“Silk to Bitcoin”
The story goes that Lady Xiling, the consort of the famed Yellow Emperor Huangdi, discovered silk when a cocoon slipped into a cup of tea while she was tending her imperial garden. For centuries silk was the embodiment of China and its luxurious highly-prized fibers represented Chinese cultural identity abroad. Along the eponymous road other goods besides silk were traded. The transcontinental artery was not just a trade route; language, religion, ideologies, objects of material culture, iron, gold, animals, plants and even humans – all were trafficked along the Silk Road. During its 1600-year life the artery that flowered during the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) crossing empires and kingdoms from Chang’an (modern day Xi’an) in north-western China to Antioch on the shores of the Mediterranean was not called the Silk Road. It was the German geographer and traveller Ferdinand von Richtofen who first used the term Die Siedenstrasse in the nineteenth century to describe the ancient route.
The Silk Road, actually a network of overland and maritime routes rather than a single road, is now being re-visioned in Beijing in the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’1 as the Chinese government seeks to improve the flow of its exports from Chongqing to Duisburg. As Barack Obama pivots US foreign policy towards Asia, China’s President Xi Jinping has called for a revival of the Silk Road along new overland and maritime routes2. The effect of the new Silk Road network would be economic, political and diplomatic, creating a transnational community of billions from Asia reaching into the Middle East and Africa and on to Europe. Two thousand years before the advent of globalization, the Silk Road exported objects and ideas and was a precursor to the social phenomenon we call transnationalism, the heightened interconnectivity and flow of cultural and economic exchange across the borders of nation-states.
There is a transnational art - that is clearly evident in the work of Liu Dao. Classically-trained Chinese painters and paper-cut artists collaborate with art directors, LED animators, sound designers and a curatorial team from across the globe to create a hybrid art-form that expresses the transnationalism of our globalized age. In arguing for such a cultural phenomenon, the Centre for Transnational Art Identity and Nation at the University of the Arts London has drawn a parallel between globalization and the rupture in ‘established certainties about the nature of culture, tradition and authenticity’3. In broadly defining the concept the Centre states that ‘the movement of peoples and artefacts is breaking down borders and producing new identities outside and beyond those of the nation state… many cultural interactions now operate on the level of the transnational’.
The Silk Road prospered despite the lack of infrastructure, political order and global communication networks. The latest iteration of the ‘Silk Road’ was an online marketplace for illegal drugs, money laundering and even malicious software where intangible bitcoins were traded rather than the finest Chinese silk, delicate porcelain and fragrant tea. If money is abstract then bitcoin is abstruse. Put simply, bitcoin is an electronic currency system that bypasses central monetary authorities and can be used on peer to peer networks for products or services. Some artists prefer to trade with buyers using bitcoins4. The crypto-currency has even been described as ‘nationless’5. The value of bitcoin is not set by monetary regulators or central banking systems – instead its worth is decided by the market, according to demand. Its ‘stocks’ are raised as users and buyers invest more faith in it, much like the cowrie shell money exchanged in ancient China. The oldest form of money in China, the value of the cowrie was agreed upon just as bitcoins are; cowries though were regarded as pleasing to handle and were comparatively rare. The British Museum holds two particularly fine examples, from the Shang (16th-11th Century BC) to the Zhou dynasties (11th-221 BC)6. The first coins were imitations of cowries.
If you try Google searching for the term ‘Silk Road’ you might get a Big Brother-like message alerting you to ‘unusual traffic’ from your computer’s network. Hidden in the shadows of the subterranean Deep Web, the Silk Road marketplace was shut down and its bitcoins seized by the FBI in October last year7. Those bitcoins worth an estimated $17 million US dollars have recently been auctioned off by the US Marshals Service, and purchased by an apparently free-thinking venture capital investor8.
It was along the Silk Road that the three great inventions of ancient China – printing, the compass and gunpowder – were transmitted to the West. All of these inventions have had an untold effect on humanity. You could say that personal electronic equipment such as iPhones and gaming consoles are the new silk. Or are the Silk Roads of the present transnational online marketplaces such as Alibaba and Amazon? The old Silk Road was prey to Mongol warlords, fickle kings, duty collectors, highwaymen and bandits; nowadays you can traverse the new silk roads without leaving the safety of your own home.
On 22 June 2014 at a meeting in Doha, UNESCO named the Silk Road a World Heritage site9. The aspect of the Buddha that you find most along the Silk Road is the Maitreya, the Lord of the Future. This bodhisattva is generally always represented seated, biding his time until his prophesied return. The cult of Maitreya flourished along the route which passes through some of the most inhospitable places on earth. As nervous travellers contemplated the journey ahead they raised monolithic statues of the Buddha including those destroyed by the Taliban in the Bamiyan Valley in 200110 in the hope that their tribute would insure their safety.
In this secular age what are the emerging networks for cultural transmission between East and West? What are the ideas being transmitted? Are they expressions of artistic freedom? Is contemporary art the new silk? Silk roads lead to economic growth, cultural exchange and transnationalism. In 2013 computer manufacturer HP began moving its laptops and monitors along the new Silk Road, via rail from Xi’an to Duisburg, the transport and logistics hub in Germany that is home to the world’s largest inland port. Is China’s economic growth another form of the Silk Road? China’s prosperity is certainly a gift to other world economies. Where do the new Silk Roads lead? Is it Tbilisi, Baku, Duisburg or Dubai?
The transnational psychology of the Silk Road - as a window on the hand-painted historical past and the LED-illuminated technological future - is deeply embedded in the artwork of Liu Dao. LED flickers under antiqued rice paper, giantesses in silk qipaos walk on overpopulated megacities, a phalanx of paper-cut scooters and a baroque maze of electrical wires are brought to life with pulsing diodes. The Silk Road is a metaphor for cultural transmission and exchange, exceeding our own territorial borders and finding a path towards a shared global future.