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Railing Opinion: Mao Is Like So Over

“Mao Crazy,” Jed Perl’s critical essay about contemporary Chinese art in the July issue of the New Republic, deals with commonly understood but not often voiced criticisms of post-Maoist political pop and cynical realism. Just like everyone else in the art world, he obsesses on work that sells for big bucks during the auction season. With that he is right in step with the dominant opinion of the marketplace in the art world, an easy target to pick off in a shooting gallery.

"Mao So Over" Photo by Ellen Pearlman

Perl says that contemporary works are “powered by a startling infatuation with Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution.” For the generation he addresses, however, Mao is not an infatuation but an exorcism of what amounts to an aesthetic Stockholm Syndrome. The severity of the image of Mao, relentlessly injected into the subconscious of China’s creative population for decades, had an effect. I fully doubt Perl has ever served prison time or been forced to flee his homeland for his missives, forbidden to write, publish or utter anything but “corrective thoughts” for close to a decade. I live in China and regularly attend art openings and performance art events; I visit galleries and studios, and meet curators, critics and gallerists at dinners. I have also met many artists who endured those conditions and spent hours talking with them. They are not infatuated. They were traumatized. Art became survivalist and therapeutic, once it was finally allowed, that is, since art schools had been closed during the Cultural Revolution and artists strictly forbidden to create. I even met an artist so desperate to express himself that he wrote journals stacked three feet high. Currently, young Chinese (25 and under) barely know who Mao is. Nobody cares anymore. They just want to make money. Mao gets a paragraph in their school history books. That’s it. Perl’s arguments are irrelevant to a large swath of the community he so vehemently chastises.

In the early 1990’s, after the crackdown and closing of the “No U Turn” China/Avant-Garde show at the National Museum of Art in 1989, Chinese performance art entered a “shock art” phase using hacked-up body parts and consumed stillborn fetuses, clearly not work meant to glorify the regime. Warhol, as Perl astutely points out, was one of the cultural icons of hope and is revered even now. Andy’s own reaction to the large portrait of Mao during his 982 trip to China was: “Gee, it’s big. Yeah, I painted Mao about four hundred times. I used to see how many I could do in a day. I love his book. I read it all the time. I like the simple thoughts.” But to say Warhol set the tone for all of Chinese art echoes the Surrealists’ reaction to the Abstract Expressionists when, displaced from Europe by WWII, they landed in New York and saw the rowdy 8th Street crowd beat them at their own game. Perl compares most Chinese artists to those in the West who did it first and did it better, ascertaining that all they can do is imitate our greats. Thus he compares Zhang Wang’s stainless steel rocks to Jeff Koons and Sherrie Levine. He implies that Cai Guo-Qiang is a syncretic Matthew Barney/Paul McCarthy wannabe, ignoring Cai’s Taoist, Buddhist and Feng Shui inspiration. Cai understood this tendency among Western critics such as Mr. Perl when he said, “All this background and underlying themes are not visible in the work itself … this discrepancy, this phenomenon when you employ Eastern philosophy and Eastern thoughts in your work, has to have a different methodology and other ways of expressing that kind of thought. You can’t just rely on the conceptual or theoretical thought. So the key is to find the right methodology to incorporate those ideas … with Feng Shui, everything has its principle from the energy flow, from the relationship with the cosmos and even with urban planning. The discipline does not stop when you reach the end of the theory and philosophy. You have to extend it to a way of execution that fits with the philosophical background or skeleton that the disciple had provided.

Artists readily acknowledge their superior ability to imitate and appropriate (think well-made Chinese knockoffs or Murakami Vuitton bags) but the warp speed at which this appropriation and synthesis will ultimately create new forms in China could make the fin-de-siècle displays at this year’s Whitney Biennial and New Museum shows look like a last gasp for America’s world domination. And if Mr. Perl has any doubts about appropriation, he should look in his own back yard at the work of Richard Prince. It’s already a dead argument.

The largest debate going on amongst intelligent Chinese artists involves the critical juncture they have reached in defining what is truly authentic about Chinese contemporary art, and what has been appropriated from the West. It is an anguished soul-searching that has yet to fully yield a brand new aesthetic, and I have had long and serious talks with them about it. One theme they are investigating is their calligraphic character language, something unique to their culture. Xu Bing, a MacArthur Fellow, has returned to help lead the top art school, The Central Academy of Fine Arts. Xu’s work attempts to find universal symbols through pictograms, and he has explored this idea in his computer-generated Book From the Earth. Other artists are embedding and overlaying characters and text, or cutting into the surface of paintings to explore depth and hidden meaning through layers of drying paint. Very young Chinese artists, including an astonishing number of women, are taking advertising, fashion and sex at face value and recontextualizing them. There is a strong undercurrent of neo-Surrealism in new photographic representation and a promotion of animation in sculpture and painting in step with what is going on throughout youth-inspired Asia. Ars Electronica, the Austrian new media giant, is sending missions trolling for Chinese talent to haul back to Linz.

Last fall I was the only Westerner at a very elegant private dinner set up at the Inter Gallery, a modest but respectable photography gallery tucked away in the corner of the Dashanzi Art District, known as the 798 Art Zone. Most of the guests were casually dressed middle-aged men. On the walls were Red Guard opera photos with the photographer in attendance. Playing on 16mm film was Mao waving that little red book. An opera troupe dressed in the old brigade suit de jour was brought in to perform. Surprised that everyone knew the propaganda songs and was singing along, I asked my Chinese friend what was going on. I was told these were the richest tycoons in China and they were collecting the photos. When I asked one of them why, he replied, “Much as we didn’t like it, this is after all our history. It lasted only ten or so years, a blip for our thousands of years of civilization. But, it is ours, it is part of us now and we will never forget it.”


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2008

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