|An Essay by Patrick Merrill|
China has experienced tremendous political, economic and social changes in the last two decades creating a dynamic and conflicting culture. Industrial modernization has led to China becoming a major player in the global economy and because of that, rather than Chinas military might, has become a major political force. China is attempting to reconcile the seemingly paradoxical conflation of Socialism and Consumer Capitalism.
Artists in China are attempting to negotiate this mercurial environment. Raising questions of nationality, ethnicity, and identity; the role of gender; and the rapidly visible class divisions. Many do not want to abandon their rich cultural history nor are they so keen on wholesale adoption of Western ideologies. They want to be recognized and addressed with respect as Chinese. They have stepped out onto the world stage not to be judged by Western standards but to have their own unique voices heard.
Contemporary Chinese artists are caught between the tension of the old and the new. Identifying with and appropriating traditions from a four thousand year history and contrasting that with a direct engagement with the iconic, aesthetic and theoretical history of the West. Appropriating the images, patterns, styles, and motifs from Chinas traditional cultural history is not an attempt to return to the classics but an adoption of a language within which artists critically interpret the present. The same must be said about Chinese artistsuse of Western styles and theories. After the collapse of the Cultural Revolution, Western historical styles were introduced almost simultaneously along with contemporary critical trends like Deconstruction. Temporal lineage mattered not at all and Western art was adopted, fused and investigated as a single body, as a result we see a stylistic pluralism in China (one of the most important features of post-cultural revolution). Don't go comparing Chinese works to Western just because they look like a Western style and more importantly dont try interpreting them according to Western models of interpretation.
If I may replay that ancient proverb/curse, Chinese artists are living in interesting times.
Pop Vision is an exhibition featuring a cross sample from three of the major trends in contemporary Chinese art: Political Pop, Cynical Realism and New Realism. Political Pop is rooted in the political propaganda art of recent decades, which in turn had evolved out of an engagement since the turn of the century between Western academic realism and socially conscious art. Political Pop is particularly important because of its use of the visual language from the general culture fusing iconically the Socialist totalitarian regime with Western Capitalist/consumer ideology. The political tension of the Cultural Revolution has been drained away, its icons, especially Mao, have become merely cultural signifiers to be seen as a source of humor or of nostalgia (for the ideals not the practice). Todays Pop while being in some measure a response to the treacherous events of 1989 (Tiananmen Square) is not essentially an art of socio-political criticism but is an essential part of popular culture as for example when Mao photos/talismans are placed in a similar manner as in Catholics placement of images of saints or how old revolutionary songs become oldies but goodies via a rock beat.
By immersing themselves in popular culture, Political Pop artists find much common ground with the Cynical Realists. Both rose out of a reaction against the ineffectual idealism so typical of 80s art, turning instead to a reality more immediately accessible. But while Political Pop deals with the visual reality of propaganda art and mass culture, the Cynical Realist accost the reality of their immediate surroundings and personal acquaintances. Cynical Realist artists refuse to be burdened by the weight of an idealist agenda. The Mao era is seen as a vague childhood memory. They have no direct experience of the trials and fanatical idealism of the Cultural Revolution. According to Tsong-zung Chang there is a common cynical spirit running through these artists work leading them in two different directions. In one we find an irreverent attitude, leaning toward a rough humor painted in flamboyant and bright manner but with an underlying sense of unease. The other is darker, more of an existentialist approach, possessing a melancholic malaise.
The boundary between Cynical Realism and New Realism is a blurry one. Instead of representing the revolution or the grand themes of history or adopting a rebellious avant garde attitude, the New Realist invariably derived their materials from personal experience and developed a penchant for subjects from urban life. It is incorrect to view this position as a simple compromise. Rather it provided a real solution to problems faced by many young Chinese academic painters. This position was not a political or ideological one but was largely defined in technical and stylistic terms. They had little interest in group activities. They viewed themselves as individual artists and teachers, not political activists and they defined their art accordingly (Hung, Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century, 1999, 145).
New Realist artists rely on close yet fragmentary observations of life, often depicting familiar scenes and ordinary people. The New Realists are caught up in Chinas rapid transformations: the loss of tradition, the familiar neighborhoods and, as a result of those transformations and others, the inevitable changes in human relationships, lifestyle, taste and values.
Recent Chinese history is linked with personal memory and subjective response. The visual and conceptual structures inherited from the Cultural Revolution are used to reflect upon contemporary Chinese society and the artists own interpretation of that world. Raised in an atmosphere of political repression in which visual culture served the state these artists now confront rapidly changing social political and economic situations. Capitalism and globalization have given rise to a more pluralistic art world in which freedom does not necessarily eliminate the conventions of the past (Kathleen Ryor, In Chinese Art at the Crossroads, 2001, 30).
Zhao Lixian makes paintings depicting a mother and child or a father and child dyad. They stand as if waiting in line. Their eyes are focused off into the distance, presenting a wall of protection or insulation. While there is some physical connection between the figures, there is no eye contact, no visible emotional connection.
These are not the idealized images of happy, smiling, boisterous people that were portrayed during the Cultural Revolution but rather Zhaos interpretation of the family today in China. These are very personal works. The genesis of these works began when Zhao started looking at the families around her and the very visible fragmentation of the family. What she saw saddened her. She said it made her apprehensive. Unfortunately this sad change in this new age is one all too common to the industrialized world. Its not just parents working long hours to get ahead but in China the divorce rate has jumped dramatically in recent years. This is not to say that marriages during the Cultural Revolution were perfect, its just that there was so much shame attached to divorce before that men and women stayed together and gave the appearance of stability. Zhaos art can be associated with Cynical Realism, which focuses on the alienation in human relationships and the modern sense of existential and spiritual oppression. However the subject matter with its undercurrent of sadness is contrasted dramatically with her choice of bright and organic patterned colors.
In the three paintings included in this exhibition Liu Jian presents two distinct directions. In the first he uses iconic masks from the Peking Opera. These masks were first carved by the artist and then arranged into a tableau from which he makes his paintings. It was important to the artist that he used masks from the different eras of the two thousand year history of the Peking Opera. These masks are symbolic of Chinese mythology and folklore and refer to the traditional past of China. At the same time these emotionless and expressionless masks symbolize a contemporary reality. Liu thinks that many in China have lost their connections to Chinas history and traditions. For the artist, placing a life cast of his own face amongst the severe masks of the opera represents that lost.
Liu talks about how society today is no different from the one of two thousand years ago. The system is still controlled by senior officials like those of the Spring and Autumn Periods. Education still follows the doctrine of Confucius. The Emperor is now called the President. Political demands supercede individual freedoms. For over two thousand years it has been like a Peking Opera show, one episode followed by another. Costumes and actors may have changed but deep down and behind the thick make-up little else has.
In Lius second direction, the powerful Wrapped Sunflower? Series, we see a clear political narrative. Wrapped Sunflower 2? refers to the bombing of Kosovo but could easily reference the recent bombing of Iraq. The images are without mouths, they are powerless with no freedom of speech. In Wrapped Sunflower 2? there is a knife-sliced rip low down on the head functioning dually as a mouth and a wound. In the natural world the sunflower follows the movement of the sun, but here the silenced objects can only stare upward frozen at the huge bomb dropping on their heads.
Liu sees tradition as both a burden and a reward and like so many of his contemporaries he is caught between the tensions of the two. For Liu cultural responsibility and humanitarian concerns run deep. Liu tells us that the bright yellow color wrapping some of the sunflowers represents the ancient emperors oppressive lust for power. The expressionless faces deny their individual identity; the faces deny the wholeness of their humanity revealing only their wounds. Liu says, People say that I am wrapping up my own wounds, but when I was painting I felt that I was wrapping up the wound of the entire humanity (Liu Jian, Artists Statement, 2003).
Wang Yigang calls his current work Slight Revealism. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution and was placed in a farming community. Because of this he was denied early training as an artist. He later received university training and his early work was modeled after Abstract Expressionism but in the late 90s he made a radical change. Because of his own internal conflicts and dissatisfaction with the direction his work was taking, Wang was compelled to go back and look at his traditional roots. Painting became a vehicle for this research.
Wangs paintings reveal a balanced composition. Symbolically playing off an ancient history of China with that of the Cultural Revolution. On one side are beautifully rendered Chinese fabrics that refer to the traditional four thousand year culture of China. The specific floral patterns and birds carry their own internal symbolism that was developed over the centuries and are known to all Chinese. The second side appropriates classic propaganda images used during the Cultural Revolution, images that promoted the heroic ideals of Chinas military might, and of course the seemingly infinite images of Mao. These images are a shorthand that communicates the substance of the fanatical heroic idealism. Ironically they are also nostalgic about those ideals although not the reality of the Cultural Revolution. Wang wants us to remember the imposed homogenization during the Cultural Revolution. Gender and class are all neutral under the Mao jacket.
Superimposed over both the traditional and the Mao era images is a bridge image. They are usually in black and white and because they are appropriated from photographs/video images they appear as documentary, somehow more truthful of the present times. However these images of young people coming straight from TV commercials can only satirize Western style consumer advertising, perhaps referring to the obvious fiction of present tense images in China.
Wangs great criticism series or Grand Critique begun in 1990, marks his switch to Political Pop. The title refers to the critique of capitalism and Western imperialism during the Cultural Revolution. Wangs screen prints look like straight appropriations of the woodcut or high contrast style of the Cultural Revolution. Wang employs slogans from the big character posters and propaganda paintings that were key elements of the Cultural Revolutions art for the masses. These pure propaganda formatted images of the worker/soldier/peasant movements of the Cultural Revolution are juxtaposed with Western logos, luxury items, and commodities. In an ironic flip-flop everything that was criticized during the Cultural Revolution is today perfectly acceptable. Consumerism is consuming China. By juxtaposing these political and Western commercial symbols he satirizes both the ideology of Maos era and the mindless obsession for Western consumer products so prevalent everywhere in China today.
Sets of numbers cover most off the surface of Wangs paintings in this series. At first Wang claimed they meant nothing. He insisted that the numbers functioned as a purely formal aesthetic element and were stamped randomly with no narrative meaning. He now realizes this is a mistake. Numbers carry strong referents. Viewers were applying their own experiences and giving them meaning. While not claiming a specific meaning he acknowledges the numbers are an active part of the reading of this work.
It has been said that [as a means of communication] the medium of writing is better than speech, and that the medium of printing is even better. We have to say that painting is better in this sense than thinking and exhibitions are better than painting. Through the printed word and image fanciful ideas such as mine can become a part of history, where others unknown to me can read and interpret them. –Wang Guangyi
To be a successful woman painter anywhere in the world is difficult but in China it is particularly so.Wu Wei is not interested in the ego games of popularity, the shock tactics that mark much of the noisy avant-garde male dominated art world of China. Hers is a more introspective practice and thus marks her as a New Realist. Wu Weis masterfully painted works are self-portraits. Although the origins or inspiration for these paintings came from the commercial popular culture, (a shampoo advertisement on Chinese TV) the content of her paintings reflects on the representation and the idealization of women.
Given that their subject is self-portraiture they could also deal with the psychology of personal analysis. These images show the artist as partially submerged in water or passively floating, being there as she says. Many represent solitude, meditation. The water serving as metaphor, she wants us to realize she is suspended between two worlds; within the chaos of the political, economical, psychological world but at the same time outside.
An art critic in China named Nan Sha suspects that the New Realists are secretly idealistic because of what she has perceived as a shared effort to discover the spirit of our times. What distinguishes them from their more politically critical colleagues is their source for the understanding of this zeitgeist. Their understanding and thus the subject of their work is their personal experiences not the overwhelming often chaotic economic and political systems. Rejecting deliberate narrative and symbolism they instead focus on the fragmentary details of life. While they paint ordinary people in common settings, artist such as Wu Wei imbue their subjects with a strong subjectivity.
Note: Please excuse any errors in text attributions. If you find specific quotation errors please bring them to my attention and I will immediately correct them. The following references were enormously useful and I would recommend them to you for more in depth reading.
Journals and Magazines:
Interviews and Artist Statements:
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