Flight (as escape and voluntary expatriation) was not the only or even the main verbal expression of urgency. It being of course a cultural metaphor, and China being a nation peculiarly adept at semiotic compromise, there even emerged a kind of legitimating sub rosa codeword: “中国走向世界” (“China moves out into the world/becomes a player in global culture”), an extension of the vocabulary of impex trade balance. “International” exchange , not (simply) drain. Yet another enhancement of the country’s status as a black-ink export colossus. Adding to the inadequacy of the flight metaphor, the door has remained ever open to return, even with intra-communal award or trophy. Blacklisted film directors if anointed at Cannes could even find their censored works granted grudging re-access to onshore cinema houses.
But explosive, impulsive, boundary-hopping flight speaks also of panic, loss of traction, un-groundedness. For the many much-publicized refuge-artists (including the swelling horde of cultural commuters/shuttlers like Tan Dun) as well as those of them who stayed home seeking a new underground or small-crowd base of support, re-grounding was a necessity. But nowhere easily discovered. Americans of course like to think that theirs is the natural and perhaps only mecca for souls in this kind of limbo. Which may be almost true, but any harbor easily clogs when too many ships seek to anchor. Each seeming to be uttering the same or almost the same quasi-platitudes about the horrors they have left behind. Warhol-like mass serial reproductions of Mao in profile and silhouette eventually had to lose their grip, and “next, please” has been slow in coming and slower still to gain attention because so much of it is miniature-scaled. The ’89-ers it seems had almost flooded the “market” for Mao-satire or Democracy Statues.
Then, too, North America’s culture-promulgation machine was always one more or less attuned to the big circus. Kennedy Center (televised if possible) appearances were the lodestar: getting to either of the “Met”s already not quite the same; beyond/beneath there were no (other) natural voies de progrès from modest to grand. (Yang Liping’s answer to Riverdance – “Impressions of Yunnan” – was grounded in Cincinnati in its 2007-8 tour, and had simply to down tent and depart),
But in the post-“reform” era, when payroll-dumping was the flavor of the day, and Big Showplace newbuilding still tentative until the approach of the 2008 Olympics, self-conceived avant garde talent was busy literally going to earth. In a way reminiscent of the Greenwich village “beats” (including not a few disgruntled veterans of the WPA) and their coffee house networks-cum-concert-tour venues, the game was to go small and perhaps even hide inside obscurity – of language and symbol. Catering to the BIG (esp TV) AUDIENCE was passé ; the only even middling scaled venue, the Shanghai (Spring) International Arts Festival was by default the “West Berlin” of the day, with passage in and out inevitably backferrying to the ever welcoming (and well-subsidized) world of German, French, and Dutch foundations and the panoply of mini-venues they sponsored (and then retooled a minimalist aesthetic to fit). There was really it seemed no way for the Heavyweight arts of the Maoist years to reconstitute in post-“Maoist” guise.