Rather than discussing an aesthetic or local identity, “Socialist Baroque” opens up the context of the East Asian world through repeating layers of “folds,” revealing what is hidden by mainstream art history and the problems of contemporary culture. We all know that since the beginning, contemporary art has been the product of cultural politics, and not just the result of capital’s infiltration into and transformation of art. Art still has some breathing space, and for this to be supplemented, it must revisit its cultural sources and historical situation. Especially in China, where contemporary art as a whole is seen as an “imported” Western cultural form, links to the cultural context are even more neglected.
Here it is necessary to reinterpret “Northeast” and “Baroque” (The characters “Dongbei” in the exhibition’s Chinese title refer to China’s northeast, historically the country’s industrial heartland, and hence closely connected to Chinese socialism). “Northeast” gestures towards an inland world, as opposed to the maritime world of the West. In modern times northeast China has been subject to violent “non-Western” globalization: the occupation of Dongbei and the port of Lushun (formerly known as Port Arthur) by both sides in the Russo-Japanese War, the Soviet Union’s liberation of the region at the end of World War II, and the building of New China after 1949, all present alternate processes of modernization. Both ideologically and in the means of production, this differs from the path of influences received from European and American colonizers in places like Shanghai and elsewhere in southern China. If the latter represents a “maritime” model, then Dongbei represents an “inland” model of modern development.
“Baroque” is a form of art that pursues the dynamics and curves of classical art, advocating luxury and pleasure, emphasizing passion and athleticism. These qualities are not simply artistic posturing, but challenges posed by the symmetry and balance of classicism. The use of “Baroque” in the exhibition does not respond to these specialized issues in art history, but instead takes Deleuze’s concept of “the fold” in relation to the “Baroque” to confront the consumerism and manufactured nature of Chinese art today. Deleuze’s treatment of the “Baroque” points to a non-linear, multi-faceted understanding of China, from Westernization movements in its traditional and modern culture, to the May Fourth Movement’s introduction of Western science and democracy, the socialist construction of New China, the Reform and Opening of the 1980s and afterwards, and China’s role as the world’s factory bringing it back to globalization’s main stage. As a vector of economic and cultural influences, the thread of China’s cultural development has progressively been entangled and distorted.
After playing an influential role in the course of history, finally in the era of China-as- world-factory Dongbei has been crushed by the burdens of the past. Dongbei’s cultural forms such as architecture and novels have been influenced by Japan and Russia, and from “85 New Wave” to Wang Bing’s “Tiexi Qu,” have contributed cultural templates. At the same time, Dongbei has been limited by these symbols or even solidified itself to match them. The exhibition seeks self-liberation beyond this solidification, and takes the unfolding of “Dongbei” as an ideal starting point for this process. The intention here is not to revive Dongbei’s art history, but to “re-read” it in order to face today’s cultural constructions. Obviously, even though such a project is a massive undertaking, “Socialist Baroque” can only serve as a small beginning.
The exhibition takes today’s Chinese contemporary art as its visible range, reconstructing overlooked cultural questions that are multi-faceted yet lie hidden within folds. The threads of the “Socialist Baroque” reach from Dongbei to Beijing, on to Shandong province, and finally extend south to Guangdong, mapping the tortuous conflict between mainland and maritime, and hiding a mass of cultural information that possesses considerable universality. As it intertwines in multiple directions this universality also begins to fragment. An exhibition is like detective work, linking all kinds of cultural evidence, and some pieces of evidence may lead to an incorrect conclusion. In spite of this, in today’s exhibition, how to organize and re-understand also needs to examined and resolved. Returning to the origin of “the fold,” the exhibition advocates a microscopic individual logic, entering into historical context to hopefully avoid the separation between artists’ personal styles often found in “group shows.” Nor does the exhibition space abide by conventions of form or stability, instead attempting to use a “trail of evidence” as its model, where there is no balance, and distorted faces are once again laid out on display.