michael, 2010 IMG_0115

A straight line

Sitting down to think about an exhibition in the Beijing spring, my mind first turned to the news that on Monday some twenty plus artists protested on Chang’an Avenue the eviction of artists from villages in Beijing. Some were well known both in and outside of china; some were perhaps friends.

How correct was the reporting? How representative of beijing artists was the protest? Should we be shocked by the action of local police, the thugs and/or the central government? These are the questions that come to mind, are they not? And yet, we answer with analogies to other places, legends and times, in a phrase: by comparison. That is to say, we enter into ethics–the comparison of good and bad. And, at the core of ethics is the presupposing of certain facts.

Andrew Jacobs report in the New York Times and Tania Brangian Guardian article–which I belief to be the most detailed
thus far–missed crucial background detail: that the history of such evictions began years ago with the summer palace, Beijing’s current expansion, China want to stimulate the economy, the assumed futility of protesting and the seriousness of protesting on Beijing’s principle street.

A homage to Napolean’s city planner, the builder of Paris’ wide streets and reforming force in urban warefare, Chang’an Avenue evokes Haussmann’s legacy. It is 45 metres across. Its removable fencing divides 10 car lanes and 2 bike lanes each of which are equivalent to 2 vehicle lanes–a total of 14 lanes. In tight formation 9 Chinese armoured tanks can drive down the wide street. Yet, this doesn’t tell us the whole story. Building to building Ahang’an Avenue is at its widest 150 metres. For Parisians or visitors to Paris, this is over double the famed Champs de Elysees. But, still the story of this street is half untold. Part wishfully, part ‘exactfully’ named, Chang’an Avenue means long-eternal peace avenue. The street has seen the seige of foreign nationals during the 1900 boxer uprising, the parading of Japanese troupe in 1937, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, cold war era military parades, protests in 1989 and the modernisation of the nation which saw 1000 year old trees removed. Physically, it also in a stablising street–the main arterial that anchors the city along an east-west axis.

I point this out to highlight the absurd futility of the protest which was not only doomed to failure from its first steps but more precisely was planned to fail. There is a certain disingenuous feel about a protest that last minutes. But, skepticism is easy and brushes over complexities. It was a brave act.*

So, where does this leave us?

Let’s imagine that the protest had continued, succeeded. The protesters had marched down Chang’an avenue, entered Tian’anmen Square, held speeches and dispersed quietly. The following day, the capital feels different–especially for the art types, intellectuals, foreign nationals, and the feeling begins to spreed.

Of all the possibilities I came up with in my head, the most interesting is that a true sense of the future might come to exist. And by pulling on the present, time might stretch–and space for imagination might appear. And in my mind, all this happens because people attempted the most difficult act possible in a chaotic place: to walk in a straight line. But, to do this, they had to suspend the inbetween, the inaction and the tangent.

I have been told that another possibility needs imagining. Things want to keep on being themselves thought Schopenhauer. Later Zizek would put it another way: Marx is still Marx; it doesn’t matter if it is Marxism, Leninism or Stalinism. Artists, philosophers, are responsible for the futures they create. In my imagined future, one must expect every man and his dog would descend on Chang’an Avenue to voice their grievances.

* Compensation was given to the residents of one village in Beijing weeks after the protest.