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Paul Serfaty



olitics is an expression of power relationships, as is patronage. Conversely the act of imitation reflects the power of an image or its economic or social attributes over the imitator. We observe in contemporary Chinese art a nexus of power, money and politics that abounds in important political, economic and imitative phenomena. The inter-relationship of art, politics and imitation can be observed throughout history and in many cultures. A review of Western art, from the 15th century to the present, provides many striking examples. Sometimes art and politics march in step, as when Russia had its Revolution in 1917, and Kazimir Malevich (1866-1944) produced his first Black Square painting in 1915, or when the Futurists marched on Rome with Mussolini in 1922. Hitler, Germanys Fascist leader from the 1920s, who trained at art school, didnt wait on artists, but drove them to draw on a perverted view of the qualities of classical Greek art (480-323 BC). Imitation is at the heart of much art. It may be driven by many different impulses - love of beauty, peer pressure, adoration, even forgery or money-making. Still, there is nothing inherently bad about the fact of imitation, despite the present-day perception that creativity and originality should define contemporary art. When imitation is due to money, politics or popular opinion we scrutinise the results closely; but we do not despise Michaelangelo (1475-1564) because his works were commissioned by Pope Julius II. We accept that a founder of Pop Art, such as Andy Warhol (1928-87), used assistants to create works based on other peoples images. Matisse (1869-1954) and the Pre-Impressionists were influenced by Oriental art. This tells us cross-cultural imitation has a significant influence. Theoreticians also tell us that the problem that results from making many copies of sculptures or photographs does not stop them being art. Politics and power relationships have impacted the art world most directly through patronage. For Michaelangelo, painting the Sistine Chapel meant money and closeness to power as well as art. The French painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) had a good relationship with the French Emperor, Napoleon (1769-1821). This led to paintings that linked classical Rome, the French Revolution and the French Empire - three very different political frameworks - in images that influence French

schoolchildren even today (fig.1). Therefore art can influence political perception. Politics can of course directly influence art. In 1930s Europe, Arno Breker (1900-91) sculpted a Hitlerian vision of manhood, power, racial dominance and Aryan characteristics under the patronage of the Nazi Party (fig.2). In film, Leni Riefenstahls (19022003), in Triumph of the Will, united politics, art, propaganda and even beauty. In Fascist architecture Albert Speer (1905-81) provided vivid settings for mass rallies expressing Fascist values of dominance, submission of the individual and elevation of the leader. The cult surrounding Mao Zedong (1893-1976) involved similar values. In Chinese art, state patronage prior to the 1949 Revolution/ Liberation expressed limited political content. Recognised artists operating within the system benefited from their status, but their work was not overtly political. Even after 1949, art was kept on a short string: socialist realism held sway, and propaganda images were the aim.

FIG. 1.





Contemporary art in China has therefore sprung not from state patronage, but as a reaction to the limits on inspiration brought about by state control. With the recent dramatic growth of museums in China willing to sponsor exhibitions of contemporary art, and the extension of the market system, foreign values and commercialisation, this is changing; despite which the foreign remains intensely political for the Chinese state and thus for Chinese contemporary art. The Peoples Daily in 2006 listed the 50 foreigners who most influenced China. The list starts in 1760, but includes just 5 artists (writers, film-makers) and no painters. The art world would go back further and regard Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) as the most important modern influence. He brought to China a greater awareness of perspective. In the last century artists such as Zhao Wuji (Zao Wou-ki, b. 1921) and Lin Fengmian (1900-91) were attracted to France, and incorporated Western elements into the Chinese artistic inheritance. Zhao Wuji shows how one major Chinese artist deals with abstraction. Often, his abstract work suggests land-

scape (cat. no. 204). In Chinese art, landscape has always had its metaphysical element: how one lives or thinks is reflected in how the painting has been executed. On the other hand, the nervousness and scurrying of some of Zhaos brushwork reminds one more of the techniques of certain 20th century Western painters who were interested in the truths of the East. Paul Klee (1879-1940) used calligraphic marks depicting birds or trees; Henri Michaux (1899-1984) and Julius Bissier (1893-1965) developed spontaneous or automatist gestures reflecting Taoist principles. This demonstrates that the flow of ideas between two cultures foreign to each other is a circular process; indeed, the idea of circularity itself draws on Daoist philosophy. Foreign influences in post-Cultural Revolution Chinese art included surrealism, pop art, conceptualism, expressionism, and a whole host of other socially-oriented approaches to artistic creation. For example, the relationship between the individual and the State, or the impact of commercialism, have strongly influenced artists and their work. The diversity of influence reflects the confused politics of China. Historically, the foreign was reviled for bringing humiliation to China through unequal treaties, and for tarnishing centuries of cultural splendour following the misrule of the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Today, in fields such as architecture, vital institutions such as Chinas new National Theatre, designed by French architect Paul Andreu, embrace the foreign as a gesture of geopolitical openness. And yet there is a suspicion among connoisseurs of Chinese art and some observers of the many influences on contemporary Chinese art that too much of the outside is a bad thing.2 Traditionally, imitation has a respectable face only when directed towards imitation of the masters. To look outside for examples is to snub the national tradition. From the perspective of the contemporary art world, that snubbing is precisely the point: in choosing what to reject and what to imitate, the art world conveys the psychology of our times. This is well understood by politicians or the economically powerful, who wish to capture the magic of art. They may do so by patronage, or through direct ideological selection, or by means of censorship. Driven by the interaction of constraint and response, the development of contemporary Chinese art became the story of a journey made by Chinese artists: from exclusion by the State, to engagement with the outside world. The older amongst todays contemporary artists began this journey constrained by raw political power, imposed by direct political order. The dogma of the State prevailed: through the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, the Four Olds3 were trampled upon. Only traditional ink and calligraphic work, Socialist Realism and some traditional

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crafts such as woodblock printing, especially in the service of propaganda, could serve as vehicles for artistic expression, which aimed to be red, bright and shining. In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, in 1979, this limitation was challenged in the so-called Democracy Wall shows organised by the Stars, a diverse group of artists united by a desire to be themselves, rather than follow social-realist styles taught by the academies. Amongst many expressions of unconventionality and independence, of an unwillingness to imitate the In, the most visibly political were those by Wang Keping (b.1949) and Ma Desheng (b. 1952). Wang chose sculpture and his pieces Silence and Idol (fig. 3) later became symbols of a desire for independence of mind in a state which rejected the concept. Wang worked in wood, a traditional medium, but to criticise authority, a non-traditional purpose, he later cast his works in bronze, non-traditional material for representational rather than devotional work. In placing himself outside, Wang was not imitating others so much as rejecting constraint. Ma Desheng chose woodblock printmaking (fig. 4), but his works project a strongly expressionistic quality conveying resolution, rebellion, idealism in their powerful clear images and sharp black and white contrasts, the black a direct rejection of Maoist requirements for bright and red or indeed shining. Complementary to the socio-political implications of independence was the idea of freedom in the metaphysical sense: an opening of the spirit to the infinite possibilities of

the human mind. Art which expresses freedom is resisted by the political mind because control becomes progressively more difficult as it is relaxed. Thus the impulse to hang paintings near the Central Academy of Fine Arts rather than on the Xidan Democracy Wall, as allowed, was driven by a need for freedom in this more general sense.5 Wang Keping, Huang Rui (b.1952), Ma Desheng and the other Stars all felt this. But the climate still proved unfavourable, and the Stars became an artistic diaspora, inspiring but exiled from their homeland. These strained relationships with authority, reinforced by the Tiananmen events of 1989, echo even today.6 As the 1980s developed, art roved more freely beyond the limits of approved subject-matter, flirting with surrealism, re-attaching itself to expressionism and subverting traditional calligraphy. In 1985 New Wave artists such as Wang Guangyi (b.1957) and Gu Wenda (b.1955) expanded further the scope of the permissible; though Gu Wenda decided, in 1987, that this would be easier overseas than in China itself. Paradoxically, it was the repression and despair engendered by the deaths around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 that crystallised the next stage in the interaction of art, society and politics in China. From that event emerged two trends that were overtly political in their implications - Cynical Realism and Political Pop. The Cynical Realists may be said to be rebels first, and political freedom seekers second, if at all. Treated as hooli-




gans, they expressed an unwillingness to aid what they saw as a deeply flawed social system, and revelled in their uselessness. Dont try any of your old tricks on us, said Fang Lijun (b.1963) for all your dogma will be thoroughly questioned and negated and thrown in the rubbish bin.7 And: It is ridiculous to seek eternity however people will understand if a common language is used, even if we are speaking about abstract or philosophical issues.8 In his early work, bored, shaven-headed dissolute looking men wandered across the frame. In 2004.1.10 (cat. no. 209), he pictures himself falling backwards into the void: but the falling or floating motif, in his later work often accompanied by a pair of hands holding up the figures, suggesting redemption, reveals no support at all, unless it be the arms of nature. The indifference and cynicism about human intervention remain. Others, such as Liu Wei (b.1965) (cat. no. 208), focused on the contradictions between the claims to superiority of the leadership and the all too human reality of a class exposed to the temptations of power: self-seeking, merely human, slightly depraved, reminding one of the Kitchen-sink9 dramas and art produced in Britain in the 1950s and 60s as respect for the socially-defined political ruling class evaporated. Portraiture in China was almost always formal. Liu Weis portraits break down the impression of status that a formal portrait normally reinforces. That he often painted family and friends makes this honesty all the more poignant. This cynicism may seem justified by the rise of socialist capitalism in China. Marx identified the economic relationship of producer and consumer as amongst the most debilitating, indeed enslaving, of all. The power of money is one that transcends national boundaries. Worse, the idea To get Rich is Glorious is often confused with Greed is Good, even though the thought behind each is very different.10 But for an artist to withdraw from the new socialmarket-artist-gallery system seems difficult. Still, an artist de facto chooses. Does he try deliberately to position him or herself as a particular kind of artist? If so, how? What is the public to which he attends? What of the medium, the subject-matter, the references implicit in works of art? Nowadays, all these end up being decided in the context of an internationalism unparalleled in Chinas history. Artists choices become not merely economic, but political, human, social and ultimately help define the national culture. The risk is that imitation in pursuit of a market quickly drains creativity. Setting the present exhibition against this background the most striking linkage between art, imitation and politics, is the sincerity of it all. Far from imitation being testimony to deception or mis-appropriation, it is testimony to

the enduring attachment between art and truth. If some contemporary Chinese art seems merely imitative, the best is successful because it communicates the inner not the surface meaning: paintings of the smiling masses are understood not as copies of revolutionary art, but as a critique of a dishonest political system that corrupted an entire society. In a broader context, insofar that they communicate the reality of their China, even the Cynical Realists did not achieve the cynicism of philosopher Ortega y Gasset who, in 1925 called for an art which:
betrays a real loathing of living forms or forms of living beings Dehumanisation is inspired by an aversion against the traditional interpretation of realities To assail all previous art, what else can it mean than to turn against Art itself?11

Ironically, this view carried within it the seeds of its own destruction, as dehumanisation was in reality a genuine reflection of fascist political ideology. Arno Breker (190091) is today viewed as artistically representative of his times; though not a great artist because he truly represented an ideology that was itself bankrupt and dehumanised in its core values and art must remain human. By contrast, propaganda work of the Maoist period is now seen as having a certain charm because it idealised the human relations of the heroic revolutionaries, while the Fascist viewpoint emphasised massiveness, order, and domination. Despite the undoubted dehumanisation of the Cultural Revolution, the Maoist deception is of a gentler order. The appropriation of Maoist propaganda images by the new generation of Chinese artists has been possible in a way that fails for Fascist art because Chinas once-totalitarian society has evolved rather than plunged into destruction. There is no need for an artist with the apocalyptic vision of Anselm Kiefer (b.1945) in contemporary Chinese art. Paradoxically, those artists who have taken over Maoist images to communicate a new truth have used techniques espoused by an artist who asserted an absolute belief in superficiality, and in the need to escape from art as a matter of high culture expressing deeper truths. Andy Warhol maintained that art is no less art for being easily reproducible. He used his factory methods, and employed preexisting images, for example of Marilyn Monroe or Mao Zedong (fig.5). Chinas Political Pop artists in their turn demonstrated that simple imitation need not be empty, even if at one level it pretends to be. Pop Art forges a direct link between the communicative strategies of artists, who used it to express strongly anti-establishment politics in both 60s America and 90s China.

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appropriating cross-cultural images, that Pop Art in the 1960s gained addiis the most representative of modern tional power by denying seriousness, and China, and that expresses most truly the refusing to engage in a debate that times in which he now lives. implicitly accepted the authority of the Wang Guangyi, a leader of the New opponent. The same was true for Wave and Political Pop movements, is Political Pop in China. When Li Shan also their quintessence (cat. no. 215). But (b.1943), in his 1993 untitled painting under the surface of appropriation of pop (fig. 6), he presented a smiling Mao, themes and styles and the use of the lanflower in hand, he defused one of the guage of revolutionary socialism and most powerful images in the politics of Western consumerism lies a self-referenmodern China. In his androgynous FIG. 5. ANDY WARHOL, MAO ZEDONG, tial truth: the works themselves and their impressions of Mao, he allowed a cerAFTER ROBERT ROSENBLUM ON MODERN AMERICAN ART (NY: HARRY N. ABRAMS, justifiable success at auction have become tain sinister quality to emerge, in that the 1999) P. 124 an exemplar of the dominance of money gentleness seemed to belie the underlying and consumer values over other values in strength we know was there; but the China today, and also illustrate a converprinciple of defanging the monster by gence of domestic and international percasting it in the artists chosen image spectives on art in society. As the scholar remained the same. Li Shan thus used Geremie Barm said of Cynical Realism techniques that were foreign, images that It is a cynicism that is cynical even about were native, and cultural references that itself. Thus the power of art to represent were multi-layered to tell the world a the truth of an underlying socio-political new political story: Maoism as we had reality is demonstrated. known it was dead, and a new China If these artists have responded to was coming alive, neatly reversing the their times by imitating aspects of the slogan Without Chairman Mao there foreign, others have hewed closer to the would be no new China. traditions of China, while still adapting Sui Jianguo (b.1956) (cat. no. 216) the inherited artistic tradition of their likewise pursued a strategy of appropriacountry to effect political statements in a tion to tame the Mao image, literally castbroader sense. ing not the man but his jacket in bronze, FIG. 6. LI SHAN, UNTITLED (MAO AS BUDDHA), PRIVATE COLLECTION, IMAGE Wei Dong (b.1968) (cat. no. 207) aluminium, fibreglass - but always withCOURTESY OF SCHOENI ART GALLERY LTD. uses a meticulous brush to paint images out the owner inside, a visual metaphor on silk that blend landscape with the female form. In his for the emptiness of the inheritance of the Maoist ideal. It works, the rocks and flowers are plainly Chinese, but the had neither lasted, nor to the extent it was still purveyed, did figures, though clothed in the uniform of the military, are it have substance today. As Jeff Kelley puts it, not at all traditional. Lascivious, cheeky, probably degenSuis expressive Western-style nudes inspired by classical erate, his ladies will charm some men, but are the antitheGreco-Roman and Renaissance sources are draped in sis of old China. In the catalogue image, a dragon clambers repressive Communist attire: the classic Mao suit. This between the thighs of the immodest girl, evoking the Greek perfectly tailored fit of East and West is ironically at god Zeus who entered the princess Danae as a shower of odds with itself. The figures, though constrained in the gold (which breaks all locks). Ancient times have passed, formal unisex attire ubiquitous in China during the and even gold, now so freely available, is not needed to Maoist era, are animated in the throes of deathas consummate desire. While his earlier work (fig. 7) was with his adaptations of Michelangelos slavesor in athletic preparation to throw a spear or discus.12 based on European themes such as The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugne Delacroix (1798-1863) or The Though Sui is not primarily political in his original inspiTurkish Bath by J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867) (fig. 8), Wei ration, being more concerned with the state of nature and now shocks with his direct attack on the decadence of the the way man may be bound by it and in turn bind it, this old regime: even the daughters of the Revolution are sluttheme of bondage, capture and the constraints of life have tish, and unashamedly so. clearly concerned him. His early work was in that respect Liu Dahong (b. 1962) is also a meticulous painter, one original, but it is his later work, built of foreign materials, who has long blended the symbolic with the literal, por-


traying Mao images using both Buddhist and Christian iconography and traditional and realist landscapes to carry the presentation or the action forward. In propaganda posters, too, the presentation of Mao was often literally GodFIG. 7. WEI DONG, CIRCUS PERFORMANCE, like. In Butterfly, IMAGE COURTESY OF PLUM BLOSSOMS (INTL) LTD. which depicts the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China (cat. no. 206), we feast our eyes on a cornucopia of detail (fig. 9), as in works by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638)(fig. 10), though the personalities date from Hong Kongs transition to Chinese rule rather than 16th century Europe. Huang Yan (b.1966) is quite different. The use of his own body to paint on is a cultural import in Chinese terms, though the subject-matter and the style of Shanshui Tattoo Series No. 10 (cat. no. 210) are traditional. He also works in porcelain, but there he reverses the process, using traditional media with traditional motifs in non-traditional forms femurs, scapulae, skulls and other elements of the natural worlds too closely associated with death to be acceptable in traditional terms; but also a Western Venus all in all challenging the traditional while respecting its part in history. In asserting the need and right to move on from traditional relationships between subject-matter, medium and message, he makes a political statement: you do not have to destroy respect for tradition, as Mao tried to do, in order to move beyond it. Gu Wenda is almost too well known to need introduction, having developed a strong international career since moving to New York in 1987. His works, his ideas and his universality have been highly traditional in the sense that he has lived his life with a literati-like insistence on correspondence between life and art. He is political in the broadest sense, striving to help people understand the human condition. He has consistently challenged local, cultural and universal social taboos, using materials ranging from menstrual blood and tampons to human hair especially sensitive in Post-Holocaust Europe, but signifying in many nations the loss of strength or status that Samson, the prisoner, the soldier were forced to endure. The Manchu imposition of the queue perhaps made matters more ambiguous in China, but the political significance for China of hair before and up to the revolution of 1911 is evident. By collecting hair for his United Nations project, to which English Alphabet (cat. no. 205) belongs, Gu puts the contribution of peoples before the preconcep-

tions of their societies; combines them in a way that in Chinese arthistorical terms represents a clear foreign influence (trans-cultural); by selecting, often, ancient calligraphic forms such as sealscript style, he shows a respect for the ancient FIG. 8. J.A.D. INGRES, THE TURKISH (archaism); and by BATH. AFTER RICHARD WOLLHEIM, THE A.W. MELLON LECTURES (IN PAINTING denying himself the use AS ART) (PRINCETON, N.J.: PRINCETON of ink, in favour of hair, UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1987), P.260 he engages in a clear inter-media exchange. It is a measure of his strength in challenging our preconceptions that what seemed astonishingly bold fifteen years ago now seems shocking but inevitable. Zhang Xiaogang (b.1958) (cat. nos. 211 and 213) is quiet, both as a man and as an artist, and yet his paintings contain multitudes: the socio-political history of Communist China. In his Big Family (fig. 11) paintings, he blends elements of the family photo-portrait with politically significant emblems, combining the human with the institutional. The difference of intent behind the alternative perspectives on perfection portrayed in his images makes it clear: the states declaration of its perfection is a lie; in contrast with the human wish that our children should be perfect. This is expressed by small imperfections in the alignment of an eye, a sense of emptiness in the quality of a gaze, the bloodlines that link the human beings portrayed in the painting. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the beauty appreciated by the state is that of the perfect slave, the beauty appreciated by the family is the very fact of a person being family, despite all his or her faults. Zhangs earlier work went through phases drawing more expressly on overseas influences, from primitivism to surrealism, but in developing his art he succeeded in integrating many different foreign influences. This allowed him to humanise the tensions between individual, state and family; thus his work, while unsettling at first, offers in the end a calming perspective on the world. Liu Xiaodong (b. 1963) (cat. no. 212) too is calm, but from a different perspective. His mastery of oil is such that he can communicate effortlessly the human reality of a scene its texture, its emotional content, its naked reality. He does not need to delve beneath the surface because he is so adept at having his characters do it for him. Currently, he is painting people affected by the Three Gorges Dam, effectively criticising a project that reflects political determination to change peoples lives, no matter how adversely. Combining

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See Walter Benjamins 1936 essay: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Interestingly, he also links politics to art and in his opening refers to Marx and in closing to Fascism: Fascism is rendering [destruction] aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art. See, e.g. Arnold Changs comments in A Personal View on Contemporary Chinese Oil Paintings, Orientations, April 1995, p. 82. Old ideas, old customs, old culture and old habits. Wang Keping Diaries, unpublished, courtesy of Wang Keping/Katie de Tilly. In a show hung by the Gao Brothers in 2006, supported by Huang Rui, the Beijing authorities took down works by Wu Wenjian, jailed after June 1989: Gao Qiang, discussion with the author, July 2006. Quoted in catalogue essay by Claire Roberts for New Art From China: Post-Mao Product (Art Gallery New South Wales, 1992), p. 6. See artists statement in catalogue for Chinas New Art, Post 1989 (Hong Kong: Hanart TZ Gallery, 1993), p.69. A phrase coined by British art critic David Sylvester in 1954. Cf. a 1986 episode of 60 Minutes: the interviewer asked Deng Xiaoping: To get rich is glorious ... What does that have to do with communism? Deng replied: To get rich is no sin. However, what we mean by getting rich is different from what you mean. Wealth in a socialist society belongs to the people. See La deshumanizacin del Arte e Ideas sobre la novela (The Dehumanization of art and Ideas about the Novel, 1925). Sui Jianguos exhibition The Sleep of Reason was held at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco from January 14-April 24, 2005. Jeff Kelleys comments are posted on

FIG. 11.



the reality-driven work of English artist Lucien Freud (b.1922) with the sense of light of American Eric Fischl (b.1948) to portray the gritty subject-matter of life in an emerging economy, he has never lost sight of the fact that it is reality that hits people, while theories are abstract. In the end, the medium, the approach to the conventions of art, the geo-political origins of the subject-matter chosen by these artists as the vehicle for their artistic expression, all these mean little compared to the impact the works make upon us, the informed public. We can analyse after the event. We can speculate on motive, psychology, or purpose. But unless the works spark in us that magic that makes us believe they are works of art, none of that matters. I hope that the works presented in this show, placed in the context of thousands of years of Chinese artistic endeavour, and yet representing the most dramatic irruption yet of the foreign into Chinese culture, will create that spark in those who see them.