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…

July 10, 2008

A younger, thinner, taller Hu Jintao

Filed under: China, Material culture/art & design, Propaganda — amyjaneb @ 10:37 am

Ah, the art of propaganda is alive and well in contemporary China, I see.

[Via Danwei]

April 15, 2008

The rights and wrongs of contemporary Sinophilia

Filed under: China, Material culture/art & design, Propaganda — amyjaneb @ 10:04 am

There’s been a really interesting debate about Chinese art, and the current craze for it in the West, on Guardian Unlimited recently.

Jonathan Jones asks:

Isn’t it a bit rich that China, with its human rights record, is being so assiduously courted by so many British museums and galleries?

He suggests that ‘we’ are displaying a blindness towards the reality of the Chinese regime in our seeming obsession for all things Chinese.  In my view this is only an extension of the attitude shown by the business world in recent years; dazzled by the prospect of securing a share of a vast, largely untapped consumer base, coupled with the pull of a seemingly endless supply of cheap unregulated labour, makes it easy to cast aside any lingering concerns about human rights.  Personally, I feel it is a ‘good thing’ if recent events in Tibet and culturally-Tibetan areas of China cause people in the West to stop and think, although I doubt, given how inextricably linked the Chinese economic and labour market now is with the Western economy, individual ethical concerns would have much impact as a cause for good in China (and I strongly believe that real, permanent change can only occur from within.)

Of course the Chinese people are not to blame; they are equally subject to the vicissitudes of their government.  And many of the artists working within China and attracting enormous attention from the Western art world are using their art as subtle commentary on the regime and the official policy of capitalism without democracy, often to the detriment of their careers and personal lives.  So, equally, it is difficult to argue that their voices should be silenced because of wider concerns about the conduct of the CCP.  And this is exactly the argument taken up by Eliza Gluckman in her response to Jones:

Distancing ourselves from Chinese culture will hurt only those labouring with imagination under censorship – there’s more than terracotta at stake

I guess what would be problematic is if China began to assert its influence over British museums and cultural institutions.  And given the track record of the Chinese authorities, I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t apply strict conditions with respect to the interpretation of particular objects as a component of any loan or joint exhibition agreements.  Indeed reports at the time accused China of trying to censor the Museum für Asiatische Kunst’s recent exhibition of Tibetan artefacts

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)

Modern Mao papercuts

To commemorate the Great Helmsman’s 114th birthday, Wu Suizhou, whom CCTV describes as a ‘folk artist’, has produced a set of papercuts.  The photographs on the CCTV website aren’t very clear (Xinhua is better), but it looks like he has chosen classic propagandist modes of representations of Mao and other communist icons as his models.  Indeed, there’s nothing very new here.  In the bottom right-hand corner in black is a papercut showing Mao, Lenin, Marx and Engels in profile.  This is a copy of similar papercuts available during the Cultural Revolution.  (The British Museum and Musee du Quai Branly have examples in their collections.)

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.  😉

November 3, 2007

OMG!1!!!

The BM is stealing my ideas!!!  😉 

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

October 19, 2007

The Red Detachment of Women (1970)

I’ve been neglecting this blog recently.  Mainly because my final year has crept up on me, and the ensuing panic has caused me to devote a little more time to actually writing-up my damn thesis!  But I have been watching The Red Detachment of Women on DVD (in two sittings – the casts’ endless ‘determined fists’ get a little wearing after a while!).

Well, I can see why this and the other revolutionary operas were so appealing to audiences.  I know very little about ballet, but the performance of the cast is clearly dazzling (unsurprising given the harsh regime meted out by studios – read Anchee Min’s Red Azalea for more details), the score is rousing and colours vivid (and of course, red predominates).  Added to that is the fact that there would have been very little ‘entertainment’ available during the Cultural Revolution, making the opportunity to see a film – regardless of its propagandist content – a real treat.

The story is a fairly formulaic, gender-role reversed take on good vs. evil; girl escapes from dastardly landlord, hero saves girl, girl joins the Red Army (okay, that’s not in the vein of most classic stories!), girl leads her detachment into battle, hero is injured but survives only to be captured by evil landlord, girl single-handedly does for evil landlord and saves the hero, the masses are liberated by the victorious Red Army, etc, etc,.  Added to that is the propagandist sub-plot, i.e. join the Red Army, it’ll be fantastic.  You’ll have a great time (much like the adverts for the forces currently shown on TV!), plenty to eat and the locals will think you’re great!  Plus, if you’re a woman, you’ll get to wear a natty knee-length shorts with leg warmers combo (a sartorial choice which had no – as far as I am aware – basis in reality).  A half-arsed attempt at ‘sexing’ up the film to appeal to the masses, perhaps?  Seems a rather bizarre decision for the costume designers to take, given that they were working in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, with its emphasis on androgyny and desexualisation of women.  Still, having said that, cultural supremo, Jiang Qing, was a rather peculiar woman herself.

Of course, Mao’s famous proclamation that ‘women hold up half of the sky’ is the basis for this tale, and – perhaps – for the reversal of roles between the male and female heroes. In many ways it is a celebration of women; overcoming the barriers, restrictions and mistreatment imposed upon by men (some men – not their enlightened male comrades in the Red Army, of course).

 Another interesting aspect of the film I’ve noted, refers back to Bright Sheng’s comments in the radio interview I’ve blogged about before.  The strange mixing of traditional and Western elements in the production of these revolutionary ballets, which seems at odds with the ethos behind the diktats imposed on practitioners working in other creative fields.  The influence of Western ballet is unmistakable here, as is the only slight adaptation (the inclusion of occasional ‘bursts’ from traditional Chinese instruments) of Western classical music for the score.

Anyway, back to the film itself… I’m not certain how available this, and the other revolutionary operas are in Britain.  This copy came from China.  Thankfully, this is where YouTube, as a research tool, excels

The heroine escapes and hides in the forest from the landlord’s henchmen:

After suffering a brutal beating at the hands of the landlord’s henchmen, the heroine stumbles upon a detachment of the army…

An ensemble piece which follows the detachment’s assault on the landlord’s compound:

Enjoy!

Oh, and finally, I should apologise for the rather strange appearance of Cogs and Wheels at the moment.  I’m working on a re-design.  🙂

October 6, 2007

A Soviet Poster A Day

Filed under: Images, Material culture/art & design, Propaganda, USSR — amyjaneb @ 9:39 pm

A Soviet Poster A Day is a great little blog; simple, yet offers a very effective way of presenting propaganda posters to external and non-specialist audience.  In particular I concur with the comments in the introduction, that…

 …every Soviet Poster has a historical reference essential for understanding the layers of meanings it carries through time.

Which is, of course, so true for propaganda posters and political art more widely, i.e. that we can appreciate these posters as examples of graphic design, but to really understand them, as their original audience would have done, we need also to consider them as historical documents, and have access to contextualising information (be it interpretive, or historical text; film; oral history recordings, etc).  We need to be able to decipher the symbolism, ‘get’ the cultural or political references, ‘read’ the slogan.  Something exhibition designers could do well to remember!

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