Artistic existence in the cracks of history: scavenging the spiritual legacies of an era

by Lu Shuangqin

This exhibition is not only about the stories of a group of young people who used to live in the remote ares of China, but also relevant to everyone who comes to see the exhibition. It is an exhibition showing evidence of a way of life that was left and forgotten in the crack of history, a way to search for meaning of life and freedom from the main stream of culture. This seemingly invisible space exists in every era and every society, and it therefore is not at all unfamiliar to you, me, or any individual seeking meaning of life in a culture.

The 1970s was a special era in the history of China, it was also the formidable years of these young people. The political movement sweeping the nation at the time had destroyed both social order and cultural traditions, and also led to the destruction/breakdown of personal values of life. The young people were suddenly thrown into the vacuum and precipice of history. How did they survive probing in the cultural ruins? When the tide of revolution ebbed, they became the broken shells left behind on the sand. As members of the sent-down youth that affected an entire generation of school students, they left their familiar cities and came to the remote countryside and farms where they made their livings as a manual worker and famers. Under the circumstances of cultural destruction, they still brought with them books and music that were left unburned, and hanged onto these cultural products. Some found themselves being repelled in society after returning to the cities. Because of their family backgrounds, in which their parents were also the targets of the revolution, it was illegal of them to stay in Beijing. As a result, they gathered together as a matter of course for moral support. They started to read and spread every book they had access to, including the banned ones. Driven by their creative instincts, they started writing endeavors—mostly poems and novels, including painting, which finally developed into various inter-connected circles. These activities were later called the “underground literate salons in the Cultural Revolution” by literary critics. This exhibition includes the rare photos that were once never circulated in public and all kinds of amateur “works”: manuscripts, diaries, paintings, and books either handwritten or self-made. That was also a time of oral literature, in which many printed materials were forever lost. These crude but authentic works that survived the Cultural Revolution record the true meanings of literature and art that were impossible or even dangerous to publish. They were forms of self-expression that communicated something amongst the youths, and sustained their inspiration in hard times. This kind of connection and communication were extremely precious for these young people, and powerful enough to support their creation and existence. Although underground and their voices were never heard in public, their creative endeavors enabled them to remain true to them selves and free from political coercion. This force of personal belief, created under the extreme pressure to follow, came out of the genuine need of the individual, became a surprising power. It was the spiritual salvation of this generation; it enabled them to undergo hardships and has sustained search for spiritual meaning until the end of their lives.

Through this exhibition, not only do we see young faces, fresh lives, ruined youth, and the struggle and efforts they made when oppressed, but also the hidden truths and values that existed in the cracks and corners of history. They represent other possibilities of life. This is the power of culture and art, which helps us transcend our limited and finite historical existence. This exhibition not only helps us preserve the truth of our past but also enables us to create our own future.