With the ambition of giving the island6/Liu Dao blog a bit of cerebral clout, this is the first entry of a (hopefully) weekly series on “interesting ideas which have something to do with island6’s artworks”. So this week’s theme is… ‘Liquid Modernity’
‘Liquid Modernity’ is the brainchild of the Polish-born sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Towards the end of the twentieth century Bauman was one of a number of scholars who had became frustrated and wary of the ambiguities and misconceptions which surround the term ‘post-modernity’. Thus in his 2000 book he presented ‘Liquid Modernity’ as an alternative concept, one which stressed the continuity, and the differences, between the traditional ‘solid’ modernity of the late 19th and early twentieth century, and the socio-cultural atmosphere which became manifest in the latter twentieth and twenty-first century. Liquid modernity is understood as emerging from ‘high modernity’ but, unlike that earlier period, contemporary modernity is no longer governed and structured according to the various fixed and quasi-permanent institutions, of politics, finance and society. As a result of social change and, importantly, technological developments, late twentieth and twenty-first century society is devoid of the certainty and predictability which mankind has come to expect. Instead it is a fluidity and transience which typifies human interaction and lived experience – it as a liquid existence.
Scholars, including Bauman himself, tend to emphasise the negative implications of this transition. Conventional notions of ‘family’ and ‘career’, as well as more ideas of tradition and religion begin to lose their significance in a globalised world populated by atomised selves. The narratives of life we construct, weave and attempt to realise become almost meaningless in a cityscape which is in an endless process of transformation and change. Life is whittled down to an amalgamation of isolated and individually insignificant decisions, which enable us to navigate society with competence, but not skill. This late modernity has been termed by Ulrich Beck as the ‘Risk Society’. Unease becomes pervasive.
But liquid modernity has its positive aspects as well. Throughout much of global history, and especially over the past two hundred years or so, it has been above all else the ideals of freedom and liberation which has driven man to act, to think, and to live. With the dissolution of the constraining and culturally defining institutions and forces of the earlier twentieth century, man is finally able to float, freely, in the metropolitan ether. Where some see nihilism, others find absolute self-determination. Rather than the collapse of all traditions, they can trace the merging and inner transformation of traditions, the formation of a myriad of new cultures from the ashes of yesterday. The literary deconstruction of narrative dreamed up by Joyce, Woolf, Stein et. al., in the 20s and 30s can be realised in the life of the twenty-first century city. The yearning for the collapse of time and the seizure of immediacy which obsessed early twentieth century art is upon us. The fluidity of the modern city becomes the ideal playground for the atomised self - that is the contemplative, self-conscious, independent ‘ego’.
The dawn of ‘liquid modernity’ has perhaps a heightened significance in the cities of China. For sure, it would be Confucius’ worst nightmare; the bastions of filial piety and communal ritual are corroded beyond recognition. But the philosophical dimensions of China’s two other major intellectual systems, Daoism and Buddhism, share much with Bauman’s prescription of fluidity and transience. Buddhism depicts itself as a response to the omnipresence of dhukka, existential suffering originating in the impermanence of worldly reality. The Buddhist response is the solitary contemplative path to an enlightenment which will enables one to understand this condition, and then live without struggling against it. The Daoist tradition also envisages a self who strives to live in accordance with nature and align himself to the ever-changing Dao. It is through spontaneity and the ultimate non-substantial doctrine of non-action, that this can be realized. The historical tension between these two tendencies of Chinese philosophy, Confucian traditionalism and the self-oriented philosophies of Daoism and Buddhism is intensified within the context of modernity; their debate recaptures its relevance.
island6’s artworks emerge as both an organic product of, as well as a considered and self-conscious response to, this phenomenon of ‘liquid modernity’. As such, each piece poses the viewer with a fundamental question: are they for or against this concurrently thrilling and unsettling condition? Inevitably each of us is torn, non-committal and hovering. And this too is a symptom of Bauman’s prescription. As a prophet of today, there are few more adept at explaining oneself to oneself.