I'm back in L.A., walking through galleries and museums. Floors are buffed and swept, light haloes the artwork, the spaces are reverent, vast and empty. The work looks oddly facile and forlorn. Just days before I had been walking along the banks of the Lhasa river in Tibet, dodging grazing sheep and nomads washing clothes in the milky, green current. A Tibetan man next to me kept up a steady stream of smiles and sign language trying to tell a Chinese artist how meaningful he found the artist's installation of dangling brooms sweeping at the polluted water. It was near sunset and the man was part of a small crowd that had started coming out of the city every evening to sit on the rocks, talk, and watch the crude brooms strain the opaque water.

When I returned in September from making art in China and Tibet with a group of Tibetan, Chinese and American artists, the contrasts between there and here stunned me. I'm not talking about the innumerable differences in lifestyle between Asia and the U.S. Rather, it was the way the artists operated and the way the art seemed to slip easily into integration with things like community, nature and daily life. Going in I had thought my biggest hurdle as an artist would be the gulf between my Western notion of contemporary art and what the Chinese practiced. But I found the quality and methods akin and equitable to what we see here. The main difference was one of attitude. There was less cynicism in the art and the artists.

Part of the Postmodern attitude currently running through the West is a cynical aesthetic which negate's art's ability to create change, and a belief in art's hopeless cultural impotence in an image glutted world. For the first time, in China, I had enough space and distance to see that the relativism and nihilism affecting Western art at the end of the 20th century is the result of growing accustomed to living out an isolating, alienating worldview.

Lin Cheng Ying, untitled
mixed media, 1996

Dai Guan Yu, untitled
mixed media, 1996

Life is more fundamental and interrelated in China. Most of the contemporary art I saw unconsciously maintained that reality. I saw art made out of blood and grain, a field planting specifically sited to critique modernization; shoes packed with yak butter dotting a drying river, suggesting vanished pilgrims' candles; and a performance in a gas mask that took the responsibility of business to the very edge of a contaminated river. The images, the metaphors were all keenly relevant, basic and vital in a way that felt miles away from the way art often operates here.

Yin Shi Zhen, untitled installation,
shoes and fat, 1996.

To make art in a country not yet isolated from all the materials and actions that make metaphor a living experience is to get valuable distance from the insular quality of the way we live our lives. Watching animals slaughtered for food keeps touch with the life/death continuity. Walls dyed with local pigment profoundly unite architecture to body and earth. Making art in such a landscape means being able to speak directly with metaphor and materials about almost anything, and to be understood because understanding comes almost through the skin.

Additionally, the artists' constant drive and willingness to put everything on the line for their ideas moved me deeply. There were four American artists in this project, ten from all over China, and about seven from Lhasa. We had been pulled together by Minnesota artist Betsy Damon. All the art we produced was made under the umbrella of her Keeper's of the Waters ecological art project, begun in China last year and moved to Tibet at the request of the budding Lhasa E.P.A. Despite the official invitation, our presence was precarious.

There was a constant pressure in Tibet which artists seldom feel in the States. We knew we were being watched and reported on. China is very sensitive to criticism and, in the rapid fire "development" of the natural resources of Tibet pollution is a touchy subject. The Chinese and Tibetan artists knew this and for good reason it made the Tibetans wary. But all the artists proceeded with their art. It was understood but never mentioned that the Chinese presence and ours extended a limited mantle of possibility over the Tibetan artists, enabling them to create art in public around sensitive subjects.

Given this scenario it's no wonder when I returned to the States that art looked facile. Nothing approaching the fact of official opposition or control exists here to suppress and, in so doing, to bolster art's impact emotionally and conceptually. It certainly gave it teeth in Lhasa. Suppression here at home is the more understated economic sanction--evaporating government money and the strictures of what the market will bear. But in disturbing ways our fundamental materialism can control more powerfully than any government. It can co-opt any gesture, even the most authentic, and turn it back on itself until it becomes something less real, more careerism and marketing that provides glossy packaging that has the stamp but not the substance of art.

There is undoubtedly a weird kind of irony in contrasting art made in Tibet, the mythological home of Shangri-la, with that made in L.A., the Hollywood version of paradise in the sun. Dueling fantasies. Except what I carried away from Tibet was a clearer appraisal of our mechanized, motorized, commodified reality, not paradise.

I've come to see how difficult it is for artists to stay real in a culture of entertainment and appearances. Certainly art's language of metaphor which spoke so easily in China is challenged here by all the technologies of virtual reality, concrete construction and climate control. Curiously, after China I find that challenge invigorating. I'm convinced that art which risks everything to stay grounded is essential to the social health.

All photos © 1996 Suvan Geer

Liu Cheng Ying, untitled installation,
mixed media, 1996.