Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

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’.  😉

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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.  😉

November 3, 2007

OMG!1!!!

The BM is stealing my ideas!!!  😉 

Seriously, could be an absolutely fascinating exhibition if it comes off.

September 1, 2007

The East is Red…as a study tool

I’ve decided it is about time I tackled this blinking thesis.  So, in an attempt to promote an appropriate frame of mind, this afternoon I have been listening to The East is Red.  Loud, ambitious and unstintingly bombastic, not to mention really quite barmy, it’s done the trick.  I managed to brain storm section 2 of my thesis.  Hurrah for choirs and cymbals and China for bringing forth a Mao Zedong (the latter said with a tinge of irony, of course)!  You can download the whole shebang – all two hours worth – from emusic.

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.

May 1, 2007

Stalin’s bunker to become a museum

Filed under: Communist kitsch, Eastern Europe, Museums, Stalin, USSR — amyjaneb @ 9:28 pm

Found this via a Museum Studies email list.  Two things:

i)  the entertainment centre – strange juxtaposition.  Does it mean that Moscovites have genuinely ‘moved on, and consigned Stalin to the historical ‘dustbin’?  Or is this just another manifestation of commie kitsch or ostalgie (as it would be called in Germany)?

ii)  Moscow’s chief ‘digger”s comment

“The best solution would be to restore these facilities in their original shape and connect them by a common transportation system, and use them as a wonderful museum complex that would continue performing its strategic functions,” [by italics]

Isn’t that notion just a little bit bizarre? What ‘strategic functions’ could Stalin’s ex-bunker possibly perform in 2007? Especially if it was abandoned in the 80s. Nostalgia for the old regime, or future insight? Perhaps the real meaning is ‘lost in translation’.

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

Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works

Writing of documentary films, I have to see this, not least because it seems to have been highly contentious for the Director’s (Yan Ting Yuen) decision to avoid dwelling too much on the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and focusing instead on the kitsch value of the model operas, albeit with the constant haunting presence of Jiang Qing (aka Madame Mao) who provides a voice over (fictional, but based on her biography) from beyond the grave.

More info here (Guardian article) and here (official film ‘presskit’ -pdf file).

And there’s a podcast of a Q&A session with Yuen available here in which she discusses the difficulties associated with gaining interviews with the original performers, filming in China, recreating the Yang Ban Xi for the musical segments and the rehabilitation of the once banned operas and their growing popularity in China in recent years. Well worth a listen.

Young and old alike seem fascinated by the Yang Ban Xi operas. When the operas are revived on stage today, both parents and their children flock to see them. Teenagers, Yuen says, regard them as “fun and campy – they look at the operas with so much irony. They like them but they laugh about them.”

Yuen is not apologetic in the slightest about tackling a seismic moment in Chinese history with “a big, big wink”. “You just have to look at the Yang Ban Xis with irony,” Yuen insists. “It’s like with Leni Riefenstahl. She is completely taboo, but nobody denies that she made perfect, beautiful art.”

(Guardian Unlimited, 4th March 2005)

So, the Chinese find it as ‘easy’ to ignore the ideological baggage of CultRev material culture as westerners, though I’m sure it goes without saying that the younger and older generations approach and mentally process this material from radically different perspectives.

In the podcast, Yuen makes the same points as Bright Sheng, i.e. Jiang’s appropriation of western forms (despite the attendent ideological issues) in devising the operas, and the nostalgia value of the Yuan Ban Xi for those that grew up with them. She also discusses how the failure of the Chinese Government to deal effectively with the legacy of the Cultural Revolution has left the post-CultRev generation bereft of education about this period, meaning that they too – like westerners – have few points of reference from which to fully appraise the true political and cultural significance of the Yuan Ban Xi, and other aspects of CultRev material culture.

Problem is I can’t find a copy of the film on sale in the UK and I’m really not 100% certain that region 1 DVDs will work on player. Do I take the risk? That’s a rhetorical question btw, I don’t expect an answer!

All this talk of the 8 Model Works and Jiang Qing also reminds me that I’ve been meaning to write a post about former revolutionary opera performer Anchee Min’s brilliant autobiography Red Azalea for quite some time (something to add to the ‘to do’ list).

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!

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