Constellation+:Networks and Networks Beyond Networks

Rooted in postmodern cultural logic, the development of contemporary art has generally been built upon scattered, individual, estranged and fragmentary cultural traits. In a sense, it is quite difficult for us to research and discuss it from the perspective of a constellation or genealogy, particularly in discussing the complex face of art since globalization. Yet this exhibition, Constellation+: Yunnan Oil Painting Since 1978, restores these historical circumstances by sifting through the developmental threads of Yunnan oil painting since modernism, and looks at the artistic landscape as it truly existed at that time, thus engaging in a cultural research project on the underlying order of the development of local art in Yunnan. As we do so, we would do well to set out from a web of relationships to look back over the past, observe the present, and gaze out into the future.

I hope to place this regional case study exhibition within a framework of cultural research, rather than just a linear representation seeking verification of history. History is often richer and more complex than we imagine. In an era where events and people were highly connected, Yunnan had rather early exposure to Western culture and the Chinese mainstream artistic system. Interestingly, a unique regional political environment gave room for artistic creation to breathe in the province, which gave rise to multiple artistic systems growing in parallel.

Here, “Constellation+” indicates this imagery and research perspective. We are attempting to raise certain questions and engage a discussion through observation, curation and the implementation of this exhibition. For example, as we enter into the post-globalization era, does the notion of relativity between global and local culture still stand? Since the turn of the new century, humanity has faced ever more pressing resource scarcity and environmental issues, touching off a series of international strategic maneuvers. Globalization, and the corresponding nationalism, have produced irreversible negative effects and contradictions, manifest on one side as cultural fusion and the loss of individuality, and on the other as sovereign independence and nationalist acts of terror and violence. Facing these issues, intellectuals must make their own judgments and responses. Modern science is striving to find and develop new energy sources, but humanity has not ceased its plundering and exploitation of traditional resources. Meanwhile, the quest to reappraise and explore cultural values in the field of the humanities is much like this search for energy resources, vaguely manifesting a form of utopian idealism, with some calling these intellectuals contemporary Don Quixotes. In fact, modern and contemporary art around the world is also undergoing its own metamorphosis within this hybrid, chaotic context. We have discovered that in many special places, the relationship between local traditional (native) culture and global (pan-cultural) culture presents something other than the polar, gray, “soft” cultural spectacle. These visual scenes are produced and created together by the local public, artists and other groups to form a new variant mass culture. Of course, this mass culture is essentially different from the American-made (culturally-hegemonic) mass culture of the 1960s, presenting different regional traits while also making a clear departure from its “original” cultural thread, blurring the traditional mainstream cultural coordinate system. In sifting through the history of Yunnan oil painting since 1978, we have indeed also discovered this fascinating cultural phenomenon. In the process of curating this exhibition, we set out not from strategy, but from aesthetics. We strived to avoid overemphasis on commonality in fashion traits and linguistic signs, and instead highlighted the artists’ experiences of the essence of art by interpreting their interplay between expressiveness and material, in hopes that the resulting expository method would truly and accurately present the network of local artistic development in Yunnan since the Reform and Opening; the results of the values judgments made by the artists as they faced the complex relationships between the self and the outside world; and the scene of intermediate cultural visions formed by the creative systems that emerged as subjects consciously evaded the central grid.

Furthermore, there is no doubt that through the scholarly sifting and artwork presentation for this exhibition, we have achieved an effective presentation of the anti-center cultural traits of oil painting in Yunnan since the Reform and Opening, and thoroughly shown the channels for variation these traits have provided for the overall development of art in Yunnan. Since the Reform and Opening, China has experienced soaring economic development and increasingly drastic transformation of its social infrastructure. The infusion of new culture has produced dramatic transformations and rifts in every realm of society from politics and economics to culture, leaving the majority of traditional culture extinct. To a certain extent, the cultural rifts have made it impossible for most people in the modern era to truly draw any nourishment from traditional culture. The so called “return to cultural roots (tradition)” is extremely difficult, and a new generation of intellectuals are compelled to take in a greater breadth of knowledge. One could say that we are currently facing a complex reality of fragmented traditions mixed with various rarefied technologies and vulgar images. Meanwhile, the cultural contradictions and rapid pace of political and economic development have bestowed many regional societies (such as Yunnan’s) with wholly unique hybridic traits. The “Constellation+” in this exhibition is a signifier of this cultural spectacle, one which visualizes local artistic development under the interwoven influences of economic and cultural globalization. The “Constellation” is a classic network system. It marks out the spectacle of the mainstream values system alongside multiple realities, while also revealing how artists in this new environment of the times are creating a new artistic environmental constellation outside of the existing fundamental coordinates through the constant accumulation, reproduction and rearrangement of matter (materials). Economic globalization and trade unification have delivered us from material shortage. The constant accumulation and reproduction of matter has brought convenience to our lives. The “+” is a visual marker for reproduction, a world outside of the constellation, and an attitude and standpoint we attempt to elaborate in this exhibition. In the context of the accumulation of material and spectacle, and particularly within the conditions of social development since the turn of the 21st century, the non-mainstream formation of Yunnan’s local art grows increasingly visible. “+” is a representation of positive development and growth in capabilities driven by the process of urbanization, and even more, it represents the artist’s superhuman ability to add to the magical meaning of existing materials through rearrangement. These artistic creations confront a multifold reality and more microscopic spectacle, representing the alteration and reshaping of meaning. Through this we can see that the concepts and visions of space since the new century, and the network-array of developmental threads outside of the traditional genealogy that have emerged from the diversity of images constructed from historical and social vision, have found presentation within the exhibition. Overall, the mixed intermediate cultures, and the processes of variation, rearrangement and reconstitution are clearly visible in the artistic creations of Yunnan since the Reform and Opening, as the tension and conflict between reality and illusion point to a multifold, overlapping new constellation.

Overall, looking back over the recent art history of Yunnan, a visible web-form image of history and an art world outside of that web illuminate each other and fuse together, pushing us to reexamine the past and the present through different synchronous and diachronic facets. Here, the utility of centrist methodology is no longer so apparent. There are constellations beyond the constellations, webs beyond the web. Center and region, mainstream and avant-garde came together and intertwined decades ago in a particular region (Yunnan), and this cultural phenomenon alludes, to a certain extent, to a cultural trait found across Asia. The intermediate nature of culture is particularly striking in Yunnanese art history as it enters into the context of modernism. Though this exhibition is merely a group exhibition of easel painting, it follows a fundamental methodology of observing the creative threads of individual artists as it presents and traces back the relationships and outcomes of representative artistic events and figure within a set period of time, and thus compiles a diverse, compound constellation of Yunnan art over forty years. As a research method, it emphasizes starting from independent texts (case studies), and placing them within a three-dimensional scatter plot of history to carry out an intertextual discussion between individual text and overall cultural logic.

Of course, the presentation of one exhibition is unable to provide a single conclusion, but it does serve as a method for visually re-creating the history we have observed and the order we have observed within this theoretical framework. In this sense, the curation of the exhibition is no longer merely a footnote to the theoretical research, but has become the text itself.

Liu Chunfeng