Tag Archives: Chinese contemporary art

Last week I spoke at the conference Making the New World: the Art of China’s Revolution. At the time of writing this, full programmes can still be found online, here. These are some notes and thoughts on the event – please excuse the fact that my attention wasn’t evenly applied throughout; it has no relation to how engaging the speakers were, more to do with the timing of my own presentation! Also the images are less than ideal, but give a sense of the breadth of the visual material that was presented. Some more shots were posted to twitter, find them using the hashtag #CCVA2016.

This was the 9th annual conference of the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA) at Birmingham City University and took place at Whitechapel Gallery. Organised by CCVA members Professor Joshua Jiang, Research Assistant & Leverhulme Project Facilitator Hiu Man Chan and Post-Doctoral Researcher Heather Connelly in collaboration with the team at Whitechapel Gallery.

This blog was supposed to focus on women and gender themes during the two days, but in fact it is an overview of all the papers with women and gender probably emerging with slight prominence according to what I noted down at the time. Incidentally, the Guerrilla Girls have a display at the Whitechapel Gallery on right now, where they have analysed the data on European art galleries and museums regarding women and trans representation in collections, exhibition programmes etc – worth a look.

Day one

Professor Richard King from the University of Victoria, Canada delivered the keynote: Cultural Policy for A Heroic Age: the Summary. The model operas, he explained were really a template for all the arts during the Cultural Revolution (for convenience 1966-1976 – more on this in a moment).

“The basic task of socialist literature is to work hard to create heroic characters of workers, peasants and soldiers… [quoting Jiang Qing in 1968:] Of all characters, give prominence to positive characters, of all positive characters give prominence to heroic characters, of heroic characters give prominence to the most important one, i.e. the central character”

Regarding gender, notably he also added “women enter the hero mode permanently” during the Cultural Revolution. Critics of Jiang Qing however, see her as putting women in central roles to promote her own position. Professor King noted that central to Jiang Qing’s mission using the arts was to “over turn all of the previous”. The enduring popularity of the model operas isn’t so much political, he contends, as much as they offer “a warm bath of nostalgia.” (Professor King burst into revolutionary song at one point which was a real treat, prompting Professor Jiang to suggest a choir might come to fruition at some stage.)


In the Q&A Professor Craig Clunas asked the question of what it means to periodize the Cultural Revolution, a question he suggested we would return to throughout the two days. Professor King admitted it is “handy”. Katie Hill asked about the relationship between the “choreographed representation of politics” of the model operas and the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. Professor King, whilst stating the Cultural Revolution and the Olympic ceremony were extremely different cases, the former noticeably absent from the latter, added that in the Chinese context “whatever the ideology it will be beautifully produced.” Because of the lack of dissection of the Cultural Revolution he said that with this conference “we are filling the hole absent from public discourse.”

Panel one

What united the papers of this panel was a close reading of artworks from the Cultural Revolution to offer new interpretations. Providing as Craig Clunas said in his summing up “the new historiography” for this period. The meanings of authorship and materiality were also themes that ran throughout.

From Minerva Inwald’s paper The Socialist Art Palace: early Cultural Revolution art exhibitions, I noted the difficulty she mentioned in researching Cultural Revolution cultural or artistic products due to the fact they were often copied, ephemeral, the result of collective or collaborative production. Minerva challenged the idea that there were no exhibitions during the Cultural Revolution, finding that not only did they take place, but that they were a key part of the dissemination of Communist rhetoric.

Wang Gerui’s paper Ambivalence in Li Keran’s Jinggang Mountain: negotiating artistic agency and state obligation during the Cultural Revolution, on the other hand was about an individual artist’s desire to work in the style of landscape painting when it became unpopular; and how Li Keran reconciled his duty to produce political art, with his own, perhaps, ambiguous political position.

Vivian Li in Becoming A Model Artwork: the Rent Collection Courtyard considered the ways in which this ambitious collectively-produced sculpture did or did not correspond to the criteria for art as set out by Mao and Jiang Qing in 1942 and 1968. She also considered the meanings of the locally sourced clay and how this made it a “grass roots” artwork. Originally intended as something ephemeral, Li has documented the present day attempts to preserve it. – Of particular significance in relation to my research and my paper later on, is how Jiang Qing – a woman, albeit of contested agency – was the author of the framework for model artworks, which underpinned all the cultural production of this period.

In the last paper for this session Between Arts and Mass Criticism: perceiving the beautiful through Cultural Revolution audiences Christine Ho traced the ways in which the masses were encouraged to critique artworks; as well as how peasants were taught to make art by professionals. Ho proposes how this criticism politicised the works themselves in ways that model operas did not require, due to the former being “mute”.


Panel two

Corey Schultz presented some of his work on the films of Jia Zhangke, in his paper titled The Maoist Peasant Figure and Its Affective Importance in Contemporary Chinese Visual Culture. Unfortunately, I didn’t make many notes on this paper, but you can find out more about Corey and his work here. It was concerned with queer desire, agency of the desired and relations of power.

Agender Performance: aesthetic discipline of heroines in the Cultural Revolution was the title of Zhang Li’s paper. She framed the “agendering” of women’s bodies during the Cultural Revolution, evidenced through posters especially as a performance, using the Shakespeare quote:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. 


The last paper in this session was mine. I thought that it followed on really well from the first two as it was concerned with the ‘ungendering’ I called it, of women’s bodies, and also contends that cultural products have the power to create realities and impact on how we see ourselves and others – which resonated with Corey’s research. I referred to Dai Jinhua and Liao Wen in proposing a reading of contemporary art that takes into account a legacy of ‘male authored’ representations of women; especially those like the ‘New Woman’ that emerged at exactly the same time as women “surfaced onto the horizon of history” according to Dai, and the representations of women that were produced as part of Communist discourse from 1949-1976. Some pictures of my slides were posted to Twitter.

Professor Harriet Evans was the chair of this session.

Day two

This day began with a keynote from artist Shen Jiawei. He showed a lot of fantastic images from his own archive, informal shots of him as a young man during the Cultural Revolution as well as preparatory photographs for paintings. Some of the pictures showed him and others with weapons, at one point to help out a friend who needed to paint one he said: “I leant them my machine gun”. Whilst Shen Jiawei claimed never to have been involved in violence, he still seems quite energised by that formative period of his life.


In the Q&A with Proffesor Jiang Jiehong, Shen Jiawei was asked: “do you see your work as artwork or propaganda art?” The artist claimed his early work was the latter and it became the former after the end of the Cultural Revolution and, I presume, as he matured as an artist. However, the question demonstrated the insufficiency of these concrete terms. Shen Jiawei also pointed out that as styles move across borders – such as Soviet Realism being taken up by the PRC – they can lose some of the original meaning attached to them, and gain new meanings. There was also an interesting discussion on the relationship between Western High Renaissance paintings of Jesus, and Mao Zedong as the sun (god).

Panel three

Martin Mulloy began this session with his paper Photography and the Cultural Revolution. He proposed that to analyse photographs of this period requires an idea of the “rhetorical demands” as well as access to technology and methods of dissemination. He showed some fascinating darkroom-doctored photographic images and said:

“Cultural Revolution photographs cemented how we see [the period] into another kind of truth.”


Li Zhensheng and Zhang Dali, Martin contends, “disrupt the narrative the Communists were trying to ‘calcify into truth’” as well as the “wilful amnesia” of the Communist era. The other major factor, of course, was photography’s relationship with modernity – and he showed us some very modern photographic artworks that had been produced and disseminated during the Republican era.

Propaganda on Shellac, Vinyl and Plastic: the politics of record production during the Cultural Revolution in China was the title of the next paper, by Andrea Steen. He provided a lot of political economic detail about the production of propaganda audio recordings during the Cultural Revolution, as well as fascinating insight into the speed at which production of the records responded to active consumption and the legacy of this period. As he noted at the end: “China is the only country I know of with an official music category called ‘Revolution’”.


Wang Rujie’s contribution was deeply personal, drawing on his own perspectives of the Cultural Revolution as a boy but combining them with the theories of Roland Barthes in his paper Image-Music-Text: the rhetoric of the arts from the Cultural Revolution. “What I had lived through is a myth or a dream.” He returned to this idea of Mao as godlike figure, as well as proposing that we are always in a myth, either “the myth of the left or the myth of the right.”


Wang also suggested:

“perhaps for the first time the Chinese were able imagine their daily lives as intimately connected to [the poor people of the rest of the world] transnationalism through culture of Mao in the visual arts.” Wang also expounded on the total immersion of politics in daily life: “if you got married you stood in front of Mao’s picture… a set of interconnected practices… there is no private moment you can leave out of the Revolution.”

What characterised this session, without actually saying the word ‘gesamkunstwerk’ was an insight into the interrelatedness of the different media. Martin Molloy added that “contentious periods go in and out of forgetfulness” (which seemed appropriate given all the global problems right now and questions of how the media can report objectively when it is caught between political ideology and cultures of consumption.)

Panel four

Mark Nash in his paper Screen Theory and the Cultural Revolution Cinema took us back to the 1970s when he had co-produced Cultural Revolution era film screenings in London. He said at one point “One of the characters would pretend to be the Communist party… when the Communist party is revealed, it is often in the body of a woman.”

Yawen Ludden’s paper From Model Opera to Model Society: Jiang Qing, Yu Huiyong, and Yangbanxi gave an uncommonly generous account of the model operas and Jiang Qing’s legacy of moving and popular works of art. Ludden attributes this to the reputation that Jiang Qing already had in the Peking Opera world from her early career as a movie star. Ludden, whose background is in music and lecturing about music, described the collaboration between Jiang Qing and composer Yu Huiyong. Yu, she says, used a Western orchestra combined with Chinese instruments to evoke place and establish tone, which wasn’t the case in Peking Opera, although the model operas “retain a Peking opera / Chinese essence.”

Eldon Pei’s paper, which was the final presentation of the conference, was titled The Atom Bomb Is A Celluloid Tiger and provided a psychoanalytical reading of the documentary film ‘Great Triumph of Mao Zedong Thought’ from 1966. The extraordinary film, which wasn’t intended for public consumption but rather internal propaganda, describes nuclear testing during the period. It is linked to wider conditions of modernity – the “technological imaginary” of colour pictorial magazines as well as to real human trauma. Pei focuses on the abundant bodily fluids, supposedly sweat that issue from the boots of the men on the screen.


The panel discussion for this session was chaired by Professor Chris Berry.

“In the 1980s a lot happened in China… But I was in America…

Everyone was travelling, including myself. As a curator I want to embrace that.”

This was Wu Hung speaking at his Slade lecture this week, in the new Andrew Wiles building of Oxford University. I travelled down to catch this one lecture, which was his “personal narrative” of Chinese contemporary art; although his entire lecture series concerned with the feminine space in Chinese Art History would have been fantastic background for my doctorate project. I am establishing a genealogy of women’s studies, gender and body discourses in the Chinese context and then using them as the basis for analysing the work of around twenty contemporary artists.


Wu Hung speaking at his Slade lecture, 29 February 2016. Picture courtesy of the author

I’m about half way through the first year of my doctorate, which seems a good time to reflect on the experience so far. The first semester was a bit of a blur of conferences, training, narrowing down the scope of my ridiculously large original research proposal – and reading. It seemed like every week I was learning something new about the way that I worked, as well as learning about the Chinese context in general and honing down what I wanted to ask about Chinese contemporary art. Every day the space of the unknown grew bigger, even as I was filling my head with new knowledge. I was immersed in a world of languages that I don’t speak – Mandarin, Chinese writing, a myriad of Chinese topolects, and ‘academic’ language in all its interdisciplinary forms.

Several times I have been reminded of an article I wrote a couple of years ago about the relationship between translation studies and curating Chinese contemporary art – and its content now seems portentous. I am not curating I am researching, but never the less, the concepts and practices of translation are constantly taking place. I am reading texts in translation and I am considering the content and meanings pieces of art that were made on the other side of the world, and from this situation far away I am considering their local implications.

This is where serendipity and subjectivity come in: however planned we are in our research methodologies, reading one source leads to another; a casual conversation changes everything; it is a pathway, a journey, and a personal one, peppered with coincidence and chance as much as it is crafted with care and intent.

Subjectivity alone cannot create meaningful research. I am challenging myself to think around the Westernized perspective that I hold – not denying the existence of this perspective, but realising what effect it has on my study of culture. In my career to date I have been involved with providing ‘access to stuff’ and in a sense my research now continues in this simple mission. I am contributing to intercultural understanding with a view to supporting the interpretation of Chinese contemporary art from outside of China.

Back to Wu Hung. His telling of Chinese contemporary art history is through his own experiences – subjective – he is keen to assert this. But at 71 this year, he has been present and active alongside the significant historical events of the second half of the twentieth century in China – even if he was sometimes in America – and contributed to Chinese contemporary art’s emergence into the mainstream within China in the 1970s, as well its globalization in the 1990s and beyond.

In terms of his identity, Wu studies art history, he says, writes about contemporary art and curates contemporary art. These practices have “different distances” to their subject matter. Writing and researching has more of a separation whereas curating you are: “working with the moment.” Making history I suppose.


Born with the Cultural Revolution, by Xing Danwen, 1995. Exhibited in the Transience exhibition curated by Wu Hung at University of Chicago in 1999

He touches on his own definition of the label “Chinese contemporary art” – he uses this expression for freely. For him it means art from the mainland; not the diaspora or ‘greater China’ i.e. Hong Kong and Taiwan. To include these areas he says is “problematic.” And working to define contemporary art – at least its conception in the American understanding, underpinned one of his early curatorial projects, ‘Transcience’ at the University of Chicago in 1999. Sub-themes within this show included ‘history and memory,’ ‘women’s art’ and ‘monuments and ruins.’ There was also a strand dealing with the ephemeral in art, or what he called the “mortality of images” as well as ideas around individuality, existential questions and the new Chinese middle class.

Another exhibition he curated at University of Chicago ‘Cancelled: Exhibition Experimental Art in China’ took on the subject of local government intervention in exhibitionary practice, i.e. shutting exhibitions down. His preferred methodology for curating is to focus in depth on one area – he compares this to an academic process. These tightly focussed thematic exhibitions as well as one-person shows are what he enjoys – more so than Biennales and triennials. He seems most interested in the concept of space and distance between audience and object.

Several of the solo exhibitions that Wu Hung developed are still touring, years on from their original presentation. He has mixed feelings about this; it is a mark of their enduring interest and value, but sometimes they can become too distanced from their beginnings. Song Dong’s ‘Waste not’ for example was originally laid out piece by piece by the artist’s family – at the request of the artist’s mother. This doesn’t happen anymore.

I can see Wu’s desire to offer people the closest, most ‘authentic’ (he didn’t use this word) possible experience in his book Primary Documents, which he co-edited with Peggy Wang. It is a generous book that wants to provide access to textual materials relating to Chinese contemporary art in their most unabridged form (translated, mind you). But I find this book’s analysis to be in its very selection of the texts. Curation, I am trying to say, always creates some distance.


Book cover Primary Documents, ed Wu Hung and Peggy Wang.  First published September 2010

Disappointed as I am that I couldn’t make every lecture in Wu Hung’s Slade series, I feel assured that he will provide access to this information some how in the future. What is interesting for me is that he is contributing to a wider, international project to reassess (art) history to find women’s stories.

But it has been useful to me to consider his motivations as an academic and curator in the field that I am working at the edge of – Chinese contemporary art. His interest in distance, and his emphasis on the personal both resonate with me right now. I am engaged in a process of finding traces of ideas – working with everything at a distance of geography, as well as time, and through the barriers of cultural and linguistic understanding. I am developing my own interpretive methodology that considers the meaning when ideas have travelled across centuries, been subject to all manner of interventions and translation processes.

One can’t read everything, see everything, attend every lecture; there is always a selection, a sifting, curation: serendipity will always play a role in the life of the researcher. I was fortunate to attend this lecture, which has given me a chance to reflect on the last five months, as I move forward into the next phase of my research.