So what’s left of Chairman Mao’s communist legacy in a country that is hurtling into a new capitalist age? How is this being reflected in contemporary Chinese art and design? These questions have been on my mind since going to see the exhibition of Chinese propaganda posters at Gallery TOM in Shibuya. The images, made between the late 1950s to the 1980s, are so arresting, so over the top: people waving guns and flags in the air, striding around, saluting, chests thrust out — this is some serious nation-building being depicted!
The strength of their design, as well as their historical worth has not gone unrecognised: the posters on display in this exhibition are all from a private collection. But while they’ve become collector’s items, it’s not to say that they are entirely consigned to history. Seeing this exhibition instantly made me think of Wang Guangyi, the Chinese contemporary artist whose work shows the strongest influence from this design heritage, and so I thought it would be interesting to compare the two.
Bold outlines divide the yellow of the foreground from the red background, giving form to striving, workers who thrust their arms into the air. Their faces are filled with determination: they are ready for self-sacrifice for the greater good… or are they? Am I talking about the picture on the left or on the right? In Wang Guangyi’s work, the workers are surrounded by the logos of Western designer names and brands: Coca-Cola, Volvo, Disney, Chanel, Marlboro, Kodak, TIME and Carlsberg. Is this what contemporary China is striving for?
So how does the history of the Cultural Revolution intertwine with Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism series? Wang was born in 1957, the year before Mao declared a start to the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962) which aimed to bring China’s agriculture and industry up to western levels of production. This period is viewed both within China and elsewhere as something of a disaster, and it was with the aim of reinvigorating the socialist revolution that Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Wang Guangyi grew up in the two decades when the propaganda poster thrived.
One aspect of the poster campaign was to create a cult of personality surrounding Mao. His omnipresent image is the first thing you notice when you go into the exhibition at Gallery TOM. Usually painted in red or warm tones, Mao was portrayed as a noble man of the people, visiting factories and talking with workers and peasants. If the sun isn’t already radiating out from behind him, then it seems to beam out of his very face!
The Communist Party employed China’s best artists and designers from before the founding of the People’s Republic to produce the propaganda posters, and for a long time they were very successful. The posters were cheap and easy to produce and the strong visualization of abstract ideas worked well in a country where many people were illiterate at the time. People were also pleased to have more colour to liven up otherwise drab surroundings and the images spread into homes as well as workplaces, journals and magazines.
Wang Guangyi went to art school in 1980: four years after Mao died and just as the Communist Party effectively declared an end to the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping was opening China up to the West, introducing market reforms which led to a gradual improvement in quality of life. The design of propaganda posters changed in order to reflect this new reality: they no longer had the serious, militaristic feel of the previous decades but took on themes like education and hygiene.
The design then started to resemble Western advertising: the colours became softer and the outlines of figures more gentle, particularly with the portrayal of women. More and more people were shown as wearing Western clothes or having Western haircuts. When I look at these posters and their slogans I can’t help but think of 1960s American TV commercials: the kind where you have a housewife in a yellow and white checkered apron telling us with a pearly-white smile, “You’ll stop paying the elbow tax when you start cleaning with Ajax!”
But these new posters were still a form of propaganda; they still put the emphasis on the moral virtue of production as a way of contributing to the state, rather something for personal pleasure — seriously, have you ever been ‘mobilized’ to plant trees? Increasingly the posters came across as old-fashioned and lost their popularity. As the art market became less and less regulated by the government, artists moved on to develop their own form of expression, rather than the government’s.
This change made it possible for Wang to produce works towards the end of the 1980s which questioned the customary portrayal of Chairman Mao. He took images of the former leader and overlaid them with a grid of thick, black lines, substituting the normally warm reds for cold, bluish greys. He literally put up a barrier between Mao and the people, forcing viewers to take a new look at the image that had been regarded by so many as god-like.
Even now, a huge portrait of Mao hangs over the main entrance to the Forbidden City in Tiananmen Square, and in the middle of the square (upsetting its feng shui) is his mausoleum, where you can see his embalmed body if you’re willing to queue for long enough. I stood in that queue for about two hours in the sweltering heat of August last year, and in the end, like everybody else, I only got to see Mao’s waxy body for ten seconds. And yet thousands of people do this every day. Inside the hall, the atmosphere is reverential, as though you’re visiting a church and you’re not allowed to talk, take photographs or have bags with you. It’s a bizarre set of contradictions: the government has distanced itself from Mao’s policies ever since his death and yet doesn’t go so far as to erase his image completely. Meanwhile, the people of China increasingly crave a capitalist lifestyle and yet they will come from all over the country to see Mao’s body. Wang Guangyi was brave to question Mao’s official portrayal only ten years after his death, when to do so could — and still can — potentially cause so much offence.
Wang began his Great Criticism series of large-scale paintings in 1990, taking socialist and consumerist iconography and bluntly jamming them together. The works, painted in oil on canvas, are not as large as advertising billboards but by being on average two metres tall by two metres wide, they have a commanding presence. They are generally painted in the blocky style of the earlier posters from the 1960s, but sometimes the outlines appear more faded than the originals, implying the passing of time. At times Wang also changes the colour scheme altogether, using greens or blues, giving the images even more of a ‘Pop’ feel to them. He also covers the works in hundreds of little numbers in repetitive sequences, like barcodes or serial numbers — perhaps a reminder that his art is a product which needs cataloguing. In an interview with Charles Merewether, he explained that the central point he wants to express is “the ideological antagonism that exists between western culture and socialist ideology. The significance of this antagonism has more to do with issues in cultural studies than simply art in and of itself.”
For Wang Guangyi, growing up during the Cultural Revolution with such powerful poster design all around him meant that visual art and social issues were inseparable. He doesn’t look back on the Cultural Revolution as either a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing, but rather as something “meaningful” which provided a “visual modality” for him to work with. That visual modality has changed completely as China has become the last great untapped market for Western companies. Meanwhile, the younger generations of Chinese people crave Western goods and designer brands as much as their Japanese counterparts. By 1995, a nationwide consumer survey showed that Coca-Cola is the most famous and admired company in China.
Brand names such as Coca-Cola and Marlboro have become, as Wang puts it, “highly socialized” in China, and it is the materialism that they represent which carries the most significance, “because the term is almost revolutionary, at least in China. From as far back as I can remember, materialism and idealism were opposites, antonyms, even antagonistic.”
Materialism, or the desire for commercial success is no longer seen as contradictory to artistic merit, especially for Wang Guangyi. Born into a poor family, he initially fulfilled the cliché of being a struggling artist, but now, like many other artists of his generation, he has joined China’s growing class of nouveau riche. For Wang, the rich nations’ romanticization of the passionate but penniless artist was not something to aspire to; having experienced the reality of poverty for himself, he aimed not just to be an artist, but a rich artist. This seemed to work out rather well, since Chinese contemporary art is in high demand at the moment. More and more galleries introducing Chinese artists are popping up and while the value of the works increases all the time, it is still generally less expensive than Western art. 90% of buyers are from America, Europe or Japan.
Apart from issues of disposable income, what is it about Chinese contemporary art that appeals to non-Chinese buyers? In Wang Guanyi’s case I suspect it’s because his paintings are open enough to interpretation to appeal to a broad range of art lovers. By putting together two sets of imagery that are instantly recognisable as Chinese and Western, they work at the most raw visual level: you don’t need to be an expert on China to understand what’s going on here. But the more people know about China, the more they can read into the work.
More recently, Wang has shifted the focus of some of the paintings from brand logos to the names of artists like Warhol and Beuys, who he says had a huge impact on him. Chinese artists have often faced the criticism that they are merely imitating the ideas and techniques of Western artists. I don’t think this accusation makes sense: it doesn’t matter what techniques Chinese artists use, they are addressing issues which face Chinese society. And given that Chinese society is ‘westernising’, isn’t it appropriate for them to refer to Western art and design?
It remains to be seen what Wang Guangyi will do next and where contemporary Chinese art will go. The Chinese contemporary art scene essentially pivots around the semi-industrial area of Danshanzi in north-eastern Beijing and the Moganshan Road area of converted warehouses near Shanghai Station, but these communities of galleries, artists’ studios and shops are both at risk of corporate redevelopment.
For the time being, with the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, the Chinese government recognises that in order to be considered a world class host of international events, they need these cultural areas, so their future appears to be safe for the time being. But even if they should close down, there is no doubt that artists like Wang Guangyi will continue to find ways of showing their work and expressing their views about their rapidly changing society.