“Salon Salon: Fine Art Practices from 1972 to 1982 in Profile—A Beijing Perspective”: Liu Ding
Liu Ding interviewed by Yin Shuai
The exhibition catalogue Salon Salon: Fine Art Practices from 1972 to 1982 in Profile—A Beijing Perspective, edited by Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu, unfolds a narrative about Beijing’s art scene in the decade spanning the late Cultural Revolution and the beginning of the reform and opening-up period. Complementing a show of the same title at Inside-Out Art Museum, Beijing (2017), it focuses on the ideological structure of socialist realism in China and its continuous influence on the practice and discourse of contemporary art there. Key themes include the possibility for individuals to strive for room for creative practice under harsh political circumstances; how political signals and the collective unconscious measured up against each other and marched forward hand in hand; and the collective oblivion of the young generation and their “natural inheritance” of past experiences in major social movements.
YIN SHUAI: Salon Salon: Fine Art Practices from 1972 to 1982 in Profile—A Beijing Perspective is the third installment in a series dedicated to “the echoes of socialist realism.” Why did you and Carol Yinghua Lu decide to carry out the larger study? And how does this installment relate to the previous two? I know the book was in preparation for almost two years, a longer planning period than was involved in the exhibition it accompanies.
LIU DING: The larger series of which this is the third part is titled From the Issue of Art to the Issue of Position: The Echoes of Socialist Realism. Since 2011, we have co-organized several exhibitions. These curatorial projects complement, in my mind, my own solo exhibitions during this time. All are creative practices. Salon Salon outlines the modern art scene in Beijing from 1972 to 1982. It examines the continuing influence of the ideological structure of “socialist realism” in China, and the practice and discussions of Chinese contemporary art. This research originated from some observations and reflections that emerged from our partaking in the art scene. Under the long-term shaping of the national vision, Chinese contemporary artists have long viewed and described their situation from the perspectives of “de-historicalization” and “fracture,” and have locked in some conceptual ways to interpret history and the present. But for us two, looking back at history makes us neither too confident nor too humble about the present because we realize we don’t know anything about our past. We came to realize that knowing our own historical origins, including the subtle, individual, and complex context of the practice of “modern art” in China, was a necessary step for trying to describe the scene and form a historical subject. This exhibition is not just a question, but also a historical writing effort. Next, we will discuss the art scene in the 1980s. All of this research, really, is about properly historicizing the prehistory of Chinese contemporary art so that we can all think about, and discuss, today’s reality more comprehensively.
YS: In 2017 you took part in Utopian Display in Milan, where you made visible the intrinsic logic and intertextuality of building a presentation. It seems to me that a new art history is writing its way through the exhibition, “re-contextualiz[ing] the experience that is being abstracted to highlight the site sense of history.” How do you do this in a specific study? What is the difference between presenting the exhibition and presenting the book?
LD: The intertextual relationship between artworks and literature in the exhibition is a curatorial language that I often use in exhibition making. The difficulty of this intertextuality lies mainly in the familiarity of the planner with the material. In the practice of exhibitions, I always consider how to both respect the works and transcend the works, enhancing the language of the exhibition into the language of creation. For example, Salon Salon focuses on the period from the Cultural Revolution to the economic reform; in the study, we found that there were very few materials regarding artworks and art practices from this decade. After the vicissitudes of the 1980s, many artists who had shared the same time and space between 1972 and 1982 parted ways, to the point where there was not much intersection. Retrieving these, reestablishing historical imaginations about them, became the main task in the early planning stage of this exhibition. By the middle of our study, we found out that the historical content of this period had multiple clues, including a large number of ambiguous facts. We needed to try to solve the problem, decipher the password. Finally, the narrative of the exhibition, formed by the structure of the “Star Cluster,” is also based on an imagination of the developments of the decade. In research and exhibition practice, I always treat works, documents, images, and private memories as having an equal relationship. In the exhibition, we fully mobilize the narrative function of the works, and through the works we outline the situation of the art world. In this way, visitors can see the various artistic trends that were driven by different experiences at the time.
YS: In the decade between 1972 and 1982 a lot of historical events and changes took place, yet few would regard this decade as “standard” for a historical discourse—meaning, it’s not a time period that many would single out, as opposed to “the 1970s” or “the 1980s” or “the Cultural Revolution.”
LD: Salon Salon treats this period as ripe for research and discussion, and a space for historical imagination. It was an age of transition politically and historically, but also artistically. It is quite practical, today, to situate the concept of “Chinese contemporary art” in the seventy-year history of new Chinese art (1949–2019). It would be overly conceptual to try to compare the history of Chinese art after the late 1970s with the history of contemporary art in Europe and the United States. Artistic practice since the new China has had a very complicated structure full of internal contradictions. It is obviously not enough to explain the past thirty years by simply describing the origin of Chinese contemporary art as a break, or turning point, relative to the art before the end of the Cultural Revolution. This would artificially exclude various factors that were in the air long before. In the narrative of Chinese modern and contemporary art history, this “revolutionary” narrative is transformed into an “avant-gardist” rhetoric, where “avant-garde” emphasizes the confrontation of old versus new ideology. This is overly limited and narrow.
YS: In reading the book, I rediscovered many historical fragments that indeed did exist in those years but have since been seemingly ignored, such as the Beijing Fine Arts Company; the connection between the art spaces; and the interconnections among the artists involved in the exhibition. At once, the development of Chinese contemporary art, usually based on an antagonistic dualism, became rich, complex, contradictory. How do you explain the convergence of these different forces?
LD: The framework of China’s art history and art criticism was established and developed on the basis of positivism since 1919, and along the Marxist model after the founding of New China in 1949. Our research confirmed that the relationship between subjective and objective was simply presupposed, and it became the “general law of history,” a default economic and social determinism. These default rules produce a monotonous and narrow historical perspective and limit our understanding of global art today, to some extent smothering sympathy and sensitivity to history and reality while accelerating the utilitarianism of history. This is harmful to the participants and to us now.
In the study, we examine the various actions of art officials and professionally trained artists who returned to China after the Cultural Revolution and promoted artistic transformation within the system as well as the repercussions and echoes of these actions in society. The research also presents the intersection of independent, non-institutional art practitioners and the official mechanisms of the art world. We analyzed the basic patterns, driving dynamics, and evolutionary processes of art and ideology from 1972 to 1982. Through the introduction of accidental and heterogeneous factors, we considered the multiple trajectories of artistic and political interaction in the larger framework of “national change.”
Armed with these details and materials, we recontextualized the abstracted experiences that are cited today in art discussions. For these “escaped” narratives, the excavation of heterogeneous parts that are not given legitimacy, even ignored and obscured, (re)introduces differences and complexities with existing historical narratives. From this, we have new opportunities to consider the finiteness of historical dynamics of the narrative and to seek a new starting point for thinking.
YS: The complexity of literature and art reminds me of your work Conversations (2010–ongoing), but those dialogues are more contemporary practitioners, whereas Salon Salonis about a historical period. The present book also includes interviews with several artists. What was your experience of this? Looking back at the practice of Chinese art a few decades ago, what is the specific feedback for the present? Does it provide some kind of guidance, or at least useful information, to contemporary artists?
LD: When I started the Conversations in 2010, I mainly invited practitioners from the art world to take part in private conversations. These conversations are embedded in the exhibitions or events I participate in, or in situations or events that are relevant to my thinking. Invitees might include organizers of exhibitions, artists, critics, gallery owners, or directors of art spaces. The talks are always carried out in the context of the space and concept of the exhibition. The participants are limited to myself, the interviewee, and a coordinator—there is no audience, thus eliminating the need for a performance aspect or educational lecture. It’s simply a platform for frank and in-depth discussions, without any compromise. This is a form of autonomous cultural production, a free exchange of thoughts and emotions. It is not a debate, but it is also not about achieving agreement or unity of opinion. It is an opportunity to be together and have face-to-face communication. It’s like a ruler to measure the distance between the art world and me. The only records include a photo of the conversation scene without the presence of the interviewed, a photo of the conversation scene that includes the interviewer, and a short essay written afterward, describing the context of each conversation. In 2011, Carol Yinghua Lu and I curated the exhibition Little Movements: Self-Practice in Contemporary Art at OCAT, Shenzhen, in which we further strengthened the concept of equality in the work Conversations, emphasizing the need to stand on equal perspective in practice, and to understand historical and realistic perspectives. The presentation of this point of view has so far been instructive for our work.
In China, since the 1970s, we have spent more than forty years in relative calm. Compared with political and social life in the twenty years after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the various waves of these forty years seem more like a small hassle. In this period we silently accepted the legacy of various ideologies of the previous two decades, and also incorporated the various experiences brought about by economic reform. Whether we are disgusted, critical, worshippers, or believers in these experiences, all of this is converging. Today our position is vacant, no longer representing any class, nor any doctrine, vision, or political engineering.
The perspective of complete control by the party has covered all the possibilities discussed today, and resistance, collaboration, criticism, and reflection are all planned in the same landscape. They have formed an ideological lingua franca that circulates on a realistic level. Whether we are active or passive, we face a filtered global world and a filtered social reality. Today, this is no longer an illusion and has become a convention. Similarly, in the field of art, we have become an agent of sub-official perspectives and sub-official values without any awareness. When we perform on stage, we have unconsciously become fellow travelers.
YS: In the preface of the book, I read the historians and scolars such as Hans Belting, John Clark, Hong Zicheng, and Wang Hui all expressing sincere thoughts. Such a combination made me feel curious and moved—an art world simply extending its influence to literature and to the contemporary ideological circle of philosophy. Does this affect your work with Carol Yinghua Lu in a way that is not limited to the field of art?
LD: Artists like those you mention are the foundations and paradigms of our work. They have developed a very forward-looking territory in academic circles and often inspire us.
 Little Movements: Self-practice in Contemporary Art, OCAT, Shenzhen (2011); Accidental Message: Art Is Not a System, Not a World, The Seventh Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale, OCAT Shenzhen (2012); From the Issue of Art to the Issue of Position: The Echoes of Socialist Realism, Part I, e-flux Journal, #55, May 2014; Crimes without a Scene: Qian Weikang and the New Measurement Group, e-flux Journal, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015; Salon, Salon: Fine Art Practices from 1972 to 1982 in Profile—A Beijing Perspective, Inside-Out Art Museum, Beijing, 2017.
 Three Performances, Urs Meile Gallery, Beijing, 2014; Prospect 3 Notes for Now, Prospect New Orleans, New Orleans, 2014-2015; Reef: A Prequel, Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, 2016; Li Jianguo Born in 1952, Antenna Space, Shanghai, 2016.
 “Star Cluster” usually means a group of stars, but the term is here employed as a metaphor for comparing every artist and their artistic activities to stars, since between 1972 and 1982 many of them parted ways to the point where there was not much intersection. In order to understand this historic reality, Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu used the star cluster’s structure to start their research and narrative.
 In the first twenty years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, China had experienced a variety of political movements: land reform, anti-rebellion movement, people’s communization, the Great Leap Forward, the anti-rightist movement, among others. The instability in the early days of the founding of the country was intertwined with the international context such as Cold War. In contrast, the social and political life after the reform (1978) was relatively calm.
Liu Ding is a Beijing-based artist and curator. He has participated in many international biennials, including the 2018 Busan Biennale; the 2018 Yinchuan Biennale; the 2015 Istanbul Biennial; the 2015 Asia Pacific Triennial; the 2014 Shanghai Biennial; Prospect 3, New Orleans, 2014; the 2012 Taipei Biennial; the Chinese Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennial; and Media City Seoul, 2008.
Yin Shuai is a curator, based in Milan and Shanghai.