The future of painting is its past. Maybe that’s what all those white guys, starting with Yves Klein and continuing with Douglas Crimp, meant when they told everyone else that painting was dead. Nevertheless, nothing looks newer right now than a roomful of Matisse paintings because his work has been so thoroughly consumed – in the market and in the academy – that painters today are subconsciously making work in his ‘school.’ The bravura economy of his gestures, the folksy quasi-abstract compositions, his unpredictable color palette, the sketchy flat-footed depictions of banal contemporary life have influenced contemporary European painters like Luc Tuymans, Peter Doig, Chris Ofili and Raoul de Keyser and Americans, among them Alison Katz, Josephine Halvorson, Merlin James, Ariel Dill, Mira Dancy, and Richard Aldrich.
See Matisse’s impact on Chinese contemporary art now in a small show at the China Institute in New York about art groups that formed immediately after the Cutlural Revolution in China in the late 70s. One of these groups, called the No Names, turned away from Communist-sanctioned social realism by going out into nature to paint the rustic modesty of village life. This was their rebellion. In a place like China back then, where power and cultural production were collapsed under one Communist program, this simple act of painting en plein air and literally outside the service of the party must have felt like pissing on Mao’s grave. Forget the crisis of painting; this was painting in crisis. The Matisse style called forth for provocation.
Painting won’t die. It’s a form as durable is prisons.
9/11/01 felt like one long moment. A moment that seemed to last for days, then weeks, then months, then years. I don’t know when the 9/11 moment ended for me, but eventually the vision from my Brooklyn rooftop of the first tower slipping towards the center of the earth amidst a cloud of dust became a memory.
I was brushing my teeth that morning, getting ready to go to work. “It’s a perfectly clear day, except for that strange lone cloud above the World Trade Center,” I thought to myself then. I had a distant view of Lower Manhattan from my apartment on 25th Street and 5th Avenue in Brooklyn. Still groggy from sleep and on auto-pilot, I turned on my TV which poured out loud static on all stations. I stopped on one that I could at least hear. “A small passenger plane has crashed into the World Trade Center,” I remember the anchorwoman reporting. She didn’t sound panicked.
I headed over to the window and that’s when I realized why that cloud above the towers looked so surreal. By that time my roommate, Bryant Wang, had woken up and I was explaining the news to him in shocked tones. We winced at the TV, trying to make out an image, trying to follow along on the screen to what would’ve been plainly obvious if we had looked out the window. Moments later, the TV told us that a second plane had struck the other tower.
We rushed over to the window and saw a new cloud billowing over Lower Manhattan. It looked so far away. It didn’t look like a film or a dream. It didn’t feel surreal. It was surreality itself. It was more real than what was inside of me.
I got a call from my boss at Creative Capital Foundation not to come in until further notice, so Bryant and I watched a little more TV to get information. We learned that flights were canceled, that America’s airspace was restricted, that this might be the work of terrorists, that fighter jets could shoot down an airplane if it was deemed an imminent threat, that evacuations were happening in the towers, that people were jumping out of them. We learned that another plane had crashed into the Pentagon. The scale of these events and their proximity suddenly became too much think about. We shook our heads at eachother.
Then we went up to our roof where the view of the city was clear, like a perfectly focused photograph. The towers stood there, burning. Fires used to overwhelm and consume major cities like this one and the one I grew up around, San Francisco. Looking at the scene, I was thinking about how to describe it to family and friends back in Bay Area who I knew would be getting in touch as soon as they woke up. “‘Surreal’ just doesn’t begin to describe it,” I thought.
Suddenly the first tower crumbled to the ground. It disappeared and I could faintly hear it go. My knees weakened and I remember thinking that we at least were left with one more tower. I couldn’t imagine the other also succumbing, though it was burning in the same way. And when it did a little later, I felt foolish for being so hopeful.
When the calls came in, I said the same things over and over. “It was surreal. I’m fine. I can’t believe it. I’m shocked. I don’t know.” A dark cloud brought by a wind coming from the West approached us and we could see the ominous shadow it cast as it made its way over. We waited for it like a fast forward night. The darkness brought a rain of paper and a mist of dust. We picked up office documents written in Japanese. The cloud moved on and we later moved back downstairs to watch the news. The reception was a little better.
We watched the news repeat itself for hours, and I was intoxicated by the constancy of it. The news was like a wall. It was there the whole time and I grew to hate it for simply being there.
June 4th came and went this year. It was a Saturday and I had forgotten about that date in 1989 when the Chinese Communist government ordered a violent crackdown on protesters demanding political reform in Tiananmen Square. My parents took me and my sister to the Chinese embassy on Geary Street in San Francisco to protest. We had spent days riveted by TV coverage in giddy disbelief that these people could be so enboldened, and now it was time to get out on the streets in solidarity.
I felt like doing the same this year when the Arab Spring in North Africa was jumping off, when Tunisians shocked the world by streaming onto the streets to demand their country back from dictatorship, and when Egyptians surged into Tahrir Square overturning the will of the army and eventually burying the Mabarak regime. Revolutionary actions then spread to Lybia, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and Oman.
In 1977, cultural theorist Paul Virilio wrote that “The revolutionary contingent attains its ideal form not in the place of production, but in the street…” Literally The People become a mass and this moving mass, now in public can be seen and documented. The People become one image. And this is when The People go from being words on the page of a constitution to a political body that has spectacle on its side.
Thinking back to the 6-4 Incident, as the Tiananmen Square protests are alternately referred to, my clearest memory was watching on TV the zoomed in overhead image of a lone young man, The People within him, in a white dress shirt, his sleeves rolled up, holding a plastic bag, standing in front of a column of tanks trying to gain entrance into the square. The tank leading the column tries to go around him but he gets in front of it again. The tank stops, hesitates (will it simply run him over?), then turns the other way, where it’s thwarted again. It was a riveting spectacle that in the movie version of events would have turned the tide and brought the weight of humanity on those that ordered the crackdown.
Instead, thousands were likely killed (the numbers are still inconclusive) in the unmerciful crackdown, and the blood mopped clean from the ground of the gate of heavenly peace, as Tiananmen is translated. And now the Communist leadership nervously watches the news coming out of countries where revolutions are still brewing, afraid that it’s next, afraid that The People will assert its image again like they did 22 years ago. Paranoia as politics when you think history’s the enemy.
Among the reading I did in preparation for my new job at the Museum of Chinese in America were Maxine Hong Kingston’s experimental memoir Woman Warrior and Iris Chang’s document of Chinese American history, Chinese in America. Hong Kingston’s book is entrenched in, and gives graphic voice to, the identity crisis that consumed Asian America back in the 70s. She weaves Chinese mythology, superstition, and ritual with the universal anxiety of being a minority in this country. Though Iris Chang’s historical account of Chinese people in America is told in sober tones, she allegedly committed suicide months after it was released, fearing the CIA was coming after her for exposing government mistreatment of Chinese over many generations. And certainly she was haunted by the ghosts of Nanking, stemming from the images and words that never escaped her body during work on Rape of Nanking, the milestone book about Japanese atrocities against the Chinese.
What’s important for me to take away from these texts is that ghosts and unknowable forces are always at work in the Chinese narrative. There is a spiritual force that drives Chinese identity, rooted as all belief systems are, in imagining and realizing order out of the cycles of construction and destruction inherent in nature. These passed-along, hybridized, personalized stories, myths, religions, superstitions and codes cut deeper and are much more mysterious than the tired conversations about the severity of Chinese parenting. These conversations, rehashed recently in the much-discussed “Tiger Mom” book and that article in New York magazine, reinforce the image of the Chinese as a robotically trained race, de-humanized to the point of being culturally vacant.
Cultural forms are derived from the spiritual going back to when religion alone presided over picture-making. And while Chinese in America are seen as quiet contributors in practical fields like science, technology and finance, or service industries like laundry and restaurants, it’s the mystical side, the side that is obsessed with superstition and luck, that is so consumed with invisible forces that we have picnics in graveyards…It’s this side of us that will communicate outside of our communities that we are present in the shaping of new culture. It’s this side of us that will truly flip and tweak an American culture that’s ready for new ideas. And while money does buy us a space and staff, ultimately no amount of money can buy the meaning and relevance that’s already been built and that’s waiting to be defined for the future. Because these things are moving targets, as hard to pin down as ghosts, and they are continually being processed at 215 Centre Street and 70 Mulberry Street, where the spirits dwell in boxes upon boxes of our history. As my new boss Alice Mong asked of me in a rhetorical challenge before I started, “Who do YOU want to be?” And that’s exactly the right question to be asking.