Contemporary Chinese Art, Aesthetic Modernity and Zhang Peili: Towards a Critical Contemporaneity, published by Bloomsbury, is the new monograph of Paul Gladston, inaugural Judith Neilson Professor (Chair) of Contemporary Art at the University of New South Wales, Sydney and one of the international leading expert in Chinese Art. It is always a great honor to meet him to explore one of the most relevant issues of contemporary art.

You have already published several books and studies dedicated to the Chinese context, becoming one of the leading international experts in Chinese art. What does your recently published book add to what you've already written and what are the peculiarities of your new book?

My recent monograph is an attempt to provide a general theory of contemporary Chinese art drawing on ideas and observations developed in my previous publications. Readers familiar with my work will register a degree of necessary recapitulation as well as elaboration. The theory advanced by the book takes into account the condition referred to in scholarly artworld circles as “contemporaneity” in which previously dominant Euro-American perspectives are now being increasingly overwritten by a conspicuous array of other socio-cultural outlooks. This “post-West” condition of contemporaneity comprises outlooks which do not share completely, or at all, in Euro-American post-Enlightenment constructions of the aesthetic as a specific category of experience with some sort of critical autonomy from society. In the particular case of China that divergence can be understood to involve an upholding of the traces of a syncretic, Daoist and Buddhist inflected, Confucian aesthetics whose underlying principles and ideals are traditional to Chinese cultural contexts. Confucian aesthetics, which is by no means static historically, is characterized by a leaning towards harmonious cosmological non-rationalist reciprocity rather than rigid binary opposition; as symbolized by the Daoist pairing of yin-yang. Syncretic Confucian aesthetics thus conceives of artistic expression, and, indeed, life itself, as a potential place of spontaneous reciprocity between objective representation and subjective expression.

Crucially, Confucian aesthetics does not conceive of aesthetic experience as something distinct from wider society and social governance. Historically, administrators of the Chinese imperial state, known in China as the Shi and outside China as the Literati, were expected to be accomplished painters and poets. An ability to bring the otherwise disordered human mind into spontaneous accord with nature through painting and poetry was considered indicative of the capacity of the Literati to administer society along equally harmonious lines. Painting and poetry, as well as withdrawal from society and eccentric behaviour on the part of the Literati, were also used as oblique ways of registering criticism of overweening imperial authority. This contrasts with Euro-American post-Enlightenment ideas of aesthetic modernity which tend towards the upholding of some degree of critical distance. Syncretic Confucian principles and ideals were not only formative on the making, showing and reception of art historically within China, their durable traces also give a distinctive alterity to Chinese modern and contemporary art, which characteristically combines those traces with aspects of western(ized) modernist and postmodernist artistic thinking and practice.

While the book is at pains to map mutually formative (reciprocal) interactions between the modern artworlds of Euro-America and China since the 17th century, it also demonstrates the persistence of a syncretic Confucian critical aesthetic historically prior to and culturally distinct from that associated with Euro-American post-Enlightenment aesthetic modernity. A lot has already been written about the subject of contemporary Chinese art from Chinese and other cultural perspectives. There have also been attempts by scholars, among them, Gao Minglu and John Clark, to provide a generalizing theory of Chinese aesthetic modernity. While entirely admirable in my view, those attempts are either parti-pris in their emphasis on particular cultural points of view, Minglu’s is written very much from a Chinese cultural standpoint, and/or theoretically underwrought. In spite of its recognition of the multi-dimensionality of present-day discourses, Peter Osborne’s equally admirable theorization of contemporaneity, Anywhere Or Not At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art remains largely within the ambit of Euro-American post-Enlightenment thinking. My recent book elaborates upon the lessons of these other books. Cultural partisanship in this regard is symptomatic of the underlying persistence of a universalizing Euro-American world view and assertions of resistant otherness as part of an on-going discursive struggle.

You chose the artistic practice of Zhang Peili and the Pond Association as a case study. Why is it significant and what has it allowed you to demonstrate?

Zhang Peili’s work, as well as that of the art group, the Pond Association (Chi she) of which he was a member during the mid-1980s, are taken within the book as significant of a trans-culturally distinctive syncretic Confucian-inflected critical aesthetic in the context of contemporaneity. Peili’s work has consistently resisted authoritative impositions of meaning from within and outside China, not by being nihilistic as it may seem to some, but through an illimitable productivity of meaning resonant with Daoist and Buddhist meditative thinking/practice. There are discernible resonances with postmodernist art’s signal use of deconstructivist defamiliarization and Hal Foster’s more recent proposal of a caustically critical art that “does not pretend that it can break absolutely with the old order or found a new one” but instead “seeks to trace fractures that already exist within the given order, to pressure them further, even to activate them somehow.” 1 In the case of Peili’s work, there are supplementary traces of the ultimately metaphysically-oriented harmonizing outlook of syncretic Confucianism.

A key example given in the book is Peili’s installation A Gust of Wind (Zeng feng) (2008). Ostensibly this installation is consonant with western(ized) contemporary art in its use of defamiliarizing techniques to engender multiple significances. The work comprises a looped multi-screen series of videos showing the apparent destruction of a well-appointed domestic interior by a powerful gust of wind from multiple angles and in realistic detail. In front of the multi-screen video are actual remnants of the destroyed interior, which can be seen to have been part of a film set specially constructed for filming. The work’s assembling of the residual traces of an artificial mise en scène and its simulated destruction represented by a looped series of videos without a signalled beginning or end is open to interpretation as performatively deconstructive of reality and authentic meaning in a way that might be supported by Jean Baudrillard’s idea of the simulacrum. In the context of present-day China, a deconstruction of this sort can be viewed as a metaphor for the equally uncertain condition of political authority.

A Gust of Wind is also an invitation to reflect on the multiplicity of angles on the same subject presented by the work. That invitation is akin to the use of the paradoxical riddle-like statements known as koans used by Buddhists as a means to enlightenment. Contrary to popular conception, the aim of Buddhist meditation is not an outright annihilation of thought, but instead a suspension of directed desire through an engendering of illimitable and shifting significance/feeling. The paradoxes presented by koans are a way of transcending ostensible meaning towards the gaining of an enriched state of non-desiring enlightenment. In addition, Peili has described the gust of wind depicted by his installation as symbolic of a “superpower” that constantly threatens to intervene with established order. Such thinking is discernibly in accord with Daoist notions of the cyclical loss and achievement of harmony represented by the term fan (return). The oblique critical significance of Peili’s symbolic equation is made all too clear in relation to the stated desire of China’s ruling Communist party to establish and sustain a harmonious society. Peili’s work is thus open to differing/shifting interpretations depending on one’s cultural point of view without being comprehended by any particular interpretative outlook. In the context of a still authoritarian China, this enables Peili to remain, much like the Literati before him, within the limits of ideological acceptability while also being discernibly critical of authority. A position that contrasts with the all too readily commutable oppositional bombast of Ai Weiwei.

Critical obliqueness of this sort of course appears unconscionably weak from the point of view of artworlds in liberal-democratic contexts which now institutionalize art as a locus of open social criticism. The use of art as a signifier of strident political radicalism is in those contexts now entirely de rigeur. Paradoxically, that institutionalization can be understood to diffuse art’s supposed critical autonomy; a state of affairs exacerbated by the international artworld’s complicity with capital. Peili’s work is perceptibly within the bounds of discursive acceptability within China while also being resistant to settled meaning of any kind. Rather than being simply aberrant in relation to established Euro-American post-Enlightenment artworld expectations, this particular strain of oblique criticality is perhaps more apposite to contemporary socio-political, economic and discursive conditions where entanglement with institutional authority is ubiquitous and unavoidable. For many years, Peili combined artistic practice with work as a teacher of experimental art at the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, where he impacted the work of generations of artists particularly in the area of new media. A forthcoming book, Dis-/Continuing Traditions: Interventions with Confucian Aesthetics by Chinese Women Artists, co-written by me and Lynne Howarth-Gladston, will develop this theory in relation to contemporary art produced by Chinese artists identifying as women.

What is the role of Chinese art in the international debate? What are the peculiarities and perspectives of contemporary Chinese art within and outside the PRC?

There’s no single straightforward answer to that question. As the scholar of Chinese art, Wu Hung has indicated, the significance of contemporary Chinese art alters according to its contextualisation inside and outside China. Outside China, it can be seen to share in the defamiliarizing tendencies of contemporary art more generally. Inside China it has to be within the bounds of local ideological acceptability either as a support to or non-interfering in communist party authority. This can include work openly critical of the excesses of Western-style capitalism. Perceived as such, contemporary Chinese art can also be understood to share in the “social turn” undertaken globally by contemporary art in recent years and its reinstatement of a simplistic oppositional criticality. The deconstructivist tendencies of Euro-American postmodernist and contemporary art are not acceptable in China because of their signalling of a resistance to authority. I wouldn’t see this parallax condition, that is to say openness to varied interpretations from differing standpoints, as peculiar to Chinese art. It’s the condition of all art as it transits socio-cultural boundaries. Although we can attach a certain localised significance to contemporary art within China, the art itself remains something of an empty signifier subject to differing contextualized interpretations. As I also show in my recent book, the construction of Chinese and Euro-American art has come about through continuing intersections between their respective artworld. This is the condition exploited to critical effect by Peili’s work.

As an expert on Chinese art and culture, and as a Western man, how does China look at the West? How does the West look at China?

First, I wouldn’t claim to be an expert or a self-appointed leader. That suggests some kind of mastery that neither me, nor anyone else has. I may have particular insights into my chosen subjects as a result of personal experience that others don’t have, and I’ve given a great deal of thought to the issues and problems raised by those subjects, but I certainly don’t have the final word. I’m not an expert art historian or Sinologist. I wasn’t trained in either discipline. I trained as a critical theorist in extension of my initial training as a fine artist. My approach to scholarship is more in the tradition of the amateur as someone lovingly engaged in an activity who is at the same time without polished specialist competence. Duchamp’s status as an artist is, it seems to me, largely amateur in that sense. I don’t wish to be tied down by an aspiration to professionalized competency. I see that as constraining. I’m happy to stick my neck out and make mistakes in pursuit of something intellectually and aesthetically resonant. The current trajectory of academia, with its concentration on the short-term outcomes of impact and grant capture, is away from the amateur scholar. As I’ve said in other contexts, my writing is in some ways an extension of my initial training as a fine artist. It incorporates the artistic methods to which it refers. It doesn’t discuss the vagaries of the aesthetic while seeking to adopt a legitimizing aloofness. I don’t pretend some sort of exclusive scholarly objectivity. My writing is as much a matter of felt expression as it is an intentional contribution to scholarly discourse; its satirical-writerly tongue is usually firmly in its cheek. There are resonances between my assumed amateurism and that of literati artists in China, who were in principle, though not in practice, non-professional; although I wouldn’t assert a direct correspondence in that regard.

As for being “Male” and “Western”; these are ultimately sociocultural constructs. Our accrued identities determine what we can see socio-culturally and politically and are experienced as though real, but only in qualified and mutable ways. I was born in the UK and trained mostly in the UK and the US in relation to the intellectual and artistic traditions of Euro-American post-Enlightenment thought and practice. I also lived and worked in mainland China for five years mixing in artworld and other circles. I don’t subscribe to the simplistic thinking that has emerged recently that holds up white, straight, cis-gendered and able-bodied subjects, superficially such as I am, as utterly unreformable bête-noires. My accrued identities undoubtedly inflect my writing. I accept they are limiting in some sense, but they are also spectral in their trans-cultural susceptibility to diffractive change.

To return to your question; historically, the “West” has been both dismissive of China and romantically in thrall to its exotic otherness. That polarity can be reversed of course. Speaking crudely, from a Western point of view there has been a colonial-imperial desire to impose a predominantly rationalising philosophical outlook in combination with a subordinate romanticism as a universal basis for social progress. That desire has been challenged reflexively from within by a less rationalising criticality cognisant of diversity. China has appropriated-translated aspects of western modernity while also asserting its own civilization-specific cultural identity rooted principally in the principles and ideals of Confucianism. Here, tensions between the deracinating ingress of a colonizing-imperial western modernity and the upholding of a specific Chinese identity are mediated by syncretic Confucian notions of harmonizing reciprocity and the related idea of tianxia (everything under heaven): a harmonious state of reciprocity between humanity, nature and the spiritual cognate with Confucian principles and ideals. Recently Chinese writers including Zhao Tingyang have proposed tianxia as a basis for a new post-West world order, with Chinese culture effectively at its centre. Those proposals are just as problematic as the colonial-imperial projection of western modernity and, as such, equally deserving of criticism.

1 Davis, Ben (2018) “I Drank the Apocalyptic Kool-Aid”: Art Historian Hal Foster on Why He Has Developed an Unromantic View of the Avant-Garde’, Artnet News online, 26 March 2018.