Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

August 6, 2008

Hamlet Goes to Anyuan

It may be because I’m mired in CultRev art, but I can’t help but see a marked similarity between RSC publicity for David Tennant’s Hamlet, and Mao Goes to Anyuan…

Advertisements

January 17, 2008

Making a mockery of Mao

According to the BBC, the French car marker, Citroen, has apologised for an advertisement featuring Mao which ran in the Spanish newspaper El Pais.  What I find interesting about this is the response of, presumably, young(er) commentators.  Given that their parents and grandparents are likely to have suffered to some extent during the Cultural Revolution, their support for Mao seems surprising.  Perhaps the unwillingness, or sheer inability (due to trauma and fear of repercussions) of the older generation to discuss the human aspects of the Cultural Revolution, has created a chasm between the experiences of those who lived through it, and the popular imagining of China under Mao?  Would a ‘remembrance’ museum of the Cultural Revolution make a difference?

December 22, 2007

More ethical concerns about Mao kitsch

Leading on from yesterday’s post, and also featuring a link which has sat overlooked on my desktop for far too long, is this blog post about the draw of Mao (and ‘Commie’) kitsch in both China and the West.  Also features a link to a small exhibition of Mao memorabilia held during 1998-1999, which I hadn’t previously come across.

I don’t feel there’s much point trying to analyse these posts too much.  They sum up my feelings about the appropriation of Communist iconography in popular cultural contexts perfectly.  Though, I have to admit, I bought a (reproduction) Mao badge in the British Museum shop last week.  Let’s call it ‘research’.  😉

LolMao…that made me smile!

I found thisages ago, and it’s been sitting on my desktop waiting for me to do something with it.  I think the author cogently expresses the ethical grey-area into which communist propaganda (as kitsch, or otherwise) falls.  Not to mention the fear of one’s intention by displaying this material being misinterpreted.  I enjoyed reading the comments best.  Particularly those suggesting that the poster of Mao be modified in a Duchamp kind of style.  Oh, the irony.  😉

August 9, 2007

I am still here…really

I’m writing a couple of book reviews at the moment. They’re sapping ALL my creative strength. Until normal transmission resumes, here’s an interlude…

(Found here)

July 21, 2007

More Mao kitsch

…this time available from Good Orient.  Isn’t the featured messenger bag, the one that got Cameron Diaz in so much trouble recently?  Just goes to show the wealth of connotations this sort of material engenders.

April 22, 2007

The aesthetics of totalitarianism (or what not to say when being interviewed by a German magazine)

Bryan Ferry got into hot water this week (as reported by the BBC) for describing the visual iconography of Nazism as ‘beautiful’.

“My God, the Nazis knew how to put themselves in the limelight and present themselves,” he gushed to the German magazine Welt am Sonntag. “I’m talking about Leni Riefenstahl’s movies and Albert Speer’s buildings and the mass parades and the flags – just amazing. Really beautiful.”  (Via BBC Online)

While it was a pretty naive thing to say, it highlights the inherent problems associated with attempting to critically analyse the aesthetics of totalitarian regimes.  It also serves to force me, once again, to confront my own reservations about my area of research.  I’m sure a lot of people that I mention my work to, think I’m a little peculiar, and part of me worries a lot about what sort of image they are constructing of me (as a raving Communist or something!).

I’ve written before about the double standards reflected by the rejection (rightly so, of course) of Nazi iconography, while visual references to communism are embraced by popular culture. While I would baulk at suggestions that Nazism was aesthetically beautiful – approaching, as I do, like the vast majority of ‘normal’ well-adjusted people – the subject with a mass of unpleasant and disturbing associations, I find it compelling, even though it makes me intensely uncomfortable.#  Afterall, it was meant to be powerful and soul-stirring.  Goebbels was a master propagandist.  He completely understood the power of film, in particular, to shape public opinion, create a sense of and identification with the ‘Fatherland’, and lay the ground for widespread acceptance of the eugenics programme, which resulted in the ‘Final Solution’.  And it was the films of Leni Riefenstahl that first got me interested in visual propaganda while I was studying for my A Level in European History. 

The furore that accompanied Ferry’s comments immediately put me in mind of the outcry engendered by Crispian Mill’s (the singer in Kula Shaker, a 90s band heavily influenced by 60s psychedelia and ‘eastern’ mysticism.  That was a long time ago!!) when he commented in the NME that the swastika was a Hindu symbol.  Which, of course, it is – though one which was adopted and subverted by Nazism.  The response to what I suspect was a craftily edited version of the interview, not only revealed an ignorance about the historical and cultural life of the swastika*, but an understandable reluctance in society to accept critical analysis of the visual iconography of the Third Reich.  Somehow, while we have dealt with the spectre of facism in the twentieth century to an extent where we can watch endlessly repeated documentaries about Hitler and the Second World War on the telly in, what appears to be a fairly detached manner, we cannot see the swastika, or images from the Nuremberg Rally, without feeling utter repugnance.  These visual symbols, or identifiers, of the Nazi regime have retained their psychological power and menace in a way that communist iconography hasn’t.   And while the meaning of communist visual culture in the west has transmogrified into something else and infinitely less threatening (i.e. high camp Commie Kitsch, or – at the very least – youthful idealism), its Nazi counterpart hasn’t.  Consider two young men, one wearing a Che t-shirt and the other with a swastika tippexed on his jacket.  Who would you prefer to sit next to on the tube?  Okay, that’s probably a bit facetious, but you get my drift.   In the 1970s, the potent symbolism of Nazism lent itself to Vivian Westwood and Malcolm McClaren’s promotion of the swastika in a sub-cultural context as a form of sedition.  On the surface of it, the wearing of fascist iconography was taken to mean an identification with the far-right.  But intellectually, it was more an act of social transgression.  Though I don’t doubt some were attracted to punk because they did identify with the far-right.  For more on this read Griel Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, or The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol, by Malcolm Quinn.

I’m well aware that I’m rehashing the same old themes time and time again in this blog, but I’m really having difficulty getting to grips with this particular aspect of my research.  Why, when the outcomes of both ideologies were similar, i.e. oppression, death and destruction on unimaginable scales, are Communism and Fascism viewed so differently? 

#Please don’t think I identify with Nazism on a personal – or any – level.  At the last election I did one of those online surveys designed to help floating voters make up your mind who to vote for.  I categorised myself as ‘left of centre’ and answered a series of questions about burning issues like immigration and fox-hunting (broadly for, and against, if anyone is wondering!).  I was slightly bemused to find out at the end that while most people who place themselves in that political ‘zone’ are actually slightly more right-wing than they might admit, I was significantly of the leftist persuasion – even more so than I thought.  Which I guess does make me a raving communist!  😉

*As an aside, I remember seeing a Victorian tea service on display at York Castle Museum, which prominently displayed the swastika as a decorative device.  To its credit, the museum discretely, but directly acknowledged its presence, and the connotations it now holds, while explaining its original function as a good luck symbol.  It could have been so easy to remove the tea set from display and pretend it didn’t exist.  We have to confront the difficult and the disturbing and the uncomfortable sometimes, to better understand the world in which we live.  If we avoid the problematics of history, well, we might as well be Holocaust deniers ourselves.

April 15, 2007

Revolution is Not a Garden Party

I’ve been bad.  Rather than finishing the books I’ve already got on the go, I’ve done a ‘Stasiland’and picked up something else instead.  However, I have a good excuse.  A family bereavement just before Easter has left me feeling fairly ‘numb’. But I’m not going to beat myself up about abandoning schedules and reading plans .  I’m just going to read/write whatever appeals for however long it takes.  At least that way I’ll continue to make progress, if a little haphazardly.

Anyway, back to the publication in question: Revolution is Not a Garden Party – the catalogue produced to accompany the exhibition of the same name currently on display at the Norwich Gallery (which I missed the chance – through no fault of my own – to see.  I’m still seething!).

Taking Mao’s famous quote and applying it to the legacy of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, the organisers have gathered together a collection of contemporary (Eurocentric) works and installations that consider ‘the resonances of social and political revolution’.  So, while there’s little (despite the title) tieing the exhibition to China, the essays and responses to the works compiled in the catalogue have provided me with a few ideas and pointers for my own research and a list of theorists to investigate; Deleuze, Levinas and Guattari.

One particular installation which caught my eye (though – of course – I’ve only seen it on paper and on the Internet, dammit!) is Sanja Ivekovic’s ‘Figure and Ground’ and the response to it written by Dora Hegyi.

Revolution is Not a Garden Party Flyer (see second page of the pdf for excerpt)

Ivekovic has taken a series of fashion shots produced for the Face in 2001 and juxtaposed them with photo-journalist images of terrorists published in Der Speigel in the same year.  The models are clothed in a ‘terrorist look’ without consideration of the ideological meaning behind the reality.  Hegyi argues that through these images (which are, despite the connotations, really quite beautiful – I’m totally inspired by the slash of red eye shadow sported by the model featured in the exhibition flyer) consumers are encouraged to identify with the terrorist as ‘hero’.  In my opinion the associations are little more fuzzy and less fixed than that.  I doubt these visual references were used in as considered a manner as that.  Surely the representations employed by the stylist and photographer have more to do with an enduring image of rebellion, the outsider, the individual rallying against the norm/society?     I’m immediately put in mind of the Manic Street Preachers’ infamous performance of ‘Faster’ on Top of the Pops. Which is sadly no longer available on YouTube and so I can’t share it here (though it is featured on the DVD which accompanies the 10th anniversary edition of ‘The Holy Bible’).  Anyway, it featured James Dean Bradfield in a balaclava on a stage set inspired by Irish paramilitary stylings, replete with burning torches.  Still – supposedly – the catalyst for the most complaints ever received by the BBC in the shortest period of time. Hurrah for the Manics! 

Hegyi does go on to make the point that in these images, fashion is making a [superficial] connection between freedom and terrorism [without recourse to the ideological baggage of course].  Though, it has to be said, in the case of the Manic Street Preachers, the images they invoked through the appropriation of paramilitary and – indeed – communist iconography in the mid-1990s carried considerably more power and shock-value than they might today.  The overall effect was really quite seditious and menacing at the time; the IRA had not yet announced its ceasefire and the menacing spectre of communism in western imaginings remained fresh, despite the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR.

I appear – as ever – to have gone off on a bit of a tangent…

April 13, 2007

Red Guard for the ‘Nuts’ generation

From the Honolulu Star Bulletin:

“The revolution is not a dinner party,” said Mao Tse-tung. So to celebrate its exhibit of propaganda posters from China’s Cultural Revolution, last Wednesday the Pegge Hopper Gallery held a Proletarian Wine & Cheese party.

In the ’60s, Mao, his power slipping, unleashed the Cultural Revolution, plunging China into chaos. His main weapon: posters in which rosy-cheeked soldiers and peasants promised to “smash the dog heads of those who oppose Chairman Mao.”

The 100-plus posters were collected by retired businessman and teacher Dennis Keating, who spent 10 years in China. Keating dressed his fiancée, 23-year-old Sandy Yang from Guangzhou, in a miniskirt Red Guard outfit [my emphasis]. The two will marry in the gallery on the last day of the exhibit, April 21.

Unbelievable – I’m very nearly speechless!

March 30, 2007

Round up

A quick round up of interesting things caught floating about in the blogosphere recently.

Exhibition of twentieth-century Chinese toys (from Jottings From the Granite Studio)

During the Japanese invasion of the 1930s, war-related toys such as fighter planes, tanks and soldiers dominated production,. Later on, toys were often used as a propaganda tool. This was especially true during the Cultural Revolution.

“Beside Mao-suit-clad dolls, you can find cars with political slogans, and building block cubes with propaganda scenes on them,” said Man Wing Sing, a Chinese antique toy collector. Among the toys made in the ’60s, the most valuable in the museum’s collection is the “Liberate Taiwan” game.

Chan, who has done extensive research on the subject, points to a distinctive change in style for toys pre- and post-1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established. “Before the 1950s, the toy designs are very influenced by Europeans, but after, the toys have a more Oriental feel to their patterns and design,” he noted.

Manufacturers started incorporating more modern technology in the ’50s, using battery-operated controls, magnetic control, sound and light controls. (From the International Herald Tribune article that the writer of ‘Jottings’ – himself a China studies PhD himself – links to.)

Jottings also links to Sinocidal’s bitingly satirical timeline of Chinese history. I particularly the appreciate the verity behind this entry:

1949: After years of civil war, Japanese invasion, and national humiliation, a giant poster of Mao gains control of China. The giant poster wields power through an army of smaller, photocopied, versions of itself, and promises to rid all China of stamps featuring Queen Victoria and placards of Chiang Kai-Shek. The giant poster of Mao is head of the Chinese Communist Party, which at the time was the biggest, and probably the best, Communist Party in the whole world.

Jeremiah writing at The Peking Duck asks whether the kitschy use of Mao’s image is morally and ethically justifiable (I particularly like the last sentence from this extract; ‘Can you de-fang a tyrant by turning him into kitsch?’ sounds like the title of a great thesis chapter to me!):

The CCP came up with the rather neat figure of 70% correct and 30% incorrect. But how does one split a canvas 70/30? Does this mean it is okay to wear a silkscreened Mao t-shirt 70% of the time? Does it mean the next time I’m at Panjiayuan Market in Beijing, I should ask for a 30% discount on a Mao cigarette lighter that plays “Dong Fang Hong” when it lights? Can you de-fang a tyrant by turning him into kitsch or does that trivialize the horrors he perpetrated?

Finally, a review of a contemporary detective novel, the theme of which deals with China in transition, written by a Chinese author and now available in translation here (that should please those commentators complaining about the lack of non-victim/non-culture clash Chinese fiction available in English).

More interesting snippets soon…

Older Posts »

Blog at WordPress.com.