Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

March 28, 2008

South African lessons for Chinese museums?

Filed under: China, Cultural Revolution, Exhibitions, Museums — Tags: , — amyjaneb @ 11:20 am

From Danwei:

2008 is the tenth anniversary of the commencement of diplomatic relations between South Africa and the People’s Republic of China. As part of its activities to celebrate the occasion, the South African government has invited actress, director and blogger Xu Jinglei to visit. Xu is planning to produce a book and documentary about the trip.

The correspondent, Maya Alexandri wonders what the Chinese delegation made of the Apartheid Museum, in relation to the current lack of a similar public response to the Cultural Revolution in China.  Although she suggests an implicit admiration for the museum amongst the Chinese visitors, sadly, she doesn’t elaborate – perhaps that line of questioning would have been deemed inappropriate on an official visit?


December 27, 2007

Mao suits and revolutionary dress

Here’s a fascinating little online exhibition from the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney that charts the development of Chinese revolutionary dress, and in particular the Mao suit (zhifu).  It’s part of a larger virtual exhibition entitled Evolution and Revolution: Chinese dress 1700s-1990s.  Check out the page on the sartorial ideology of the Cultural Revolution as well.  When I was  much younger I desperately wanted to be a costume historian when I grew up.  Perhaps there’s still a chance!

(Via The Museum of Online Museums)

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’.  😉

November 3, 2007


The BM is stealing my ideas!!!  😉 

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

May 8, 2007

Contemporary Chinese art: Art market con?

Filed under: China, Exhibitions, Material culture/art & design — amyjaneb @ 5:59 pm

This article on Times Online by Waldemar Januszczak is more than a little sniffy about contemporary Chinese art. Ostensibly a review for ‘The Real Thing’ at Tate Liverpool, it’s really a diatribe against the contemporary art market.  In my opinion he’s kind of missing the point about a lot of the work being made by those artists educated in Communist art schools he’s so dismissive of. There’s more to these works than their aesthetic qualities, and I guess that reveals the major issue facing those of us studying political and propagandist ‘art’, and by extension, the works produced post-Mao. To many it can’t be art, design maybe, but not art. But I feel it is impossible to divorce works produced by Chinese artists from politics. Artists are, undoubtedly, pushing at the limitations the Chinese authorities are placing on them; idealistic maybe, but certainly courageous. Okay, I concede that these issues aren’t necessarily at the forefront of the minds of those snapping up contemporary Chinese art for inflated prices, but it’s still a important point to be aware of. Not least because it can offer an illuminatory perspective from which to critically analyse Chinese art.

And besides, why shouldn’t people buy what they like? Even if Januszczak’s ignorant but fabulously wealthy Japanese collectors, for example, aren’t into anything particularly avant-garde, who are we to judge…really? What does it matter? One could argue that the money would be better spent, but hey, one could say that about a lot of things. What is comes down to in the end is cultural snobbery. That Eurocentric idea that non-Europeans can’t/don’t produce great art, nor – for that matter – can recognise it.  As Clunas has identified in a couple of papers, there can – from the western art canon’s perspective, itself haunted by the spectre of colonialism and imperialist attitudes – be no ‘modern’ Chinese artists.  Either they are Chinese (in which case they produce what we understand as ‘traditional’ Chinese art) or ‘modern’ (wherein their nationality and ethnicity become irrelevant).  Clearly this is rubbish.

To give him some credit, Januszczak does go on to question the political ramifications of the nascent Chinese art market. He believes it plays into the hands of the Chinese authorities who are actively engaged in ‘hoodwinking’ the rest of the world. To an extent I would agree; the growing reputation and visibility of contemporary Chinese art can only help to improve the image of the Chinese state, especially when one considers the position of artists in Maoist China (and the general antipathy towards art produced during that period which I hinted of at the beginning of this post). To an extent an active art scene/market equals ‘civilisation’, thereby apparently helping to rehabilitate China in western minds. However, I think this is just another example of the naivety of the Chinese cultural authorities, who are unaware perhaps of the subtexts behind many of the works being produced in China today. I am reminded of a -perhaps apocryphal – story about the flourishing installation and performance art scene in China during the 1990s, which – during a number of crackdowns against more conventional artistic genres – got away with much more simply because it didn’t confirm to the narrow concept of ‘art’ recognised by the authorities.

He’s critical of the newly wealthy artists, but fails to recognise that they’re just engaging in what all Chinese are being called upon by their government to do, i.e. get rich quick.  But his comments also reveal another facet of the western idealisation of the artist as a tortured genius, an outsider rallying against the norm.  For him the ‘real’ artists were those he found struggling in hovels five years ago.  We mythologise artists like Van Gogh because of their unconventionality and because of their apparent compulsion to create great art against the odds, for the love of it, not for financial gain.  And this becomes part of their mystique.  We’re buying into failure and distress and illness, as much as the aesthetic qualities of the art he produced.  Who’s to say that had Van Gogh been more stable and a tad more successful in his lifetime, the western art historical canon would still privilege his works as masterpieces?

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…

Create a free website or blog at