Professor and Supervisor of PhD candidates, Fine Arts Department, Shanghai Normal University.
Born in Qingdao in 1962, Liu Dahong is a painter, as well as the manager of the Shuangbai Studio. Liu Dahong’s work The Awakening of Insects was displayed in the 6th National Fine Arts Exhibition in 1989. In 1990, he completed the work Three Old Works of Chairman Mao. In late 1991, he completed Four Seasons. His solo exhibition in Hong Kong in 1992 was held in the same year as he completed the works The Year of Monkey and The Illustration of the 9th Version of Broadcast Callisthenics.
Liu Dahong seeks to explore different approaches to memory using the characteristic textbooks, calendars, slogans, physical exercises, music and iconic poster images of the Cultural Revolution. Situated alongside cultural motifs from a longer aesthetic and folk tradition, what appears as critique and parody is, in fact, a serious challenge to the dominant temporal and thematic frameworks through which the period is still widely understood.
‘Liu Dahong is of the generation that grew up in the Cultural Revolution. He attended art school in Shandong in an early post-CR intake at the age of 16. He acknowledges that he has a fixation on the period 1966-1976, which informed his contributions to the memory-seeking art of the early 1990s, and which now has a strong impact both on his art and his teaching. Fairytales of the Twelth Month (1987) is a jumble of image-text that refers to the city scrolls of the Sung dynasty, but without the order that the scroll mode allows or the sense of a city in harmony with its own activities. Fairytales is an emotional landscape of memories– an image-text whichprioritises the flat ontology of childish ways and perspectives. The radish in the middle of the painting might be about playing with rabbits – or it may be something someone has told him about the rural famine of the year before he was born.
Now the image comes back when children dig up radishes on Children’s Day, in a tiny and unacknowledged tribute to all those young people who went down to the countryside from 1968 上山下乡运动.
(Children’s Day in China is also June 1st – the day we remember that in 1966 unleashed the attacks on Monsters and Demons, who were mainly the intellectual classes of a certain age and without a red background).
There too in the top of the painting is the eponymous hero of Shanshan de hongxing (‘Shining red star’) a film from 1974 that celebrated revolutionary martyrdom and child soldiering. Mao, Shanshan and the Radish dominate other mini-scenes of red operas, red guards, stylized ‘flower’ hands clutching little red books – but notably remaining in the architecture of Qingdao –a red-roofed German town on China’s far eastern seaboard. The effect is hyperbolic. Liu has commented that he painted this as a memory of a day when he emerged from a childhood illness and re-entered the world of the well – he found everything as feverish as sickness, but as glorious as health.The Awakening of Insects does a similar job on the Reform era – but with a darker edge and more emphasis on the religious aspects of the ex-German colony – in other words, it allows all its pasts to rise into view where before the light from the Shining Mao and the wannabe Shanshan have obscured these aspects of Chinese history. This work is the companion work that explores and cavorts in the darker, carnivalesque of post-Maoist reform economics, but cannot say where the next rays of light are coming from. The shame and the anger seethe and crawl.’
Making Light: Animation and the invitation to laugh out loud at absurdity
The use of parody in re-telling of history is a powerful and surprising weapon. We know this through jokes. As soon as catastrophe hits, then the jokes, often in questionable taste, are not far behind. And often those jokes have been used before, in another catastrophe, in another century sometimes, and with other names and punchlines inserted for the new exigency. Whatever changes have been made to the Napoleonic joke retold in 1914, in 1940, and 1992, the use is the same – to say what is impossible to articulate in any other way, and to find a temporary emotional release from pain, or shame. This is not the place to recount the jokes of wartime, of calamity and of political collapse. But every reader will know what I mean. Sometimes, when there is nothing to be done, the only thing to do is laugh.
The Cultural Revolution is not generally thought of as a particularly amusing period of recent Chinese history. It is associated with mass upheaval, with random cruelty, with organized violence, and with family breakdowns. The rationale for the Cultural Revolution was, arguably, the reinstatement of Mao Zedong’s legitimacy and political ascendancy after the devastation of the post-Great Leap Forward famine in 1961-62. The Cultural Revolution was framed as a mobilization of China’s youth to support continuing revolution. It was a rebuttal of the attempts of Deng Xiaoping, and other reformers, to change China’s direction towards a new economic paradigm. The Cultural Revolution was therefore a time of severe difficulty for such reform minded politicians, many of whom spent up to ten years in prison. But, in 1978, after the death of Mao and the subsequent fall of the Gang of Four (Jiang Qing, Yao Wenyuan, Zhang Chunqiao, Wang Hongwen), Dengists returned to power and established those changes. What they did not do however, was dwell on the immediate past.
Instead, the Cultural Revolution, a time that had caused them so much unhappiness, but also a time that had seen friend become foes and vice versa, was shunted out of sight. If mentioned at all, it was described as a time of chaos (luan), but not as a period that had been shared by all Chinese alive at the time – young or old, guilty or innocent, complicit or removed. How then, are artists and indeed anyone to prise open the memories of such an extraordinary, and often formative part of their lives?
The first time I watched Liu Dahong’s animated film Radio Exercises, I did so in the company of several colleagues who had grown up in China in the 1960s. They roared with laughter. Younger colleagues and students, who had been born in the late 1970s and 1980s looked slightly bemused, and then, bit by bit as the film relentlessly reiterates the joke, they began to smile too. The difference between the two audience sectors was clear, and indicated that Liu’s film was an elaborate historical joke, designed to educate, but primarily to release the laughter from those who had ‘been there’, and who needed a way to remember and to articulate what ‘being there’ had felt like.
The film satirises the early morning exercise regimes broadcast by megaphone over the radio throughout Liu’s youth in the 1960s. It does so, first, by creating a stage on which animated versions of ‘characters’ or types from the period (Little Red Guards, Earnest Female Party Officials) perform the exercises, with a slogan from the time woven into the stage set or back drop. There are also sequences with the Xian Tomb Warriors, with improbable Afro-American dancers from the Jazz era (or, perhaps Al Jolson impersonators), with skeletons and demons and with a flightless bird. The latter is the joke against the intellectuals – ‘the most useless’ of all the black class categories of the era. The jokes keep on coming, but the major gag is of course that we are allowed to make light of the chaos at all.
And, like all good jokes, the film has some serious reminders to convey. The call to exercise was a call to participate: in continuing revolution and in the betterment of the revolutionary subject. It promoted the idealisation of the worker-peasant-soldier-body that one would have seen in the posters of the time. There was no choice in the matter of course, anyone who was supposed to get up and exercise, had to do so. Liu has said that he made the film in this form as it would be attractive to younger people, but also because it echoes the mode of many communications of the time – picture books, cartoons and big-character wall posters. These communications were direct, forceful and easily engaging. Liu’s strategy is to engage the body that remembers, bypassing the politically careful and socialized intellect of the present. Thus the film makes a somatic demand on the audience, encouraging us with repetitive counting 1 2 3 4! to get up and move. Yet, even if those whose bodies ‘remember’ resist the martial musical decree to shake a leg, then they are likely to respond physically with laughter. My contention is that the laughter leads to an openness of understanding, a somatic release of tension, which in turn makes space for memory and critique.
Liu’s film is most compelling for those who took part in the exercise regimes of the period, but it may also provoke nostalgia for those workers in supermarkets, department stores and restaurants who are younger but who have themselves been compelled to exercise in the mornings – to embody and demonstrate team spirit and discipline in the service o the new economy. Of course, the irony is that these new citizens of consumption-China are of the wrong class group to be likely to get a glimpse of Liu’s film.
The film achieves historical specificity not only by the remembered sounds and movements of the Radio Exercises, but also by the inclusion of texts which quote key slogans and movements of the period. As the skeletons take their turn on screen we read: ‘down with monsters and demons’. This was the key phrase in the 1966 June 1st editorial of the The People’s Daily which sparked the Red Guard movement and onslaught on powerful cadres and intellectuals – who we now know are ‘most useless’.
The piece should not be misunderstood as a childish entertainment however – it is rather a postmodern pastiche of Chineseness at a certain time and place and with a certain kind of limited hindsight in play. The animated generation of ancient Xian tomb warriors, folk-religious underworld guardians dressed as policemen, and a hyper-naïve version of African American jazz dancers, tramples on enforced breaks in historical causality, on assumed geopolitical divides, and challenges status-shifts between superstition and modernity. Above all, the film questions the enforced humourlessness that characterizes political leadership in the PRC, and that so deeply misunderstands and undermines the very vibrant Chinese sense of the absurd.’ (2011)
(extract from forthcoming essay, SH Donald, Liu Dahong and Shame’ and second extract from the exhibition catalogue in the University of Westminster show, 2011. The discussion was also presented: ‘Consuming the revolution: humour, friendship and the shaming of politics in the work of Liu Dahong’, Keynote: The Third International and Interdisciplinary Conference on Emotional Geographies, The University of South Australia, Adelaide April 6-8, 2010, http://www.unisa.edu.au/hawkeinstitute/emotionalgeographies/bios.asp)