Art and China’s Revolution
Asia Society (2008)
Every person of Chinese descent will walk out of Art and China's Revolution with their own stories to relate. That is the magnitude of the subject matter—the Cultural Revolution—a time when one man was Chairman, Emperor, Sun and God. However touched up, glorified and forgotten, undisputed is its mark on a nation. Some forty years later, my mother—daughter of a denounced landlord—still has such a hard time making sense of "those days" that, in the end of our conversations, she would resign to underwhelming and exasperating utterances of "maddening," and "impossible to explain to you."
But just as the show, spanning three gallery halls to unravel three decades from the founding of the People's Republic of China (P.R.C.) in 1949, is nuanced, the effects of this period on today's China are just as complex. Amidst a boom in recent Chinese contemporary art, curators Melissa Chiu and Zheng Shengtian have invited the conversation back from China's chronic fascination with the present to suggest that the past may speak for the future more than we think.
Every artwork, artifact, and photo in this exhibition brings a historical era back to life where memory falters. It is fitting then, that the show begins with an archival collection to serve as historical narration for these chaotic times. The section Art, History, and Politics, comprised of photographs, posters, artifacts, video and a timeline, may be the closest we will ever come to know the truth behind a time so estranged from reality. Perusing through this packed exhibition hall with Chairman Mao beaming from banners, sculptures, and even tin mugs, I was reminded eerily of the time when my grandmother took out her trove of Mao pins, rendering a small metallic flood on the table. Here in the museum setting, the glint from the collection of Mao pins is no different. There is the same "red, bright, shining" that uniformly describes the decor that were once the allotted aesthetic in every home. Through hair combs, vanity cases, bowls, toys and even cookie jars, everyday private household goods became an opportunity to parade one's devotion to Mao. The gentle absurdity of what the Chairman has become today—a pop art element in any given contemporary Chinese art piece, T-Shirt, or tote mass produced, versus the totem that was forced upon millions, is perhaps reminder of the Chinese spirit as a whole: resilient, optimistic, forgetful.
The most telling pieces from the exhibition may be the photographs included in this archive. Taken during the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, one photo shows the Chairman standing atop the red walls of the (once) Forbidden City at Tiananmen Square, waving to an emphatic crowd of Red Guards below. While he does not loom larger than life compositionally, the sense of euphoria and reverence guided toward him is not unlike that of propaganda posters popularized during this time.
A series of stunning black and white photographs taken by photojournalists further punctures the sentiment of surreal reality. Kept in secret at the time they were made, these photographs offer insight into a world that had been kept in a shiny mantle of what was essentially China's most ambitious public relations campaign. The photo stories include: Ancient statues defaced, with dunce caps hanging over their drooping heads; synchronized swimmers boasting a portrait of Mao floating in water; a man bent-over in self-criticism; a man avowing his allegiance to the Chairman with a clutter of pins and medals strewn across his shirt and cap. While films from China's fifth generation filmmakers set during the era have made such scenes familiar to the modern viewer, nothing quite prepares us for the sheer theatrics rooted in absolute reality—not a stage set designed with the director's vision, nor an idealized painting commissioned by the party—this is about a moment frozen in time, captured.
As for the model paintings chosen by the party and reproduced as posters, prints, stamps and the like, the majority of them are all on display in the main gallery of the exhibition, and all exist to deify one man. It is as the artist Chen Danqing acknowledges in one interview: "At the time I felt there was no difference between me and the Renaissance painters: They painted Jesus; I painted Mao."
In Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan (1969), a young heroic Mao, who would soon incite the workers rebellion of 1921, seems to dwarf the mountains and guide the clouds of change behind him. In Chairman Mao Inspects the Guangdong Countryside (1972), a crowd of farmers unfolds from his side, to his left and right. In Strive Forward in Winds and Tides (1971), the painting commemorates the historic event in which, at the age of 73, Mao swam in the Yangtze River for over an hour, thereby asserting his political influence through physical prowess. The cult of Mao is at work, essentially rendering him as a God-like figure in these paintings. He is as the sun. His expression is always radiant, lifting those around him who look to him, euphorically, for guidance. Indeed, one of the many folk songs rewritten during the time refers to Chairman Mao as "the sun in our hearts," a line that reappears in movies, staged dramas, and as slogan on propaganda posters. Big, red, bright and shining, perhaps no symbol encapsulated the Party's idealized Mao better.
Works that do not focus specifically on Mao in this gallery adhere nevertheless to the strict socialist realist style championed by the Party. For Shen Jiawei and his immensely popular work Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland (1974), to simply depict revolutionary themes isn't enough. The oil painting, which portrays three Chinese soldiers guarding the border against Soviet threat, had to be partially repainted to the Party's vision before it could be shown in public. In the revision, the faces of the soldiers were made fiercer, their cheeks rosier. The subtlety of which doesn't seem all that removed from the compulsive side of the Party today overseeing every meticulous detail of the 2008 Olympics, including what one cute little girl's face may come to symbolize over another's.
To understand artists of this time as either puppet or victim of the authoritarian state, however, would oversimplify the picture. Among the roster of such leading contemporary artists as Xu Bing, Chen Danqing, and Zhang Hongtu who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, Shen Jiawei confesses that it was the Revolution that "turned me into a painter, and, what is more, a painter who achieved fame at a very young age." As part of a work unit that painted portraits of Chairman Mao, Shen was able to keep the expensive leftover paint to further his artistic interest. These young artists regard the years of their "re-education"—living and working alongside farmers in the countryside—as the formative years of their artistic careers. It is with these sketches of the rural life that the exhibition ends in a tender spirit.
Yet the most memorable paintings in the main gallery are neither the official propaganda nor sketches from the rising stars of the era. The most memorable works often belong to the forgotten. With a departure from social realist style, the traditional ink brush paintings of established masters like Pan Tianshou, Lin Fengmian, Shi Lu and Li Keran startles one with their deviation in not only technique and style, but subject matter and emotion. If revolutionary art was bold, loud and invulnerable, the works of these masters drew on minimalism to create a spiritual lushness. Their fall from grace chronicles the shift in ideology, when pine trees standing for nobility, solemnity and dignity are replaced by jubilant faces surrounding Mao.
The most powerful painting among these "Black Artists," so labeled for their counter-revolutionary works that utilize traditionalist, old cultural themes and technique, may be Li Keran's Sunset on the Pass (1964). The ink on canvas of a looming bronze mountain landscape in rough ink strokes of traditional technique shows the People's army with their red flags, threading through the mountain. Like many of the established artists who were heavily criticized and denounced during the Cultural Revolution, Li Keran's incorporation of revolutionary themes into his traditionalist styled paintings is a monument to his artistic mastery, while the soldiers serve as reminder of the artist's concessions in order to survive. The mood of the piece is at once triumphant and lush, the irony unsaid. Another master of Chinese painting featured in the gallery was less fortunate. Lin Fengmian, who personally destroyed his own works by soaking and flushing them down the toilet, could not escape imprisonment; among countless artists who were jailed or sent to labor camps at the time, he spent over four years in prison.
It is the most ordinary paintings that accentuate the incongruity of the times. A series of landscape and still-life paintings by the fittingly named No Name Group seems entirely out of place in the throng of revolutionary art. Their depiction of everyday subjects, while not radical in form and technique, is rebellious in their very existence.
The last section of the exhibition features the Long March Project, a "walking visual display" by a contemporary artist collective set to retrace the 6000 mile retreat by Communists from Nationalist forces that mark the ascent Mao's power between 1934 and 1936. Installed as panel displays of photographs that recorded art events at twelve different sites along the route, the ambitious project is, in one of the organizer's own words, not simply an artistic chronicle of an historical event, but "an abstract symbol of achieving a [modern day] revolution…"
A revolution in the making may be fitting to describe the contemporary art scene in China today. Spearheaded by projects like The Long March, artists push the envelope with not only their unique artistic voice and medium, but by taking strides in shaping the space, the society in which they reside in. As it is with many exhibitions on China, each visitor may walk out of Art and China's Revolution more perplexed than before. The sheer otherworldliness and catastrophe of the three decades chronicled remind us that this world was only a generation ago. Today's generation, enduring its scars, feeling out its effects, remembering and forgetting, will have critical material to march on with for a while.