Skip to Content

Background – The Past in our Lives

The exhibition ‘China and Revolution: History, Parody and Memory in Contemporary Art’ examines the relationship between poster art made during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) from 1966 to 1976 and the work of contemporary artists who respond to the events of that period.

It is based on the research project, ‘Posters of the Cultural Revolution,’ funded by the Australian Research Council. This project re-evaluates the Cultural Revolution by analysing the propaganda in China during the period, focusing on political posters 1966-1974, and considering works of memory, justice and agitprop that have been produced between 1987 and 2010.

Our approach acknowledges ‘the possibility of parallel structures of attention across historical and national space’.  In interview, Xu Weixin (pictured below) insisted that he wanted his work – his blog and his books as well as the portraits themselves – not only to inform uninformed Chinese youth about the lives and times he depicts, but also to prompt ‘the outsider’ and ‘the foreigner’ to reflect on the contested histories of contemporary China.

In the European context, Andreas Huyssen has described the emergence of ‘cultures of amnesia’ in a ‘consumption and profit oriented society’.  This amnesia is not a straightforward forgetting.  It produces a ‘fascination with the past’ that is ‘more than merely the compensatory or fraudulent side-effect of a new postmodern temporality which hovers between the need for memory and the rapid pace of forgetting.’   Unlike Hannah Arendt, who anticipated that history would be cannibalised by the demands of media-makers and accelerating levels of consumerism, Huyssen believes that people really do want to feel the past in their lives.

In China, for the contemporary artists represented in this exhibition, the fear is that younger generations raised in the historical wake of the events of 1966-1976, those born in the 1980s (the 80hou generation) and later, have been deliberately seduced away from the pursuit of history. Their amnesia is often condoned by parents who prefer not to discuss the past, for fear of alienating their children from the State, and thus from the opportunities for better education, improved life chances and more material possessions that allegiance to the State can make possible.  At the same time, the PRC’s political culture and education system remain systematically and strategically silent about the inconvenient truths, moral omissions, collective failings and individual suffering associated with the Cultural Revolution.  By delving more deeply and more explicitly into the complexity of people’s lives during the 1966-76 period, this work represents a pedagogical challenge to the State’s comforting ‘ten years of chaos’ paradigm.  These artists and this show are forward looking. We share no desire to see younger Chinese become ‘hopelessly entangled in narcissistic injury, ritual breast-beating and repression’ – which is one response to the Holocaust observed by Huyssen among post-War Germans.   But nor, equally, should we, an ageing generation, want them to forget to remember, think or feel at all.

The question of scale and monumentality in relation to historical portraiture is, in fact, a hot topic in Chinese art circles at present.  In an interview in 2008, Wang Mingxian, probably the most dedicated historian of the art of the Cultural Revolution period, made the point that there had been a direct relationship between the scale of representation and political significance.  ‘In reality Mao was 180 centimetres tall, Stalin only 172 centimetres tall,’ he recalled, ‘but in the early 1950s Chinese artists portrayed Stalin as the taller man.’  With the split from the USSR and the coming of the Cultural Revolution, that convention changed.  ‘In the 1960s Mao grew gradually bigger. He was the biggest, the most significant, those in the background were simply decorative.’

(this introduction quotes from SH Donald publication in progress, please do not quote without permission – see Contact.)

Other referenced works: Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia, (New York: Routledge, 1995).


Stephi Donald interviews artist Xu Weixin in Beijing, 2008.