Advance through Retreat
For nearly two decades, traditional Chinese culture and traditional media has been a subject within the field of contemporary Chinese art. Numerous biennials and exhibitions on the topic—like, for example, the 'Shenzhen International Ink Painting Biennial', the project for the first Chinese Pavilion at the 'Venice Biennial in 2003', and most recently 'Yuan Dao—The Origin of Dao' (Hong Kong Museum of Art, 2013), or again 'Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China' (Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2013)—indicate the existence of a tendency that is gaining ever greater importance, a tendency which shows the apparent need to rediscover and revaluate Chinese traditional media as a lingua franca. Certainly this interest in autochthonous Chinese culture is due to stimuli from various areas; political and economic motivations play as important a role as cultural and artistic ones, and Chinese players and lobbies are as active as their Western counterparts. I do not, however, want to discuss this here in detail. Let me just highlight the creation of a cultural identity of a new, self-confident, post-WTO-entry China. As a new and economically powerful global player, China seeks to affirm the 'cultural position of a native culture with excellent tradition', to cite Pi Daojian's introduction to his exhibition 'Yuan Dao—The Origin of Dao'.
Up to the present day, most exhibitions on traditional Chinese media in a contemporary context have dealt with the subject through aspects of technique, media, aesthetics and values associated with traditional Chinese literati culture. The subject is tackled either to reaffirm a Chinese cultural identity or to revisit the East/West dichotomy, a spectre haunting Chinese cultural theory and critique since the mid-19th century.
The exhibition ‘Advance through Retreat’ aims to look at traditional media from a different angle. It sets out to present artistic positions using traditional media and procedures, such as divination, the game, gambling and traditional strategies— for instance, 'advance through retreat'— in order to develop autonomous languages that utter positions of resistance to the assimilating tendency and the power structures generated and maintained by the lingua franca. "Advance through Retreat" attempts to show, how, in specific historical moments, the use of or the retreat into tradition is employed as an efficient strategy of resistance.
Intrinsically linked to the Chinese imperial system and its institutions as well as to power, calligraphy and traditional Chinese painting have been used as a unifying tool throughout Chinese history. In particular calligraphy and its specific styles served as lingua franca not only binding the vast territory with its diverse regional cultures and dialects together and guaranteeing cultural coherence, but also conferring social status and granting access to power for those who had the disposition to use and understand this medium. The written word, as poetry or calligraphy, is therefore one important focus of the exhibition ‘Advance through Retreat’.
The retreat into tradition as a means of resistance and development of an autonomous language is not only a practice in the field of contemporary Chinese culture but also in that of contemporary and modern culture as such. The exhibition therefore includes works by artists of different origins and different times. Marc Tobey's retreat into Arabic and Eastern thought and calligraphy that stimulated the development of his influential white writing in early and mid-Twentieth Century, was as significant as Kang Youwei's promotion of ancient metal-and stone inscriptions as models for a reform of Chinese calligraphy and culture in the late Nineteenth Century, and Zheng Guogu's and Yangjiang Group's rediscovery of local traditions. In her set of woodblock prints "Home is a Foreign Place" Zarima Hashmi attributes as much importance to the retreat into the autobiographic and a personal, yet universal vernacular as does Tsang Tsou Choi, or Jiang Zhi in his "Love Letter's" and Wang Qingsong in "Auspicious Snow". Li Zhengtian's, Qiu Zhijie's, Xiao Kaiyu's and Yang Jiechang's works show as much the artists' believe in the potential of art and tradition to challenge and transform our vision of reality, yes reality itself, as does Pablo Wendel's video. And finally, Jimmie Durham's act of smashing objects in his video "Smashing" is as much an attempt to renegotiate modernity, as is Huang Yongping's "Big Roulette with Four Wheels" or Andreas Mayer-Brennenstuhl's "Rewriting Modernity", or again Fu Baoshi's album leaves after poems by Mao Zedong.