japanese scholar Watsuji Tetsuro developed the study of “Climate” (fudo), in which he discussed in a quite essentialist manner about how human beings, being nurtured by the climate, geography and hydrology, also synchronized themselves with the nature, revealing and observing themselves in it. The character of the Chinese people was classified by him as a combination of monsoon and desert – he witnessed how Chinese people spent their days in Shanghai in 1927 during the Northern Expedition launched by the National Revolutionary Army: they went on with their lives “unhurriedly” even when the heads of communists were hung on telephone poles and there was no government to count on.[1] The streets were perhaps the same then as they are now: one has to stand on the streets to realize that beyond the hellish news and political depression on Weibo, there is another landscape – osmanthus is in full bloom; old ladies are selling bracelets made from yulan magnolias in their baskets; and in front of enumerable doorways, the security guards and I wave our smartphones at each other tacitly, with no words or expressions exchanged.

The forum “Young Institutes” at Ming Contemporary Art Museum, Shanghai, October 10, 2021
Photo by the author

The day after our quarantine ended, my friend and I attended a forum at McaM (Ming Contemporary Art Museum). The theme was “Young Institutions”. One friend in China said that, since I just returned, this forum was a great chance to learn about the industry in recent years. After I passed through the magic circle of projectors, monitors, and curtains, and crawled into the stairway-turned-audience-seat, I suddenly noticed the slogans scrolling on the walls on both sides: each single character was flashing in dim light:

… Even though you can’t see, we are closely connected to each other. Welcome to the alternative universe of fluid interdependence and caring society, although you can’t see, we are closely connected to each other. Welcome to the alternative universe of fluid interdependence and caring society, although you can’t see, we are closely connected to each other…

Vertigo. The words droned on, and the utopian atmosphere overflowed. The slogan skipped the “I” and jumped from “you” to “we”. The organizer of this event, Raiden Institute, is a platform for digital art curatorial and artist incubation, sponsored by Shanghai FengYuZhu Culture and Technology Co. Raiden Institute was the organizer of the exhibition held at McaM at the time, as well as the convener of this forum. I was curious as to why practitioners still insist on using the term “institution” or “new institution” in today’s context of cross-boundary art and business practices in mainland China.[2] According to Cihai, an authoritative Chinese dictionary, the word ji gou (机构, institution) “generally refers to an institution, group or other work unit”. When the word “ji gou”, acting as a title in the phrase ”yi shu ji gou (艺术机构, art institute)”, it often corresponds to the English word “institute”, which Webster’s Dictionary explains as “an organization for the promotion of a cause”.[3] The “cause”, when conveying the meaning of “cause and purpose”, implies a strong sense of identification. The art institute, by implication, inquires in what way the method and purpose of art relate to our lives.

In the winter of 2019, Theresa Leung, then director of the Long March Project (LMP), asked me rhetorically in the East 8 time zone of 798, “We were always debating whether LMP is an institution, but do you think there is a real institution in mainland China?” In the context of the 2010s, LMP had to justify its non-profit status and seek to be identified as an “institution”, a form of public service rather than private profit, because it shared resources with the gallery, Long March Space. Meanwhile, more than a decade further back, the predecessor of Long March Space, 25,000 Miles Cultural Communication Center, was able to display its complexity in public, as described on the English website of Long March in 2005: “Rather than a gallery, Long March is a center, a base, and a workstation, that looks to connect the art world with Chinese society, China with the world.”[4] At the time, Lu Jie described the Chinese art world and the position of Long March as such, “an underground independent one, which I call the black way; international institutions and foreigners are the white way; yet there is a red way as well, which is art museums and art academies. Across the obscured boundaries, all the structures intermingle with each other, and rely on each other. […] We work along all three ways.”[5] Lu’s tone of speech was filled with the self-congratulation of trespassing across different systems and being untamed by the rules. Right. To make things happen, entrepreneurs must borrow forces from wherever they can. The various mottled and patched outfits are just the colors of the local environment. At the time, there was still some hope here, that China’s ambiguous and loose approach could one day replace the clean and everlasting system of the Western world.

Zunyi International Curating Symposium, a part of the curatorial project “Long March: A Walking Visual Display,” 2002
Courtesy Long March Project

In a trance, I heard a gallerist at the forum say that the novelty of her practice was the combination of market and research, practice and theory, because the gallery should not bend to the rules of a particular field. At that moment, I suddenly thought I was back to the 25,000 Miles Culture Communication Center more than a decade ago (I was too young to experience it). I couldn’t help but think, whether the past ecology of “alternative” didn’t become a common knowledge and discourse because we succeeded too fast. After 2008, when the just right amount of rebellion displayed by Long March got people confused, Long March Space gradually became a proper commercial gallery, with the curatorial, research and experimental projects subsumed into LMP, and the chimera was divided into two clean faces: gallery and institution. The rest sunk into the water. Back to this forum, there were artist-founded project Imagokinetics, Pararailing and 33ml off space, which emerged in Shanghai after the outbreak of the pandemic; the media lab and community lab of the Times Museum outreach program; “Instance”, which offers exhibitions, lectures, and study abroad consultation… Just like the name of the forum, young “institutions”, the quotation marks distinguished these practices from institutions. The concourse of them was the result of the denial, that none of them are white box museums. 

However, just as Theresa Leung’s rhetorical question implied, the idea of a clean, tidy, solid “institution” exists almost exclusively in theory. Anything that grew out of the muddy ground must find its own way of making a living and its own narrative. (The most relevant conversation I had about “institution” after returning to China, was when a young friend I had just met introduced herself as “working in an institution”, and I asked her about it in excitement, trying to discuss with her whether “institutional critique” fit into the Chinese context. She explained, with some embarrassment, that it was not an art museum or foundation, but a study-abroad consulting institution.) Even without stepping into the either/or situation of “institution” and “the alternative”, these practices in the forum had their own titles anyways: company, space, gallery, magazine, studio, platform, community, group, organization, club, or an “institution” within its own context… Are art museums or pure “institutions” on their horizon? Are those seen as their antithesis? How would these practices perceive and describe themselves if the idea of “the alternative” was not imposed in advance? Would there still be a common name, the “we”?

Nothing to do with me

In 2015, I had just arrived in London to do my MA in Curating Contemporary Art. The next month, I paired with a Malaysian classmate Zena to present on an essay by curator Okwui Enwezor, “The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition”.[6] Having moved from Beijing to London, my identity shifted from a Shandong-ese to a Chinese; I interpreted my collaboration with Zena as one with an intra-Asian intimacy. Zena took me on a remote interview with the Malaysian artist Shooshie Sulaiman, whose Malaysian and Chinese origins confirmed my sense of connection with Zena. At the same time, this made me think that because of Shooshie, I was now able to connect with the British and Japanese colonial history of Malaysia, Sarawak, and Sabah, therefore completing the “post-colonial” aspect of the course. In the class, toward the end of the presentation, the tutor suddenly turned to me and asked, “What is your post-colonial experience in China?” The question confused me – me, post-colonial, China? This confusion made me feel like being thrown into a subway car during the evening rush hour in Beijing all of a sudden, squeezed until my feet left the ground, my glasses fell, with my shoulders pressed against those of others. My mouth opened and closed. How could I have had a post-colonial experience in China when the colonizers had long been driven out by Mao Zedong? What kind of “post” experience could there be, if not post-socialism?

That moment of dissonance kept reverberating in my body. Why would a British intellectual think that I had a “post-colonial” experience? Why would I consider “post-colonial” to be somewhere in Asia but China? At first, of course, I felt that there was violence inflicted when this question was raised toward me: although post-colonialism opposes a homogenized Western world and a holistic art history, was my life experience also represented and homogenized by the phrase “postcolonial”? However, I did not think that my tutor was condescending. He was not a trendy theorist. He had been doing research on Indian crafts for many years. “Postcolonial” for him was more like a myriad of pathways away from the Western world.

Since then, perhaps thanks to the years I spent in a former colonial empire, or the Youtube channels that elucidated Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s obscure articles, or perhaps due to the nomad experience that I finally gained, I started to see myself in the asynchronous, fragmented, brutal and unspeakable “post-colonial” narrative – which existed in China as well, in the reality that was called “(post)socialism”. It was a process of reading that retold my own narrative. I gradually came to understand the desires and feelings of people who used different vocabularies. This seemed to be more significant than understanding Spivak. Post-colonialism and decolonization are about shaking up the way all knowledge and common sense were constructed, so that the poor can realize that they already possess hidden knowledge and have created unique worlds. This quest for cognitive justice often reminded me of the quote “emancipate the mind, seek truth from facts”. Can we unite with “post-colonialism” and understand each other? The Third World do not share the same history, and the Global South is just a relevant position. We need to rely on translation to make sense of the invasions and revolts happening on different sites, sometimes to understand what others are going through exactly, and sometimes why they are speaking.

The theme of the 2008 Guanghzou Triennale was “Farewell to Post-Colonialism”. The title was so direct. It was almost the most “China-based” attempt to respond to an international issue in the mainland contemporary art world: it pointed out the resentment of Chinese artists towards the “hegemony” of the Western discourse since the 1990s and brought to the surface the lack of emotional and cognitive connection between people growing up in mainland China (like me) and the post-colonial discourse. The huge Triennale did not extend any effort to explain the term, genre, or discipline of “post-colonialism”, or to discuss why it was successful and why China was not part of it. The real target of the Triennale was to attain power of discourse in the international contemporary art system. The lead curator Gao ShiMing said, “In my opinion, one of main problems that post-colonialism and multi-culturalism have brought to the contemporary art world is the politicization of art”. [7]These influences gradually became an ideology that “lapsed itself into a mechanical, dull, ‘rambling political correctness’, with the consequence of ‘subjecting the contemporary art space to a kind of censorship’”. [8]“Censorship” referred to the priority that the international contemporary art world gave to political and social issues.

Then, should we call for a depoliticized art? The Triennale emphasized that its aim was not to eliminate “post-colonialism”, but to refresh and explore further possibilities of ossified concepts as “identity” and “otherness”. But how? How could they achieve the other slogan of the Triennale, “Departure from Asia”? The Triennale still invoked the usual toolbox: exhibitions, screenings, catalogues, commissions, seminars at various sites, compiling pamphlets, inviting artists and philosophers to join them. If Western biennales and documenta on the topic of “post-colonialism” had not generated a sense of participation among Chinese artists, could “Farewell to Post-Colonialism”, which employed similar methods, transform them as well as participants outside the mainland? This Triennale demonstrated “China as an issue”, but without employing “the self as method”: people had not yet begun to talk about their own lives and feelings at the risk of mistakes, nor had they learnt real human experiences and histories of the others. Otherwise, reading Spivak’s discussion of the invisibility of “subaltern” must have been able to lead curators and artists out of the Triennale and start thinking about the women, the rural, migrant workers and the underclass in China. “Farewell to Post-Colonialism” remained a problem within the art system, even a problem of someone else.

My reconciliation with “post-colonialism” was at the end of 2019 when I came across an archive about Rasheed Araeen establishing Black Umbrella in the 1980s. Araeen organized exhibitions, created archives, and published catalogues for non-white artists living in the UK. I was surprised to discover that Rasheed’s idea of “Black” included not only black people in today’s sense, but all non-white people – from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and all multiracial people, those overshadowed and obliviated in the Western society… By this definition, I am also black. This shock has followed me. Six months later, in the early summer of 2020, as I marched alone among the Black Lives Matter parade in London, I recited the words, I too am black. All around me, light and dark skin tones swarmed together. There were people hitting drums, playing music, and singing in unison. Someone organized everyone to chant slogans in unison. By then the first round of quarantine in the UK had passed and few people wore masks in the parade, but I was still wearing my transparent raincoat, mask, and rubber gloves. Whenever someone looked at me suspiciously, I would approach them and whisper, “Yeah, I am Asian, and I feel black.”

Body form

Wu ShanZhuan once published a novel, Today No Water. It is an autobiography in which time and space are collapsed and punctured, and scenes are riddled. However, the narrator didn’t seem erratic. There were always exact and solid details in the scenes, particularly the sequence of Chinese characters. The dialogues and words even started to divide, multiply and hybridize because they were too exact, and then they took control of the life at some moment, like god’s decree –

“Today No Water” has a meaning to people. Since I was a kid, I had red and swollen imprints on my shoulders, just like any kid my age (not those from carrying a gun in the movie River Scout [Du Jiang Zhen Cha Ji]).

I have reasons to miss the stretcher and the two barrels. On the stretcher was written ‘Carry out the Cultural Revolution to the end’; on the barrels (in waterproof paint) ‘Fight until xxx year, month and day’ (what happened elsewhere). I not only carried water for my own family, but also for auntie Zhang, a ‘five guarantee household’, in response to the national campaign to follow the role model Lei Feng.

At that time, the taps were locked in summer.[9]

The ready-made objects used to constitute Duchamp’s reality. From this novel, for Wu ShanZhuan, ready-made objects were far less powerful than “ready-made words”. Ready-made words did not necessarily need to be uttered as slogans in a procession in order to enter the life of a person. Notices, proofs and written slogans, ready-made words created realities and destroyed desires. They gradually departed from meanings and became forms in the everyday life. [10]The exhibition 75% Red 20% Black 5% White organised by Wu ShanZhuan and his friends in 1986 was covered with words, like prosthetic limbs scattered in the swamp of scarlet color. Wu ShanZhuan stood in the space filled with dazibao, large black characters on red backgrounds, his eyes looking straight into the camera lens, and intertextualizing with the characters. He created pseudo-characters and falsely written characters, to make the text incomprehensible. But who could say that these characters were not lucky? The slogans of the frenzied Cultural Revolution, the translations of Western philosophy in the “reading fever” of the 1980s, the advertisements and contracts in the market of the 1990s, characters have always been subjected to the dictatorship of meaning. Words, people, and objects, have all been utilized in different ways against their will. To be free, one must first escape from this body form.

Wu Shanzhuan, Today No Water (also known as The Big Characters ( Dazibao), Red Humor Series, and Red Character – Several Natural Paragraphs from the Second Chapter of the Novel – Today No Water), 1986
Installation, poster color and ink on rice paper, approx. 3.5 x 4 x 6 m
Courtesy the artist, Fei Dawei Archive and Asia Art Archive

In Shen Xin’s work, Four Tracks, four groups of Chinese railroad workers from different time and spaces encountered each other. They started to talk as people in each team died or disappeared, not knowing which group brought on the calamity. Four Tracks is a three-act play, but divorced from any specific characters or scenes, with no clues to race, skin tone, age, or physical appearance. The audience could only read the sentences on the screen, with each sentence emerging from a solid-colored background. As one clicks on the screen, the background changes color, and the sentence disappears. Sometimes it takes several color changes on the screen and a period of silence before a new sentence appeared. As the color kept changing, the fragmented dialogue went on. The audience could piece together that the Chinese workers here were from Oromia in Ethiopia, Nevada and Utah in US, Kullu and Kashgar in Xinjiang – perhaps they were the Chinese workers now providing economic assistance in Africa, the Chinese immigrants building the Pacific Railroad in the United States in the 1860s, and the construction corps and local Muslim workers “building the railroad to Xinjiang” in 1974.[11] This inexplicable space changes its appearance as people gather, and the people who have fallen into this dreamy land kept distinguishing between “you” and “we”. The Chinese lines are simple, awkward, sometimes with misspelled words, reminiscent of the various tones of Chinese:

“The Pan-Asia Railway is a another legacy of our time.

But you’re so greedy, staring into others’ lands and claiming them with no shame or guilt.

We started out on an equal footing with the white settlers.

Failure is one way to describe it.

We should keep searching.


Shen Xin, Four Tracks (screenshot), 2021
Commissioned by Times Museum as part of the Journal ‘Constellation of Intimacies’ (Issue 2, April 2021)
Courtesy the artist and Times Museum

The dialogue was incoherent, perhaps swallowed up by the wind. Shen Xin cut the theater down to scattered utterances, and cut each character down to a patch of color. After tone, accent and pause were abstracted altogether, the violence and limitations of language, as well as human beings’ great reliance on it was exposed, as well as the pitfalls that come with it. Shen Xin was not entangled with any single term or identity, instead they exposed misunderstanding and understanding in the form of “dialogue”. In this misty landscape, different identities and languages gradually contaminate each other, like blocks of color that become interwoven patches of light in the midst of change. 

Ou Feihong, flyer for Tui-shou in Shanghai (it happens where people travel), 2022

This spring, I squeezed my body through a narrow gap in the fence of my compound, and escaped from Shanghai. By June, Guangzhou was already scorching hot, but my landlord, who took care of my lover and I, strongly insisted that we should go with her to Xiaogang Park. A group of young people were practicing there under a huge banyan tree. Among the sweatshirts, yoga outfits and long skirts, there was barely any conversation, nor was it a deliberate silence. They were rotating their necks with their eye closed, letting their arms dangle like fresh noodles. Someone said, “I’ll push with you!” And they stood face to face, legs split backward and forward, with forward knees touching each other. Then they stuck their arms together, rotating, trying to make each other lose balance and lift their feet… This was the exercise organized by High Pressure Club. Although they are a club, there is no need of application or referral for anyone to come here to loosen their shoulders, relax their bodies and push hands (a Tai-chi practice). After being pushed out of the circle between me and each new friend and getting pulled back several times, I realized that this was the most relaxed moment I had spent with people within months. One’s outfit, body and appearance became insignificant in this situation. With arms touching and eyes closed, the most important thing was to listen to the partner’s inner force, where it goes, and where it ends. Following each other in and out, spinning around, our names didn’t matter. When we made involuntary utterances, what came out of our mouths were “Huh?” “Oops, I’m falling!” “Ho ho” – language was pulled back to the here and now, and I was losing balance, but also being dragged back by new friends. Our forms were changing together. 

In the final scene of Four Tracks, the calamity was not yet removed, but Shen Xin hid in there a method of relief that had nothing to do with the whereabouts of the play: in a sincere encounter, you meet each other’s pain in the eyes. When the conversation goes astray, and the language stops functioning, you and I still share the same moment. In the final dialogue, people stopped using grand words and started sharing each other’s food. As exotic fruits and spices entered the gut, the bellies rounded, and the terrain of the body was quietly changing. 

Neither “I” nor my language is fixed, just like my belly and my dreams.

[1] Watsuji, Tetsuro, Climate and Culture: anthropological investigation (Beijing: Dong Fang Publishing, 2017), pp. 123–27. First edition: Climate and Culture: anthropological investigation (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1935).

[2] The latest Wechat post of Raiden Institute still describes itself as a “non-profit art institution”. “Raiden, OK! AR virtual jewelry Alpha testing invitation”,, Nov. 11, 2022.

[3] The definition of “institute” in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary is “an organization for the promotion of a cause; an educational institution and especially one devoted to technical fields; a usually brief intensive course of instruction on selected topics relating to a particular field……”

[4] “Longmarch space is not so much a gallery as a center, a base, and a work station that looks to connect the art world with Chinese society, and to connect China with the world. The space functions as a “curatorial laboratory” dedicated to the fundamental questions of the relationship between curating, display and artistic creation, between practice and discourse, between objects and text, and between audience and artists.” ‘Homepage’, 25000 Cultural Transmission Center, 2005. <> [accessed 17 November 2022].

[5] Ye Ying, Kiln Change 798 (Beijing: Xin Xing Publishing, 2010), p. 72.

[6] Enwezor, Okwui, “The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition”, Research in African Literatures, 34.4 (2003), 57–82.

[7] Gao, ShiMing, “Observations and Premonitions of ‘After Post-Colonialism’”, “Farewell to Post-Colonialism: 3rd Guangzhou Trienniale”, edited by Wang HuangSheng, Gao ShiMing, Sarat Maharaj, Zhang Songren (Hangzhou: China Academy of Art Press, 2008), pp. 44–51.

[8] “The Limit of Multi-Culturalism”, Farewell to Post-Colonialism: 3rd Guangzhou Trienniale, edited by Wang HuangSheng, Gao ShiMing, Sarat Maharaj, Zhang Songren (Hangzhou: China Academy of Art Press, 2008), pp.15.

[9] Wu ShanZhuan/International Red Humor, Today No Water (2008), pp. 9–10.

[10] “For me, reality is what I learned. Please read the newspaper. I compared what was written in the newspaper to what I was surrounded with, and I realized that what was written in the newspaper was ‘real’. Later I discovered that this ‘reality’ was based on the destroyal of whatever else that could become the desire of real human beings.” Today No Water(2008), p. 211–212.

[11] Shen Xin’s email, 1 December 2022.

Translated by Qiu Jiangyue