Lu Jie Born in 1967. Initiator and curator of the vast project "Long March" with participants of more than 300 Chinese and international artists. Member of the editorial board of "YISHU – the magazine of contemporary Chinese art" and Scientific board of the Asia Art Archive on Hong-Kong. Lives in Beijing.
"Building Code Violations" is a metaphor.
Shanghai artist Hu Xiangcheng is one of the earliest Chinese avant-garde artists after the Cultural Revolution concluded. However, at the height of his career, he chose to step out of the artistic circle, and for many years has been working in the Chinese countryside conducting social reconstruction projects. Throughout his work, has been collecting and summarizing materials and evidence of building code violations in the rural area surrounding Shanghai in order to understand how people on the grassroots level are able to use their own creativity and "intelligence" to daringly, and at times tragically, resist against the organization and social distribution system with which they do not concur. Inspired by the efforts of Hu Xiangcheng, "The Long March Project" has setout upon a new research project entitled "Long March – Building Code Violations."
"Building Code Violations" comes from the legal lexicon of modern urban planning and management, targeting those specific individual actions which are in contravention of a normalized and unified social system. Hu Xiangcheng's understanding of "Building Code Violations" is as a cultural approach directed at an "universalist" modernity actively forced upon Asia. This type of "top down" approach, while revolutionary in nature, has resulted in not only overturning of local epistemological systems, but also a displacement of nature and space, a distortion of bodily experiences, and heightening of class tensions. If the democratic model put forth by modernity is a universal historical process, then, how do we confront the failure of this model to "universalize"? The expression of "violations" are built upon offshoots of individual needs, which beneath their surface resides a critique towards the construction of a particular idealist aesthetics – a battle between an individual democratic model and the ideal democratic model constructed in a collective society. In a period when "freedom" and "democracy" have seemingly become the predominately accepted standard for which to evaluate the "right" and "wrong" of a country, every attempt is made to construct a "legal" basis for the rationalization of this principle into a pervasive and unquestioned epistemology through the continuous creation of new spaces in which to enact this legal standard, and a rewriting of history into a linear narrative. What is in actuality an artificially constructed "fact" is then used to disprove the epistemology of the "Other." The emphasis on competition and self interest promoted by the cultural logic of capitalism paradoxically requires the construction of regulating and limiting mechanisms (capital always sets limits for its own expansion), giving rise to the needs for rights and democracy as a basis for the establishment of equality. This inherently unequal and contradictory cultural logic is rampant throughout the process of countries confrontation with modernity. Whether China is socialist or capitalist is an irrelevant question in the post-Cold War period, functioning merely as symbolic proof of the conclusion of the Cold War and the de-facto triumph of capitalism. "Building Code Violations" in their very inception are confronted with failure and an ephemeral nature. Their paradox, is thus expressed beyond purely material or architectural concepts, entering into the cultural and political arenas of society.
"Building Code Violations" occur throughout the totality of society, using one "wrong" to subvert the ridiculousness of another "wrong". This process is visible only as a consciously intuitive resistance which cannot be characterized or judged. Visible is only the discrepancy between space and time, and the delayed logic of the space of conflict, with cultural actions leaving the imprint of failure. The research and documentation of "Building Code Violations" by Hu Xiangcheng has been summarized by the artist and extended into his own practice, effectively constructing his own little utopia. His reconstruction project has already been carried out throughout the rural region surrounding Shanghai. Through the use of a direct constructive intervention that cuts across government restrictions and legal regulations, the artist addresses the cultural conflict that occurs within rural areas during the modernization process, carving out a space within this conflict for traditional culture. The search for a possible route between government planning and personal idealism leans strongly on a balance between theory and practice, and the greater relations between regional environment, traditional humanist practices and resources. Hu Xiangcheng's small scale "grassroots" approach, and the "top down" urbanization process to which it is responding, are actually violations of one another, reflecting the contradictions and conflicts within modernity.
Is the architecture of a society simply the airports, expressways, bridges, theaters and museums, meeting halls, condominiums, parking lots, the architecture as constructed by architects? A concern with these structures only from a purely physical aspect overlooks the "totality of relationships" within society. We all know the difference between Rem Koolhaus and Herzog and de Meuron. We also know that their styles and thinking are in conflict with the narrow nationalism of local Chinese architects (which in actuality is a contradictory mixture of modernist, late modernist and postmodernist), who are likewise in conflict with the traditionalist and preservationists. But when these two great generals squared off in China – the "field laboratory for international architects" – in their pursuit of design of what should "be" (the standard model or architecture), each one ended up being the corresponding "building code violation" to their rival. But, the complexity of their creation, paled in comparison to the complexity of the situation itself, serving only as circular infighting and doing little to resolve the tensions and contradiction. In the 1980's, as per government mandate, the majority of the taller buildings in Beijing were equipped with a "hat" reminiscent of Chinese traditional pagodas and symbolic of national culture. The policy resulted in a distinct dichotomy between the "hat" and the main structure. In the 90's, Greco-Roman pillars were popularly reproduced on buildings on all levels of Chinese society, from the village "hair parlor" to large government buildings. In the new millennium, the majority of the high scale property developments are named after regions in North America: Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue, Yosemite, Sonoma Valley, and Vancouver Forest. The feeling of dislocation created by suddenly dropping these names upon different geographies can also be considered a "building code violation" to the broader social subjectivity. This situation is summed up in Simone de Beauvoir's "account of modern China", speaking of her visit to China post-World War II. After crossing endless oceans and deserts, she arrives in Beijing:
We pass construction projects, buildings going up, new houses. We go through a gate in a high gray wall, we find ourselves in narrow streets lined by low houses, also gray, and showing us nothing but blind fronts; there is beaten earth underfoot. Here are tiny shops, stalls whose windows are covered with bright red Chinese characters; red standards adorned with black characters serve as pricemarkers; it is all very nice, but this feels like an overgrown village we are entering, can it be the capital of China? [The translator] seems to have been reading my thoughts, "Soon," he says, making a sweeping gesture, "this quarter will be razed; it's called for in the plans."
"Ah yes," I say to myself, recovering my bearings. This disdain for the picturesque, this confidence in the future assure me that I am in one of the progressive countries.
In recent years, a rethinking of modernity has accompanied the gradually strengthening focus on the social nature of art. However, while artists are exploring varied dimensions through exhibitions and their works, it often seems the case that the works proclaiming the loudest to question the distance between art and society are paradoxically also those that are accentuating this rift. Many of the works purportedly against globalization are actually a celebration of globalization. What is perhaps relevant to ask is whether the so called "socially engaged" works of these "nomadic" artists who are constantly moving through different contexts and conditions are really directed at constructing something substantive within society. How many of the works made outside of the museum are made for the museum context, first starting on the outside and then moving to the inside? I believe that artists are very clear about what is at stake. Artist Rikrit Triavanija has established a "local" artists commune in the countryside near Chiang Mai, Thailand. Through this model utopian society, he has combined together rural living, artistic practice and personal body into one space, gaining a new living experience that goes beyond the boundaries between material and spiritual, urban and rural, individual imagination and collective unity, and art and life. At first glance, the "local project" by Hu Xiangcheng seems to be engaged in a similar process. However, in their essences, both projects are actually opposed to one another. Which invariably raises the question; how much those exhibitions and theories directed at the questions of globalization and immigration are restrained by the rural conditions and the dualism between development and tradition – the truly public spaces – of the local contexts, and not merely just limited to trendy "social" engagement in today's contemporary art practice?
Narrowly understood, "Violation" is a "rebellious" action against a certain dominant and normative standard. With regards to culture, the questions it poses include; "who sets or controls these standards? What ideologies are the value of these standards based upon? What is the nature of the path to modernity which we are currently traveling, a Noah's Ark or another Titanic? "Building Code Violations" is a theme and not any particular "building". It is an experimental space that occurs within real space, yet because it is an idealistic artistic utopia, it is completely different from the real world. Its greatest contribution is to reflect both the "good" and "bad" are counter violations of one another, which mirrors the dilemma and failure of the persistent myth of a totalizing modernity.
The conflict between "Chinese culture" and "Western culture" reached a pitch during the Qing Dynasty, and was following by Mao Zedong's seemingly swift resolution to this conflict through his advocacy of "Self Subsistence" and "Do-it-Yourself" social movements. However, concealed beneath the rather simplified explanation based upon the model of transition from an agrarian society to an industrial modern society are the complex negotiations and conflicts and contradictions between the culture of the local and the culture of the Other. It is because of this that innumerable amount of crisis arise in different areas – ethnicities, ecology and literature – in the process of this transition away from, and the decay of, old production methods. Local and national culture that is being swallowed in its passive role (while at the same time as being over exaggerated by the localists), is desperately trying to find an opportunity and space within the dominant discourse of "modern". The scars and wounds inflicted by the abandoning of a cultural understanding is immediately reflected and transformed into a "violating" action, quietly engaging in a resistance with reality. Here, the term "violation" does not connote any basis for the judgment, rather it is a self-constructed pronoun and an aesthetic attitude based upon experience of the indifference of difference, ubiquitous and decentralized, both visible and invisible, and both known and unknowable.
The symptoms of the loss of history and overturning of epistemological systems, and the chaos of memory and psychological ruptures characteristic of developing countries in the period of transition are reflected in a unnatural "imagination" where everyone is living "elsewhere." Here, the relationship between "subjectivity" and "passivity" is swiftly and unconsciously altered. Within Chinese history, modernity has always been imposed from "outside in", one could even say forced. The response was to build a nationalist subjectivity based upon the ideas of "anti-imperialism", "anti-feudalism", and "anti-colonialism", which were formulated in conjunction with the introduction of the "Western" subjectivities of Christianity and Communism. However, today, in a period when the new slogan of "globalization" mounts another attack on a nation's confidence, the discussion about the subjectivity and passivity of Chinese modernity, is dominated by the continual emphasis of the passive subjectivity of Chinese colonial history, and the intrusion of foreign powers inherent within the identity politics of prevalent post-colonialism. The simple application of the dualism of "insider/outsider" ignores the complexity of modernity, and overlooks the persistent "export" and international impact of Chinese revolutionary history on the context of global modernity and subsequent responses throughout Africa, Latin America, and in Europe and North America. What remains important is that we can find a contribution to the world in the raw material of historical and lived experience. The answer is not to care uselessly about the volume of voice, but rather to use that voice to say something substantive, and find new possibilities in this process of self-interpretation and self-restructuring.
Within China today, the most interesting topic to examine are the recently initiated and heavily promoted new rural reform initiatives. Will this proposal be able to get beyond divisions and produce a true constructive and collective consciousness, and not fall within the regulations of historically proven limits of ideology? While it is possible that this proposal, mixing idealism and practicality, can resolve the paradox of "Building Code Violations", we must first come to a positive understanding of, or at least acceptance of the possibilities of, a general social mobilization. Rural reconstruction is a line of thought the Long March has continually been following since 1998, as we continually unfold new practices based upon the different rural investigations and surveys of the different democratic models and the visual culture of the revolutionary history, and expanding to research and transmission of art, language, text and architecture. The thinking about general mobilization enabled the Long March to become a mutually beneficial and acknowledged project, not supported by the discursive dominance of an individual interest. As a collective action, does general social mobilization suppress individuality, or is it a combination of energies? If it is only a certain method of social production, then the individual action of violation is actually a different democratic general social mobilization, while simultaneously being an independent individual action. Its significance lies not only in discursive space created, but also serving as a corrective within reality.
Here, it is important to question the meaning of being avant-garde today. In China, the distorted nature of public discourse has placed the left as conservative (normally a position reserved for the right) and the right (with its supposed emphasis on individual rights and freedom) as the symbol of the avant-garde. With the rejection of the need for a continual revolution, we have mistakenly taken the heavily promoted artistic avant-garde (which has already been incorporated by the contemporary art system as the norm of artistic production in China) to be equated with the social avant-garde. The artistic Avant-garde art has easily attained elite status, consolidating its authority based on its success in the overseas market even as its interpretation of Chinese history and society becomes shallower and shallower. The complexity of Chinese revolutionary history is a key to modernity itself, and inability to come to terms with this risks historical nihilism. To come to terms with Chinese revolutionary history, especially to understand the social nature of art in all revolutionary periods, is helpful in allowing us to examine the situation of art and society today, the local and the global, and the rupture and rifts between history and contemporary. The visual expression of the methodologies of the different stages of the Chinese revolution, for example, Mao's "art should serve the people" has been the guiding principle for all art production in China until 1989. The collective creation (Cultural Revolution Period and the "Three Loyalties" mass art movements), anonymous or collective works, expressed a Chinese mass art production method, breaking down the barrier between elitist artist and the grassroots, dissolving the flow of social capital in artistic production. Does this type of artistic production method hold any meaning for the individualized art creation of today? As a conceptual position (Mao's words), is art merely a concept or a fresh space which we have never left? As those to be "served", have the people been able to possess substantive subjectivity or has it been merely a political ruse?
The most violating buildings are the constructions of unstable subjectivities that turn what should be inside outside, and vice versa. Modernity itself is not a violation, it is the "experience of modernity" that is modernity's building code violation? The building code violations around the world and the supposed codes that they violate are all unique. Currently, China's definition of building code violation is:
Those constructions which have not obtained a construction permit; those which violate given stipulations of a permit; or those constructions which severely interfere with city zoning.
1. Constructions built either without permission, and/or without prior obtaining of necessary urban zoning permits or land use permits.
2. Unauthorized alteration of a construction which has obtained the necessary urban zoning permits.
3. Unauthorized alteration of the use of a construction
4. Unauthorized turning of a temporary construction into a permanent construction.
The paradox of modernity is the need to reconfigure space and landscapes as to be conducive to the organization of production, only to find that what it has created is antagonistic to its needs at a future point in time. This process is enacted culturally by turning temporary constructions into permanent ones, and permanent constructions into building code violations.
- ^ Translators Note: The term "Building Code Violations" is a conjunctive word in Chinese composed of "Weizhang" (violation) and "jianzhu" (structure/building). The term denotes a physical structure, as well as connotes an exterior code which is being violated. The English translation tends to focus on the "code" itself, and not the relationship between the code, the structure, and the act of violation which is held in the Chinese.
- ^ For more information about the Long March Project, please visit www.longmarchspace.com
- ^ de Beauvoir, Simone; The Long March: An Account of Modern China, Pheonix Press, 2002; pg 13.