The Long March Art Project
- Shanta Serbjeet Singh, New Delhi

November 1, 2010

Chinese art has begun to be taken seriously by the international high priests of art. One extraordinary success story is that of The Long March Project, a unique arts initiative which commenced in 2002, in Beijing. It takes its name, of course, from the historic event which was at the heart of Mao's political uprising that led to the overthrow of Generalissmo Chiang Kai Shek. While Mao Zedong was at the core of this, one of the twentieth century's great political upheavals, it was the Long March (1934-35) that became its symbol. The arts project that has been ongoing since the last eight years has used that March as a source of inspiration to pursue a remarkable artistic experiment.

It is an ongoing initiative which organises international exhibitions, community-based educational programs and artist residencies. These are documented, archived and published online and in print. Numerous Chinese artists associated with the Long March Project have exhibited their works under its banner, most recently at the 'Art Circus: Jumping from the Ordinary: Yokohama 2005: International Triennale of Contemporary Art,' and 'Techniques of the Visible: 2004 Shanghai Biennale.'

This unusual project began when its founding members departed from Beijing in 2002, inviting artists, writers, curators, theorists and art activists from China and abroad to join them in retracing the historical route of this phenomenal march. Exhibitions, lectures, workshops, performances, panel discussions and the creation of new art works took place at the first 12 landmark sites of the March, where ideas about art, history and cultural production were discussed from local, national and international perspectives. The Long March Project has since become a dealer, artist-run space, gallery, commercial enterprise and publishing house, supported and motivated by contemporary Chinese artists.

I was pleasantly surprised when we were taken on a visit to the 798 Art District or Factory 798, the sprawling Pragati Maidan kind of space where it is housed. This is now a hep, very chic, ultramodern symbol of the new China. It began life as a prime example of a military-industrial cooperation between the Soviet Union and the newly formed People's Republic of China. By 1951, 156 "joint factory" projects had been realized under that agreement, part of the Chinese government's first Five-Year Plan. However, the People's Liberation Army still had a dire need of modern electronic components, which were produced in only two of the joint factories. The Russians were unwilling to undertake an additional project at the time, and suggested that the Chinese turn to East Germany from where much of the Soviet Union's electronics equipment was imported. So, at the request of the then Premier Zhou Enlai, scientists and engineers joined the first Chinese trade delegation to East Germany in 1951. The architectural plans were left to the Germans, who chose a functional Bauhaus-influenced design over the more ornamental Soviet style, triggering the first of many disputes between the German and Russian consultants on the project. The plans, where form follows function, called for large indoor spaces designed to let the maximum amount of natural light into the workplace. Arch-supported sections of the ceiling would curve upwards, then fall diagonally along the high slanted banks or windows; this pattern would be repeated several times in the larger rooms, giving the roof its characteristic sawtooth-like appearance. Despite Beijing's northern location, the windows were all to face north because the light from that direction would cast fewer shadows.

Ground was broken in April 1954. Construction was marked by disagreements between the Chinese, Soviet and German experts, which led at one point to a six-month postponement of the project. The Joint Factory produced a wide variety of military and civilian equipment. Civilian production included acoustic equipment for Beijing's Workers' Stadium and Great Hall of the People, as well as all the loudspeakers on Tiananmen Square and Chang'an Avenue. Military components were also exported to China's Communist allies, and helped establish North Korea's wireless electronics industry.

Shanta Serbjeet Singh, for twenty-five years, columnist, critic and media analyst for The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Times of India, India's most important mainstream English dailies, is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the premier Government cultural institution of India in 2000 and the same from Delhi Govt.'s Sahitya Kala Parishad in 2003 for her contribution to the field of culture.

She is on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, India's national television, as well as the selection committees of several prestigious government bodies involved in culture such as The Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Department of Culture. She was a member of the Tenth Five Year Plan Committee for Cultural Policy and of the First National Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

Singh has authored several best selling books on Indian arts such as 'Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor,' 'The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique,' 'Nanak, The Guru' and 'America and You' (22 editions).

As elected Chairperson of APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network) for the past nine years, she has individually organized and helped her team of eminent artistes to organize eight international symposiums and festivals in several Asian countries and in the United States. APPAN, set up in 1999 by UNESCO, has, with the collaboration of UNESCO, pioneered the concept of delivering stress therapy, in particular in disaster-prone situations such as the tsunami and earthquake victims. The pilot project of this series was done under her leadership in four Asian countries after the tsunami of 2005 and another for the cyclone affected of Myanmar in 2008. Singh is the founder-Secretary of The World Culture Forum -India and Director of WCF-India's first Global WCF to be held in New Delhi in 2011.