Thursday, September 09, 2010

Propaganda Poster Collection Visit

Nina Boys

Contemporary Art and New Media in China

Propaganda Poster Collection Visit


When you hear the term "propaganda poster" in Shanghai, even
after being here only a couple of weeks, you are bound to envision the
countless kitschy tourist shops around the city selling merchandise
boasting old time images of Chairman Mao. With nothing other than
these as a point of reference, I assumed the propaganda poster
collection we were scheduled to visit would be along the same lines,
but I could not have been more wrong. Rather than the being met with
an ostentatious and touristy venue, we were not even sure we were at
the right location as we stood outside of a standard apartment
building tucked modestly between other identical buildings. But after
descending into the apartment's basement, it was clear that the
collector of this extensive poster collection had no interest in the
gaudy, but rather he was an underground historian that had
meticulously put together a collection of art depicting an
ill-recorded chapter in China's not-so-distant past. As we walked
through the collection, arranged in chronological order, it was
fascinating to see the evolution of both the artistic techniques of
the posters as well as the messages that they were portraying. I had
previously seen socialist art from the past in Berlin and I could draw
many parallels between them and the posters, especially in regards to
the depiction of the worker as a happy, noble and patriotic member of
society that was not only content to do his duty, but that it was his
purpose in life. This, of course, is what makes it propaganda art.
It completely ignores the horrors and poverty of these workers'
everyday life. I also drew a parallel between the poster's depiction
of the idealized city, and that portrayed in Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi
propaganda film "The Triumph of the Will." I was particularly
interested in the incorporation of other nation's people into the art
either to generate a sense of comraderie or to fuel animosity. The
tranisition into the depiction of Chairman Mao as a deity of sorts was
sudden and obvious, and is a theme that has resonated until modern
day. Overall, the collection had a sense of hidden importancy; one
had to know it existed in order to experience it, but having viewed
the collection as a whole, I feel as though I was given access to an
aspect of China's history of which I could not have been previously

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