apexart :: Conference Program :: Chaos Y. Chen

Survival Guide to be Free from Anxiety of Influence
Chaos Y. Chen

I still remember how my friend’s five-year-old daughter once shocked me. When his father pointed out a statue of Chairman Mao, she had no difficulty in recognizing him. It was the well-known one of Mao waving to the Red Guards, which was often put at the entrance to public places like universities or factories. But when he asked her further what the old man was doing, she answered, “He was waiting for a taxi.” That was about seven years ago, and I wonder where this girl is today. I figure she must be one of what we call the “techno generation.”

Another equally extreme example occurs with teenagers or young adults. About eight years ago, I happened to be involved in a casual discussion about Lenin and his Russia while some teenagers were around. When we tried to draw them into the conversation by asking, “What do you think of Lenin?” one of them very politely asked back, “You mean John Lennon?”

In a very vivid article, the novelist Meng Hui presented a range of eloquent evidence from poems and historical documents to question the widely accepted notion that it was Marco Polo who first introduced ice cream to China. Even without the big question about Marco Polo’s journey, it is still rational to say that Marco Polo introduced the sushan (“short-cake mountain,” a dessert similar to ice cream) from China to Europe on his return trip. In any case, she ended the article by reminding us that “it is not important to finalize who influenced whom. I would simply like to emphasize how much we have forgotten things which were once such a beautiful part of our history.”(1)

For me, these three examples linger around my observations about the cultural context I am working in and with. When we analyze collective memory today, we find it breaks down not strictly by age group, but by the influence one has undergone, which completely depends on a person’s experience, reading and encounters, and which creates one’s horizons or vision. For every case of remembering and forgetting, there is cover, erasure, and assimilation. We need visualization for changes in collective memory, what is missing and what is coming, if only to indicate, by its tendency, what the nature of “public” may, after this generation grows up, soon become? We can sense the urgency of raising the issue, of trying to respond, before it is destroyed without return.

There are many issues to consider, but using this platform, I would like to respond to issues of influence and the anxiety of influence. I shall try to separate reason and result, so as not to throw the baby out along with the bath water.

A guideline for urban situations

It is not because I don’t understand. It’s all because the world spins fast.
—Lyrics from the early music of Cui Jian, considered the godfather of Chinese Rock & Roll.

I constantly feel the limits to my comprehension of the daily life that surrounds me. My city, together with many other cities in China, is changing dramatically, believing this is the way to modernize. I’ve lived in New York and Berlin, and traveled over an even more extensive area, but no city seems to so brutally take you off guard as Beijing does. The Cultural Revolution has been over for twenty years, but now I regard it as just another mass movement: go commercial; economic success; the World Trade Organization; the Olympics; the competitive mentality. Where has it gone, our sense of humor, the nuances of our way of life?

A friend returned from the United States and opened an architecture firm called Urbanus. When you see the name in capital letters, URBANUS, over the entrance, it can be read as “Urban US,”or “Urban Us.” No matter how much my friend explained to me that it is actually a Latin word which simply means “urban,” my peace of mind simply can never return to its innocent state. I realize the fact of how much we are being “urbanized.”

People in Beijing now have to use the Fifth or Sixth Ring Road to get away from traffic jams. While people complain about this, more and more people become owners of cars. In Beijing one in five residents has a car. And because there are more cars on the streets, hence more traffic, the conclusion of urban planners is that we need more and wider streets. We now see many roads as wide as 80 meters, and Century Avenue in the new Pudong district of Shanghai is 100 meters wide. Few people can finish crossing it without waiting for two cycles of traffic lights. But the system seems not to work, because the growth of new roads can never keep up with the demands of traffic. Fiat advertisements tell us its “car can take you where the subway doesn’t.” They stress the sense of freedom driving a car brings. But although car sales rose dramatically since the SARS epidemic last year, when people were afraid of taking public transportation, there is another reason for this increased burden on the city.

New buildings are rapidly being built along with the new roads. There is a new triangle of government, private developer and resident. In the central area of the city, all the one-story houses and courtyards have now turned into its most desirable and expensive area. Chinese buildings are wooden structures, very difficult to maintain unless frequently renovated. This has very quickly become a burden for the city government, since all houses have been public assets since the Chinese Revolution in 1949. At the same time, private developers seek to profit from this situation, all the more promising given the good location. This resulted
in new policies driven by motives of economic profit. More areas for new residency were built around the rim of the city, and people relocated to these new settlements. They would then buy cars to commute to work in the heart of the city. But even though it was a quick trip on the expressway, the exit ramps became gridlocked.

The Dutch architectural firm MDRDV published a book about the tourist culture on the beaches of Iberia. Taking it as point of comparison, major cities in China now similarly interpret the highlights of modern cities, particularly those of the United States, into a larger area. The high-rises of Manhattan are mainly in midtown and downtown, but now images of the waterfront are exemplified ten or twenty times over, or even more throughout the entire city, as in Chaoyang, which is considered to be a CBD (Central Business District) area. The building of the city was based on a mistaken formula. The current cityscape is a single-layer function that looks like the realization of a two-dimensional snap shot.

Why should a city be abstracted in two such dry dimensions as high-rise buildings and wide roadways? It is because all the cities want to be modern. What does it mean to be “modern”? High-rise buildings and wide roadways. Such projects can be very complex, but I would simply point out that this is a “modernism” defined according to a very obvious manipulation of visual materials gathered in encounters with the rest of the world. They can be decision-makers for the municipality, for the principal developer, and for each citizen. Snapshots, as I say. The after-effects of these snapshots can be even more damaging. The image of what has been captured in a picture of downtown New York can be exaggerated into the symbol of New York City, with the result that the whole city becomes a two-dimensional city. Visual experience becomes oddly similar in all other waterfront cities.

Such issues become more and more evident when we see the mistaken circularity I spoke of earlier. It is a fact that our city faces new challenges with an increasing population. It has grown from two million in 1950 to 15 million at present. There needs to be more macro-planning for the entire nation. We may conclude from analysis that the high-rise CBD-model may be a model for some
very young cities in the United States, like Seattle, Dallas, Chicago even, but not suitable for cities like Rome, Paris, or Beijing. Those American cities developed from a mainly agriculture-based countryside into an urban situation. The high-rise is a model for the enlargement of the single house, with a front and backyard. But historical cities have layers. The current process erases the layers, removing the surface of the earth before the city has figured out what it will put over it.

Single-layer interpretation
To highlight the current situation in Beijing, I would ask why has “modernization” been interpreted in a way that has influenced the entire new urban landscape? What is surprising is not the term itself, but the single layer of the interpretation. Why are there no other alternatives? If the snapshot, and the one-dimensional manner of designating the formula, is the future, what will be the basis for that mentality? Are people and their consciousness hijacked without being aware of it? Is it simply the drive of a changing society?

If “modernization” means “democracy,” as it once did, our conclusions, reactions and actions will go in one direction. When “modernization” comes to mean accumulation of social resources, wealth, and material possessions, it will lead in another direction, more like what we see today in China and many other places in Asia. Look at the world’s tallest skyscraper, in Indonesia, or the second-tallest, the Jinmao Tower in Pudong, Shanghai; one doesn’t sense the glory the Empire State Building brought to New York in the middle of Great Depression.

“Modernization” as a dominant term brings with it a quick solution. But it lacks thorough observation of its façade, and avoids a fundamental debate about the way we reason the phenomenon or process information accumulated on such phenomena in a not yet “modernized” way. The more I hear and talk about such terms, particularly the bigger notions, the more I tend to be careful. Among these are “culture,” “art,” and “democracy.” These are terms that depend upon what is reflected and perceived in people’s minds, as with “beauty.” It is often true that though we say something is “red,” I may not see the same “red.” “Modernization” is also a term driven by zeal, and anything that turns people into zealots is questionable on second thought. This is particularly true when faced with the cross-cultural thinking that may lead to mutual understanding.

The basic drive of society
The drive of society itself is now more my main concern: to observe what I see. And quite often I feel sad to see that drive leading humans in another direction. I feel a similar sadness when I look at the art world. There are many urgent issues that already take our breath away, but I regard art as being on a frontier where it can respond to these urgencies and come up with its own answers.

We are as we have been influenced. This is equally true whether we accept or reject these influences. These days, it is a rather burdensome question to talk of “international cultural influence.” I, particularly, and I am surely not alone, feel myself in the midst of vast trends of influence. It has no smell, is not tangible, but it has direction. To analyze it using economic, social, or political terms is more complicated than it seems. Today, to touch upon the issue of influence almost requires the same process as posing fundamental questions like: Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? But the real questions are: What are we influenced by? What are our choices?

Fact is fact: the matter of interpretation
Most of the time, we just think that though our time is so different from the past, it will all lead to the future. However, this might not be true. One good thing about working with archaeologists is that they can always point out a ready example in history. For example, whatever the uniqueness of the “globalization” we are busy speaking of, it also existed in other eras. When silver was the hard currency, the mercantile center of the globe was East and Southeast Asia.

One cannot emphasize interpretation enough. Interpretation can move the direction of fact even if there is still nothing but fact. The trend within the current “post-” society, to seek roots more horizontally geographical, tends to be a general rule. According to Yale professor Kenji Yoshino, the gay-rights movement in Japan traces its forebears to 1960s New York, ignoring the fact of ten centuries of struggle in the history of Japan.

In my own existence, and all the effort to make sense out of what I do and will do, it comes down to studying influence, and embracing people who create those who make these influences. With my background of studying Chinese art theory, one of the highest goals for art is to understand that “the Tao is to learn how nature became the way it is.” The process, rather than the façade or the result, is what is important.

Millennium Art Museum’s reaction and action
To break binary thinking is all that we do. To break binary thinking in cultural understanding, the solution is to bring forth a more balanced map of global
culture. From the list of our upcoming projects, you may get a quick idea what
we aim for as our mission:
Negotiating Beauty: The negotiation of cultural understanding
Black Atlantic: Black-African impact on the four continents around the Atlantic
Body Temperature: Understanding through Chinese art in our time
—Elles: On the 10th anniversary of the World Women’s Congress in Beijing
Russian Art since 1900
And so on: Open Forum, a series of lectures, a children’s art workshop…
Curatorial work for us is fieldwork, fieldwork we do together with other colleagues from other institutions.

Open end
In his little book The Monolingualism of the Other, the French thinker Jacques Derrida begins with the onerous remark: “I have but one language—yet that language is not mine.” At the time I thought we might not have any choices. But now after engaging in these forms of practice, I have started to believe there is a chance that we may win the battle against blind binary thinking.

However, there is a certain syndrome of the “anxiety of influence” which can also make us blind, unable to see what we are looking at, or lead us to a wrong reaction, and thus a wrong action. When China is on an express train, facing incredible changes at extremely great speed, when there are so many urgencies and emergencies awaiting solutions, we might want to face “influence” as a positive force, and go with it. Overall, art and culture are shaping forces. The question is whether the receiver is hijacked or remains an active participant in the process of accumulating a common understanding. There is no way we can find the solution all by ourselves. The forty years that China closed its doors is a solid fact, and should be a process we begin to learn about together.

I wanted to come up with something fresh for this “Inside Out” seminar, but the only thing I could do was to respond with a few questions “upside down,” so as to look deeper into the roots of reasoning, and then, according to ancient Chinese writings, “learn the way of art the way that nature makes nature.”


1. “Sushan & Ice cream” by Meng Hui, Panarama monthly, 2003.

Currently Chief Curator, Millennium Art Museum, Beijing, China, Chaos Y. Chen’s curatorial work is focused on theme-based exhibitions, the most recent being Driving the Skyline (architecture, 2004), Wim Wenders (photography & film, 2004) as well as several major survey exhibitions, including Inside Out (1998) and Guangzhou Triennial (2002). Prior to these projects, she worked at the Beijing Art Museum, The Asia Society, Academy of Arts & Design, Tsinghua University and later with the Kunst-Werke Berlin and Haus der Kulturen der Welt. She is a contributor to the publications Reading (Beijing), World of Art (Shanghai), Art Contemporary (Shanghai), MAKE (London), and others. Born in Shanghai, she holds a degree in Art History from the Nanjing Academy of Art and has been awarded both the Henry Luce Scholarship (1998) and the RAVE Scholarship (2001).