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Observations and Presentiments on ‘After Post-colonialism’

Observations and Presentiments on ‘After Post-colonialism’ by Gao Shiming

Before introducing what we are, I hope to make clear what we are not, what we reject and what we discard.

Farewell to the Post-colonialism is the critical curatorial departure point for the Third Guangzhou Triennial, and a difficult problem for me to address. The curatorial team received critiques from various circles prior to putting forth the topic: For artists in China, it would be difficult to engage the topic in-depth, given that China has no painful history colonialism, no experience of being colonised. Without colonialism, how can we talk about post-colonialism, let alone bid farewell to post-colonialism? For many international artists, this obviously touches on issues of “political incorrectness”, and the rise of the right. For multi-culturists, this represented a regression to colonialism, or a new kind of “super power chauvinism”.

Therefore, the idea of a simple correspondence between post-colonialism and colonial history, and a politicised argument with clear positions are the very things we are attempting to reject. In today’s world, where post-colonialism and its discursive practices are well guarded by “political correctness”, its ideological features are thoroughly exposed. I do not intend to argue against the theories and politics of post-colonialism, but to express a dissatisfaction over the obvious harm to art by the politics and politicisation of art.

First, I want classify the different identities of “post-colonialism”. Post-colonialism is not only an experience, but a discourse; not only a view, but a perspective; not only a discourse, but also an epistemological system and a form of spectatorship. As a system, it operates like a net; it grasps what it can and wants. Sometimes, it even becomes a creative system, infiltrating artists’ minds.

“Post-colonialism” is a discourse at the curatorial level, but as a context, it belongs to every one. However, this context is not the so-called “post-colonial reality” or historical experience of post-colonialism, but rather an institutional and ideological experience. Meanwhile, it is neither a personal theory, idea or identity trait, but a system of spectatorship. Regardless of whether an artist is familiar with or regards post-colonialism, s/he has already been included within its context through visiting or taking part in international exhibitions, cooperating with or confronting curators, and in the process of being read, watched and explained. In this sense, there is no specific post-colonial artist; all artists exist in a post-colonial context.

The proposal for Farewell to Post-colonialism originated from a strong sense of fatigue. Of course, we can still institutionally identify post-colonialism as an experience, discourse, context and ideology. But here, in my own defense, I simply want to identify a basic, perhaps subjective and willful reason, for choosing this topic.

We are not going to discuss the ideology of post-colonial discourse, the “spectacle of politics”, vulgar “identity” or the rubber check multiculturalism of major international exhibitions. They have already been discussed in the past year, in the forums of the Triennial. The answer I seek is the response I should prepare for my colleagues in the art world prior to the opening of the Third Guangzhou Triennial.

So here, I make some tentative observations and presentiments regarding the notion of “after post-colonialism”.

The Ideological Transformation of Post-colonial Discourse

Post-colonialism has earned a place in the enclosed and dominant worldview history of nation-states. It has been integrated with various social movements in the past 40 years and cleared new critical and narrative ground. Its merits are obvious in literature, the arts and politics. However, these merits have quickly degenerated to routines within the last 20 years. For instance, we often see and hear symbolic forms of cultural critique in various international exhibitions and seminars labeled with key terms like: “identity”, “the other”, “translation”, “immigrant”, “migration”, “indigenous”, “difference”, “diversity”, “hegemony”, “marginalisation”, “minority”, “oppression”, “visible-invisible”, “class” and “sex” and so forth. Today, given the existing post-colonial toolkit, these concepts and ideas that once possessed revolutionary critical force have become another form of dominant power discourse, this time, in the name of “political correctness”. The formerly deconstructive and anti-hegemonic critical strategy is setting up its regime, a “regime of the others” within academia. For over a decade, post-colonialism has become an aggregate of theoretical criticism and strategy, a catchall field of discourse and a “politics of discourse”. What this politics of discourse has created is a society formally free but unable to realise, a society that praises difference, but that cannot create difference itself.

Multiculturalism and political correctness⎯from the essence of these things, every one has the right to safeguard himself, and every one should tolerate the others. However, once politicised and transformed into an ideology, diversity and tolerance quickly degrade to cultural relativism, or even cynicism in value, thus constituting the emasculation of the cultural ideal. Politics and capital will quickly occupy the territory upon the retreat of value judgment, while the strategy and operation will naturally be pushed to the frontlines, forming the a hegemony of the managers and tyranny of the others. Unfortunately, it is only the combination of power and self-interest that sustains the industry of major international art exhibitions, endlessly creating the typological stars of multiculturalism and the “post-colonial subject”.

We do not oppose a certain ideology, but the principle of ideology and the various things that are becoming and have become ideologies. Although in reality, this is an impossible task; new ideologies will inevitably continue to spring forth. Ideology is a symbolic system of cognition and expression, a system that expresses, senses, imagines and desires. Ideology renders individuals as social subjects⎯an inevitable function of reality⎯making it difficult to detect, and yet we are covered and drenched in it at all times. It is not the social or historical plan, not Utopia, but the backdrop for our existence. Therefore, we cannot choose to live “outside of ideology” because we are born into it. It is a given. It doesn’t control and provide a narrow political agenda; it is a basic framework to define the relationship between reality and self. It integrates reality, presents reality before our eyes and provides us with an unconscious “second-hand reality”. So, ideology is unconscious; it is an innate person principle. Ideology is what Lacan called the “Big Other”. The only difference is, Lacan’s “Big Other” is a pair of eyes staring from the extreme distance while ideology is an invisible net.

In past decades, post-colonialism gradually wove this invisible net. The Triennial attempts to present those things the net failed to enmesh, the lucky survivors who managed to escape the post-colonial grasp, and it will be the area where popular discourses on post-colonialism and multiculturalism cannot reach.

The Cost of Post-colonialism

The way I see it, the politics and politicisation of art, or perhaps “politicisation of discourse”, are two major problems of post-colonialism and its social practice. It is widely regarded that post-colonialism inherited the critical spirit and social legacy of the Revolution of 1968, along with post-structuralist thought. Yet, this legacy has a cost that remains to be repaid. Critiques of European historic knowledge-power structure put forth by Michel Foucault and the “inter-cultural” conflict posited by Edward Said and subsequent scholars revisit, re-imagine and reform the relationship between history and the self. What we must be wary of is the self-objectification of post-colonialism in the course of this “Western” disclosure and resistance. The worse manifestation of this self-objectification is nationalism and fundamentalism. This is the main regret cited by Said in the preface of Orientalism.
The 1968 Revolution had very different implications in “Western” and “non-Western” contexts. Similarly, post-colonialism takes on completely different meanings within “Western” and “indigenous” contexts. Post-colonialism, as a theoretical discourse and a critical method, entered China 15 years ago. It was the time when people criticised the cultural “Spring Roll”, or “exotic tastes” generated by identity politics. It should be noted that colonial discourse entered China first as Western discourse. It concealed itself for a long period under the guise of Western or anti-Western discourse, and this identity ambiguity made for the peculiar nature of its influence within China. In February of 1995, the journal Twenty-First Century published “The Post Study and the Neoconservative” by American Chinese scholar Zhao Yiheng, and “The Situation of Third World Critique in China” by Xu Ben, which analysed the relationship between post-colonialism, postmodern discourse and domestic conservative thought and the metamorphosis of “Western” post-colonial critique and third world critique in China, respectively. These were profound analyses and critiques of post-colonial discourse by overseas Chinese scholars.
As Davor Dirlic has remarked, post-colonialism emerged in a time when non-Western intellectuals entered Western discourse. Why, then, should overseas Chinese scholars be so vigilant towards post-colonialism?
In the early 1990s, domestic academic circles were busy reflecting on the over-simplistic idealism and cultural criticism of the 1980s. That reflective moment correlated with a shift in the basic ideological understanding 20th Century history by Chinese intellectuals. The introduction of post-colonial discourse hit a sensitive nerve in Chinese contemporary culture. Reflection on the May 4th Movement, probe into various schools of thought including Critical Review, National Culturalism and Neo Confucianism, as well as the cultural nationalists’ “Oriental cultural renaissance”, etc. corresponded closely with the post-colonial discourse that had just entered China and formed an ideological neo-conservatism. Just as Tao Dongfeng pointed out: “Post-colonialism is a radical, marginalised, anti-official and anti-institutionalized political-cultural discourse, but this criticism and radicalism cannot remain forever intact upon entering a social cultural context different from the West. On the contrary, they may have a vague and interconnected relationship with the mainstream culture and the existing system”.

In Chinese art circles, post-colonial discourse takes the form of resistance against the so-called “Western” perspective of the late 1990s, and the emphasis on the indigenous, Chinese nature and modernity. As Xu Ben wrote: “The core of China’s post-colonial critique is indigenous rather than anti-oppression, or rather it only opposes the oppression of the first world, not the oppression of local culture”. Post-colonial discourse has “anti-oppression” connotations in the European and American intellectual world, but becomes an enemy of the cultural left in China, a country with a century’s history of the left. The other and the left, the left and the right, the oppressor and the oppressed always maintain ambiguous relationships. Regarding this, China had a painful experience in the 20th Century. As a matter of fact, in both China and modern Western society, traditional political classification, whether left or right, freedom or autarchy, is no longer clear. Totalitarianism and democratic politics interchange quickly, communism transforms into radical racism (take ethnic cleansing in Serbia, for instance), neo-fascism and chauvinism emerge in Europe⎯all these indicate the complexity of modern politics is far beyond any explanations offered by popular theories.

Anxiety of Return

Upon returning and awaking in his home island of Ithaca, no one recognized Odysseus, nor could he recognise his home. Athena had to appear and confirm that it was, indeed, Ithaca.

Said, a great master of post-colonial critic, described his cultural background as a series of irrevocable displacements and homelessness, as he was always between two cultures. He mentioned regression on several occasions, saying: “For me, the true return is up in the air”. Indeed, the key subject of post-colonialism is separation and return. For Said, regression means a return to himself, to history, thus enabling us to truly understand what happened, why it happened and who we are. Efforts have been made to establish a common sense of purpose on the ruins of national history. This is an anxiety of root seeking, an anxiety of return.

In the novel Roots by Alex Haley, the protagonist returns to a remote African village to seek his ancestral roots, but is not accepted by the villagers. Roots is the modern version of The Odyssey, altered by Western power discourse and colonial history. After a 300-year vagrancy, the hero who returns home finds a worse fate than Odysseus. In order to avoid being recognised by his fellow villagers, the latter disguises himself as a beggar, while the former is involuntarily transformed by modern culture—his fellow villagers surround him, looking at an “American with black skin”. He realises he is of mixed-blood. In a crowd of pureblooded people, he is made aware of his own impurity, and feels ashamed. He has nothing left, save for a few words in his mother tongue.

Roots is turned into a tasteful comedy by New Zealand artist Daniel Malone who Assumes the character of the returnee. Many scenes of The Lord of the Rings, completed from 1999 to 2001, were shot in New Zealand. The films had a great impact on New Zealand’s national identity and sense of national recognition. Upon the international release of The Lord of the Rings, the entire country of New Zealand began to engage in a form of “cosplay”. Things ranging from airline advertisements to tourist brochures extended the fantasy of the film into real life. On the new tourist map, many towns that had been used as film sites for The Lord of the Rings were renamed according their film names, even though these very places had only recently been renamed their aboriginal names in the post-colonial period after its independence.

To me, this is a pertinent example of an attempt to engage with problems of post-colonial narrative and identity. A film can alter the way identity is imagined, creating an utterly new symbolic system. This is different from the residences of Joyce’s fictional heroes that have been established by the city of Dublin for touristic purposes. The nationwide cosplay in New Zealand confirms not only the film’s egocentricity—by turning the “end of the world” geographically into the “central land” fictionalised in the film⎯but more practically, and more importantly, its publicity effect and business and tourism opportunities. This New Zealand footnote in the making of the The Lord of the Rings reveals two realities: First, we live in a time when reality imitates fiction. Today, colonialism is no longer between different races and cultures, but between media and reality; the virtual world is colonising the real world. Second, this story sheds light on the vulnerability of so-called cultural identity in a post post-colonial world. It is no longer the cultural “root” post-colonialism seeks, nor the rhizome that keeps generating new centres, as mentioned by Gilles Deleuze. After post-colonialism, “identity” is just an artificial limb in the cultural political game, itself an illusion and a desire simulated from fiction, a perpetually self-generating and renewing pseudo-myth for global business, public media and tourism.

“I have the feeling that Edward Said’s idea of ‘Orientalism’ is coming full circle,” observed curator Francesco Bonami in a forum for the Triennial in November last year. “The Orient is back, transformed or maybe as an invention of the Orient itself. The brand of a watch, which I bought in China, but was manufactured in Japan, is ‘Orient’ and was made not for the Western market, but for the local consumer, indicating that the idea of being the ‘real’ Orient is an amusing one for people in Asia”. Indeed, from Roots to The Lord of the Rings, we find that the social features of post-colonialism have changed on an every-day life level; we have no reason to become entangled in unreliable historical roots when the memory of colonialism has been shelved away in the back of our minds by a surging and constantly updated reality. (How can we prove that infatuation with identity and historic injuries are not a form of ideological inertia?) The former “post-colonial principle” is generating new contemporary art (even if the creations are based on a “self-other-isation”); it is a mixed creation composed of global capital, public culture, mass media and artistic experience.

After post-colonialism, history is in the future. As long as we eradicate metaphysical pathos, we will no longer care about who we used to be, only who we will be. After post-colonialism, there will be no anxiety for the return, because existence will have unfolded onto different interfaces⎯we cannot and need not return.

The Society Under Siege of Political Spectacle

After post-colonialism, the main task for the artist is to escape from over-politicised international art sites. In contemporary art, the biggest problem brought forth by post-colonialism and multiculturalism is the politicisation of art. Of course, this is related to the change of modern politics itself. In the last 40 to 50 years, politics has gradually freed itself from the national framework, and entered our daily lives. Reality is fragmented, society and daily life inhabit the form of a series of conflicts and reality has been deconstructed into a mosaic of clashes among different ideas. Politics is dismantled while normalised. The mirror of reality has been smashed; we are no longer able to reach the centre or edge of the mirror. The main picture is the crack in the mirror of expression; that is the inner domain of daily life. What we see from the broken mirror is no longer reality in its entirety, but fragments of reality overlapping each other; it is feminist and andro-centrist, Western and non-Western, black and white, homosexual and heterosexual. Reality is expressed by new social movements and post-colonial theory as the ideological movement comprised by a series of centre and periphery, visible and invisible.

Contemporary art has engaged with society and various social movements over the past 40 years. What has resulted is not only political art, but also artistic politics. In the field of contemporary art, words such as strategy and power are used loosely and vaguely both out of love and hatred. Has art activism degenerated into a “pseudo-representative regime” in major international exhibitions? What has this bogus and superficial representative regime brought to art and politics, other than “political spectacle” in major international exhibitions?

Today, in a highly media-intensive society, our real political situations become increasingly more complex. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman used the phrase “society under siege” to describe our current situation. “Society under siege” refers not only to individual social politics, but also the nightmarish totalitarianism described by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, and the invisible power control as analysed by Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault. In a “society under siege”, individuals are endowed with formal political freedom, but the freedom is never realised⎯individuals are most receptive to a representative relationship that is meticulously managed because politics, power and freedom have all been mediated. The Big Brother in the film 1984 became a TV program in 1999; Big Brother is no longer a mythic ruler, he is a composite of many invisible people⎯a fictional public created by mass media. Politics is a collective, effective and visible action, a collective presence. However, such collective action has resulted in politic’s debasement and penchant towards entertainment. Politics should have a critical and practical effect on reality, but has become a spectacle of representation, performance and even degenerated to management⎯a system of maintenance and preservation.

“Society under siege” is a world besieged by life politics, a world where one cannot discern the individual from society, the self from others, the authors from spectators. It is also a world of institutionalized knowledge formation, a strange place without distance and a world without myths or unknown things. At the same time, it is also a world thoroughly open to and monitored by Google Earth and GPS, a “world without exteriors”. In such a world, Odysseus will never find his way home, because all the fundamental things have changed, his return route is a wrong route, and his hometown is a strange land.

How can we resist a society under siege and a difficult reality? How do we escape from a world dominated by auditing and management and the stagnant pool of pluralism to avoid the rubber check of freedom?

While mass media brings human beings into a globalised life, it has also created a pluralistic living environment—after post-colonialism, multiple realities and pluralistic histories have become personal experience we can really feel, and this has opened a new space for us.

The Anxiety of Creation

If we say that the anxiety of post-colonialism is the anxiety of return, then what individuals will suffer after post-colonialism is the anxiety of creation.

Put simply, in active practice, post-colonialism means critique, negotiation and the brokerage of value judgments; it is social intervention on the institutional and political levels. In its passive form, post-colonialism is listening, unlocking and making available space blocked by cultural difference, learning from others and self-enlightenment. Whether active or passive, as a cultural practice, post-colonialism is far from channeling ethical and political burdens into true creative energy (but has simply provided some good excuses and reasons). It is more appropriate to say that it has removed and eliminated the problem of art making. In fact, it is post-colonialism’s addiction to cultural politics that causes it to neglect the changes taking place in every-day life and the potential impetuses these changes have on the art experience.

Today, technological developments in media and virtual reality have given us new passions and life experiences. Hyper-reality, fictional history and Second Life have all gradually formed a new experience of the “subject”, a substitutive living world.10 Today, daily life challenges the myth of art creation with unprecedented richness and imagination. Discussions of diversity and difference have long moved beyond the scope of race, culture, sex and class, no longer restricted by these obvious identity dividers. Virtual networks, remote monitoring and real time technology have changed our experience of identity; diversified living environments mean more than colourful ethnic mingling, but also the existence of one life in multiple worlds and sites. Today, heterogeneous existence does not mean living with others, but also amidst diversity. It is a personal, existential thought experiment, a solo march towards strange new realms.

We used to always say that life is more vigorous, more imaginative, more absurd and more incredible than art. In a world that is constantly expanded and supplemented by the media, life takes the form of multiple realities. In the multi-reality world of virtual networks, diversity and difference have been internalized, and “possible worlds” all around us.11 “La vie est ailleurs” by Authur Rimbaud, Ernst Bloch’s “daydream” and the surrealist’s “alternative world” and transcendental experience are all things promised by art that can be easily realized through modern technology and virtual space. What, then, is the true significance and implications of artistic transcendence? Can contemporary art engage in-depth with various social and political issues to jumpstart the exploratory journey of artistic creation? Would that be a regression to early modernism, or the lost way after post-colonialism?

The Ruin of the Tower of Babel

In the past year and a half, the curatorial team of the Triennial moved forward in incessant discussion (even debate). We reflected on post-colonial discourse and multiculturalism in regard to politics; we discussed the “spectacle of discourse”, the “ideological readymade” and “undigested reality” in a curatorial context of art making; we also discussed the living environment in a society besieged by politics of life and social management systems. We analysed the “present modes of possible worlds” and gradually shifted focus to the problem of “possible worlds” and the “current state of creativity”, both main concerns of artists as well as existential issues confronted by the individual in daily life.

Of course, the Triennial is primarily a reflection on the exhibition experience and its “internationalism”. The questioning of the international exhibition platform is not new. In 2007, a book titled The Next Documenta Should Be Curated by An Artist was released at the opening of Documenta 12 in Kassel. It alluded to the fact that artists’ discontent with curatorial practice had reached an intolerable capacity, compelling one to ask: What, exactly, are artists dissatisfied with? Are they unsatisfied with the international exhibition system, the spectacle of discourse, or the plethora of euphemistic cultural-political strategies deployed in curatorial practices?

All these troubles seem to stem from the “international” element. However, for contemporary artists, what kind of space is considered “international”?

On this “international” platform of contemporary art, we are working and living within the historical influences of post-colonialism. The departure point for our thought process is a “complete” multicultural context. Each culture and artist shoulders a different art history, while the clues and narratives in each art history are said to be legitimate. Art history has plenty of sources; contemporary art moves and circulates around the world, continuously creating different versions of local narratives. Under such a situation, how can we redefine “creation” in a complex, non-linear historical view? If the key issue of post-colonialism in international curatorial practice is negotiating value, then is the final value based on a consensus? Or rather, do we need to reach a consensus? Can the consensus eliminate difference?

Heraclitus wrote: “For those who are awake there is a single, common universe, whereas in sleep each person turns away into (his) own private (universe)”. According to Heraclitus, a person who is asleep is someone who remains beyond the logos (“dialogue”). He thought the mission of thought was to awake sleepers slipping into individual dreams and summon them to the world of common logos. Today, it is noted that the international exhibition is one such gathering and platform for dialogue, where differences emerge and are presented. However, in a time when individual identities are institutionally mediated and fabricated, it is more appealing to be a sleeper in a world full of those who are awake. But we have no way of determining whether we are sleeping while awake, or among the waking sleepers.

Each international exhibition promises to set up a platform for dialogue, but why still dialogue after so many years of dialogue? Why is dialogue necessary? Are we really creating dialogue, or are we simply performing dialogue? Aside from the spectacle of discourse, what else does dialogue have to offer? A ruin of the Tower of Babel piled upon discourses?