Standing guard for Our Great Motherland
53 x 77cm
Courtesy and copyright of the artist
The exhibition ‘China and Revolution: History, Parody and Memory in Contemporary Art’ examines the relationship between poster art made during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) from 1966 to 1976 and the work of contemporary artists who respond to the events of that period. It is based on the research project, ‘Posters of the Cultural Revolution,’ funded by the Australian Research Council. This project re-evaluates the Cultural Revolution by analysing the propaganda in China during the period, focusing on political posters. Since the exhibition is based on the research project, there is a close relationship between the artworks displayed. As the title suggests, we can also read the position of the exhibition on the Cultural Revolution and communism in China. Furthermore, it has several upsides and downsides from a curatorial point of view.
The exhibition can be divided into four sections: the revolutionary Chinese posters, the portraits of Xu Weixin, the new Propaganda Posters of Liu Dahong and the parodistic paintings of Li Gongming. Each artist talks about the Cultural Revolution through their recent works. Thus the original revolutionary posters from the time of the Cultural Revolution allow us to compare and contrast the different responses to them in contemporary art in China.
Revolutionary Chinese Posters
The GPCR was an incredibly tumultuous period when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) reinforced its plan to modernise China, boosted its gross national product, and increased the pace of Chinese socialist transformation (Esmein, 1973). The creation of art was strongly regulated by the CCP during the GPCR. It was forbidden to use Western or classical Chinese styles because the GPCR aimed to build a new socialist nation without reliance on the corrupt Chinese values or the values of other countries. In addition, the CCP supported art by people who were workers, peasants, and soldiers and the art style it promoted was narrowed to Socialist Realism, with no abstraction or reference to modernism (Galikowski, 1998). The revolutionary Chinese posters are good examples of the art of this period as they were ‘part of a comprehensive and highly controlled media apparatus whose objectives were the consolidation of authority and the transformation of society’ under the communist government (Crushing & Tompkins, 2007, p. 9).
Standing guard for Our Great Motherland (Shen Jiawei, 2007) depicts the soldiers guarding the border of China. Their exaggerated and powerful figures, painted much bigger than nature, represent the power of the CCP. Not only that, they encourage people to believe in the utopian communism society by showing the strength and optimistic vision of the government through the soldier’s eyes looking far beyond. Aerial drawing of Dazhai & surroundings, another pictures in the exhibition, shows the features of human development, such as power lines, bridges, and irrigation. These modern transformations of the landscape present the greatness of the CCP and its policies aiming to protect people from repeated natural calamities such as floods, earthquakes, and droughts (Crushing & Tompkins 2007).
Weixin draws portraits of figures represented in the book Chinese Historical Figures 1966-1976. In 1966, shortly after the GPCR, he was a class representative for the second grade. Most of the students were brainwashed by the ideal of classless society and denounced landlords because those who had private property were seen as the enemy of the communist ideal. At that time, there was a rumor that his homeroom teacher was the daughter of a landlord. Weixin ‘heroically’ painted the portrait of his teacher on the blackboard to mock her, in the current fashion of caricaturing people in authority. When the homeroom teacher found the portrait Weixin was very proud of himself and felt that the enemy was punished as deserved. When he grew up, he realised his wrong behaviour and we can see feelings of guilt and reconciliation in his recent portrait works. This childhood experience led him to portray the historical figures who engaged with the Cultural Revolution. Besides questioning his behaviour, he also refers more generally to Chinese people’s behaviour during the Cultural Revolution: ‘Should not we resolve to repent and examine ourselves and our actions?’(Donald & Evans, 2010, p. 25).
Dahong’s works are parodies of paintings created during the Cultural Revolution that deified Mao. Dahong’s Red Calendar in four seasons and Fairytales of the Twelfth Month are examples of the parodies. It is a common strategy in communist countries to make leaders look like gods. Stalin and Lenin were depicted as huge figures in many Socialist Realist Posters in the Soviet Union, and the leaders of North Korea were also shown as gods in political posters. Dahong critiques this strategy and produces parodistic version of the posters. In Four Seasons – Summer, Mao is shown as a hero with a sword on his back. However, figures assuming funny poses, that look comic book characters, ridicule the process of deifying Mao. Through these parodies, Dahong reports the dark side of the history filled with the tears and the blood of the republic, when people could survive by unconditionally believing in Mao. (Donald & Evans, 2010)
As a member of the New Propaganda Work Group, Li Gongming, creates New Propaganda Posters, a modified version of the revolutionary posters made during the Cultural Revolution, where he adds critical thinking and new technologies. Through these posters, the Group members criticise the widespread repression and inequality of contemporary Chinese society, calling for social justice and equity. The work of Xiaoyan, another member of the Group, looks identical to the original revolutionary posters, they do however, have different purposes. The text in Gongming’s poster means ‘call for a harmonious countryside and a prosperous life for farmers’ and in Xiaoyan’s work it means ‘call for social justice.’ Both works use the style of revolutionary posters but they point out the promises that the CCP has not kept yet. (Donald & Evans, 2010)
Revolutionary posters VS New forms
The key to the exhibition is a comparison between the revolutionary posters and the new works responding to them. The original posters were produced as propaganda to reinforce the communist ideal during the Cultural Revolution. Conversely, the new works are mocking of and complaining about the communist ideal, as well as creating personal reconsiderations about the artist’s own behavior during the Cultural Revolution. Liu Dahong directly mocks the ideals of the Cultural Revolution, by ridiculing Mao, the symbolic and physical power of Chinese communism, he responds to the Cultural Revolution critically. Li Gongming and New Propaganda Work Group respond to the Cultural Revolution requesting actions from the government in order to solve social problems of contemporary China. This activism differs from Dahong’s lyrical attitude. Xu Weixin responds to the Cultural Revolution very personally. He finds the Cultural Revolution in his memories and reconsiders the past from the present point of view, trying to reconcile with his guilty memories.
The Display of the original revolutionary Chinese posters opposite to Liu Dahong’s works and new propaganda postcards is very effective. In spite of the small size of the gallery, the space is used very pragmatically. The New Propaganda posters are hung from the ceiling and Dahong’s video is projected onto a small fireplace on the wall. Despite the clever use of the space, some aspects are disappointing. Not every exhibition needs to be contextualised, but China and Revolution should provide more information to visitors to help them understand it, because it is difficult to fully appreciate it without the background of the Cultural Revolution and the recent history of China. For example, there is a documentary video, which is integral to understanding of the whole exhibition. There is no explanation as to why Weixin draws portraits and what Dahong tries to show unless visitors watch the documentary video. But this is located in a corner of the gallery, which is difficult to access. Furthermore, there is no guide to distinguish the revolutionary Chinese posters from new propaganda posters except the catalogue on sale. Since both posters have the same style, visitors cannot easily tell the difference unless they can read Chinese.
History, Parody and Memory
As the title of exhibition suggests, some would expect to find the political position that the three artists and the exhibition have in relation to the Cultural Revolution and communism. On the contrary, the works shown are neutral, so the position of the exhibition on communism is unclear. This might be the attitude that most artists and people have towards communism and the Cultural Revolution in China, since they cannot freely express their opinion on political issues. The artists are not necessarily neutral, but they are politically ambiguous because they try not to show that they are against communism. Dahong could depict Mao more aggressively and Gongming could criticise the government more critically. Weixin through his work could question why the CCP brainwashed innocent people to take control over them rather than just portraying historical figures. Instead, Dahong and Gongming simply parody the styles of the Cultural Revolution and Weixin just talks about his memories. Nevertheless, all of them respond to history actively. That may be the reason why the exhibition is titled not ‘against communism or anti-communism’ but just ‘History, Parody and Memory’
Cushing, L. & Tompkins, A. Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. 2007
Esmein, J. The Chinese Cultural Revolution. London: Andre Deutsch. 1973.
Donald, S. H. & Evans, H. China and Revolution: History, Parody and Memory in Contemporary Art Sydney: University Publishing Service, University of Sydney. 2010
Galikowski, M. Art and Politics in China 1949-1984. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press. 1998