Mao evaluated himself in his late years and pointed out only two significant achievements in his lifetime: the conquest over Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) and the Kuomintang, and the Cultural Revolution. After more than three decades since Mao's death it is widely agreed that the Cultural Revolution was a national tragedy. Most of its visual elements were no more than political instruments offering little of further cultural value. The Cultural Revolution is in fact frequently referred to as a 'cultural desert'. Mao's legacy has been deeply embedded by virtue of the sheer scale of the mass movement. The unlikely consequence is that it has equipped a new generation of artists with the audacity, if required, to be subversive. It has provided a young generation of artists with layers of visual complexity derived from reflection, reinterpretation and redefinition, and with a hunger for radical change. The revolution indeed continues in China's new art, through a spirit of rebellion.
On a recent visit to San Francisco, I visited an art museum that was having a crazy sale on art books. I bought this and a book on street art (review inevitable) at shockingly low prices. This book focuses on art that, according to introducer Jiang Jiehong, belongs to a lineage starting from the cultural revolution. That is, this is art responding to something that started with the cultural revolution and is continuing through to today. Thus, Chinese contemporary art is a mix of subversive, historically pointed, and critical of both the opening of the Chinese economy and the failure to open civil rights.
A poster, reminiscent of the cultural revolution posters but given a sense of commodity by streaming the word "MATERIALIST'S" on the top and printing the numbers all over it. Or the following piece:
The juxtaposition of Mao onto the Quaker Oats logo parodies the cult of personality surrounding Mao while also showing the commodification of that image in China's new capitalized economy.
In another work, Yang Zhenzhong takes a speech by Deng Xiaoping, and has 1,500 factory workers each recite a single word or phrase:
Tragically, I couldn't find a copy of the video on the internets.
Lately, and I should note this is based on my extremely limited knowledge of the "art world," it seems like everyone is obsessed with contemporary art from China. After going through this book, I can see why. The works within all are beautiful, pointed, and political pieces of art. I'm sad to say, I have not seen anything this compelling from a U.S. artist (whether due to my own ignorance or due to the lack thereof). This makes me wonder why. Why do we lack important, political art?
One possible reason, it seems to me, is that, unlike the Chinese, we don't have a "unified" political experience around which to create art. As this book makes clear, the Cultural Revolution had a profound impact on art, culture, and society in China. Another good example is the plethora of amazing movies about the Cultural Revolution. See, e.g., Farewell My Concubine; To Live.
In contrast, we don't necessarily have a single political experience to unite around. The nearest analogue is the general unrest during the 60s and 70s, but that feels like a distant era. And, our political climate today is not informed by that time period the way that China is today.