China’s recent history is one full of social and political chaos. Chairman Mao Zedong resided as the country’s communist leader for nearly thirty years, responsible for the founding the People’s Republic of China, sending China into a deep economic crisis, and infamously inciting the riotous Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao had set out to purge the country of what he called “impure elements.” The youth of China backed Mao as they flooded across the country murdering teachers, closing schools, denouncing family members, burning books, and destroying China’s history. Artist were cast out of society and only those who attended nationalized art schools and produced works in a factory-like manner with politically expedient content, were permitted. Today, we see how Chinese artists critique the Cultural Revolution and the Communist Party, shedding light on China’s societal issues, through their creative individuality.
Hung Liu was born shortly after the Chinese Civil War in 1948. She was a prolific student and studied at the best private schools China had to offer. As the Cultural Revolution began, Liu was sent to be “re-educated” in a rural village. Before leaving Beijing, she borrowed a camera from a friend. She used this camera to take photos of villagers, their families, and their day to day struggles. At this point in time, the Cultural Revolution was in full bloom and Chinese culture was being threatened to extinction. Hung Liu’s photographs of those villagers served as a preservation of those individuals and to their culture.
After the Revolution, Liu went on to study fine arts and earned a her graduate degree in Muralist Painting. For three years she painted political propaganda in the Soviet Realist style, all the while secretly painting landscapes with miniature tools and paints she herself had made. Hung Liu desperately wanted artistic freedom and was granted just that when she was given permission to attend the University of California San Diego in 1983.
Liu often paints from photographs of Chinese social outcasts: prostitutes, laborers, and prisoners. The realistic nature and size of her characters reflect her practice in Soviet Realism and Muralism. However, she manipulates the image by running paint down the canvas, which gives the effect of a photograph faded by time. The characters in each piece look as though they are disintegrating right before our eyes; a possible commentary on the lives lost and forgotten during the Cultural Revolution.
Hung Liu recently retired from her position as a professor at Mills College, but she continues to paint and has worldwide exhibitions.
Ma Desheng was a self taught artist, mainly because he was deemed unfit to be trained in fine arts at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Desheng worked as an industrial draftsman and woodblock print artist, using traditional Chinese ink.
Desheng produced a series of images of rock-like figures and portrayals of China’s working class. These images were stark contradictions to the suppressive propaganda that Mao and the Chinese Communist Party were feeding the people.
His early productions were un-romanticized images that displayed the realities of what was happening to China. The dark rigid lines evoke a sense of inner turmoil, similar to that of the artwork of the German artists, Käthe Kollwitz or Edvard Munch.
In 1970, Ma Desheng was influential in the founding of Star Group ( or Xing Xing). This group consisted of self taught, Western-influenced artists who fought for individualism and liberation against the Cultural Revolution. Ma Desheng and the Star Group bravely defied the government when they put on an exhibition of their own work across the street from the National Art Museum in Beijing. It was, of course, shut down by authorities and Ma was arrested for his involvement in organizing such an exhibit.The Star Group went on to lead a rally against the authorities and were successful in opening a second show; some say it was this rally that helped Chinese society become more culturally open.
Not long after Star Group’s second show, Ma Desheng moved to Europe, as did many of the other members. He continues to live and work in Paris, but there is no doubt that his passionate commitment to freedom of expression helped pave the way for future Chinese artists.
One of China’s most well known and successful artists, Zhang Xiaogang, was also a witness to China’s Cultural Revolution. His parents were government officials but were sent away to be “re-educated” at the height of the Revolution—an event that greatly affects his work.
He studied at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts after the Cultural Revolution ended, but his professors were persistent in teaching the style of Soviet Realism. Zhang resisted this style and any philosophy that had to do with collectiveness in society. He founded a group focused on the importance of individualism in philosophy and art called the Southwest Art Group. Though somewhat successful with nearly eighty artists in the group, the Tiananmen Square incident happened not long after and the era of liberal reform ceased completely.
It wasn’t until 1992 when Zhang returned from Germany after 3 months that he knew exactly what he wanted to paint. He stated that he “could see a way to paint the contradictions between the individual and the collective.” His portrayals of those contradictions are what make his paintings so eerily captivating. Most of his work is themed after family photographs but there is always some sort of strange mark or difference in color that makes them unique to one another. The child, who is typically centered, is the most defined. This can be taken as Zhang’s commentary on the youth of the Cultural Revolution and their willingness to disown their families and personal histories.
Zhang Xiaogang’s artwork has shown world wide and he is easily one of the most prominent Chinese contemporary artist of today.
Beijing-based artist, Yue Minjun, also captures that theme of contradiction that Zhang Xiaogang displays. Yue Minjun was born in 1962 and studied oil painting at the Hebei Normal University in 1985. His work is done in a style that has been coined as “Cynical Realism,” and they are iconically uncomfortable. Most of the paintings are self-portraits of the artist with pink skin, laughing maniacally in surreal backgrounds while bent over in an attempt to cover an exposed body, vulnerable in only underwear.
These cartoon like images are politically pointed at the Cultural Revolution and China today. Minjun states that “…laughter is a representation of a state of helplessness, lack of strength and participation, with the absence of our rights that society has imposed on us.” This laughter evokes a strange feeling to the viewer. You feel as if you were looking at someone that had just gone through a mental breakdown and had experienced an intense amount of pain, dehumanized, but has an odd instinct to laugh. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to say that, this is how Minjun see’s the China today; as society that has been through so much within recent years but does not know how to deal appropriately with the pain.
The now world renowned artist, Xu Bing, was in high school when the Cultural Revolution broke out. Determined to stay in Beijing and continue his studies, he agreed to use his talents in calligraphy to create political propaganda. After he graduated, he was sent to the countryside to work in the fields and was not able to return until the death of Chairman Mao in 1976. Xu was accepted into Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts the following year to study printmaking.
The relationship between words and interpretation seems to be the core theme in Xu Bing’s work. In his grandiose installation, “Book from the Sky,” large scrolls hang from the ceiling and traditionally bound books and newspapers line the floor and walls, all stamped with woodblocks carved with made-up, nonsensical Chinese characters. The fact that nothing is literally being said in this piece results in many different interpretations. Is the installation a focus on Chinese tradition versus modern art? Is it a questioning of how different cultures perceive one another? Is it a commentary on the manipulation of words to achieve power, like in Mao’s case? Or is it a meaningless study of form and repetition? There are grounds for each of these questions within the piece and its intriguing quality is one of the reasons “Book from Sky” is such an international hit within the art world.
Cai Guo-Qiang is probably best known around the world for his firework show at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but Cai’s artistry goes far beyond his pyrotechnic displays. He studied stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy from 1981 through 1985, which is evident in the spatial rendering seen in his large installations, paintings and performance pieces.
One of his most famous pieces was an installation he was commissioned to do for the 48th Venice Biennale, entitled, “Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard.” The installation consisted of 114 clay sculptures of peasants and laborers interspersed within the gallery’s setting.The piece created quite the stir amongst the art world as it closely resembled the famous Social Realist sculpture “Rent Collection Courtyard”: a highly political series of sculptures created during the Cultural Revolution. The stir wasn’t only because of Cai’s replica of the Chinese classic, but because he choose a material that would cause the sculptures to disintegrate as the show went on; a possible statement on Mao’s promises to the Chinese people and the ephemerality of their political and social structures.
Many of Cai Guo-Qiang works seem to embody a theme of unforeseen fate. In many of his paintings, he will scatter gunpowder on an already painted canvas, and ignite it. The result displays a combination of the controlled color of the actual paint, and the sporadic, random markings of the burnt gunpowder. This theme is also evident in his installation “Head On” where sculptures of wolves take off running and soaring through the air. The momentum of the piece is brutally interrupted as the wolves run, “head on,” into a wall a plexi glass and fall gracelessly to the floor.
It is often said that an artist’s role in society is to be instrument of the time; to reflect society back to itself, to be a catalyst of change, and to articulate culture. It is fair to say that these artists, and many other Chinese artists, are doing just that.