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June 18, 2007

Christie Davies goes to Denmark to see some exciting modern Chinese art and finds the ghost of Mao and the vigour of a new generation of artists conscious of Chinese tradition and open to the world: Made in China: Chinese Art Now!

Posted by Christie Davies

Made in China: Chinese Art Now!
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
Humlebaek, near Copenhagen
16th March – 5th August 2007

The selection of items from the Estella Collection now exhibited in Copenhagen were all "made in China" after 1989, a year chosen because it was the year of Tiananmen Square, the closing of a door. The artists were born between 1966 and 1976 so that the oldest of them were less than teenagers during China's fearful and crackpot Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, when there was a total politicisation of art. Now there is in an authoritarian but in no sense totalitarian China both a new individualism such that all the diverse artistic directions of the west are to be found there too and yet also a return to the traditions of classical elitist Chinese art. There is still censorship and still a wary reluctance to criticise the state directly but then why should art be a vehicle for social and political criticism anyway?

The main thing is that Chinese art no longer has to serve the masses, no longer has to convey a simple message glorifying Mao's happy moronic workers, friendly brutal soldiers, peasants pretending to enjoy the idiocy of rural life and smiling oppressive party bosses imposing equality through their own monopoly of power. Artists have been able to return to the elitism of the calligraphy that the illiterate masses can not understand and to artistic traditions built up in the old Imperial China of cultivated mandarins. They have been able to repudiate egalitarian collectivism and explore a new competitive individualism. Socialism is dead.

Yet Mao's ghost is still present in modern Chinese art. Sui Jianguo's Legacy Mantle, 1997, is a giant aluminium model of the uniform jacket once worn by Mao. Now it is hollow and headless but the ghost of horrors past lurks within.

The same may be said of Yue Minjun's Liu Chunhua-Comrade Mao goes to Anyuan, 2003, an idealised landscape of hills and sky, a big sky with bright clouds and an endless vista of hill tops and mist-filled valleys. It is based on an original picture made during the Cultural Revolution which showed Mao gazing into the socialist future; a million copies were made at the time and exhibited everywhere. But in this picture Mao is absent, left out of his very own heroic setting. The tyrannical uniformity, the oppressive egalitarianism, the utter regimentation are but a bad memory. The future through which the Chinese are living now is not what Mao saw on that horizon but one that would have horrified the old monster. Mao is sitting in one of the nastier circles of hell, endlessly forced to watch on a demonic DVD the rebirth of a capitalist Shanghai, whose citizens scramble for consumer goods including the kinds of bourgeois-decadent works of art shown in this exhibition. Guess who is setting next to him?

Even more insulting is Zeng Fanzhi's Chairman Mao with Us, 2005 which employs irony. Mao and two children stand in a field all smiling compulsively as in the Cult Rev days. But now the smiles are toothpaste advertisement and obviously forced, the high-straggling weeds cuts across their faces, the sky is streaky, the colours anarchic. The same mockery of the heroic suffuses Hong Hao's The Long March, 2004.

In Feng Mengbo's Gray Sea Hold Hands, 2006, two identical Maos in feldgrau uniform shake hands in front of a dull grey sea and a dismal grey sky. Only their sallow heads and hands stand out from the greyness. It is a statement of how it was then, a featureless, unending grey nightmare in which everything was decided by one man shaking hands with himself.

It has been claimed that in China today Mao's portrait is only to be seen on the banknotes and at the entrance to the Forbidden City where the emperors once lived. Are the authorities, too, being ironic, making Mao the geist of banko, a statement that all value is exchange value? Have they placed Mao at the entrance to the home of the last of the emperors who like him trapped China into the unthinking tedium of rice, nothing but rice, and the horrors of not enough rice, by excluding the unique transforming power of free commerce?

It is curious to note that the Louisiana Gallery hosting this exhibition was itself a subject of criticism in 2005 for prominently displaying a heroic portrait of Mao. That most respected and freedom-loving of Danish newspapers, Jyllands Posten, the paper that boldly carried the famous cartoons showing the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist, accused the gallery of idolising the man who along with Hitler and Stalin was one of the great murderers of the twentieth century. The newspaper's demand may seem a bit unreasonable, given that the portrait was Andy Warhol's 1972 Mao, a piece of brightly, indeed absurdly coloured pop-art.

Also Mao was hung alongside a Warhol Coca-Cola image, emphasising the banality of all such "icons". Whether Coca Cola will sue the Louisiana Gallery for defamation by adjacency remains to be seen; Mao was after all the cocaine of the masses and at one time Coca Cola would have been Sigmund Freud's favourite tipple.

Nonetheless, if a gallery is in the business of hanging coloured pop-art icons, why should it not blow up a set of Third Reich postage stamps (preferably those overprinted Bőhmen und Mähren) until the Fuerher's head is two metres high and put them next to a few Marilyn Monroes. It can't be done, of course, because outraged museum goers would attack them with cleavers in the manner of a wild suffragette hacking at the Rokeby Venus.

But why in the case of Mao did objectors merely write indignant letters to the director, rather than slashing Mao's portrait or lethally striking it with a blunt object? Is it because they hold the racist view that to murder tens of millions of Chinese is less evil than to murder tens of millions of Europeans? The Louisiana Gallery might at least have agreed to demands to put up a notice near to Mao's portrait giving details of his lies and associated crimes, much as the Dean of the Anglican Lincoln Cathedral has done in relation to the myth of Little Saint Hugh mentioned by Chaucer. It is after all the business of museums to educate the public, particularly given that unreconstructed Maoists are still walking the streets of Copenhagen and London alike. In 1972, the year of Warhol's portrait, I can remember British Maoist students interrupting the lectures of my much-loved colleague W. M. S. Russell on Malthus, shouting at Bill that he was "an anti-people monster". I have yet to hear any of them retract or apologise for their enthusiasm for the murdering helmsman. Lefties don't do apology, except of course for the supposed misdeeds of their distant and repudiated ancestors.

For the Chinese themselves the memory of Mao's misdeeds remains undiminished but they are also unable to banish the thought that he unified their country and made it strong and feared with his famous cry of China erwache! Neither the artists nor the government really know how to deal with him.

Indeed, the erasure of memory and the knowledge of its impermanence have become central to Chinese creativity. Perhaps the most obsessional is Qiu Zhijie's Grinding the Stele (Tombstones), 2001. The artist has taken the Christian cross-shaped tombstone of an American child Mary Troisi who lived and died in China 1913-1915 and the stele of a Chinese man who died in 526, containing a eulogy of his virtues, and is grinding them together until all the inscriptions are erased, leaving just a cross and an oblong. An accompanying twelve minute performance DVD is shown of him holding the American Christian tombstone against the Chinese stele, rotating and scouring until all recorded memory is gone, a nightmare act of destruction, particularly for archaeologists, whose reason for existence is also being destroyed. American and Chinese culture grind together until both are lost. At each stage the artist inks them and presses both of them onto paper to leave an imprint and then starts again. Gradually the sharp imprints with a message have faded into mere black outline. Time erodes memory. This has a particular resonance in a society where memory and continuity were revered and where a punitive ruler would not only do away with a recalcitrant subject but also kill his family and descendants and erase all records of the existence of his ancestors, so that the victim not only ceased to live but had never lived at all.

A more constructive deployment of Chinese tradition put to modernist use is to be seen in Yu Bing's The Living Word, 2001. It is a room sized mobile, from one end of which hang little bird-like figures. As you proceed along the main axis you can see these evolve into a more and more abstract form gradually to become the Chinese character for "bird". They also hang nearer and nearer to the floor and where they touch it, written on the floor in Chinese is the dictionary definition of a bird.

Less aesthetically refined, but bolder and more comic, is Liu Wei's Landscape, 2004. It is an arrangement of bare bottoms; photos of the bottoms of real people both men and women bending down, all seen from the side and arranged to make up a traditional Chinese landscape. Their arses form the hills and the traditional sharp clefts in the hills and the hairy ones have vegetation on their hills. One or two of the posteriors even have flies perched on them. The Danish women wandering through the gallery were shocked and baffled by it. They giggled and said among themselves in Danish:

I hadn't realised the Chinese were so hairy-bottomed.
They failed to see how well the picture mimicked traditional Chinese landscape painting. It has nothing in common with the appalling random film Bottoms by the widow Lennon, aka Yoko Ono.

China is a society poised between socialist failure, oppression, murder and starvation and its future as the world's dominant trading and capitalist nation. Trading means openness, even for an undemocratic society, including an openness to new artistic themes and ideas, and art also enters the commercial marketplace. True, there are still restrictions imposed by an authoritarian government but it is a government that now lacks a secure ideology and does not seek to control art in order to use it for social downlift. The curators are bothered that there are limits on the depiction of sexuality but then there were similar and stronger restrictions in a Victorian England where Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's unclad women in Roman bath-houses were seen as daring.

Many of the naked Chinese women depicted in a realistic contemporary setting as in Ma Yanhong's Adulthood, 2006, often with unrealistically Caucasian-bulging pink breasts as in Wei Dong's Sunday Brunch, 2004, could not have been put on full public display in free London in 1860.

The curators are unhappy that certain topics, such as the racial oppression of the Tibetans or the Uighurs are off-limits but in England you can not depict the Prophet Mohammed and a London gallery stocked with and specialising in pictures deemed "demeaning" to blacks, "wimmin", the Irish or "poofdahs" would soon be forced to retreat by powerful social forces operating through political power. In China artists dare not defend the cause of a subordinate group; in Britain they may not portray such a group's less pleasing aspects. Under Blairbrown, as under Mao, equality equals oppression, though we are, for the time being, protected from its worst excess by an older libertarian tradition.

The economic future is clear. So far as manufacturing is concerned, "Made in China" will push aside "Made in Europe" and "Made in America". It would be dangerous to dismiss Chinese economic success as a mere product of cheap docile labour or a temporary lack of safety and environmental regulation. The harsh fact is that the Chinese are also brighter, cleverer, and personally more productive than we are, possibly by as much as ten I.Q. points and this in a country whose history is one of poverty, malnutrition and mass illiteracy. The intelligence gap is particularly large in relation to spatial and numerical thinking. How will this affect artistic Made in China? What will Chinese Art Now look like in 2027? At one level it will make no difference. Until the sixteenth century Chinese material achievements and productivity were in advance of Europe but it would make no sense whatsoever to try to place the artistic achievements of the two civilisations in a rank order. They are simply different.

At present the Chinese are taking on what are essentially Western artistic ideas, sometimes to produce something new and vital, distinctively Chinese, rare and strange, like Fang Lijun's Swimmer, 1999, sometimes to repeat our nonsense as in Wang Jianwei's Spider, 2004. By 2027 it is we who will be learning from the Chinese. The Chinese are not going to subside into "global" art. They have far too strong a national identity and a consciousness of their own merits and traditions and they know what we are tending to forget - that art is about something. This time their impact on Europe will not be mere Chinoiserie or something for the collector of exquisite antiques.

Christie Davies is the author of Dewi the Dragon, a work of humorous science fiction that draws on Chinese tradition. For his previous reviews of earlier exhibitions of modern Chinese art, see: Dreaming of the Dragon's Nation: Chinese Contemporary Art in Dublin; Contemporary Chinese Art at the V&A: Christie Davies wonders how we will ever understand China and its culture when so few of us know its language; and also for an earlier time China: The Three Emperors at the Royal Academy - Christie Davies contrasts the cultivated, refined tastes of The Three Emperors with the cultivated vulgarity of our own rulers.

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