Historical Void, Memory, and Archive
June 18, 2010

On the bus travelling from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, Long March Project participants reflected upon contemporary strategies of administering historical narration, memory, and archives that determine the visual presentations of history today. They asked: how can we re-examine the ways we understand the past through language, imagination, media interpretations, and various knowledge systems? The following excerpt is a partial transcription of the hour-long discussion.

Wang Jianwei: The concept of a historical void inspires a lot of questions. First, what brings you to recognize a period of history as a void? How do you aim to fill in this blank space? I think the narrative of a historical void is in fact a very politically radical thing—it already presumes that this part of history contains an absolute violence, and this history is considered a blank space because all existing narrations of it are not violent enough; therefore the true presentation of this part of history remains an imagination. One may continue to believe this period of history is a void, but perhaps in reality, history is what it is, lacking any absolute essence. Several years ago in China, this concern was in the hearts of people making documentaries. Many filmmakers appraised documentary film as a kind of panacea; whenever any place lacked truth, people believed the film lens could unveil that truth to the public. There are two flawed premises here. First, can documentary footage capture “truth?” Second, is there intrinsic value in these historical footages? What are you retrieving, exactly? Yes, you may say there is a void in history when there is no historical material from this period of time, but this period may not be a negative space that needs to be filled in.

Song Yi: The period of Cambodia under Khmer Rouge rule (1975-1979) is commonly identified as a historical void today. This identification is not established by the Cambodian perspective alone but by a more complicated international negotiation. Wang Jianwei: Off-site investigation is an anthropological approach that is commonly adopted as a political method in many fields of study today. The approach is based on the idea that one’s orientations and biases cannot be seen from within his/her own indiginous system; they can only be unearthed through the lens of an alien frame of reference.

Song Yi: The period of Cambodia under Khmer Rouge rule (1975-1979)
is commonly identified as a historical void today. This identification is not established by the Cambodian perspective alone but by a more complicated
international negotiation.

Wang Jianwei: Off-site investigation is an anthropological approach that
is commonly adopted as a political method in many fields of study today.
The approach is based on the idea that one’s orientations and biases cannot
be seen from within his/her own indiginous system; they can only be
unearthed through the lens of an alien frame of reference.

While studying in France, the artist Lin Fengmian frequented the Eastern Art wing of the Louvre where he studied Asian Art through a French perspective. There he found that the French academies upheld a narrative of Asian Art distinct from that in China. To Lin, studying a foreign perspective of his own history meant filling in a gap in his understanding of his own heritage that was previously unbeknownst to him. Today, the Third World has become the standard place for Westerners to conduct off-site investigation and retrieve comparative perspectives. A sense of emptiness is formed here when the Third World offers information that it itself considers material to fill in the blanks.

Lu Xinghua: I feel that within this lies a question that relates to many
philosophical and practical subjects. In the book Remnants of Auschwitz,
Giorgio Agamben illustrates a view of art. . . . Originally when I saw the
book title I thought it was about survivors. But it actually refers to what
Auschwitz has left behind—an interpretation of the concentration camps,
and a provocation of the politics of the day. Among Hitler’s concentration
camps and Stalin and Mao’s modes of suppression—and their political
philosophies—are specific differences. In China, after the revolutionaries
went into “reform through labour,” the masses engaged in political exercises
for no reason at all, they went through the motions as if they were dead;
when we compare this with the Nazi laboratories....

Gao Shiming: As for those people on the train headed for the labour
camps of the Soviet Gulag Archipelago, although their physical
circumstances were very close to those of the people who were in
concentration camps. . . . a person could be described with a sort of
romanticized heroism there, whereas inside of the Nazi concentration
camps, those Jewish people were truly quarantined by the head of state....

Lu Xinghua: All of the nation-states’ schemes were entirely played out on them [the Jewish people]. With Cambodia, we are unable to discern which members of the Khmer Rouge were giving orders—because the Khmer Rouge was a solid, zero-transparency organization. Western society takes Auschwitz and the Khmer Rouge and mixes them together—historical voids, survivors’ testimonies; these are the standard tools used to deal with these periods of history. Many political scientists whom I respect are highly opposed to the obsessive reliance on these tools when recalling historical events. Artists must consider the remnants of every kind of memory and be careful not to harm the survivors; these people have already been harmed, and they may be harmed again by recalling memories alone. The artist ought to serve as a sensitive guide through them.

Wang Jianwei: The artist’s method ought to include contemporary art and politics—contemporary art as politics. Lu Xinghua: Even if the method is to have no method, that is fine, as long as the artist engages with the past. We know that these are painful memories; there are no remaining files about the internal operations of the Khmer Rouge and there is no way to search for answers within the nation state. People from outside have even less of a means for investigation.

Gao Shiming: There are four different things here: the Gulag Archipelago,
the concentration camp at Auschwitz, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge
regime, and China during the Cultural Revolution.

Lu Xinghua: I’ve observed the helpless misery with which we deal with
the aftermaths of the Cultural Revolution today. During the Cultural
Revolution, the state distributed a cheap kind of coal gas that circulated
through the heating system of every household during winter time. This
coal gas included diesel because diesel was cheap and pure kerosene would
be wasteful. The exhaust from diesel gas made its way into people’s heads
and contaminated their health. When my grandmother’s body was burnt
during cremation, we could immediately smell the diesel from her body.

We have to be careful when we use the term “Cultural Revolution:” the intended Cultural Revolution basically never started. Mao Zedong quit after having taken a good number of steps. After the fact of Stalin, the Khmer Rouge, and Mao Zedong—there is a problem of how to unpack all of this history. How can we translate this topic into political philosophical terms? I think that today, if we were to take time and examine historical cross sections, we would see our questions emerge, no matter what our counterparts say. Because how they perceive these histories is dependent on the logics embedded within their systems . . . which may contain middleclass consensus that makes specific use of bitter memories of the political past, the tears of the Jews, and continues to excavate this kind of memory, this unfortunate fate. When it is internalized too much, these kinds of memories can be harmful; personally I feel that from a new vantage point, I can wholly accept the legacy of my past—revolution is good, if you engage with your memories provocatively, and don’t forget that you are an artist.

Wang Jianwei: I think this way of engaging with history was first proposed
by Slavoj Žižek.

Lu Xinghua: This method can be implemented, whether or not Žižek is
around; a man like my father, during the Cultural Revolution, I think he
quickly understood because things were not so complex during his time.
Now our times are much more complex and Žižek is important because he
draws back the curtains to show it to you simply.

Wang Jianwei: Western propaganda commonly associates concentration camps to communist regimes, thereby reaffirming the supreme political position of Western democratic discourse. When anyone speaks of totalitarianism, for example, one would naturally think of communist totalitarianism and physically tense up. In actuality, the communist discourse does include the idea of concentration camps. I think the contribution of Žižek is that he addresses the totalitarianism of democracy in today’s world.

Lu Xinghua: There is a theory that totalitarianism during the Cultural
Revolution was a classical byproduct of early bourgeoisie. Mao Zedong
discovered early on that the developments of totalitarian rule in communist
China was not coming from Shanghai but from within the party—the people
right by his side, Lin Biao's son and daughter were the bourgeoisie. Similar
to the situation now, it is the capitalist class instead of the communists
within the Chinese Communist party that possess power. In 1927 this was
so, as it was in 1958—Mao Zedong had clearly seen this problem coming
early on, and possibly sought change because of this. Whenever we discuss
totalitarianism and the Cultural Revolution now, we are always forced to
simplify things and the conversation rarely goes anywhere.

Wang Jianwei: Going back to what we discussed earlier about documentary films, these filmmakers oppose totalitarianism and establishment because they identify them as the two critical causes of historical voids. In reality, the void is set up by their very negation of these two factors that contribute to the narration of history.

Lu Xinghua: Two years ago I was at an international conference about war and memory. Over twenty countries participated. For the Western participants, certainly the Nazis were a memory for them. Australian speakers shared the accounts of Australian soldiers being held captive by the Japanese during the Pacific War. Chinese speakers spoke of the Sino- Japanese War and memories of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai. A European participant recalled civilian encounters with Japanese soldiers and reporters who exhibited noble character. These small stories were originally for the purpose of documentation, but gradually I sensed how reactionary the whole gathering was.

The conference temporarily broke down all political and national boundaries and connected everything together. The potential height of this discussion would be a kind of humanitarian order that is achieved with a lot of love but cannot bring real change. Under this order, a typical scenario would be, the person next to me exploits me, I acknowledge my wounds, yet I continue to be exploited. Primitive violence has caused complete helplessness and abandonment of life that lingers as physical memory in the bodies of the survivors of war. In the Long March Project—Ho Chi Minh Trail Project, we touch upon memories of war, however we are not out to prove something. When people without an explicit political objective recollect the past, the process often leads to nothing as recollections are always fragmented. In Long March Project, we do not hold a particular agenda but maintain an attitude of openness to encounters along the way, to examine history by its multiple narratives.

From my point of view, it is seemingly impossible to understand the Cultural Revolution through film productions, images, paintings. It is only with philosophy that we can sufficiently rescue the Cultural Revolution; there is no one person who is able to explain it clearly. For a person to be capable of explaining it, he or she has to take an extremely radical philosophical position. You have to get yourself to digest enough of the scenarios, and only after that can you objectively, clearly, lay it out. If you look at all of our elders, even my teacher, who personally experienced revolutionary criticism—there isn’t any one account alone who can satisfy everyone. To philosophize today is to return to the contemporary. We can successfully articulate what happened during the Cultural Revolution only when we come back to the present.

From my point of view, Wu Shanzhuan’s novel Today No Water touches
upon the Cultural Revolution but does not unravel it; his interpretation of
the event is not contemporary enough. But then, the Cultural Revolution
that Wu Shanzhuan recounts might not be the Cultural Revolution we are
attempting to discuss. He might be speaking about it on a different level.

Gao Shiming: Wu Shanzhuan has a slightly different political attitude.

Lu Xinghua: When examining a particular historical event, we should be very strict, we should digest it carefully. We do not want to add on a lot of descriptions, we want to strip it all away, to bravely cut things away and highlight what is most important. Usually when someone mentions the Cultural Revolution people physically tense up or they do not want to talk in depth. My teacher, many people, are this way; at the first mention of the Cultural Revolution, they become very solemn. With my respected elder before me, I cannot very well contradict him. But talking like this, talking like this for a lifetime will be of no use. No matter what you say, it is no use. People like my teacher and colleagues, older and younger brothers, when they talk about the Cultural Revolution—I think there is a necessary process taking place, one of severing ties with the Cultural Revolution; it is increasingly this way. Although I do not reveal my political position to them, my attempt to speak with them about the Cultural Revolution in contemporary terms makes them feel hurt and their memories insulted. To become a contemporary person is to enter a vortex of space and time and to confront history with all its various meanings imbued by the present today. When I let myself fall into this vortex, I feel I am dragging the survivors down with me. This is not to say that I have fully liberated myself, and it is not to say that an artist, upon liberating himself, is a free man. What I am saying is, I am taking the initiative to put myself in a precarious position; I wanted to push myself deep into it, I wanted to attract all of you to go inside, too, because only upon getting there can one be in the realm of great art. If you say this proposition focuses too much on individual liberation and intellectual freedom, I would say you’re talking from the standpoint of maintaining a superficial display of moral principles.