Twitter cuts (#32)

The Patanoiac has been re-initiating the Tarot:

Continue reading

Blow Ups

Shanghai’s the Power Station of Art is hosting The Ninth Wave, a solo exhibition of work by Cai Guo-Qiang (1957-), through to October 26. It’s … explosive.

The name of the show, and its central exhibit, is taken from a painting (1850) by Russian artist Ivan Aivazavosky (1817-1900). This image of inundating disaster is of clear relevance to the show, but it also serves as a pretext and screen for an adoption of signs that Cai Guo-Qiang invests with singular (and cryptic) evocations. Deep rhythms of time, power, and number are a consistent theme flowing through the exhibition.

The Ninth Wave (2014) is a re-purposed boat, crowded with (99) stuffed animals. It was floated down the Huangpu to be installed in the show, making it the memorial of an event — a signature of Cai’s work. Superficially, it’s a Noah’s Ark, and an icon of ecological calamity, but this barnacled hulk, with its crew of traumatized inhuman survivors, also satirizes the dramatic narratives — whether comic or tragic — that are employed to frame the profound, ruinous tides of cosmic transition.

Cai Guo-Qiang has seared his name on the cultural imagination in fireworks, pursuing an incendiary path to neotraditonalist aesthetic restoration. Working with gunpowder is the revival of a traditional Chinese artistic medium. Cai modernizes its potential for public spectacle, in ‘Explosive Events’ or ‘Pyrotechnic Explosion Projects’ which are stunningly documented in the show. Yet, among the things Cai explodes is media compartmentalization. The fallout from his work includes char-marked images, production diagrams, and video recordings. His detonations spread across the entire multidimensional domain of visual aesthetics. Time itself is envisaged as a system of explosions, burns, and debris.

Continue reading

Confucius Institutes

The debate.

An anecdotal moment from Jeffrey Wasserstrom:

Some time ago, I found out, but not until just before giving a talk, that the local CI was my visit’s sponsor. I was annoyed and tweaked my planned lecture to show it. In my new opening, I said that since a CI was sponsoring the event, a few words on Confucius were in order. I found it odd, I said, that China’s ruling party had excoriated Confucius when Mao Zedong headed the country, yet now named institutes in his honor. The official line on history was still that Mao was better than his anti-Communist rival Chiang Kai-shek, I continued, but the present veneration of Confucius as a national saint fit better with Chiang’s worldview than with Mao’s.

Was the Beijing-appointed head of the CI outraged? No, she wasn’t even miffed. She said she loved the talk and I’d be welcome to come back and speak again any time.

(An anecdote is only an anecdote, and might not be worth that much, but a casual presumption is worth less.)

Gardens of Time (Part 1)

It might be presumptuous to assume there is any such thing as the Idea of cultivation. The absence of any such idea (a deficiency that is immediately stimulative) could readily be imagined as the condition that makes cultivation necessary.

When the search for a conclusive concept is abandoned, the cultural task of the garden — in its loftiest (Jiangnan) expression — begins to be understood. No less that the acknowledged fine arts of East or West, the Suzhou garden merits appreciation as a philosophical ‘statement’ in which aesthetic achievement is inextricable from a profound apprehension of reality. Perhaps, then, no short-cut or summary seeking to economize on the creation and preservation of the garden itself could possibly arrive at the same ‘place’, or — even with the most restricted sense of cognitive purchase — discover the same things.

Continue reading

Exploration of the Outside

Mou Zongsan opens a gate into the Chinese cultural interior by unswervingly directing his work at its most radically indigenous characteristics, uncompromised by ulterior elements, and therefore undistracted by any seductions of otherness or exoticism that fall short of its inherent destination — connection with the absolute Outside. That alone is authentically Chinese, Mou insists, which originates and culminates in the Way (道), cultivating an unsegregated mutual involvement of thought and being which corresponds closely to the Occidental philosophical concept of intellectual intuition. Whether approached through the Daoist, Buddhist, or Confucian strains of the Chinese cultural complex, the consistent ethnic characteristic is an interior path to exterior reality, continuous with the way of ‘heaven’ (天), or cosmic necessity. The inner voyage is the way out, but more importantly — for the Confucian current at least — it is the way to let the Outside in, making culture a conduit for the cultivation of the world.

From Mou Zongsan’s summit of philosophical intensity, therefore, no true boundary can be drawn between a project marked by extreme cultural ‘nationalism’ and an ontologically-grounded cosmopolitanism, or between a diligent restoration of tradition and a venture beyond the horizon of time. The inward path reaches out (as it fuses with the tendrils of Outsideness, which reach in).

Continue reading

Cultural Restoration and Mou Zongsan

After a difficult half millennium, China’s place in the world is adjusting back towards its longer term norm, at a speed that continues to disconcert even the most diligent observers. With this positive correction comes an inevitable ‘spirit’ of revival, extending from the level of unreflective mood, through partially articulate attitudes, to the loftiest peaks of systematic cultural restoration. As this wave of revitalization intensifies, and refines itself, it becomes increasingly involved in a re-thinking of Confucianism and its historical meaning.

The philosopher most indispensable to this process is Mou Zongsan (1909-1995), the most brilliant of China’s New Confucians, setting the standards of intellectual rigor and audacity for the country’s third-wave of Confucian inspiration, following those of the Pre-Qin and Song-Ming periods. Describing the Confucian tradition as the “main artery” of Chinese culture, responsible not only for its own perpetuation and renewal, but also for the safe-keeping of the country’s Daoist and Buddhist traditions, Mou considered its renaissance a “necessity”. It not only should, but would return, assuming only that Chinese culture has a future. It is due to this indestructible confidence that Mou’s own name is inextricably bound to the wider prospects of Chinese national recovery.

Continue reading

The Shape of Time (Part 2a)

When describing the thinking of John Michael Greer as ‘druidic’ – as this series has cheerfully done – the adjective has been primarily philosophical in direction. It has been used only to indicate that an identifiable, and remarkably coherent, presupposition about the governing nature of time anchors Greer’s particular analyses, which draw out the implications of an unsurpassable cosmic cyclicity, and apply them deftly to a wide variety of concrete problems. ‘Druid’ and ‘radical cycle theorist’ have been treated as roughly equivalent terms.

It is worth noting at this point, however, that Greer is not only conceptually druidic. He is a public proponent of Druidism in a far richer, culturally-elaborate sense, which includes service “as presiding officer — Grand Archdruid is the official title — of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), a Druid order founded in 1912.” This vocation slants his perspective in important (and productive) ways. Our concerns here, tightly focused on the question of time, are able to extract considerable intellectual nourishment from a digression into this thick druidism.

Like other forms of occult Occidental religion, Druidry has an attachment to the deep past that is not tacit and traditional, but overt, modern, and creative. Greer admits readily – even gleefully – that his ‘Ancient Order’ is not in fact ancient at all, but instead belongs to a project of restoration – and actually reconstruction – that dates back no further than the mid-17th century. From its inception, it was bound to a lost past and to inextinguishable doubts about its own authenticity. Greer only very rarely uses his Archdruid Report platform to discuss druidism explicitly. On the first occasion when he does so, his reflections are triggered by the question of a young boy: Are you a real Druid?

Continue reading


When art history invokes the ‘contemporary’, it refers to now, the current moment, and thus points into an unresolved perplexity. Now remains undefined, whether by science, philosophy, or mystical religion. Our contemporary ‘now’ is not merely an instant — not even a stretched or dilated instant. It is a time that is still with us, or which we continue to participate in, at once proximate and elusive, still awaiting its sense, obliquely intersecting the narrower present of chronological location and practical schedules.

The visual arts, at their most reflective, enter into this perplexity as into an animating spiral. Whilst succumbing to categorization — or time definition — within a still obscure and incomplete contemporaneity, the art work can also make the act of definition its own, reaching out into the now, and telling us what it has found. In doing so it tests itself against an ultimate abstraction.

In some such now, current but chronologically indeterminable, Chinese visual art encountered a critical threshold. The difference between heading forward or backward, advancing or retreating, ceased – at some ‘point’ — to be an option, or a choice. Instead, for that complex cultural trend and inheritance at once defined as — and defining — neotraditionalism, true modernity was discovered in the acceptance of tradition as a path. This wave of creative – even explosive – experimentation was also an excavation, and a recovery. It demonstrated that innovative variation was inextricable from the maintenance of a course, directed into a future already cryptically indicated by the past.

Beyond Black and White: Chinese Contemporary Abstract Ink, on show at Pearl Lam Galleries (until September 7, 2013), focuses with glorious intensity upon the neotraditionalist current. In keeping with this focus, it both fulfills and deranges expectations, through the audacious explorations of a heritage made new.

Continue reading

Quotable (#1)

From Jing Wang’s highly-engaging High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng’s China (1996):

… the theoretical proposal about modernity’s critique of tradition—which amounts to a self-critique of tradition—should not be taken at face value. Advocates of the “neo-Confucianism of the third stage” were obviously more concerned with the capacity of tradition to withstand the furious pace of modernity and all the problems that would accompany it. Although Tu Weiming insisted that a neo-Confucian renaissance is based on the concept of “creative transformation” rather than equated with a conservative return to the Great Learning, the neo-Confucianists did not adequately address the intriguing theoretical question of how one can critique but at the same time inherit tradition. On the other hand, tradition’s critique of modernity cannot be genuinely executed either. With the rise of the myth of “Four Asian Dragons,” the 1980s saw the possibility of collaboration rather than confrontation between the two seemingly antithetical terms of tradition and modernity. Overseas neo-Confucian scholars like Tu Weiming and Yu Yingshi played an important role in driving home the dramatic message. Their ideological interventions from abroad strengthened the belief that Confucian tradition not only does not jeopardize, but on the contrary, facilitates the modernization process. Tu cited examples of Taiwan, Singapore, and other prosperous East Asian countries, and Yu traced the positive influence of Confucian culture on mercantilism back to the Ming and Qing period. The timely entry into the Cultural Discussion of overseas discourses on neo-Confucianism helped shape the central thesis of the Chinese debate over traditional culture and modernization. The thesis that both Tu and Yu foregrounded derived its ultimate reference from Max Weber’s theoretical framework laid out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: Can Confucianism be creatively transformed into a new ethos and ethics that could serve as the ideological foundation for Chinese modernization?

The implicit reference to Weber was well taken in China because it corresponded to the series of Weberian inquiries that Chinese intellectuals themselves had undertaken even before the “Weber fever” reached its peak toward the second half of 1986 with the appearance of the Chinese translation of The Protestant Ethic. If, as Weber implied, modern Western capitalism is supported by the spiritual culture of Protestantism (characterized as a model of rationality based on a synthetic vision of “other-worldly” quest and “inner-worldly asceticism”), then did not the successful experiment of East Asian countries with capitalism indicate that neo-Confucianism can serve East Asia as Protestantism served the modern West?