Jingyuan: Art does not come from the commonly romanticized "poetry and distant destinations", nor does it lead to "purity", it is a physical struggle
Interview completed on July 22, 2022
Editor: Emma Lee Images: provided by interviewee
In media circles, people like to say "journalism is no study", meaning that there is no such discipline as "journalism", and that journalism must involve all other disciplines in order to produce news that is meaningful and valuable. In other words, one needs to be erudite, to analyze and write about issues in an interdisciplinary axis. In the contemporary art world, Jingyuan is one of the people I have come across who really puts "learn wide, inquire hard" from “Doctrine of the Mean” into practice, questioning and interrogating reality through her art practice and publication projects, interacting with individuals in an ever-improving interdisciplinary logic and way of work, bringing everyday life into experimental practices and experimental practices into everyday life. The Beacon's value is "to help each other as individuals", and we will try to understand how Jingyuan puts "Learn wide, inquire hard, think carefully, distinguish clearly, and act honestly" from “Doctrine of the Mean” into her daily work with ten questions.
Q1: Do you believe in Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, or Christianity? What books are you reading lately? What music do you listen to?
A: I don't specialize in Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism or Christianity, nor do I have any in-depth insights, but recently I have noticed from my students that there is a demand for religion in a broad sense, or rather, some references to originality and complex insights have been "religionized". “Religiosity" in this context means "being proliferated in a more exclusive way after being simply popularized" – but this seems a bit demeaning to religion. For example, in the public interest community a certain combination of discourses such as nonviolent communication (in this case, the new discourses have been modified, not the original ones) is gaining popularity. Behind this popularity is the unsettling of feelings and desires, political depression, and a sense of powerlessness. And behind these emotions is the contradiction squeezed out by the development model of China in the past decades. What is this development model? It is essentially a large transaction: the state promises and bestows some material pluralism on the people in exchange for their tacit disinterest in the political system. Going back to religion, in the course of history, it should have created and precipitated some deep understanding of human beings. From the level of "changing" and "unchanging", understanding religion should be the same as understanding current affairs and the people around us, not in name, but in depth and presence.
I've been reading a lot of books lately, all related to a recent project of mine. In 2020, I was invited by a community foundation to teach a writing class to adults in one of their programs for migrant children. The people there include volunteers recruited by the community, volunteers who create the lesson plans (mostly full-time moms from different walks of life), and front-line social workers. In order to get to know my participants, I went through many books that I would not normally read, or need not to read (such as books from the Fandeng book club, and mediocre motivational “chicken soup” and “how to achieve success” books). In order to prepare for the class, I also paid for some courses to try to find an easier way to understand the more complex issues (such as The Republic's "Global History from China"). In the class, I guided students through the material and information, introduced some content that these groups would not otherwise actively touch on, invited guests to talk about media literacy, and so on. But in the process, I discovered that after addressing the information channels and exposure, there is still the issue of reading ability: reading a book doesn’t mean one read the book. So, in order to understand these current situations, I read a lot of books on education and political science. I'm still reconceptualizing concepts because there's a lot of conceptual confusion among my students, for example, diversity and inclusion are supposed to be good references, but they may use this to rationalize social reality; for example, they may say that the injustice encountered by migrant children is also a form of diversity, and they may say that it is important to be inclusive of social injustice.
I don't really agree that knowledge fragmentation necessarily brings problems – this is not the source of the problem. Sometimes I would select a few book clubs, join in and observe them and choose a good one to attend. This process has convinced me that methods and paths matter. This reading habit is not desirable if you follow the standards of many parents.
I've actually kind of given up on the music appeal – I've already become very critical of color and form. However, music (pop songs) has entered our lives in interesting ways lately, such as when an artist's songs are suddenly all taken off the shelves or boycotted, when an artist is questioned about whether they are patriotic enough, etc. Recently, I have been paying attention to songs like "Fragile Heart" and "Unfortunately Not You". Also, some of my friends are doing an interesting combination of music band and environmental awareness, which I support. Art does not come from the commonly romanticized "poetry and distant destinations", nor does it lead to "purity", it is a physical struggle.
Q2: How has the pandemic changed the way you work?
A: During the pandemic, the fifth episode of the "Writing Mothers" project was published. Unlike the previous four episodes, this compilation focuses on the journey and emotional world of migrant women workers, specifically in the context of the plight brought on by the pandemic, and is titled "The Pandemic that Lives in Kinship". Totaling more than 100,000 words, the book compiles seven texts by four women workers, as well as four essays in response written by people from different walks of life. In addition to the text, the book is accompanied by eighteen illustrations created by the women workers. It is so named because the poison contained in "kinship" is comparable to the relentless pandemic. This naming also reflects my view: isn't the pandemic actually an enhanced version of our original world?
Cover design of "The Pandemic that Lives in Kinship"
Illustrations created by women workers
COVID has obviously changed the way I travel, the time I spend with my husband, the time I spend with my parents, the type of friends I have, and so on. I don't have a particular story. I think we've been living in some kind of "pandemic" for a long time: discrimination, aggression, surveillance, martial law… A lot of things have become more visible in the name of COVID prevention, cowardice became more apparent.
Our industry has always been extremely dependent on mobility – international exhibitions, art residencies, etc., so the sense of China's increasing seclusion from the world is evidently felt by us. In addition, my relationship with some of the participants – by participants I mean some of the usual communicators in the “Writing Mothers” program, who come from different walks of life – has been torn apart by different views on the policies and the source of COVID. It was not the right echo chamber to talk about current affairs. This kind of tearing has actually happened to many of my friends: parents who used to be able to communicate have slowly turned into "wolf warriors" in the past three years.
Another direct impact is that I started to offer writing classes as a way of work (before that, I only did writing projects, not writing classes), which were held in two NGOs in 2020 and 2021, and now in a foundation, one session per year for about six months. The process of running writing classes has profoundly influenced my experiences and ideas: I can see texts and people interact and influence each other up close and in person, one-on-one, in a collective, in the same time dimension.
Q3: What artists are you following in which cities lately? What do you think is the way out for visual arts?
A: I don't have the concept of cities in my head anymore, only green health-code and PCR test – they are the real boundaries now. Recently, I am possibly focusing more on artists and curators involving in community work.
– Do visual arts need a "way out"?
Q4: Is "locality/field-based work" the most important thing to you?
A: It depends on how you define it. When I was compiling my resume the other day – it's been 3 years since I did that, I counted 8 or 9 art residencies in my career – but of course, I'm against hurried and cursory observations, and superficial understandings.
The art industry's recent reference to "locality/field-based work" may be highlighting the problems with art or art discourse on the market: too performative, too symbolic, with a gaze perspective, not deep enough, exploitative in the relationship with the viewer, etc. I agree with this, but I also have some reflections on locality from my field of locality.
The basis of my reflections comes from three field experiences: the first is my two recent residencies in the countryside, a place I am relatively unfamiliar with and have very few good entry points; the second is the book “The Pandemic that Lives in Kinship”, which brought me into very intensive contact with the migrant women worker community; and the third is that I have also recently come into contact with many social workers (some of whom are my trainees and some of whom I actually visit and have work contacts with). The combination of these three experiences has made me think about some new questions: Are the people who have experienced the situation more capable of narrating and more credible? Are the views and experiences of those on the front lines richer? When the youth were structurally sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, did people from different walks of life merge and see each other in depth at the level of knowledge production and practice as a result? In contrast, I now believe that it is the depth and sharpness that is important; the ability to seriously confront complex realities, regardless of identity or path, is to be cherished. The question now is, who will assess and protect the courage of these direct confrontations, these deep inquiries, and how not to succumb to the tyranny of the majority?
Q5: I read your opinion on the "Statement on the 3rd Qinghai Biennale" in the interview on ARTFORUM, where you talked about the "Art in the Countryside" projects that have been flourishing in China in recent years. However, most of them put the cart before the horse in terms of "art" and "countryside". You have also studied in depth from the perspective of cultural construction and artistic counterattack. Can you tell us more about it?
A: The article on ARTFORUM is about how local artists without resources may need to give up their myths and find their relationship with their communities in the edge-center tension field. The article mentions "art counterattack" to emphasize that art is actually (and can be) counter-cultural.
In the area of rural construction, many absurd things have happened; artistic interventions are also mixed and not even easy to judge; some projects aggravate this absurdity, while others may confront and challenge it. I have recently read some books on rural construction and learned that rural construction itself has a long history, and there is also debate on the different paths. The more I read, the more I realize that I know too little about it, so I can't talk about it in more depth here from such perspective. I can, however, talk about a recent art residency in a village where I lived and worked along with the villagers.
Before I arrived in this village, the foundation had already spent tens of millions on the village, and one of the projects was to hire a famous designer to build a cultural hall. However, for various reasons, this building was generally rejected by the villagers. What was even more ridiculous, this place had received many book donations before, and now that the cultural hall had been built, it is logical that a library should be set up in the cultural hall to alleviate the situation of scarce educational resources. But this logical thing didn't happen, and the books ended up in the warehouse, and the cultural center was still locked.
I observed this problem during my residency and "designed" my work to build friendships with the village children in my own way, guiding them to "manage" and "start" the cultural center, and together with the social worker, I facilitated a villagers' meeting to urge the village cadres and villagers to move the books out of the warehouse. When the foundation invited me, this was not the "art" that they wanted. At that time, they had two internal expectations, one was to make a nice sculpture or something like that, and the other was to stimulate the "villagers' subjectivity" by side. The first expectation is obviously the ordinary people's imagination and instrumentalization of art, while the second expectation is the more common lyricism and conservatism of the public service industry – without facing the problems and divisions of the villagers, they already started to imagine the "villagers' subjectivity".
In the process of correcting these two imaginations, I felt a great sense of powerlessness and frustration, and millions of resources were wasted under this logic. Fortunately, I am not overly invested in these professions and jobs that have no control over values, or I would have to witness such waste and self-waste on a daily basis. The staff at the foundation are probably used to this, so they didn't react as much as I did. They probably knew from day one and accepted the reality that the starting point of the project was to clean up the government's mess.
"Eyes of the Village – Huangzitang Art Residency Project Report Exhibition"
Q6: In your creation and work, how do you present the civilization/brutality of society towards individuals?
A: I think "to present" may not be the right verb. Art needs to have a value and a sense of meaning, which means that the relationship between art and an issue cannot stay at the level of "presenting and being presented". "Presenting" defaults to an existing issue, and then the artist has to make it more visible. But artistic work can also include clarifying the issue, obscuring or deconstructing it, or even making it more absurd. The means here is highly personal and non-instrumental.
For example, in the "Writing Mothers" project, we focus on writing to help individuals recover some of their capacity to see their place in the larger history and social history again. This project, which began in July 2017, is a co-writing project for the Chinese context, divided into seasons, with a collection of texts published each year by participating editors and facilitators including publisher Feng Junhua and curator Wang Yamin. For example, the first season involved eight writers, totaling more than 28,000 words, and was mainly in dialogue; the second season involved seven writers, combining epistolary and critical writing, totaling more than 27,000 words; the third season centered on a civil servant's description of his day, with more than fifty participants going back and forth, resulting in 33 public letters, totaling more than 82,000 words; the fourth season used a high school teacher's teaching diary and a question and answer session about his life experience as the core text, and invited more than ten people to discuss and write about the topic of "education"; the fifth season is the "Writing Mothers" project introduced earlier. The publication of this project is currently undertaken by myself and "51 People".
Publications of the "Writing Mothers" project
The topic of "motherhood" can be individual or collective. It is chosen because mothers and family relations are intense subjects in different times and fields; and this intensity is so extensive that it is often given a two-way silence in both private life and national politics. Specifically, in the Chinese context, it deals first with generational issues: we will inevitably glimpse the specific impact of socialist culture on individuals in different generations; secondly, it deals with issues of territorial experience, such as the impact of period-specific isolation/mobility on the family, the mutability and immutability of class within it, etc.; and finally, it deals with an infrequent focus on emotional structures and gender tensions.
The project uses the term "mother" to emphasize the parts of the project that are shared by the participants, and the participants and readers can understand "writing about mothers" as the source of the writing, and it does not matter whether or not they write about a particular mother, or whether they write about mothers. Language and thought are mutually stimulating circuits, and genre maps the deepest effects of cumulative historical writing on individuals. On a larger level, "Writing Mothers" wants to use "mother/family" as a unit to connect various possible historical subjects, both once and now. In the course of the past projects, we have witnessed participants confront, compensate for, and counter the passivity of history by consciously creating new genres.
Q7: Chinese education lacks basic concepts of "human being", "being human", "respect", "love", and "faith". Do you pay attention to this aspect in your daily work? How do you fill the gaps? Do you have any imagination about the advancement of art (public) education in China?
A: This question is probably the closest to my daily work and challenges. It's a bit big, but I probably understand what kind of reality you're referring to: there is no basic liberal, humanistic, consensual education, and instead there is an ideology-driven education, an education that doesn't promote thinking. For example, a master's graduate still cannot tell what is fact and what is opinion, what is propaganda and what is art, and so on.
Let me start by telling you how I landed on education. There are publications and workshops and exhibitions in the "Writing Mothers" program, but in general I feel that the distance between the creator and the audience is too great in the art field; in this setting, I rarely get to know my audience directly and interact with them in depth. Public welfare is more direct to people and communities, so I had some contact with them. But then I felt that it was less involved and too service-oriented. Finally, I settled on education, or more specifically, public and community education using art as a means.
But the scope of this is also large, and there are already many people doing it, so it is necessary to make a distinction here. As I said earlier when talking about the pandemic, I have run writing classes since 2020 for different classes of people in different institutional settings. One of the more consistent and large-scale ones was a writing class for adult participants of a foundation that started in 2021. These invitations were based on my identity research and findings from the “Writing Mothers” project, and I continued non-institutional writing at the same time. In the process, I also started a new project, "Sweating," which is a free writing and drawing mentoring program for migrant women workers. For these projects, I hope to promote the awakening and development of individual subjectivity through the examination and creation of language (written and visual) and the reset of cultural and educational resources.
The way I work is that for every project I receive (including educational projects), I first collect the current situation, then identify the problems, and finally summarize the future direction. I have seen too many cases of failure, and many big projects are just a group of people without direction, just like my residency in the countryside mentioned earlier. The initiator took it for granted that the villagers would benefit from the investment in infrastructure and could expect to improve their spiritual world; they took it for granted that if they worked for the villagers, they were helping them; they took it for granted that the intervention must be top-down.
When it comes to understanding the current situation, the fourth episode of "Writing Mothers" is devoted to education (the paper collection has not yet been published), and it begins with a selection of articles reflecting the current situation of various types of education: public universities in the United States, some problems encountered by university teachers in Europe, study-abroad agencies, art training in the West, rural teacher networks, home schooling, spontaneous personal education, etc. Through such research and editing, readers can see a reality of education: different classes and groups believe in different kinds of education. For example, for "rural people", they would disparage themselves as "uneducated", so going to college is a sign of being educated (of course, rural people are also divided into two categories, those who "think education is important" and those who "think education is not important"); for more enlightened families, studying abroad is considered "gold plating", but for slightly more conservative families, studying abroad is foreign trash, and it may be more dignified to take the civil service exam; for those who follow the international trend, they will value Ivy League schools, but for more resourceful families, Ivy League is too "correct" and Elon Musk is cooler; for more rebellious families, they may be willing to choose a tradition like "Black Mountain College", ignoring Musk and not participating in the law of the jungle; while for the more religiously influenced families, they may have their own lineage or even community logic in their choices.
The second reality of education is that there is very little dialogue between these choices, and the polarities on this whole picture are even more surprising: while parents of migrant children in China struggle to score points for access to schooling (which is supposed to be a civic right), parents of children on the other side of the world spend the same amount of effort avoiding schooling; while left-behind children swipe their cellphones without any control or guidance, children on the other side of the world are learning about creativity and even getting into programming through systematic online education. The same terms, "school" and "cellphone," carry and represent completely different resources for people of different abilities.
The third reality of education is that hybrid education is more common than we think. A person is primarily judged by the education he identifies with, not necessarily where he is educated.
Aware of this, what “Writing Mothers” Season 4 is trying to do is dispel as many myths as possible by juxtaposing the concerns of these different types of people. I imagine that if one has a chance to understand the whole picture, the standards and inner problems, one will stop being envious, stop following blindly, stop limiting oneself, and find that education is something one can actively participate in. For example, reflecting on China's college entrance examination system can turn a relatively low-discursive education into a source of discernment, finding that there is no system that can give everything, and that everything needs to be built by individuals.
More crucially, all these things are actually something that can be built by individuals – this is the direction I output after understanding, analyzing and showing the current situation in many aspects. This possibility is divided into two main points: first of all, objectively, almost all the teaching materials that a person needs to grow up can now be found on the Internet – although there are not many in the simplified Chinese world, but it is still possible to find them with a bit of effort and brains; in other words, objectively, there is no monopoly of educational resources, and it can also be a thing of low economic cost. Secondly, along with this objective open source, it has increased the demand in the ability to find and judge information – many scholars also say that the Internet has actually widened the knowledge divide, rather than narrowing it in general perception. Understanding these two points, the way out for (public) education is clear.
In my writing class at the foundation, one of the components of the six-month course is to invite participants to watch serious, "experimental" art films that they don't normally watch (for artists, these would still be mainstream, just international mainstream). I am not trying to train artists, nor do I even care if the participants become art lovers. From the beginning I was only clear on one point: reality is complex. Later, this seemed to open a Pandora's box.
In terms of concrete implementation, the resistance encountered came mainly from the will of individuals. For example, critiquing and thinking are everyday matter for me and a process that makes me happy and grow; but for many participants it is very foreign and they do not consider thinking to be their own business (something that "you want me to do, but I may not be happy to do"). In order to understand how the ability to think is diminished or even lost, I spent some time getting to know my children and talking to some observant parents. I found that it doesn't matter whether human nature is good or bad, but rather that "in nature", people give normal feedback when they actively observe. This means that many abilities are taken away or given up later in life, and that active observation and positive feedback are necessary to maintain independent thinking. Therefore, my educational program (writing class) will abandon the educational threshold and other conditions – literacy and cellphone ability is sufficient, and abandon many categories, and place the content and focus only on the following two areas:
1. Learn to observe, to "see reality". First of all, it is necessary to be aware of the reality that is not separated from the narrative mode and the medium of reproduction. Again, the process of seeing reality involves understanding the history of the system, understanding the structure behind the problem, understanding multiple existences, etc. Not all first-person accounts are reality; there is a richer and deeper reality.
2. Feedback on learning, ensuring quality and continuous feedback, is at the heart of the educational process. As long as this is in place, form, etc., is a minor issue.
This process of observation and feedback is to encourage each person to form their own language, and then to grow and exchange language with each other. If these two things can be done, combined with the possibility of filtering resources as mentioned above, education can be completely self-organized without relying on institutions.
Of course, this is theoretical, and my writing classes, in terms of results, cannot influence people who don't want to think – who refuse to see reality for various reasons, or who are unable to give feedback – and they are even very annoyed by me. But with people who already have the seeds of thinking, the effect is more obvious.
For people who don't want to think, the reasons are probably these: the pain of thinking is greater than the pain of maintaining the status quo. This reason is usually not on the surface, the surface is the "pseudo reasons", that is, "low self-esteem". "Pseudo" here is not that such an emotion is not real, but that because it is so common, it can no longer be used as a yardstick to describe any aspect of a project. The magic key to fixing low self-esteem here is not in comforting, but in whether one realizes that: 1) thinking is one's own business, and 2) one allows oneself to start over in interaction with the outside world. These two aspects are the watershed of consciousness for people who participate in my educational programs: if at some point in a writing class, these two realizations occur, the rest of the interaction will be very natural.
Another quality of non-thinkers is that they do want to solve problems in their lives; I have not met a single non-thinking but happy person, no matter how perfect they seem; I have, instead, met quite a few people who live full lives because they think, no matter how overwhelmingly busy they seem. By combining the two aspects above, the problem of willingness is solved: linking the problems of the ego (life's dilemmas) to the larger world (the picture that requires thinking to understand), and putting the growth of the ego into the scene of public service. By putting life story writing at the end of the three panels in my writing class, I hope that we can talk about the experience of low self-esteem and the experience of family of origin in greater depth once we have defined the rights and obligations of the ego and the larger world.
Having said that, I think what I propose is still very micro, and I cannot make any macro proposal for the time being, or rather, macro solution is not an appropriate idea in itself, because it is not based on trusting and encouraging everyone as a starting point.
Q8: You have said that "the teacher of art" continues the focus of your work: the question of the individual's political imagination. The Western teaching is that "Everything is about power" and "Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you (Pericles)". But the reality is that Chinese people are not even physically liberated from realpolitik. How did you create your work with this focus in mind?
A: The West is a big concept and there are a lot of doctrines in it.
I've recently been reading a French high school philosophy textbook (five volumes in the full set, Taiwanese rendition), thinking about the subject, morality, politics, culture, reason and the true path to enlightenment. As many WeChat articles have pointed out, compared to this kind of enlightenment, the writing assignments of Chinese college entrance exam are just mediocre!
Regarding "Chinese people are not even physically liberated from realpolitik", I think the reality is even more cruel than that: the body is partially liberated – the days of bound feet or uniform wear are over, and now you can wear high heels; however, the mainstream view is that the continued pursuit of material things is what leads to more physical liberation, along with a massive abandonment of the spirit. It is not my intention to discuss the dichotomy between material and spirit, as this dichotomy is itself the result of domestication ("Can you feed on democracy?" "Where is the spirit without the material?") My work addresses this "domestication" and its consequences.
First of all, let's discuss the topic of "Chinese people", although it is a bit big, but I can still talk about my impressions. Personally, I feel that the biggest peculiarity of Chinese people is the concept of "common people", which generally contains two sets of narratives when it is applied to individuals: 1, I can't do anything (can be an excuse, or can be helpless); 2, (if it is an excuse) but I can live my small life; (if it is helpless) so I expect a good government or a special person to solve the problems of my small life. In short, there is always a "small life" to live, and this is how the duties and rights of "citizens" in the civilized world are forfeited.
Then, what do the "common people" think their own values are? Since so many people say so, let's see how "survival" is "impossible". After carefully investigating the specific reference of this "survival", we can find that its subject can be roughly divided into the following two categories: 1) those who already own properties, they are worried about mortgage or collapse of property market, etc.; 2) grassroot workers, with no pension, no health insurance. Except in rare cases, what they call "survival" is not the most basic subsistence – the state has also said that we have fully entered the well-off phase, but endless self-imposed social standards. For the first group of people, these self-imposed standards may be plastic surgery, WeChat Moment comparison, or what school the children go to, etc. For the second group of people, it is the son’s dowager, the grandchildren’s lucky money, the loan for building a house in the hometown, and the debt owed by a family member for gambling. Here, they all ignore the most basic problem: the understanding of "survival" actually comes from the "spirit".
Based on these two types of people, the aforementioned question of "whose business is thinking" is well answered: "Certainly not mine". I do not believe in this narrative from the beginning to the end, of course, if you just do not believe without practical work, it doesn’t help. So, there was the "Sweating" project I mentioned earlier, a free project to teach women from rural areas (especially those who come to work in the city) to write and draw. Most of my participants (students) started out with zero skills in drawing, and by showing them how much progress they could make and how much they could draw, along with the guidance in writing and reading, they slowly see that "achieving some small personal dreams" is not something that has to wait until the whole family get married, have children, buy a house, and buy a car, as the class narrative goes. Moreover, it is not something that only educated people can do. After they are ready to create, I also bring them to different circles of friends and let them interact with people who were not in their lives, and some of them even end up becoming friends. Practice has proven that once they step outside of mainstream social standards, they also stop believing in the material/spirit narrative, thus gaining more emotional space and the power to disobey their surroundings.
Practice also tells me that people who are richer and have more stable social status (such as those with pensions and health insurance) do not necessarily have good cultural judgment and value choices, so people who are "less educated" can actually become teachers for these people with their own stories of awakening. In this way, people from different social groups can give and receive material and spiritual exchange. The role of art here is to make the workers on the assembly line not to sew clothes repeatedly, but to be the designer of their own clothes and earn several times more wages in this way. Of course, those who can do this are partial cases; it was clear to me from the beginning that this course is about realizing these imaginings a little by imagining your life. I have no illusion of massive success, but on a case-by-case basis, my program is no worse than the expensive "success courses" that promise superficial gains.
By letting the world see what they have created and what we have done together, I hope this project will bring several clear messages:
1. I want to make narratives that are different from China Central Television’s "Touching China" program and "community identity in public service" – the heroism, pathos, and identity politics of these two narratives are only one of the possibilities. The migrant women workers I know are both active and passive; they need to solve their real-life difficulties first, but these difficulties are not only material, but also cognitive and cultural.
2. I want to bring a "talk from the inside" about the relationship between art and life to other people in the society who may want to approach art. Is all speech an expression, and is all expression a creation? It is only when one offers something with individual discernment, and thus really sees life and really interrogates the relationship between art and life, that one is creating. In this regard, economic conditions are a factor, but sometimes it is counterproductive: some families are "too rich" and send their children to advanced training courses to develop bad habits and aesthetics; some families want art so much that they go the way of the gentry and take art as a "symbol of elegance and nobility". In reality, many people's perception of what class they are in is determined by three aspects: the power of residence, access to education, and the coverage of pension and insurance. But in fact, when the above three aspects are not immediately and well resolved, one can consider changing the aesthetics to broaden the perception of class – “aesthetics” here includes what kind of culture to accept and what kind of information to believe. In the “Sweating” project, I not only want grassroot women to have the opportunity to improve their aesthetics, but I also want their work to challenge the mainstream aesthetics; experiencing a real creative process is a gift they can strive for; a real creative process is the most open, discursive, and egalitarian moment of human interaction with the world.
In fact, there is nothing new in the methodology of this reset, and the specifics are not too complicated. Its difficulty lies in the resistance, often stifling and sad, of the thinking habits of society as a whole; it is a ghost-like logic, under which more proofs are considered "discursive things are not suitable for people from the grassroots class". A superficial example is: you don't know the grassroots, you are often in conflict with them; and I am one of them, I have more say. What's more interesting is that the people who say such things are not necessarily from the grassroots, but are mostly social workers or other outsiders in some role – in short, they see conflict as a big no-no in their work. It is understandable that different roles bring different approaches, but the question is not really about the approach, but about the purpose. What matters is that they don't know why, that they don't see the people at the grassroots who want to change, and that they don't see that discernment can best help people at the grassroots to change their lives. In this competition where there is no fairness, the fact that I am highly educated becomes the most vulnerable point of attack on my identity in order to make sense of the ethics of community work. So, I need to put a lot of energy into being as present as possible, I need to fight back, and I even need to do a lot of laborious discernment with a lot of people who are paid to do so. I perceive and record all the difficulties, and they are the social reality that I collide with.
Discernment (imagination about politics and life) is not only desperately needed at the grassroots level, it is also something that the grassroots can digest with help; discernment is also present in children's picture books – it is rooted in survival, parallel to survival, and is a part of a dignified life from the time one is very young. Examples include Leo Lionni's “Little Black Fish” (a picture book that is referenced in the movie “Shoplifters”) and “Frederick”. This is how my current collaborator, a veteran publicist and mother of two, sums up the meaning conveyed by these two books: the books portray rare individuals who often see what the group does not see and go on to create spiritual values that do not currently exist; this action is not just for the individuals themselves, nor just for the group; it results in both enriching the individuals themselves and increasing the dynamism of the group. Unfortunately, however, the value of Leo Lionni's work is often reduced to "becoming a better self" in the Chinese mass media.
Social practice on Chinese soil is essentially water without a source, and all problems eventually come back to the biggest one: you can't move the elephant in the room. But you have to live, you have to find a way, how to do that? My solution is to create some "fake" water myself, using art as a hypothetical way to make people truly alive.
Q9: The greatest appeal of literary works lies in the respect and empathy for human desires. Do you agree? How do you reflect this in your creation and daily work?
A: There is a difference between the "reality" and the "necessity" in this question. From the reality point of view, for the general audience, literary works are for entertainment; for people with some social status, literary works are for decoration or to serve their discourse.
Consequentially, this statement also romanticizes literature in general and simplifies the human understanding of the word "respect”. How to define "respect"? It is actually understood differently by different people. For example, I have recently been criticized for not respecting the elderly and the country: my critics think that respecting the elderly is when the elderly is in charge; not being moved by the Olympic national team is not respecting the country; and not cheering for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's death is not respecting the souls of those who died in the Sino-Japanese War. The word "respect" has become bizarre.
Personally, I live in a world that cares for and takes care of artistic creation, where I draw on the intimacy and confidence I need. I can't imagine how I would survive without these things. When stepping out of this human world I have built for myself, out of the industry atmosphere I identify with, and placing myself in real life, what I encounter the most is the disrespect for text. The most common examples are as follows: A gives examples of problems in society and analyzes them; B replies that there is no such thing as a perfect society; C replies that if you don't like this society, then get out of China. In this case, B and C are the most everyday people who do not respect A's text. In an abstract way, I think of a text as a factual, seriously observed objection to mainstream precepts – this is related to what you said about "respect and empathy for human desires”. In this social climate of "disrespect for the text," all complexity, specificity, and possibilities become empty and closed dogmas. Nature is supposed to be composed of multifaceted relationships, but the reality becomes either arbitrary, full of defense mechanisms, or surrender out of devoutness.
In everyday life, the meaning of art can be summed up simply as the achievement of the most experimental, courageous and discursive self. In an age when all people are encouraged to abandon discernment, the social role of art can be: the willingness and ability to think.
Q10: Do you think that political correctness (animal protectionism, race, feminism, etc.) is a cannibalization of human intellect and civilization?
A: Both "political correctness" and "civilization" in this question need to be defined in detail, where "human intellect" and "civilization" are two long-standing concepts; however, "political correctness" is a term that began to emerge slowly after the 1980s from the American context, and after it was introduced to the Chinese context, it has some special characteristics and limitations, so I cannot answer this question directly.
I read " A Letter on Justice and Open Debate," an open letter defending free speech published on the Harper's Magazine website on July 7, 2020, with 153 signatories. Due to my limited experience on the ground and lack of relevant knowledge, I cannot talk about the United States, but I can talk about some phenomena, for example, dogma as a manifestation of anti-intellectualism and the new populist-related issues that have recently emerged in the post-truth era. As a specific example, I have recently come across some "political correctness" in the public service industry, which may stem from a desire for fairness and vigilance against oppression, but a small part of which ends up as a pattern of moralizing, even to the point of "censorship”.
For example, as soon as you compare A and B, you are considered to have a sense of distinction; as soon as someone in your audience doesn't understand you for some reason, you have to consider lowering your difficulty. Here I am not saying that having a differentiated mind is necessarily good, or that taking care of the audience is necessarily bad; rather, I am saying that real life is very complex, and the key is how to analyze specific problems in concrete terms. But this understanding of complexity has no place in the stereotypical work ethic, where there is only the logic of "as long as…it’s…". For example, if you start asking questions, you may be considered aggressive; if you suggest that the other party may be influenced by "conspiracy theories" about the source of information, you may be "judging" others, or even be labeled as "looking down on the grassroots”; as long as it is voted on, it is fair and nearly democratic… Moreover, these judgments are not based on evidence, analysis and empathy – nor can they be challenged with evidence, analysis and empathy: they often begin with "this is how I feel" and move from a statement to an absolute standard. This kind of anti-intellectualism, in fact, in the eyes of someone with a background in humanities and art criticism like me, is demeaning to human beings themselves. Because according to this logic, what is most meaningful to human beings becomes worthless and does not need to be protected; all literary criticism, all literary awards, and all journalistic awards would be better off not existing either, because they promote "separateness" and "hierarchy" – although I don't think all awards are good and convincing enough, the point is that we need to have this choice. It reminds me of a recent Cultural Revolution joke about how the name "advanced mathematics" is bad and needs to be dropped because the word "advanced” promotes class inequality.
That's not the worst part. The worst part is that the intent of the discourse itself – to focus on equality and be wary of authority – has not been implemented either. Empirically, those who prefer this discourse are barely capable of discerning real authority in real life, or are instead intentionally blind in the presence of real authority. In the worst case, this operation, which is originated as a service, a quest for equality, does not really serve the object in reality, but rather serves an inflated personal ego. The result is that in a public context, it is the projected ego of the individual that dominates the discourse.
These are some limited aspects of the public service industry, and cannot represent all public services. In fact, I work with more centrists who are not currently producing and using these dogmas. But it is clear to me that these words still have an impact on the centrists: the spectrum has changed as a result, unless someone pulls out a new pole. This is also the wish of the publicist with whom I collaborated on the writing class: the battle between reason and consciousness, while already unexplainable in words, still needs to be done concretely, proving that someone is both digging and filling the hole.
I brought up this tangent because in it we get a glimpse of a larger reality. In the social context, these public servants are people with good intentions who care about the society, not "refined egoists”. But they cannot escape the universal specificity mentioned above: on the one hand, almost everyone wants to express themselves, wants a space where they can be irresponsible – it is a response to repression, but the "common people" discourse system allows this repression to rarely lead to discernment, to think about what is being denied, to think about the source of the oppression, to think about what should be sacrificed for "freedom". The result is a consensus: “you give me the space to vent but don’t mention me”, and “I give you the space to vent but don’t mention you”, so that we can all be irresponsible, be "free" and put on "the emperor's new clothes" together; eventually, people's need for "freedom" that does not require sacrifice and does not have a substantial core is greater than the need for catharsis. So, the large transaction mentioned above is unfolding its increasingly absurd future before my eyes.