The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Friday, July 15, 2011

Past and Present

007 by Li Ming, photographed in Songzhuang Art District  Gallery
My China-obsessed reading (a fellow member of the White Rabbit book club describes it as a China addiction which must be fed with reading) has taken a historical turn, with some memoirs by Ma Jian and Anchee Lin relating painful individual experiences of the Cultural Revolution. At the same time I am reading a book of essays by the American Bill Holm, 'Coming Home Crazy', about his experiences teaching at the university in Xian in the mid 1980s, early in the 'opening up' period. I am loving his writing, even though today's China is another country altogether, almost unrecognisable in many aspects (all too recognisable in others e.g. public toilets!) 

In the first essay, which deals with language and culture, he says, " No Westerner ever really knows anything about China. It is too big, too old, too complicated, too unlike anything in our half-world made by Plato, St. Paul, and the British navy. Even the Chinese have a hard go of it to master their own civilization...But they at least start with the language. For a Westerner, literacy in Chinese means five years of intense drudgery and, without that language, nothing real can be known. But, after surviving a plunge into Chinese craziness, your mind opens in a different way to your own country, and having 'seen' China, you are able to see what is in your own house or your own everyday life, with new eyes. The view is peculiar and not what you expected." I am about to begin the humbling 'intense drudgery' of language learning again next week, and am feeling nervous and anxious in anticipation.

I finally finished the report on my study tour for publication, after multiple re-writings and cutting out thousands of words....once I began to write an account of my interviews with 20 artists I found it hard to stop. Plus a natural tendency to the verbose, perhaps! I went back through all my notes of the meetings in China for this process, and reconsidered the connections and conclusions, looking with (relatively) fresh eyes at some of my encounters. In particular I wanted to think about my meeting with Li Gongming in Guangzhou, which was almost comically sabotaged by the bizarre personality and limited English of the translator I had hired for the day. Not only was he unable to translate much of our talk, he was argumentatively unwilling to, and several times I had to point out that I was not actually very interested in his opinion of what the Professor was telling me. Thank goodness Professor Li had brought his teenage son, whose English was far more fluent than the so-called professional. 

As Stephanie Hemelryk Donald has described in her ‘China and Revolution: History, Parody and Memory in Contemporary Art’, Gongming is the founder of the New Propaganda Poster Movement. He has been actively promoting new propaganda posters since 2002. Gongming has reworked a familiar poster style into new contexts, subjects and needs, along with slogans that address not the poor peasants and workers of the Mao era, but the small-scale farmers and rural under-classes affected by contemporary market reform... as a medium to address the major social and political problems of their lives”.

 Interested in the graphic power of Cultural Revolution propaganda art imagery, in 2002 he began to focus on problems of class, rural poverty and government corruption. At the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts his students developed a series of posters and planned an exhibition for the Guangdong Art Museum in 2004. The exhibition was not permitted to open as planned, however the following day the newspaper printed the posters, and students attached them to the walls of the new campus where local peasants would see them. The next development was the printing of thousands of postcards on issues such as traffic congestion, land reform, democracy in the countryside, better treatment for the old and sick, and the release of salaries to allow rural workers to travel home for the Spring Festival. The postcards were advertised in the newspaper and people came to the campus to collect them, all of which was covered by TV and radio. Professor Li says this is ‘art with a social conscience’ rather than the star system of the Beijing art market. It seems paradoxical to some to re-open old wounds using these images, however he believes that, despite the hard memories, the familiar graphic style and visual language is sufficiently powerful to be used in a new way in this new China. ‘The past is hidden and many topics are taboo’  he told me, however he sees his role as a public intellectual as vital in creating a discourse where art can be a powerful force for change.

As pointed out by Harriet Evans and Stephanie Hemelryk Donald in their catalogue essays for the exhibition at Sydney University, ‘China and Revolution: History, Parody and Memory in Contemporary Art’, “China’s ‘red legacy’ surfaces in many diverse forms in contemporary China, from the official ‘red tourist’ sites that comemmorate the key places and events of China’s communist revolution….to the market stalls selling reproduction posters of the revolution’s iconic images.” They describe this phenomenon as an unsettling mix of nostalgia, vulnerability and terror when seen in canonical artworks of the 1990s such as Zhang Xiaogang’s ‘Bloodline’ series. The conversation that I had with Li Gongming in his office at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts served to underline the fact that in Chinese art, one must understand the past in order to understand the present. 

There is much about the proliferation and popularity of Cultural Revolution imagery in China that makes me a little queasy - all those supposedly 'ironic' pencil cases and T shirts for sale in 798, all those figures of Mao and Little Red Books in the Beijing 'Dirt Market', all those young Western tourists wearing red stars and hammers and sickles. There is so much still unspoken in the lived experiences of people of my age, so many who missed out on an education, so many tragic stories......but maybe to the young, and even to young people in China itself, "the past is a foreign country, and they do things differently there". And there is no denying the power of the imagery! The rich seam is still being mined by so many artists, perhaps partly out of a weird kind of nostalgia for a past which was in some respects simpler (just as some in East Berlin feel nostalgia for life before the wall came down) and also out of a very Chinese, very pragmatic knowledge that this is the 'chinoiserie' that many Western buyers expect of Chinese art, and this is what sells.
20th Century Fox, by Li Ming, photographed in Songzhuang Art District Gallery