In the Face of Contemporary Chinese Art

On 12 September, the novelist, translator and China specialist Linda Jaivin gave the opening speech at the ‘Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture‘ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra (13 September 2012-17 February 2013) in coordination with the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) in Sydney (15 September-1 December 2012). Curated by Claire Roberts, who also edited a handsome catalogue for the exhibition, the fifty-five works in ‘Go Figure!’ were drawn from the Sigg Collection, Switzerland and the M+ Museum, Hong Kong. We are grateful to Linda and to the National Portrait Gallery for permission to reproduce the speech along with two images from the show. The public forum on public collections and private collecting held at the Gallery on 13 September was co-sponsored by the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and the Australian Centre on China in the World.—The Editors

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It’s an honour to be launching the first exhibition at the National Portrait gallery ever to feature a video of crusty toes with painted faces that appear to be singing ‘Without the Communist Party, There is No New China’. I hope it’s not the last.

Kan Xuan, ‘Chorus’. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

We need to talk about Mao. For the first thirty years, people of China couldn’t get away from Mao if they wanted to: participation in the revolution was not a matter of choice. In the thirty, almost forty years since Mao’s death, Chinese artists don’t seem to be able to get away from him either.

He watches you from the moment you enter this exhibition – albeit with bedroom eyes in the case of Yu Youhan’s Untitled (Mao Marilyn), a creepy yet seductive fusion of Warhol’s Marilyn with Warhol’s Mao. The combination of these two images attracts the eye and short-circuits the brain. Ultimately, Hollywood-grade celebrity is no match for state-sponsored personality cult. Mao wins, even if Mao Marilyn gets her birthmark and not his mole.

The inescapable truth is that had Marilyn been born in China, she would have been singing ‘Happy Birthday, Mr Chairman’ whether she wanted to or not. It’s an unpleasant thought that had never occurred to me before I viewed Untitled (Mao Marilyn). It makes me want to order Mao to get out of Marilyn’s face.

For the thirty-seven years he ruled China, Mao got in everyone’s face. So it’s not really surprising that China’s artists have been so compelled to get into his.

Yu Youhan, ‘Untitled (Mao Marilyn)’. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

One of the first to do so, and in a very different spirit, was Wang Keping. Wang was a member of one of the first unofficial artist collectives in China, the Stars. He’s represented in Go Figure! by the wooden head Cadre. Another of Wang’s wooden sculptures was called Idol, an unholy fusion of Mao and Buddha. Idol, like Cadre, dates from the late 1970s. Both featured in the Stars’ landmark 1980 exhibition at the national China Art Gallery.

Unlike contemporary Chinese ‘political pop’, the heretical Idol was no work of detached irony. In fact, it was such an extraordinary and passionate provocation that I remember the breath catching in my throat when I first saw it at that exhibition in Beijing in 1980.

I had a similar physical reaction nine years later when, strolling by the occupied Tiananmen Square during the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations, I happened to look up at the portrait of Mao over Tiananmen Gate to see that it had been splattered with coloured pigments. Within minutes, a sheet dropped over the defaced image and the paint-throwers were in the hands of the police – turned in by student pro-democracy activists, but that’s another story. Go figure indeed.

You might be amused by Mao Marilyn or other works in Go Figure! of what we might call ‘Mao play’, for example Shen Shaomin’s Standard Portrait, a crumpling, fun-house take on the Chairman.

Conversely, you might be outraged.

Famously – or infamously, depending on your viewpoint and possibly how many of the works in question you own – the New Republic’s art critic Jed Perl has labelled what he calls the Chinese political pop movement’s ‘delusionary infatuation’ with Mao ‘more sinister than anything we have seen in the already fairly astonishing annals of radical chic.’

However you interpret the obsession, from the years of high personality cult to the present, Mao has never ‘lost face’, at least so far as visual representation is concerned.

Face has always been for others to lose. Mao expressly viewed the Chinese populace as a palimpsest on which to etch his vision of a new world.

I wonder if any other country-based exhibition of portraits would feature as many works as this one does of paintings and photographs in which the face itself is left blank or virtually featureless. Wang Keping’s Cadre has hollow eyes, no mouth and no ears. The figure in Chen Wei’s A lighthouse was winking in the distance it is erased by a flash of light. And the couple in Wang Xingwei’s oil painting My Beautiful Life, are seen from the back as they look out over a river.

Like Fang Lijun’s face-down swimmer in 1988.8.25, and particularly in the context of this exhibition, the painting My Beautiful Life conveys a sense in which the face is reserved for the private realm, beyond both the collective gaze and the gaze of the collective.

There have been times when even China’s leaders have disappeared from sight, airbrushed or painted out of group portraits following a purge, for example. I believe the Communist Party has recently misplaced Xi Jinping, the man who is tipped to become president in the upcoming changeover of leadership. Xi has been missing for eight or nine days now [Xi was out of the public eye from 1-14 September; his disappearance remained unexplained. – Ed.].

You might think about Xi while viewing Yue Minjun’s oil painting Founding Ceremony, a reprisal of a famous painting of Mao, other leaders and dignitaries on the rostrum of Tiananmen Gate to announce the founding of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949 – this time, without the people.

He Xiangyu goes one step further and gets rid of everything except the microphone and Mao’s voice, along with that of the man who introduced him.

Fang Lijun takes another angle on the portrait in the painting that greets you the moment you walk into the exhibition: it’s part of a series that Fang has done featuring a bald man with a dumb expression who multiplies across Fang’s canvases to populate a kind of meat-headed universe.

It’s impossible to do justice in a few short remarks to all the common themes and individual voices that weave through this fascinating exhibition, curated with wit and intelligence by Claire Roberts from the extraordinary collection of Uli Sigg.

I do wish to leave you with a final provocation.

Claire observes in her catalogue essay that many of the works ‘manifest an almost obsessive concern with the Chinese condition (physical, spiritual, existential)’. Uli Sigg himself stresses that without some knowledge of the Chinese context, ‘you won’t be able to understand the work in the way the artist intended. You can still like it, but for the wrong reasons.’ Right or wrong – you Go Figure! 

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Links and References

For more on Linda Jaivin and her work, see here.

On the exhibition, ‘Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture’, see here.

Claire Roberts, ‘More Than Just Face Value‘, Financial Times, 1 September 2012.

Claire Roberts, ed., Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture, Canberra: National Portrait Gallery and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, 2012.

Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) and ‘Go Figure!’ at SCAF, 15 September-1 December 2012 .

M+ Museum, Hong Kong.