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Gallery explores Mao’s art of chaos

The curators note that there are many and divergent interests (critical and/or intellectual and/or hagiographic and/or political) in the figure of Mao Zedong in China today. Our own position is critical but we nonetheless understand that there are many positions and many forms of critique, revulsion, and nostalgia across the generations, and that these attitudes should be canvassed to gain a clearer picture of the political imaginary.

Steve Meacham
August 16, 2010
Sydney Morning Herald

CHINA’S Cultural Revolution is usually regarded as one of the most philistine periods in world history.

Ordered by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1966, urged on by his wife and the three other members of the “Gang of Four”, it is remembered as 10 years of chaos and destruction when Red Guard zealots were let loose to smash forever supposedly liberal bourgeoise sensibilities.

It was a time when artists and intellectuals were targeted as enemies of the communist state, and it ended only with Mao’s death in 1976.

Advertisement: Story continues below So it seems bizarre that a new exhibition has opened at the University of Sydney gallery dedicated to the artistic legacy of the Cultural Revolution.

“Actually there was a lot of art produced during the Cultural Revolution,” says the co-curator, Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, the university’s honorary professor of Chinese media studies.

Most of it was the equivalent of the Stalinist “agitprop” which dominated Soviet art in the 1930s and 1940s – posters and paintings hammering home an overt political message.

Ten of those original Maoist posters form the core of China and Revolution: History, Parody and Memory.

They may have been designed to communicate with illiterate peasants, says Hemelryk Donald, but the posters were striking and visually literate – which is why so many of them are eagerly sought by Western collectors, including Charles Saatchi.

But the exhibition also explores the legacy of the Chinese agitprop which is influencing a new generations of Chinese artists.

“There was a big Pop Art movement in China during the 1980s,” Hemelryk Donald says.

Many of those artists, growing up in the reformist era of led by Deng Xiaoping, produced pastiches of the Cultural Revolution posters.

These too proved a commercial success. “When the imagery was re-imagined as irony, it was taken up very quickly by [Western] advertisers,” says Hemelryk Donald. “That classic image of Mao’s head, with the rays of the sun around it, has been used by investment bankers.”

A group of serious artists – including Liu Dahong, one of four contemporary Chinese artists in the exhibition – have used Maoist imagery to reinterpret the Cultural Revolution as a part of Chinese history which needs to be embraced and explained.

Liu’s work Four Seasons, for example, features a divine Mao surrounded by the figures of the zodiac. Hemelryk Donald says, “What he’s saying is, ‘I don’t believe there was chaos, then everything was OK again, so we can put the Cultural Revolution away like a monster in a box.’

“Those 10 years have informed every year since. That is the main message of this exhibition.”

Mao is very much alive, in terms of iconography at least. “People in southern China are now worshipping Mao in peasant temples along with their other folk gods,” she says. “The reason Mao hasn’t gone away is that no one has dealt with Maoist history. It has just been shoved aside.”

In 2008, for example, Hemelryk Donald was a guest speaker at a peace exhibition in Beijing planned to coincide with the Olympic Games. Older artists from the Cultural Revolution period were encouraged to show their sketches, paintings and sculptures of Mao for the first time in years.

“The exhibition was closed down by the police after two days because it was just too embarrassing for the authorities,” says Hemelryk Donald. “That worries artists. They say, ‘Our young people have no memory – just the arrogance of youth.’ ”

China and Revolution: History, Parody and Memory in Contemporary Art is at University Art Gallery at the University of Sydney until November 7.

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