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January 16, 2011 at OCAT in Shenzhen

Frédérique Aron + Xu Tan + Huang Xiaopeng

A conversation on the changing process of modernization as a myth in China (social values, education system, language, discourse power and individuality)

Huang Xiaopeng: China is building a capitalist society in a uniquely Chinese Communist way today. In here, the education system is like a two-headed monster: on the one hand, universities here are just part of the Communist organization, but on the other hand, the capitalist force is so strong now, so it’s also serving the commercializm without any principles. Xu Tan, you were a teacher in GAFA, and you were dismissed in 1997 because of your artworks, what is your opinion on this?

Xu Tan: As I know, school is a place for teaching professional knowledge. But in China, the school became more and more about skill-based teaching for job-training purposes. The social value system, generated by propagandistic and traditional norms, is much stronger than what you teach at school. You talk about art as a prospecting process but young people don’t believe you because they believe more in the social norms of target-oriented education. Gaining professional knowledge has become like an express lane, a “high way” now. There are many ways, but the “high way” seems the only way in our society today.

Frédérique Aron: Teaching and education have adapted to the changes of the society, but becoming only functional and utilitarian, which is very dangerous.

HXP: Actually, I have not found profound professional knowledge in the art education here. Most students don’t have basic knowledge of art today. They can’t discuss concepts but they can discuss techniques and the market. This is because the official policy for the students is that their work can’t relate to politics, religion, violence or sex. So what can they relate to? What is the function of art school today? And what is the role of contemporary art?

XT: Visual art can be taught in school, there are rules, and regulations. But contemporary art seems impossible to teach in school. For the past five or six years I’ve been running a project “The Keywords and Keywords School” based on my point of hypothesis. I see society as a very important space for education. I want to do something in the place just in the between, between art and society, between “professional fields.” So you can’t say that is an anthropologic project, a linguistic project or a social project, but that it is an art project. Maybe if we don’t use the word “teaching” but “exchanging,” so it will include aesthetics and theory.

HXP: In the Chinese context the whole system is so dated; so nineteenth century. I prefer “contemporary art practice,” a new language of art cannot be created from nowhere but out of the contemporary context, and of course, the history of art. For me, art school should be the place for visual language, imagination and interrogation, which helps the student find their inner-self, with critical spirit and a free mind. The school program should be more a way of training discernment, and it must relate to frontier thinking. It’s a way that’s against the curriculum of the institution.

XT: In the “Keywords” project, we always change the position of teacher and student, artist and audience. If you’re only cooking and audiences are just eating—like in Rirkrit Tiravanija’s work—I don’t think that’s enough. A real involvement is people adopting both the positions of visitors and also artists: I (artist) am your assistant to help you (audience) to realize something like artwork; this is what I regard as a real exchanging relationship in art.

FA: This is your methodology of teaching. The three of us share an “active methodology” based on the socio-constructivist perspective. But the Chinese way of teaching is focused on the teacher as being the “master,” and students are considered a blank page that you have to write on. If you let the students express themselves, or just give them the opportunity to be active in the construction of their learning process, that means the teacher loses the official dominant position and feels obviously threatened.

HXP: This is also related to the fundamental problem of the exam system. If teachers encourage the students to give different answers, the class can’t be passed.

XT: “Knowledge” in China is not the principle of action and behavior. The idea of “freedom” for example doesn‘t lead to any result, if it is only stored in the peoples heads. The teachers in China are supposed only to mediate the knowledge that is written in their textbooks. They don‘t encourage the students to take initiative and think themselves. From this perspective, teaching in China is very frustrating for me.

FA: I agree with you. Knowledge becomes knowledge only if you understand it, and you can only understand it by practicing it. But there’s not such ability here today. You become a teacher not after attending a teaching program in China, but only because you got the job. You can’t become a professional, because you don’t have any theory background; so the model of imitation is actually the only available one for every generation of teachers. You just have to pass the exam, and exams in the Chinese educational system are still only based on memorizing, not on understanding!

HXP: It’s more about the exam for “Mandarin” than education theory. If you can speak perfect Mandarin in the tone of CCTV, then you can be qualified as a teacher. The Chinese exam system, from the outside, is very much like the official socialist bureaucracy system, but deep down it still remains a Confucian system.

XT: I think this kind of system is also connected to the political structure. If you want to change this, it means you want to change the whole political structure. The Party can give up many things but it will never give up the education system. When I used to teach in the Art College of Beijing Normal University few years ago, an old retired official person told me that he was still there just to keep the next generation away from the pollution of Western capitalism. I joked to him: if you shut down the school, the things you don’t like or fear will never happen!

HXP: But Communist ideology also is a Western concept. If you look at the official language like in ‘The People’s Daily’, there is a high number of Western words like “cadre,” “economy,” “system,” “science,” “development,” and so on, which are all translated words. Actually, up to seventy percent of the modern scientific words that students use in university today came to China via Japan after middle of nineteenth century—according to the Chinese Social Science Research Institute.

XT: Actually modern China introduced and “adopted” a lot of things based on Western concepts. I mean this is the situation, and this not only happened in China but many other nations as well.

FA: China felt great humiliation after the Opium Wars. They were trying to find out what were the major problems. One of the conclusions was that Chinese language was considered very primitive, incapable of grasping logical thinking, being more a poetic language that couldn’t be used for analyzing, so incompatible to science and modernization.

HXP: But I am more interested in the role of translation in today’s world of mass communication. We know there are always inevitable dislocations as the consequence of translation, but these problems are getting bigger today as people rely so much on computers and technology. Last year I made a new work from “The Communist Manifesto.” As its first Chinese translation in 1920 was from Japanese rather than from its original German, I followed its historical path. I downloaded the original German from the Internet and used Google to translate it again. At the end, the word “Proletarians” turned out to become “Shareholders!” Also in my karaoke series, a “babe” can become a “treasure,” and then an “industry product.” But this semantic misfiring just fits the reality of the world we live in; it’s exactly how our society is evolving today. This is the social value system.

Xu Yuntao (an assistant curator in OCAT graduated from GAFA in 2009, came to join us): Yes, the computer shows only the final conclusions but doesn’t know the knowledge background.

XT: In my opinion, European philosophy is very utilitarian. It’s the kind of philosophy that mainly pushed the world into modern society. The methodology of language and thinking is from Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” and then, Francis Bacon’s “knowledge is power.” Science, progress, and development—all these concepts are based on finding truth and knowledge. But I think that thinking in the way of “searching truth” is utilitarianism, so I think it’s important that we artists should protect the space of inefficacy in our consciousness. In ancient China, like Buddhism or Daoism, at some point they stopped the language. They wanted to know how they could become close to the real world in their inner world and not in the material world.

HXP: For me independent thinking is very important for the future of Chinese society. Everyone should start to make changes by themselves rather than expecting others to do it; otherwise nothing will happen! When I asked my students to edit the third book of the ’5th Studio’[1], they didn’t consider this work as the opportunity to express their voice, but felt forced to do their homework. Many students practicing contemporary art have the same thinking pattern as the very official Student Union; they’d rather to be arranged than self-organized.

XYT: My parents always tell me that you should be the slave before you become the master.

XT: This is in the subconsciousness of every
Chinese. Actually I think that independence and individuality can’t be taught at school in China. Since your childhood, you have been taught always to be humble and to stand by the collective. If you go to the opposite way, you feel dangerous. “Herd behavior,” was the keyword that I found in my workshop in Hong Kong.

HXP: Someone in my school told me that actually I am an outsider there. Of course I know that and I’m happy to be an outsider inside the system. People are saying everything is possible in China today, probably because in the West everything has become so structured and so solid. The situation in here is quite different—there are lots of loopholes and gray areas.

XT: People in China now started to ask: if we can do such a great job for the Olympic Games, what can’t we do? Make a first class university? First class art in the world? Before, we just divided people into progressive or conservative camps—for contemporary art or against contemporary art. Now most people are just for one thing: power. Everyone likes power and to play with different kinds of power.

FA: In the West these two powers share some interest indeed, but it’s also very separate. Because art is about freedom, and government is about control.

XT: When the new generation obtains the power, it might find that the situation is still the same. We should encourage young people to be self-constructive; it’s very important for the future. Like in Sartre’s play ‘Les Mouches’, the God told Orestes: I can only punish the people who believe in me. So if everybody becomes an individual, then nothing can kill you.

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January 16, 2011 at OCAT in Shenzhen
Special thanks to Claire Louise Staunton for her editorial input. / Spezieller Dank an Claire Louise Staunton für die redaktionelle Unterstützung.

[1] The 5th Studio is the only conceptual based contemporary art practice studio under the Painting Department in Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts.