Jos de Mul. Preface. In: Zha Changping. World Relational Aesthetics. A History of Ideas in Pioneering Contemporary Chinese Art. Volume One. Shanghai: Sanlian, 2017, xiv-xvi, xvii-xx.
In 2006, as part of a lecture tour through China, which brought me to cities as different as Urumqi and Shanghai, I also participated in a conference of the International Association of Aesthetics in Chengdu. It was on this occasion that I met Zha Changping for the first time. I was introduced to him by a common friend of us, the Shanghai-based historian Chen Xin. During my stay in Chengdu, Changping and I had several conversations, and I especially remember one hot evening in June, whenwe, together with museum sculptor Zhu Cheng and my wife Gerry, were sitting on a terrace near the Fu river, discussing the state of contemporary art, religion and politics in China and Europe, meanwhile enjoying the delicious Sichuan food and cool beers and watching the joyful play of the little children on the terrace. It was a wonderful evening, to which my memories often return.
Since that first meeting more than ten years have passed, in which Changping and I kept in touch. I followed his publications (unfortunately only being able to read the English ones, as I am not able to read Chinese) and was impressed by his productivity andthe broad scope of his publications, ranging from art criticism and art history – such as the very informative Up-On Chengdu, Somatic Aesthetics and Scene Connection (2013) - to studies in the logic of history, Japanese history, New Testament studies, and a series of translations. What moreover impressed me was his profound familiarity with Western art theories and the creative way he applied them within a Chinese context. Changping proved to be all-round humanities scholar with an inspiring intercultural approach.
In a way, all of Zha Changping’s talents are present in the book the reader has before him now: the first volume of A History of Ideas in Pioneering Contemporary Chinese Art. The author worked on the book for about 16 years and discusses in it 350 works of more than 70 Chinese contemporary pioneering artists. Given the crucial role Chengdu plays in the pioneering arts – the trans-avant-garde movement focusing on experimental art forms such as installation art, video art, happenings, and performance – Zha Changping, having a large network in this movement – is the obvious author for such an ambitious project. Moreover, the book offers much more than the traditional kind of art history, which often restricts itself to describing artists and their works and to documenting art-historical events like exhibitions and catalogues. Although A History of Ideas in Pioneering Contemporary Chinese Art certainly is informative in this respect, it goes far beyond such a narrow approach. Following a relational-aesthetic approach, Zha Changping offers a thorough analysis of the ideas embodied in, and lying behind the pioneering art, with the help of seven dimensions: Language, Time, Self, Nature, Society, Culture, and Devotion.
Being a scholar educated within the hermeneutic tradition, I am convinced that only such a multidimensional approach – which is at once relational and holistic - might offer us an insight in inexhaustible richness of meaning of a phenomenon such as the pioneering art movement. According to the German philosopher, historian, and art critic Wilhelm Dilthey, of all human expressions only art is able to illuminate human life in its full breadth and depth. But this is only possible when we connect the works of art with all the other dimensions of life with which it is connected.
Offering such a multidimensional interpretation was already a great challenge in Dilthey’s rapidly changing 19th century, characterized by industrialization and technologization, and the rise of capitalism. Clearly, this task has only become more challenging in our globalizing world, in which new means of transportation and information technologies have resulted in a constant world-wide exchange of goods, people, and ideas.
The fact that Changping and I met in 2006 in Chengdu, and our continuing dialogue since then,were only possible because of this process of globalization. From a hermeneutic point of view, such a cultural exchange may result in a broadening of our horizons of experience, and as such may enrich our lives. It may even lead to what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls a fusion of horizons, a fruitful cross-fertilization of cultures. But such global forms of communication are not without problems. Not only will such an intercultural fusion never be complete (because of the finiteness of our horizon of experience globalization always remain glocalization in one form or another), there is also the danger of violating each other’s horizons, be it culturally, economically, or military. Moreover, there is also always the danger that - using a phrase taken from Jacques Derrida’s deconstructivist hermeneutics - globalization result in a confusing dissemination of horizons, a kaleidoscopic post-modernization and commodification of culture, which pervades our present world.
What makes things even more complicated, is that in our present world premodern, modern and postmodern lifestyles coexist, even within a single country (what Zha Changping in this book calls ‘mixed modernity’). China is a good example: whereas in rural area’s premodern lifestyles still prevail, we find various processes of modernization in the cities, whereas in metropoles like Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu postmodernity rules. But because of the still increasing urbanization of China these different lifestyles constantly meet, interact and sometimes struggle. And global migration, motivated by political, economic or ecological disasters, lead to similar, often tragic encounters.
The great challenge of the 21st century is to transform this societal condition into a sustainable world, simultaneously addressing its ecological, social, legal, political, cultural, and spiritual dimensions. Art may help us to imagine and realize such a sustainable world, beyond the commercial exploitation of (non-human and human) nature. Zha Changping’s History of Ideas in Pioneering Contemporary Chinese Art may help us to understand the meaning of the experiments of these artists, who contribute in a multidimensional way to this ideal.
Given its merits, it is an honor for me recommend this book to the reader. It offers a fascinating insight, not only into an important movement in contemporary Chinese art, but also into the development of China and the world as a whole. Although Zha Changping has an open eye for the many problems and challenges the world is facing today, his book is also an expression of the spiritual hope that pioneering art may help us to overcome them. We need such hope, especially in moments when everything seems hopeless. After all, as Walter Benjamin once expressed it, it is only for the sake of the hopeless, that hope is given to us!
Jos de Mul studied philosophy, art history and social sciences. At present, he is full professor Philosophy of Man and Culture at the Faculty of Philosophy, Erasmus University Rotterdam. He has also taught at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, 2007-2008), Fudan University (Shanghai, 2008), and Ritsumeikan University (Kyoto, 2016). In 2012 he became a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, USA. From 2007 to 2010 he has been President of the International Association for Aesthetics, on which occasion he co-organized the XVIIIth International Congress of Aesthetics in Beijing (2010). His research is on the interface of philosophical anthropology, philosophy of technology, aesthetics, and history of 19th and 20th century German philosophy. His English book publications include: Romantic Desire in (Post)Modern Art and Philosophy (State University of New York Press, 1999), The Tragedy of Finitude. Dilthey's Hermeneutics of Life (Yale University Press, 2004, 2010), Cyberspace Odyssey. Towards a Virtual Ontology and Anthropology (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), and Destiny Domesticated. The Rebirth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Technology (State University of New York Press, 2014) He is the winner of the Praemium Erasmianum Research Prize (1994) and the Socrates Prize (2003). His work has been translated in more than a dozen languages.