Photo documentation of a performance by women of the Mosuo culture, an ethnic minority living in China’s Yunnan province. The performance was part of "The Long March: A Walking Visual Display,” a traveling art project organized by Chinese curator Lu Jie in 2002. Courtesy Long March Project, Beijing.

Photo documentation of a performance by women of the Mosuo culture, an ethnic minority living in China’s Yunnan province. The performance was part of "The Long March: A Walking Visual Display,” a traveling art project organized by Chinese curator Lu Jie in 2002. Courtesy Long March Project, Beijing.

Backward Progress

The Long March Project

Features from Nov/Dec 2007

Even someone with a passing familiarity with Chinese contemporary art knows that a booming, speculative international market and favorable exchange rates (1 euro to 10 Chinese yuan) have spawned a legion of self-indulgent cultural entrepreneurs who crank out trademark six-figure canvases or photo editions on factory-style assembly lines for waiting lists of willing buyers. Cynical realism has become simply cynical, and China’s leading artistic generation—the first to come of age following the paranoia and destruction of the Cultural Revolution—is losing the creative experimentation and urgency that drove its 1980s and early 1990s avant-garde manifestations.

However, Lu Jie, the 43-year-old founder and director of the nebulous Long March Project, takes issue with that jaded assessment. A forceful speaker who can deliver a convincing lecture on Chinese politico-cultural history extemporaneously, he lays responsibility for China’s current situation not with the artists, but rather with curators who fail to challenge them.

Since he began planning the Long March Project in 1998 while studying for an MA at Goldsmiths College in London, Lu has worked with most of the notable artists in China. Inspired by the Chinese Communist Party’s epic cross-country retreat from Nationalist forces in 1934, the Long March Project itself is hard to define. It incorporates a New York-based non-profit foundation (the Chinese government does not recognize non-profit organizations) and a space in Beijing that serves as the organization’s headquarters, curatorial laboratory and commercial outlet. But the Long March Project also participates in international exhibitions, such as the Asia-Pacific and Auckland triennials, as an artistic entity. This year it will have its first major presentation in New York as part of PERFORMA07: The Second Biennial of New Visual Art Performance. The experimental nature of the Long March Project has resulted in a number of “failures,” but throughout the organization has been guided by an ethos of challenging the status quo. 

Much of that wherewithal comes from Lu himself. Born in Fujian province, Lu graduated from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou in 1988. While studying there, Lu gave up making art to focus on translating Western philosophy and theory. Upon graduating he was hired as an editor for Shanghai Fine Arts Publishing House due to his combination of an arts background and strong English reading and writing skills. That position exposed him to international visitors who began developing a taste for Chinese contemporary art. Soon Lu was working with pioneering Hong Kong dealers such as Tsong-zung (Johnson) Chang, Stephen McGuinness and the late Manfred Schoeni, introducing them to then-rising talents such as Fang Lijun, Wang Guangyi, Yang Shaobin, Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang and Zeng Fanzhi.

Lu reflects, “Political Pop presented a cynical metaphor about society that, in comparison with socialist painting, was closer to our lives. I was a fierce promoter of the Post-89 work, but I also looked at it as one part of an entire historical development. It’s problematic to consider Post-89 as something that parachuted into China in opposition to the socialist tradition. I believe that Political Pop was actually extremely didactic. It was avant-garde in the social dimension, not in the artistic dimension.”

However, that original assessment lost currency as the artists Lu championed transformed into a new elite class. Fed up, Lu left China to travel the world, eventually settling in New York, where he still maintains a home and his wife and children live. Throughout, Lu continued thinking about the avant-garde’s commitment to social engagement as well as the difficulty in reconciling a specific Chinese approach to contemporary art with international expectations and interference.

Lu says, “The Long March metaphor has existed in China’s collective consciousness from the country’s founding until today, and yet it represents this idea that we are part of an international community. The Long Marchers stopped in one place and read German labor movement leaders’ essays before setting off the next day. Yan’an was a training camp for Ho Chi Minh and others. It was about providing a position for being international.” And it presented the perfect “map” for exploring many of the themes driving contemporary art, from the fallout of utopian ideals to mass migration, gender politics and post-colonialism.

The kitsch associations that many Chinese might have about the Long March—such as its use as a brand name for everything from cigarettes to space rockets—might have scared away a locally based curator. Lu admits dryly, “the idea of turning the Long March into the basis for a new cultural and social engineering project could only come from a Chinese who has lived abroad and been both tortured and inspired by his own transformation and translation across history, geography and ideology. Why—out of all the overseas Chinese curators and critics—I was the only one who came up with it, I don’t know. I have to say I’m a naturally idealistic person, maybe my suffering was much stronger than others.” 

Lu began extensive research and made several trips along the original Long March itinerary in planning “The Long March – A Walking Visual Display,” which took place in 2002. Along the way Lu developed a 90-page project proposal that, if nothing else, emphasized the seriousness of his intent. “When I came back with this proposal, everyone laughed at me: ‘Long March! Are you crazy, trying to humiliate mainstream culture?’” He continues, “Even as everyone was rushing to documenta, the Venice Biennale and international museums, we were planning to go back to the countryside.” 

Xu Bing, who had met Lu in New York and ultimately produced “propaganda” materials for “Walking Visual Display,” including the current Long March logo, a woodblock-style line drawing of a hammer, sickle and ink brush, recalls a conversation with Lu about the idea in early 2002. “I was surprised that he had already produced a lengthy, detailed prospectus. I forget the details of our conversation that day, but I remember feeling his overall plan had great potential, and like the art world itself, was something non-static, not confinable, with a life of its own. I too was thinking about the many problems inherent in the contemporary mainstream art system.”

Lu and co-curator Qiu Zhijie mapped out 20 sites along the Long March where artists would present themed projects. Sui Jianguo, known for his absurd monumental plastic red dinosaurs, contributed a two-thirds scale statue of Karl Marx and a handheld Mao-suit-wearing Jesus on a crucifix that were paraded around Jinggangshan, considered the historical birthplace of the Red Army. Seminal American feminist artist Judy Chicago met the “Walking Visual Display” at Lugu Lake in Yunnan province—home to the matriarchal Mosuo culture—to lead a workshop for Chinese women artists. Tensions ran high as the workshop members addressed deep-seated concerns about both gender and China’s relationship to the West.

Stopping in Maotai, Guizhou province, famous for its vodka-like distilled spirits, the Long Marchers invited locals to have lunch and drink with them at a restaurant while watching the American biopic Pollock (2000), about the abstract expressionist icon and alcoholic painter, culminating with a drip painting event on the banks of the Chishui River. And at Daliangshan in Sichuan province, the group vainly tried to convince officials at the Xichang Satellite Launching Station to send one of Zhan Wang’s stainless steel scholar rocks into orbit.

After completing 12 of the 20 sites on the itinerary and three grueling months on the road, the Long Marchers decided to shut down “Walking Visual Display,” stating in a release: “We have to prevent the Long March metaphor from being mired in the trap of superficiality, functionality and practicality. Precisely by postulating the project’s ‘incompletion’ as ‘completion,’ we remain faithful to the very open-ended nature which has been its hallmark from day one.” Yet despite everything, the success of the Long March—as it moved from province to province, each with its own administrative quirks—was guaranteed by its inversion of orthodox culture. Lu says, “You can’t say no to the Long March in China. It’s the grand narrative.”

Since then, the Long March Project has made periodic returns to different sites along the itinerary, with the Long March Space in Beijing—which opened in 2003 in the 798 Art District as the 25,000 Cultural Transmission Center and has now grown to include two massive gallery spaces, a separate space for independent projects, a courtyard, offices and a fashionable canteen—often hosting exhibitions of work made on the road. Notably, the painter Yang Shaobin has been pursuing a multi-year project returning to his hometown of Tangshan in Hebei province, where he documents the lives of miners working the Kailuan coalmines there. Not surprisingly, Yang has produced a series of large-scale paintings, “800 Meters Under,” that revisit the socialist realist tradition while adding a dreamlike palette and surreal juxtapositions of scale. But he has also produced documentary films and videos, an archive of historical photographs and begun a new project, “Blind Spot,” that extends to other sites in China and continues through 2008.

And the Long March has introduced new artists to the international spotlight. One of the participants at Lugu Lake, the Xi’an based painter Guo Fengyi, for example, has gone on to present her colorful ink paintings—simple figures made from accretions of multi-hued cross-hatching—at exhibitions including the Yokohama Triennale and the Prague and Taipei biennials. In other cases, Long March helps build rural infrastructure, undertaking a three-year art curriculum at Yanchuan county in Shaanxi province, site of its “Great Survey of Papercuttings in Yanchuan County,” with support from the county government.

Yet the Long March seems determined to undermine its own position as a “stamp of approval.” Lu has said previously that, “The Long March should not be a ‘thematic’ placeholder for a Chinese national pavilion filled with contemporary Chinese art, but rather an international campaign that enters into the different temporal and spatial sites of experience and action, as well as construction and reproduction.”

Preparations are underway for the Long March participation at PERFORMA07 in New York this November. On paper, the proposal seems modest but still reflective of the organization’s interest in tactical incursions into new domains, with Qiu Zhijie leading an unconventional dragon dance performance in Chinatown and Shanghai-based conceptual trickster Xu Zhen installing migrant workers in Chelsea’s James Cohan Gallery. Outside Harlem’s Studio Museum, artist Zhao Gang, who lived in the neighborhood when he had a home in the city, will recreate his Harlem School of New Social Realism, an event he first staged in 2002 inviting Asian and African-American artists and critics to discuss revolutions in China and the US.

The most ambitious proposal for New York, though, benefits from the Long March experience in China. Beginning with a public panel discussion at the China Institute on the posh Upper East Side, Long March Project – Avant-Garde will continue with a backwards, double-file march across Manhattan, passing through the halls of the Museum of Modern Art, which extends the breadth of a city block, and concluding in Times Square. This time the red tape involves city officials and MoMA director Glenn Lowry, who personally signed off on the request to use the museum’s private space.

Where the Long March goes from here remains to be seen. The conditions in China today are not so different from 70 years ago, and Lu Jie’s personal take on that parallel provides the project with its fundamental spirit. Rather than the cynical, world-historical interpretation of the original Long March as a manifestation of Mao Zedong’s genius, Lu views the event with a pragmatism just short of romance. “There were so many ideas, so many imported theories, warlords, landlords, capitalists fighting to ‘make the country better’ and control everything. Why were none of them successful? Communism swept up people’s minds and got them to join in. The Long March Project is not a revisionist embrace of Mao or communism but instead takes that part of history as the natural response to the conflict between tradition and modernity, local and global. We try to show it as the result of an entire generation’s mobilization.” Lu’s ability to galvanize his peers suggests that he and the Long March Project could set the tone for an artistic community off-keel from the sudden infusion of fame and fortune, but the savvy curator also guards against self-satisfaction. “We cannot just do the Long March and then return to our daily routines. Nor should we finish the Long March and let the rest of the world carry on in what it is doing. We need to be the reference—keep coming up with ideas and provoking other people—even if we create a lot of trouble for ourselves.”