A Way of Looking: The Social Role of An Artist

I was born in China in a small ordinary town from the eastern part of China. Growing up there was difficult for me, because the wave of Chinese economy reform reached our town in the late 1980s, just before I entered into adolescence.

My parents decided to move from our village to a town house, in order to run a small business to support us three children to go to school. What came with the increased income from running the business was the loss of a roam free village, fields, plus the privacy and closeness of being in a home.

In the town we lived in the shop, a curtain divided a home and work. For a long time I boarded at school, dreading going home during the summer and winter holidays. I envied my classmates who all seemed to have a good time back home; all I remembered during the vacation was that I had to help my parents with the shop, every day.

With the hectic shop environment, it almost felt like the attention that my parents gave us were only limited to the day we were back from school, and the day before we left home for school. In the middle the long holiday days were just a muddle, made of chores.

My life’s path finally brought me to the UK in 2007. Since then every time I went back to China it was like visiting a relative, only that relative became more distant as the time went on. China was going through continuous tumultuous rapid change. The familiarities that I had about China were either demolished or altered beyond recognition in terms of a physical space. When the places that you hold dear in your memory were no longer there, it was tough keeping up that love.

I felt frustrated and confused for a very long time but somehow my curiosity rarely dived into those emotions for any deep looking; over the years my memory and feelings towards China were put in a box in a vault, the lock of the vault got rustier over the time.

But like many things, our lives always seem to take interesting turns. Thanks to a dear friend I recently started reading about the artists in China. Somehow through reading about these artists and looking at their art works offered me clarity, in terms of looking at my own past with the country.

In the book Beijing 798: Reflections on Art, Architecture and Society in China, one artist reflected that for a very long time for the pursuit of growth the approach of China has always been to slash and burn  – to destroy whatever is weak or failing, and rebuild for whatever new goals have chosen.

However among all the torrent of swift changes, said another artist, the first key to understanding is memory. In many big Chinese cities, human lives come and go, are forgotten: buildings, communities are demolished; history rewritten; new cities constructed, without any reference to the old.  In a place like China, which has seen so much suffering through its history, forgetting is a kind of liberation; it means transcending your own suffering. But it also means losing your identity.

Ai Wei Wei, a well-known Chinese artist, stated far back in the 1990s that he felt considerations needed to be taken for the  ‘Chai’ (demolish) culture deep routed in the tunnel of Chinese history.  The slogan such as ‘Smash an old world and build a new world’ advocated that when the old doesn’t go, the new won’t come.  The downside, however, for the nation is the risk of losing its identity, for its people is the confusion and frustration of living in a space, where the physical foundation of memory is disappearing, all the time.

Ai wei wei

In the book, Ai Wei Wei was calling that the people in China needed to recognize the path the country was on, recognise its existing nature of destruction in society and life with a clear head.  I think what Ai Wei Wei said pretty much summarised an artist’s social role for me. When an artist faces something they can not comprehend, or something that is hard to look, they do not turn away the gaze; instead they will look them in the eye, think over and express through art works in order to make sense of them.

For me there is something moving about that urge and the desire to express, because it is through the expression and through deep looking, great works manifest themselves, be it art work, writing, which can help others living in the same era to make sense of the world and the society they live in. From a micro level, I think making sense often is the first step of an awakened life, one that is clearer in terms of direction and the reason for being. From a wider angle I think an awakened society that is able to make sense of the changes can make better judgement and decisions for what are to come.

As for myself, someone who wants to pursue a life in the arts, by witnessing the lives  of these Chinese artists and their courage of voluntarily assuming the social role when making art, it gave me courage to open my vault to make a reconciliation with my past, inspired me to want to pass the story on, and to become one of the same kind.

Liu Qian.

Journey further

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