Dialogue Novel Hong Kong University Press2010
Book: Dialogue / Novol ( In English )
Author: Xiao Lu
Foreword: Gao Minglu
Translated: Archibald McKenzie
Publication: Hong Kong University Press2010
Foreword to Xiao Lu’s Dialogue
- Gao Minglu
Although Xiao Lu’s Dialogue is written in the form of a novel, it is based on a true story. However, it is not only the story of a single individual. At the same time it presents a particularly important event in the history of Chinese contemporary art. All the names in the book fictitious, but they are based on the authentic of real people. For instance, in the novel. Xiao Lu’s name becomes "Xiao Xiao", and the real person behind another important character, called "Lan Jun" is Tang Song.
I began the preparations for the China Avant-garde Exhibition in 1986. This was the first time in Chinese history that the Chinese themselves curated an exhibition for contemporary Chinese artists. I was the principal curated on the preparatory committee for this exhibition. All the members of the preparatory committee were critics and scholars who were prominently active at the time. All the hosting editorial committee members of Dushu [Study] and Wenhua: Zhongguo yu shijie [Culture: Chinese and World ], publications that flourished during the 1980s, took part in the exhibition activities. The preparations took three years. The opening almost took place on 1 July 1987, but it was postponed because of the sudden unleashing of the Chinese Communist Party’s political movement. "Against Bourgeois Liberalization". At the time, the leaders of the art world came to see me with the documents of the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party and virtually compelled me to suspend the preparations, so the plans for the exhibition had to be cancelled. After six months of discussions with the Director of the National Art Museum of China, the China Avant-garde exhibition finally receiced official permission to open at the Chinese National Art Museum in Beijing on 5 February 1989, the eve of the traditional Chinese Spring Festival. The preparatory process was full of hardships, and the available funds were very constricted. It took me two years after the exhibition closed to pay off the debts incurred. At about 11 a.m. on 5 February 1989, about two hours after the opening of the China Avant-garde Exhibition, Xiao Lu, standing in the ground floor exhibition hall, suddenly raised a handgun and fired two shots at her own installation work, Dialogue. The sound of these gunshots not only shook the National Art Museum of China, it also attracted widespread attention among the Chinese and the international media. The China Avant-garde exhibition was immediately closed by the Public Security. Xiao Lu instantly became a public figure who stirred China and the world.
Four months after these gunshots, the June 4 Tiananmen Incident occurred. Thereupon, immediately after June 4, Xiao Lu’s gunshots were called by conservative persons in the art world "the first gunshots of Tiananmen", just as the China Avant-garde Exhibition was described – after June 4 – as "the little Tiananmen Square". Against the larger social background of that time, this manner of speech clearly made sense, for the Avant-garde Art Movement of the 1980s as a whole was of a piece with the modern demand for democracy. Xiao Lu’s gunshots challenged the National Art Museum of China. They challenged the official authorities of the time. Whether or not they arose from purely political considerations, their objective consequence actually did serve a libertarian and anti-authoritarian social purpose, and this work of art was undoubtedly one of the most iconic works in the history of Chinese contemporary art.
However, as to the specific motivation for Xiao Lu to fire the gun, as to her individual background, how her artistic conception was formed and other fundamental questions, it was impossible to understand any of them deeply in the situation of agitation and frenzy at the time. After she fired the gun, Xiao Lu and Tang Song were detained, and when the June 4 Incident happened later, Xiao Lu managed to get to Australia, where Tang Song joined her as an illegal entrant after having himself smuggled to Hong Kong. No normal art research was possible. Therefore, although I was the Principal Curator of the China Avant-garde Exhibition, I in fact had no understanding of Xiao Lu’s true intentions. She on the other hand remained silent for all those years.
Thus, in all the media reports, Xiao Lu’s two gunshots became a mysterious event that was circulated by word of mouth.
There were two doubtful points. Once was: why was the gun fired? At the time the only account directly from the mouths of those who participated in the firing of the guns was the Statement signed by Xiao Lu and Tang Song, and which I have preserved until today. This document was given to me by Tang Song and Xiao Lu on the third day after the shooting. Tang Song told me at the time that they hoped that I would give this Statement to the public on their behalf:
As parties to the shooting incident of the day of the opening of the China Avant-garde Exhibition, we consider it a purely artistic incident. We consider that in art, there may be artists with different understandings of society, but as artists we are not interested in politics. We are interested in the values of art as such, and in its social value, and in using the right form in which to create, in order to carry out the process of deepening that understanding.
Xiao Lu, Tang Song
Secondly, who authored the Shooting Incident, or who participated in it? According to this statement, it seemed that Tang Song also took part in it. However, was being a participant equivalent to being an author of the work? This was also unclear at the time. In fact, as Tang Song was arrested immediately after Xiao Lu fired the gun, as Xiao Lu and Tang Song were both detained for three days in the Dongcheng Bureau of Security, both of them as a matter of course were regarded by everybody as fellow conspirators. People at the time even said among themselves that Tang Song had provided the gun, as Tang Song’s father was the Chief of the Zhejiang Military Region. But fifteen years later, Xiao Lu for the first time demonstrated that the gun was lent her by another young man, Li Songsong, a childhood friend of hers from another military family.
For the fifteen years after the Incident in 1989, most people regarded the shooting as a performance work created by XiaoLu and Tang Song, although we could see on the video footage that only Xiao Lu held the gun, and that two male persons were standing next to her at the time of the shooting. When I was making the 1990 television series Xinchao meishu (New Wave Art), I still clearly introduced Xiao Lu as the author of her work Dialogue and of the Shooting Incident. However, when Xiao Lu and Tang Song both went to Australia afterwards, this seemed to confirm the relationship of cooperation between them. From then on, Xiao Lu and Tang Song appeared in almost all books and articles about the Chinese avant-garde art as joint creators. This included my 1998 catalogue Inside Out: Chinese New Art, which made Xiao Lu and Tang Song equal authors. The footage of Xiao Lu firing the gun, filmed on the spot by Wen Pulin, was shown in the exhibition.
However, for the fifteen years since 5 February 1989, we never heard Xiao Lu talking about her two gunshots. After Xiao Lu and Tang Song were detained by the Bureau of Security and suddenly fell in love, they had lived together for fifteen years. On this basis, one might say that Xiao Lu’s two gunshots wrought fifteen years of de facto marriage for her and Tang Song.
Then suddenly one day, fifteen years after the gunshots, in a studio in the 798 Arts Precinct in Beijing, I unexpectedly bumped into Xiao Lu. By then she and Tang Song had already split up. She said she was looking for me. She wanted to clear up the facts of that time and revise the question of who was entitled to the authorship of the Shooting Incident. She was the unique author. This somewhat surprised me, but on the other hand it was no real surprise, for there were already a number of rumours and stories about the China Avant-garde Exhibition in general, even about who was its curator. Several facts needed clearing up. I myself was also just in the process of writing a document about the China Avant-garde Exhibition. Many first-hand materials were likely to correct several non-factual oral traditions. For that reason I paid great attention to Xiao Lu’s account, while at the same time being very cautious, as I was indeed not very clear about Xiao Lu and Tang Song’s relations.
Xiao Lu extensively related the true situation in 1989. Sitting next to her was Li Songsong, who had lent her the gun, not Tang Song. Moreover, this middle-aged Beijing artist, as he was now, attested the truth before us in his own words: he had lent her the gun. I immediately realized that there was a problem, so I asked Xiao Lu to put the facts in writing and to send them to me. After I returned to the United States, Xiao Lu sent me four letters, and I was impressed by her truthfulness. After her fourth letter, I replied to her.
By then, I had already reflected on these matters for a while, and had reached a clear line of thought. The shattering of Xiao Lu and Tang Song’s personal feelings and Xiao Lu’s resulting change of heart towards Tang Song was definitely the fuse that had led to Xiao Lu’s revision, but I did not think that this matter could be reduced altogether to a question of personal resentment. Although there was some element of Xiao and Tang’s personal emotions tangled up in it, this process also was a part of the history of Chinese contemporary art, as these things unfolded around the Shooting Incident. These were facts, and as the Principal Curator of the Exhibition, they had to be my historical responsibility. Therefore I encouraged Xiao Lu to state the facts clearly, responsibly and courageously, as it was of the utmost importance to leave a genuine historical account for future historical writings
Xiao Lu’s revision immediately encountered fierce pressure and resistance. She spent a period of great difficulty and could not remain in Beijing. She planned to return to Hangzhou. Her former friends, even the childhood friend who had lent her the gun, abandoned her under great pressure. Xiao Lu was likened to Xianglin’s Wife in Lu Xun’s story New Year Sacrifice, a woman who having lost husband and child becomes mentally disturbed and spends every day complaining non-stop. Nobody seemed to pay any attention to the facts Xiao Lu was telling, but focused on the audacity of her seeking a revision as such. Some female artists even thought that Xiao Lu should keep quiet and accept reality. She couldn’t, just because she had suffered an emotional loss, start revealing past matters, let alone such well-settled ancient history. Besides, these particular matters were a universally accepted heroic saga. Xiao Lu’s revision was regarded by many people in avant-garde circles as a mere blowing off of emotional steam, and she seemed to have become a ‘bad woman’ who was subverting the grand historical narrative of avant-garde art. We don’t know how often Xiao Lu has played the part of the ‘bad woman’, but we know at least that she firstly fired the gun, making her a bad woman in the eyes of the official orthodoxy, and that this time, she was regarded as one by her own ‘collegues”’.
Xiao Lu’s revision, like her gunshots, became a controversial case in the history of contemporary art. It was different in that the first time, she had been a heroine, whereas this time she was a ‘vindictive woman’. The revision was perceived as going against the whole established history of avant-garde art, against authority, even against patriarchal society. Therefore, Xiao Lu’s revision lost her the former sympathy towards her. The avenging actions of lovelorn woman did not involve any question of justice. Even within the inner core of the ‘avant-garde’, whose calling is rebellion as such, Xiao Lu’s revision encountered enormous obstruction. I can imagine the weight of the pressure on her. It was beyond the endurance of an ordinary person. However, she not only endured it, but eventually gained the sympathy of most people, and moreover recovered her right to recognized as sole author of the work. At the Jiade auction of 2007, her installation Dialogue, under the sole name of Xiao Lu as creator, was successfully auctioned. I greatly admire Xiao Lu’s rebellious courage and absolutely unyielding dedication.
If Xiao Lu’s fifteen years of silence was the cost of the love between her and Tang Song, then there can be no objection against her seeking to recover her capital when that love no longer existed, although it may fly against the teachings of traditional Confucianism. Besides, no matter how long she maintained that silence, she could never forfeit the right to end it and state the facts, and to demand her right. The longer her silence, the greater the pressure was on Xiao Lu herself, and the greater and heavier its cost. It was in this situation of impasse that Xiao Lu fired off her discontent in one breath and completed her book Dialogue. As soon as she had finished it, she sent it to me, and I read it through in one go.
The deepest impressions that this book made on me were twofold. First, the first half of Xiao Lu’s life resulted from an amalgam of two extremely splintered factors, namely her dedication to individual love and her rebellion against accepted norms. However, perhaps it was the very perfectionism and idealism of her view of love that made her emotional life tragic. On the other hand, Xiao Lu comes from a revolutionary family. Both her parents are artists of the school of Socialist Realism and were cadres of the revolution. However, Xiao Lu is a rebel against this tradition.
The second matter for to reconsider was the significance of Xiao Lu’s gunshots. This book let me see the real Xiao Lu hidden behind the grand narrative that in many respects had become more superficial and simplified by social public opinion, and to see her actual emotional life. I trust that other readers will also re-examine the multiple factors behind Xiao Lu’s firing of the gun. At least we shall no longer interpret them from a simplistic and vulgar sociological angle, taking them as a political diagram, for instance. If we ignore Xiao Lu’s individual life story, her individual emotions and her family environment, we shall be unable to interpret the significance of her gunshots with any depth or accuracy. Although Xiao Lu’s firing of the gun was indeed an avant-garde act of rebellion, it becomes pale and lifeless without the flesh and blood of a specific individual. The book Dialogue lets me see this flesh and blood, and lets me understand to a greater degree how the rebellious enthusiasm of the gunshots was born. There was no dogmatic sociology or random act of conceptualist significance, but on the contrary, a long term build-up of oppressions dating back to Xiao Lu’s youth. These oppressions were complex. Some were artistic, others political, and others again had to do with sex and love.
What did surprise me was that Xiao Lu reveals in her book how a guardian trusted by her parents, a representative of the older generation of Socialist Realist art with a rather high moral standing, was the first to possess her body. I think it was this secret itself, hidden in her heart and unforgettable for as long as she lives, that oppressed her the most. Xiao Lu had once enjoyed the proud title of ‘princess’ of the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts (formerly the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts), because she was the daughter of the President of the Academy. Nevertheless, the feeling of humiliation and loss in her heart constantly accompanied her in that decorous life and family background. The two factors are in fact inseparable, but the superior Xiao Lu had no way of expressing her pain. This then is a female tragedy within the specific system of Chinese socialism.
After she had finished writing Dialogue, Xiao Lu still had doubts about whether or not to publish. She will doubtlessly not forget the wounds she received in this tragedy for as long as she lives. Whether or not her firing the gun was directly related to the harm done her by her guardian is not for me to decide arbitrarily, although she tells us in the book that she telephoned her guardian not long after the shooting to let him know that she had fired the gunshots that shocked the world.
In any case it takes great courage to open your mouth to bring the truth to light before the wide world. I can imagine what she must have felt in receiving this great pressure, but more to the point, this pressure was not imposed from outside, but came from herself. She had to conquer herself before she could speak out. This pressure was invisible. It reminds me of Foucault’s theory of the invisible power of the ‘discursive centre’. Our actions and language are generally regulated by a centre of power. When we say that we have been ideologized, it does not at all mean exclusively that we are regulated by ideology. We simultaneously want ideology to regulate us. One might say that Xiao Lu’s gunshots at the National Art Museum of China were a resistance against this invisible centre of discourse, but that this resistance was expressed in an irrational and subconscious fashion. In other words, only an irrational, unconscious resistance could successfully penetrate through to the centre of that power system. The revision fifteen years later was yet another resistance against this centre of power, but with the passing of time, the meaning of this centre of power had changed. Both times were cases of social resistance, and at the same time, of female resistance. This resistance was individualized yet not individualized. In other words, although Xiao Lu’s firing of the gun in 1989 and her revision fifteen years later were individualized and privately targeted, we should not regard them as merely private acts. Their character was social, for the targeting (of the guardian or of Tang Song) was both individual and representative of people in a system of discourse.
Therefore what Xiao Lu targeted was our reality. We are all individually duty-bound to reflect, to review, and to take responsibility, whether we are male or female, avant-garde or traditional. Xiao Lu’s revision of her gunshots has already far transcended the scope of art as such. We have not even today come to grips with and reflected deeply on, let alone begun to solve, the questions sounded by the gunshots. What they alert us to and tell us, is not only the question of breaking down conservative artistic views, nor do they only vent personal vindictiveness. The story of the gunshots tells us that Chinese society as an entire system must realize democracy. This in itself is of course of crucial importance, but of even greater importance is that each one of us, each intellectual, each so-called avant-garde artist, must first of all possess a democratic quality and a social conscience. We must respect the individual, respect the facts, respect women. Without this respect and equality, no system can lead us to democracy. Therefore the road before us will be a very long one before we reach the day when we have realized a democratic society.
I do not know what sort of debate or even incidents (such as legal action) will follow the publication of Xiao Lu’s book, but if we can attain some transcendent inspiration or enlightenment from Xiao Lu’s individual story, and reflect on how to save the soul of our race, this will be the greatest success of Xiao Lu’s book.
Now Xiao Lu’s Dialogue will finally be published by Hong Kong University Press. I am extremely happy for her. It is a big thing for Xiao Lu, for Chinese contemporary art, and in the life of all Chinese. At the same time I owe a debt of gratitude to my close friend of many years, Professor Jerome Silbergeld of Princeton University. He facilitated the publication of this book of Xiao Lu’s, for when it was first finished, Xiao Lu was unable to find a publisher for it. The publishing companies in China dared not publish it because of its sensitive subject matter, which extended to the June 4 Incident, while international publishers, considering perhaps their financial returns, were generally inclined to have her edit it to satisfy the expectations and curiosity of readers. She therefore retreated after repeated failed attempts. Later I raised the matter with Jerome . He was very interested, and after reading the draft version immediately recommended it strongly to Hong Kong University Press, as its Principal Consultant. Ultimately Hong Kong University Press decided to keep the book as it was in its entirety, and to publish it simultaneously in Chinese and English, which is a great blessing. I am therefore extremely grateful to Jerome for his vision and support. I should also thank Mr. Michael the chief editor of Hong Kong University Press for his support on behalf of Xiao Lu.
Translated from Chinese by Archibald McKenzie