Between Home Soil and Foreign Land


Leo Li Chen (2019 Fellow) is an independent curator and researcher based in Beijing, China. He was Director of Research in Magician Space, and independent cuator in Hong Kong and the mainland. His main research focuses on geopolitics, performativity and moving images, which explores the complexity of identity and subjectivity that transcends geographical barriers. He was the curator of The Racing Will Continue, The Dancing Will Stay (Guangdong Times Museum, Guangzhou, 2019); Today Could Have Been a Happy Day (Taikang Space, Beijing, 2018); That Has Been and Maybe Again (Para Site, Hong Kong, 2016); Adrift (OCAT, Shenzhen, 2016), and so on. He was a resident researcher at Asia Art Archive in 2016, and MMCA Korea in 2019.

At the start of 2019, I received the New York Fellowship offered by the Asian Cultural Council. Due to my personal schedule and the sudden arrival of the pandemic, I couldn’t start the six-month trip until January 2022. In fact, it was my first international trip after a hiatus of two years.

I had a hunch that in the post-pandemic era, cultural exchanges were never going to be the same again, at least to me. My prediction was based on changes in geopolitics and the different forms of segregation that ensued. Despite these thoughts, I could not hide my excitement, strongly anticipating my visit to the New York art scene. In fact, I’d underestimated how political and economic power struggles could impact the art ecology in New York. I experienced more strongly than ever before the constructedness of globalization, the self-reflexivity of political correctness and conservatism, as well as the sense of crisis in holding an Asian/Chinese identity.

Do they even care? I doubt so

Undeniably, in terms of its development, Chinese contemporary art has been sailing on the waves of globalization. Whether at an earlier stage as an unofficial language or counter-argument, or its heavy marketization during the time when China’s economy took flight, Chinese contempoary art has always been closely knitted with globalization and social changes in China. For me and my peers, we have developed and benefitted from exchange experiences within China, as well as between China and the outside world. What made the exchanges effective was the consensus in building communication bridges, the common volition to cooperate, the respect towards professionalism, as well as steady capital and the convenience of mobility. It’s quite obvious that the latter is no longer possible, so how can we re-establish the basis for reciprocal communication? More punishingly, this situation easily plunged us into a state of subjective anxiety.

There is such a chasm! Actually, I was more like a messenger in each and every of my cultural exchanges: explaining what has been going on in China these two years; what all those internationally acclaimed Chinese artists have been doing; who the noteworthy young Chinese artists are; which organizations you can trust in China … Do they even care? I doubt so. I even felt that the people posing questions were just hunting for novelty from a distance. All these questions hung in the air, highlighting the information gap between us. What really vexed me was: how could we effectively discuss the problems and situations faced by the Chinese contemporary art scene? How could we avoid falling into these same traps of labelling, political semiotics, or ‘zone sampling’?

Interestingly, it was not only a question of China’s “isolationism”; the problem simply stands out thanks to polarization. Considering the high cost of international travel and transportation, only failsafe options that conform to existing policies and systems are chosen. Therefore, what we see in the art scene tends to be homogenous. When I first landed in New York, I was highly disappointed with the local art scene --- their exhibitions were meticulously calculated, strategized, and safe. In the past, we had such powerful vocabulary to describe exhibitions as diverse, thoughtful, exciting, elegant, and impressive. Now all these adjectives have become overused and standardized. The exhibitions  lacked what I was most looking forward to --- the coarse, the accidental, the daring, and the offensive. Perhaps this had to do with New York being one of the centers of capitalism, but it seemed that creativity was no longer original or fresh, and all too easily hijacked by consumerism.

Political Correctness and the Self-Reflexivity of Conservatism

There has been ample discussion on political correctness and conservatism in the West as of late. Allow me to express my personal feelings and experience. On February of each year, Americans would celebrate Black History Month. Museums, institutions, galleries across the country dutifully hold events relating to this special month. We would see a lot of black artists and their work appearing in such venues, and relevant topics would be widely discussed. Obviously, this is a response to the West’s history of colonialism, as well as a form of resistance to European and American power. I was not surprised by the abundance of these shows and topics. What frustrated me was that there was a lack of high-quality works, exhibitions, discussions. Among the works exhibited, many of them were figurative paintings. 

There is obviously a historical connection between figurative painting and black history, but at the same time there is undeniably, to a large extent, influence from the commercial market. It was, therefore, a nice surprise for me to visit the solo exhibition “Dynamics” by Jennie C. Jones at the Guggenheim Museum. Her paintings explore the relationship between sight and sound through minimalism and abstraction. I could see in her art her tribute to black history, the dynamism between figurative depiction and abstraction, stillness, and the interplay between display and concealment.Another case study I would like to mention is the exhibition “Greater New York” at MoMA PS1. The exhibition leaned heavily on history, inclusiveness and activism; however, it was executed so cautiously and tentatively that there was a lack of impressive works. As Peter Schjeldahl observes in his review "'Greater New York' Confirms Rather Than Surprises,” “There are contributions by people from Egypt, Iran, Tunisia, Nigeria, Japan, Mexico, Argentina, India, and more. There’s also a solid contingent of Native American artists. It is all somewhat blurry …” When artists from different backgrounds and genres are put under a singular framework, and when all the problems are quantified equally, can we really tackle the core of an issue? After all, the existing systems and structures are still as unshaken as ever.

How about Asian-American artists? Or diasporic Asian/Chinese artists? They belong to two different groups. The former is part of America’s migrant community and because of their integration into American society, they are featured in existing hierarchy, albeit in a disadvantaged position. The latter is even more invisible. Although they are extremely self-organized with a strong sense of community, and separate themselves from the mainstream, we could still hear their “mixed echoes” in some galleries, independent spaces, and alternative initiatives in Chinatowns. They speak for themselves via guerilla-like ways, so should we call them self-imposed or involuntary exiles? Between home soil and foreign land, they face a double crisis of identity and land.

Publicness of Collections and Responsibilities of Institutions

Despite the disappointment I experienced regarding the New York art scene, I still relished the opportunity to indulge myself again in museums and institutional collections. Yes, this was indulgence, or if you will, a temporary escapade. Although not many of my New York friends had visited the Noguchi Museum, this museum housed some really meticulous and substantial research work. In addition, their audiences were the most patient. When I was lingering around the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it came to my notice that Isamu Noguchi’s “Water Stone” was placed in the same section as the ancient and modern Japanese collections. I could not help but think of the nature of art and cultural work. I then drove one hour up north and arrived at Dia Beacon to view familiar works by Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Louise Bourgeois. But I also found novelty in the works of Mary Corse, Michelle Stuart, and of course, Joan Jonas, whose solo exhibition I had been very much looking forward to. Each artist was given the space needed to appropriately showcase their works.Of course, one could not miss the MoMA and Whitney Museum of American Art. The last Whitney Biennial was a scandalous one, which was also protested against. I was not surprised it chose to play safe this time.

The biennial’s theme “Quiet as It’s Kept” raised issues relating to American racial and communal traditions, and explored topics related to history, protests, political conflict, environment and urban life. The show seemed to be a response to the present moment; however, similar to “Greater New York,” it was a bit too all-encompassing and did not feel bold enough in its claims. Although I have once again criticized such conservatism here in terms of exhibition strategy, I must admit as an American institution, they have certain responsibilities and missions to respond to local issues. They are showing a tendency to be more introspective, which is a distancing from our expectations towards international biennials or international institutions at large. As an observer, I could not say whether it is an effective strategy to use art as a tool for responding to social issues. But at the very least, it is a clear and transparent move. 

Now we are back to the issue of art collection. Although these institutions did collect many masterpieces by international artists, they steadfastly place those works in the context of local narrative and dialogues. So what are we missing when we still judge the creative, academic, and market value of Chinese artists on whether they have been collected by any international art institutions? How about looking at the responsibilities and public roles played by our Chinese institutions? How could we preserve and renew our cultural values without clear missions and responsibilities to base our art collection and content curation work on? How could we sustain our institutions?

Soil and Subjectivity

During my stay in New York, my friends from the Mainland all unanimously suggested that I should live abroad. I understand the disappointment they feel regarding local circumstances, as well as the expectations they have towards overseas countries. The question, then, is: what is the purpose of my practice? When the mask of internationalism is torn off, when past collaborations and dialogues are no longer valid, what can we rely on that is workable? Who are our audiences, and what and where are the issues we should explore?

I found the answer towards the end of my stay in New York. Although the contemporary art scene in China is now full of confusion, uncertainties and difficulties, this is where I am willing to stand firmly hand in hand with my peers. This is because this is the front line and the soil from which we can establish a genuine subjectivity.  When you lose all hope, you have the possibility of forging a new path of creativity.

A few days before I left New York, I met a friend who later sent me a paragraph of text, quoting from Isaiah Berlin's The Soviet Mind——Russian Culture under Communism:

“(Anna Akhmatova) She told me that after her journey to Italy in the previous year,

when she had been awarded a literary prize, she was visited by officials of the Soviet secret police, who asked her for her impressions of Rome. She replied that Rome seemed to her to be a city where paganism was still at war with Christianity. ‘What war?’ she was asked. ‘Was the USA mentioned? Are Russian émigrés involved?’ What should she answer when similar questions were put to her about England and Oxford? For to Russia she would return no matter what awaited her there. The Soviet regime was the established order of her country. With it she had lived, and with it she would die. This is what being a Russian meant.”

*All photos provided by Leo Chen Li
*The Chinese version of this article was originally published by Artnet News China. Special thanks for their permission to post and translate.