‘Art and China’s Revolution’

Asia Society, New York
5 September 2008 – 11 January 2009

When last year Rizzoli published The Revolution Continues: New Art from China, the catalogue of the Saatchi collection of contemporary Chinese art, Jed Perl called it ‘the most hateful art book published in my lifetime’. Perl, art critic for The New Republic, labeled the Chinese work overblown, meretricious, ‘political pornography’, and hinted that its giddy embrace by Western collectors and institutions—his piece appeared shortly after Cai Guo-Qiang’s retrospective at the Guggenheim closed—dovetailed too conveniently with the current Chinese government’s international self-promotion. A few months later the New Criterion’s James Panero concurred in harsher terms, writing that the market success enjoyed by Chinese art star Zhang Huan, recently the subject of a two-venue show at PaceWildenstein, ‘supported the soft power strategy of an oppressive state’. More tellingly perhaps, he saw China’s imitation vangardism as symptomatic of the decline of serious (Western) art.

It is against this kind of critical opprobrium outside the artworld and the bigger buzz within it that the Asia Society’s ‘Art and China’s Revolution’ marks a timely effort to understand the sources of contemporary Chinese art. Spanning thirty years from the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the exhibition includes oil-paintings, sculptures, ink paintings, drawings, woodblock prints, posters, everyday objects and photographs, and charts the adoption of socialist realism in the early fifties, the replacement of ink painting by oil painting, the development of an iconography of revolutionary heroes, and the growth of the cult of Mao. Also covered is the Cultural Revolution (1966-c.69/76) the violent period of widespread social and economic chaos orchestrated by Mao in order to deflect criticism of his disastrous Great Leap Forward and the resulting power struggle within the communist party.

Much of the work on view, with its narrow repertoire of beaming peasants, beatific Maos, and vigorous Red Guards—the youthful guardians of revolt instituted by Mao—illustrated the raw material mined by a subsequent generation of Chinese political pop artists, artists who first enjoyed commercial success in the West in the nineties. The exhibition documented the ubiquity of Mao’s image, whether in oil paintings adhering to European traditions or mass-produced forms like posters and commemorative tchotchkes. Equally ubiquitous was the collection of Mao’s quotes published in several billion copies as the Little Red Book. Posters from the Cultural Revolution routinely featured multiple individuals, each holding a copy emblazoned with Mao’s portrait; to be found without a Little Red Book during this period was to risk interrogation. Excerpts from it were also reproduced on quotidian objects; the exhibition included combs and a cigarette lighter. The slide from propaganda—a term largely absent from the Asia Society’s supporting textual material—to kitsch is miniscule.

One of the show’s highlights was a small selection of genuinely subversive works. When the Cultural Revolution forced a radical re-assessment of the traditional Chinese form of ink painting, previously respected masters of the medium faced denunciation, imprisonment and beatings. Examples of this work were held up for public denigration in the so-called ‘black painting’ exhibitions which toured China during this period. A small number of artists, however, were able to work secretively, outside the Party’s purview. Beginning in the sixties, oil painters associated with the No Name Group produced everyday scenes in an impressionistic fashion. In the Asia Society exhibition setting, a painting like Ma Kelu’s Morning Snow (1975), Han Xin’s loosely worked skull, Sinner (1971), or the far more traditional ink scroll Pines at Hua Shan (1972) by Shi Lu can only suggest courage. If this work today appears anodyne rather than subversive, it is a sharp reminder of the importance of context: in the midst of revolution the most dangerous activity for an artist was to paint a landscape.

The dangers faced by artists have diminished. Exhibits can be closed and content censored but Chinese artists do not suffer the same fate as dissident intellectuals. When Richard Vine, in his 2008 survey New Art, New China, suggests that contemporary Chinese artists lack the courage of the Tiananmen Square protesters of twenty years ago, he repeats the Western complaint that successful contemporary Chinese artists are insufficiently critical of the regime’s past and present. For many critics of the contemporary Chinese art bubble, its most egregious aspect is the preoccupation with Mao and the Cultural Revolution. This criticism needs elaborating for it is less the real Mao, the monster of history, that is the target here than his transfiguration into Mao the image. Perl and Panero both lay the blame for this at Warhol’s feet. His 1972 portraits of the Chinese leader, made when Warhol returned to painting and a renewed engagement with celebrity, seem to void the possibility of historical judgment. To its critics, contemporary Chinese art continues in the same vein, while its international supporters trade in the ghost of radical chic, misconstruing the Cultural Revolution as an efflorescence of youthful sixties idealism rather than, as the documentary photos included in the Asia Society exhibit indicate, a protracted period of violent repression and state-sanctioned chaos.

The Cultural Revolution’s mantra—to rebel is justified—is a tenet of the avant-garde. Cai Guo-Qiang, whose New York Guggenheim retrospective moved to Bilbao after its Olympic stint in Beijing, has nodded to the Cultural Revolution as inspiration for his work. At the 1999 Venice Biennale, Cai, with the assistance of a team of artisans, recreated an iconic Chinese Socialist Realist sculptural tableaux portraying the plight of the peasantry and called it Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard. In Venice Cai won the International Golden Lion; in China his re-staging caused a scandal but one of no lasting import. He was appointed Director of Visual and Special Effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

The Asia Society show included an historic reproduction of the original Rent Collection Courtyard (1965), an arrangement of some one-hundred and fourteen figures incarnating rural oppression. If it is difficult to see rebellion in Cai’s gesture of appropriation—the artist claims his work is a satire on Western preconceptions of Socialist Realism—it may be because the West sanctions aesthetic rebellion within the ideology of avant-gardism. (Cai won the Lion after all.) The case is different in China. Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard was part of Cai’s New York retrospective, but reports indicated it would not be included when the show traveled to Beijing’s National Museum. One measure of the efficacy of dissent is the degree of repression it attracts. By this reckoning, Cai’s gesture, which was criticised by the artisans responsible for the original work as impugning their ‘spiritual property’, was not completely wasted. Perl’s and Panero’s criticism of contemporary Chinese artists’ lack of critical nerve is symptomatic of a deeper frustration with the international art market’s limitless capacity to recuperate transgression as novelty—Zhang Huan’s career trajectory comes to mind here—and it is arguably the latter that is the real subject of their displeasure. To call contemporary Chinese art insufficiently courageous or critical is to downplay the consequences of Mao Zedong’s revolution, consequences which continue in spite of the socialist republic’s economic liberalization. 

Tang Xiaohe, Strive Forward in Wind and Tides, 1971. Oil on canvas, 172.5 x 294.5cm. Collection of T Z Chang. Photograph Eddie C.Y. Lam, Image Art Studio.

Shen Jiawei, Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland, 1974. Oil on canvas, 189 x 158cm. Collection of Shen Jiawei. Photograph courtesy Shen Jiawei. 

Wang Shilong, People burning old and traditional objects during the Cultural Revolution's 'Break the Four Olds' Movement, 1966. Silver gelatin print, 2004. Courtesy of 798 Photo Gallery, Beijing, and FotoFest Inc, Houston.