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Archaeology: Silk Road

Might art be a weapon too?

When the global financial crisis hit, people realized that art, which had been seen as a “weapon”, was not selling anymore. In truth, so called Chinese contemporary art was too heavily burdened, having the responsibility to represent resistance to ideology, and to criticize the myriad of changes in consumer society. Meanwhile, it also had to prop up a sufficient amount of financial legends. It couldn’t take it anymore, and that’s what prompted my departure, my path to the Silk Road. I entered those disappeared memories that had existed for 1500 years. By attaining a certain distance from the crisis and from the court of fame, I could begin considering things from a “distance”.

In 1877, the German geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen named this commercial route that had been linking East and West since 114 BC the Silk Road. Generally speaking, this is the term for the network of roads that since ancient times have stretched from East Asia through Eurasia into Europe and North Africa for trading in silk. The Silk Road has been extremely important in world history. This vein running through the Asian-European land mass served as a bridge between the Chinese, Indian and Hellenic cultures. Its history spans over two millennia, and includes both land-based and maritime routes, so historical accounts are divided into four periods: pre-Qin, Han-Tang, Song-Yuan and Ming-Qing, according to the main dynasties of China’s dynastic history; it is also divided into the land-based Silk Road and the maritime Silk Road. Since the roads travelled in different directions, it is divided into the “northern Silk Road” and the “southern Silk Road”. On land, the roads vary widely in terms of geography, so it has been divided into the “grassland and forest Silk Road”, the “mountain and valley Silk Road” and the “desert and oasis Silk Road”. Silk was the main export product that China sent out along the route, and some paths have been named for the main products that returned, such as the “fur and skins road”, the “jade road”, the “jewel road” and the “spice and incense road”. Along the maritime Silk Road, much of the trade since the Middle Ages was porcelain, hence the name “porcelain road”. The Silk Road had three key functions. First, it was used for trade in products: trading teams would leave China carrying silk, porcelain, iron, gold and silver implements, mirrors and other luxury products, while items such as lapis, grapes, walnuts, radishes, pepper, lima beans, spinach, cucumbers, pomegranates, rare plants and animals, skins, medicinal herbs and spices would return. The interesting aspect of this exchange is that it is exactly the opposite of trading patterns between East and West today. Nowadays high value-added products are imported from the West, while what China produces are low value resource-based products. The second key function was cultural exchange: China sent printing technology to the West, where Gutenberg used it to print a Bible. There was also irrigation technology such as the Turfan irrigation system, the well and canal system, and well-boring technology, all of which were important for Western military development, while the technology that arrived from the West was basically limited to agricultural uses. This situation has also been reversed today. Then there was the spread of religion: from the West came Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Nestorianism, Islam and Catholicism, while China had the most flourishing and ancient civilization, bringing great profits from trade with China, and turning the country into a place highly esteemed and aspired to by westerners. This was the spiritual influence of Eastern and Western exchange along the Silk Road.  There are many similarities here with Chinese aspirations towards Western civilization. I am not a researcher. Though these conclusions have been around for a long time, we still must follow that network of mysterious pathways, and sift through the dust that lies atop history in a search for a “Silk Road” that can connect the ancient with today, so that we can take a new look at the pathways connecting today’s East and West.


    Through archaeology, perhaps we might come up with the following conclusion – the West of today is like the China of ancient times, and vice-versa. It is a cycle, and the “track” of this cycle is the Silk Road. This “track” transcended the simple meaning of a road long ago, and is now like a sharp dagger hanging over the river of East-West history, examining our perplexity, our struggles and our rapacity. So what about wisdom? What is the wisdom we can use to face today? A return to the Silk Road.

So why did I want to photograph this topic? We all know that the Silk Road was a commercial road, a trade route that stretched from Changan (present-day Xian) across Eurasia. The silk trade established contact between East and West in ancient times, and it developed into a path of civilization for the coexistence of diverse cultures. On the other hand, looking at the world today, though they say that this was a financial crisis caused by derivatives, if you look deeper, you see that it is about a single civilization, Western civilization, replacing the existence of others. That is to say, this is a “crisis” caused by the clash of a single civilization against multiple civilizations. The Silk Road is a lens, allowing us to consider today’s events in light of those of the past. One could venture to say that after this crisis, the end of “ideological art” has been declared, and that we have entered the era of “globalization and information”.

Now that I have answered the question of what to shoot, the next question is how to do it. People have compared the difference between painting and photography to the difference between witchdoctors and surgeons. When a witchdoctor treats a patient, he does it from a distance, curing him with gestures. Photography is like a surgeon, reaching its goal of treating the illness by entering deep into the patient’s body and performing surgery. In terms of the effects of the two, photography appears more realistic, while painting appears more subjective. This has led to the two trends of “conceptual photography” that have been popular in China recently. One uses computers to compose photographs, while the other is created by making arrangements in an indoor studio. The former seems empty, lacking in the visual language of photography. The latter has only arranged objects, and lacks in realistic detail. The question is how to make conceptual photography have concepts, details and the allure of tone. That is, how to make it have the mystique of the witchdoctor and the skill of the surgeon. I think that this can only be attained through religious or Zen methods. Everyone knows that the Zen concept of “seeing into the heart to attain the vision of the Buddha” reveals art’s ability to awaken the true nature of man. “Prayer” in Western religions, “meditation” in Zen and “sutra chanting” in Buddhism are all repeated acts towards objects to reach a certain spiritual “realm”. For this reason, it is not enough for photography to have tone and detail. Only when you can find a reproducible “truth” can a “transcendence of truth” be attained. Why not “surreal”? That is because there are close realities and distant realities. The surreal transcends the apparent reality, while truth is like the “interior support” of sculpture or the “texture” of painting. We must keep in mind that when pop arrived in the era of globalization and information, the spread of information surpassed that of commodities. The pressure of global unitary civilization on multiple civilizations surpassed the hegemony of ideology. The idea of the artist turned into everyone using the banner of art to become market stars. Fake photographs, fake information, fake commodities, fake love and fake art became the norm. Is there anything real left in the world? Therefore, “transcendent truth” is the one viable crux of art that is the most difficult for society to attain.

Then how do we make our photography attain this “transcendent truth”? First, we must revive the photographic techniques of the Cultural Revolution, the principle of the three prominences: typical details must stand out from typical environments, typical people must stick out from the typical plots, and a main character must stick out from the typical people. Here I am playing the role of a director rather than a photographer. “I have enough photos, and most of them are highly superfluous, and that is why my photographs can be called anti-photographs – the opposite of those ones that are trendy because they are said to be about real life.” When photography reenters the realm of art, it relies on rather plain painting, artistic methods devoid of any trickery. I’m still using this photographic language to document the complex relationships between nature and humanity. Facing that reality which is increasingly distorted by mechanical and digital imagery, photography unconsciously attains its original intent, and that is what makes it so natural. The next thing is to find a director. The reasoning or conception that comes after reaching the three prominences is to get Zen connotations to permeate the picture. What remains is to discover the path through reality that leads into the soul’s space.

The true photographer only shoots for his inner mind. Sometimes he gets lost, and focuses on the issues that politicians and sociologists worry about. But once he satisfies this moral responsibility, he will feel empty, and return to the mind. Only his mind can truly tell him how prominent his hypocrisy and existence are. The mind will help him to understand the truth about himself, and once he understands himself, he will come to understand the truth about the world. To attain this true mind, he must pay for it with labor and suffering, because the mind is not always wide open, and is more often closed, just like foreigners, just like youth. I am heavy. I cannot tear myself apart like them, and present the process or results of that tearing, turning it into an artwork that everyone shares in. Does this have any value? These narrow, hollow image games are growing less and less resonant. Even those who seem to be free of the troubles brought on by rapid success seem to be so serious. Do you need such serious expressions? Could you express things a bit more lightly? Does it really need to carry so many concepts? So, I need to get out. Only through endless shooting can I get my inner mind to open up, and place myself in a state of discovery. Just as the shine of the sunrise lights up the land, I want my mind to feel the warmth of reality. My works have always come from a level of tense relations with reality. I wallow in illusion, yet reality pulls at me, and memory pushes at me. I feel like I’m being torn apart, but I dare not be torn apart over and over again. For this reason, only when reality becomes distant do their works shine with reality. It should be apparent that though the reality of the past is enchanting, it has been clothed with a layer of illusory colors, full of individual imagination and understanding. The true reality does not exist, it is something from which to escape. If you truly set out to express the everyday reality, you will find it hard to endure. The truths that come swarming seem to all speak of hideousness and treachery, and that is what’s strange; why is the treachery always so close, while the beauty is so far off. In other words, people’s friendship and empathy only come as sentiments, but the opposing reality is always tangible. Mankind cannot endure so much truth.

I have always been working to resolve my tense relationship with reality. I hope to find a path through which I can photograph things in the middle state, one that also includes esthetics and ideas. Perhaps this is the reason that I want to photograph my inner Silk Road; I need to place the present reality, in the midst of this financial crisis, within the context of history and the humanist spirit. This is visual reality in the truest sense, because it not only connects East and West, it also links the past with the future.

Some so-called successful artists are also photographing reality, but the reality in their lenses is just an environment, a set, dead reality. They can’t see how people come, and they can’t see how they go. When they photograph their calculated reality, we get the sense that the artists themselves are being calculating. Your mission is not to vent, not to denounce or reveal. Your mission is to present the lofty to the people. Lofty here is not that which has been judged to be beautiful, but a transcendence that follows after coming to understand everything, embracing both good and bad, using temperate eyes to view the world rather than worshipping the distorted. Photographs of people’s ability to endure suffering, when made by one who has himself suffered much, come out as very relaxed artworks. Is that not lofty?

Though art has already discarded the limitations of photography and grasped it in a broad way, I still hope for some richly imaginative, deftly performed photography of reality to emerge. That would mark the establishment of a reference system for the diverse expression of experiential reality. Here, history has provided us with a new matrix. Of course, the history we depict is based on archaeology from a distance, our subjective, conceptual and spiritual history. This doesn’t discount the importance of awareness or force people into shallow thinking or to wallow in reality. As critics and antagonists against the overflow of undifferentiated mass media information, artists must try and try again to fulfill their role in society. It emerges like a beacon above the mundane waves of the art scene. Moreover, it requires esthetic intellect, deliberate construction, trained imagination and unparalleled visual richness to infect people with. It is like a full panorama of cultural history. Furthermore, it does not lose its substance in abstraction. Instead, it is imbued with the substance of specific perceptivity through the soul of the viewer, forming a musical score to the philosophy of this era of crisis.

Archaeology is discovering the truths of the soul and reality within history.

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