Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Politics of Art

Barry Kramer
June 2, 2011
Contemporary Art and New Media in China
The Politics of Art
Art is an incredible way to take a closer look at the human side of
history. No amount of written documents can as efficiently express
the emotions of the people at a given time as a work of art can.
Especially with works in which the artist was emotionally invested, he
or she will express their individuality and passions, passing between
subject and medium. An artist's life and upbringing can strongly
influence a final product, whether they are aware of it or not,
consciously or subconsciously. In this way, a given time's culture
and politics can also have a major effect on the art of that period,
and with a particular lens we can peer through the strata of artworks,
searching for the subtexts hidden beneath. The rise of the
contemporary art scene in Shanghai has been slow but steady, growing
despite some heavily oppressive behavior from the government. A
period of strong political force such as the past few decades of
Chinese history is bound to lead to the production of art that
reflects the current political climate. In times such as these, art
and politics go hand in hand, joined out of the necessity of spreading
a message. Every piece of contemporary Chinese art carries a
political message, however slight, and sometimes even despite the
artist's original intentions.
There are many pieces of contemporary art that are blatantly
political in theme. A fairly recent example can be found in the "Fuck
Off" exhibition held in Shanghai in 2000. Curated by Feng Boyi and Ai
Weiwei, the exhibition featured the works of a large number of Chinese
contemporary artists. Many of the works were very controversial, and
government officials ultimately closed the exhibition down early. Of
course no mention of Ai Weiwei can go without documenting his exploits
of recent years. In addition to his work related to the "Fuck Off"
exhibition, Ai Weiwei produced a series of photos titled "Study of
Perspective" that depict the artist "giving the finger" to a number of
famous landmarks around the world from a first-person perspective.
The political connotations are obvious. A few years later he produced
"Sunflower Seeds" which features roughly one hundred million
hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds; a direct commentary on the
massive scale of the consumption of goods in China. Later, despite
vocalizing his anti-Olympics sentiment, he was commissioned by the
government to help design the iconic "Bird's Nest" stadium for the
2008 Beijing Olympic Games. In recent years, Ai Weiwei became
increasingly vocal in his disapproval of the government, culminating
in his arrest this past April. A number of incidents, from the
government-planned demolition of his studio in January to a nude
self-portrait with a caption that roughly translates to, "Fuck your
mother, the Communist party central committee," led up to Ai Weiwei's
detainment by authorities at Beijing airport. Yet despite his
dissident political views and outrageous behavior many view him first
and foremost as an artist, albeit one who is explicitly motivated by
political purposes. It is perhaps his status as an artist, and not as
a dissident politician, that gave his arrest so much attention in the
West. In the West we are such strong believers in the right to Free
Speech that the attempted silencing of an artist is a damnable human
rights offense, not an act of self-preservation by the government.
There are those who strongly believe Ai Weiwei has been intentionally
trying to get arrested and it's all an act on his part, but in that
case the situation changes from an arrest caused by
politically-charged art to a kind of perverse performance art. In
either case, Ai Weiwei's actions have proven a firm connection between
art and politics in modern China, and how much impact one man can have
on a society through his art.
Meanwhile, other Chinese contemporary artists are less inclined to
work in a political space, and yet their works are also influenced by
today's political landscape. Take for instance the artistic team
known as Birdhead, comprised of Song Tao and Ji Weiyu. In an
interview with Paul Gladstone of the University of Nottingham, Ji
Weiyu proclaimed he is "…indifferent to politics," and later, "I have
no interest in politics at all." Song Tao explicated, "…we're not so
inspired by the politically oriented field." When asked about the
function of certain types of art in contemporary China, they explained
that in their eyes, "some work tends to have a more political
function; some work often uses Chinese labels or symbols to attract
buyers, which they do just for the purposes of the market. While our
work, it tends to be more life-philosophical orientated." Reading
that, one would assume that every piece of art that comes out of
Birdhead would feature pastoral landscapes or other images devoid of
modern conflict. And yet some of their photography, such as those
featured in the collection "Welcome to the World of Birdhead 2011 –
For Passion" depicts urban scenes: families heading to a community
swimming pool, a couple of stray dogs caught mid-conflict, the pillars
of smoke stemming from a factory, et cetera. Yet it's important to
note that among the signs of urban decay, there are hints of love and
passion within the city. So while there are certainly strong
arguments for these pieces' philosophical leanings, to claim there is
no political inspiration in any form would be foolhardy. In the
communist, authoritarian society that exists in China today, the
government is directly responsible for practically everything within
its borders. That factory is there because of urban planning; the
public swimming pool could be tied to local economic policies, and so
on. Even when artists do not have politics in mind when producing
their art, political subtexts are present in everything; they're
unavoidable in China. This could perhaps be the result of viewing
China through a Western lens, but it is for all intents and purposes
impossible to produce art today in China without any sort of political
When Song Tao and Ji Weiyu proclaim that they are in effect
distancing themselves from political issues to focus on life and
philosophy, they are making a political statement, just as Ai Weiwei
does with his "Fairtale" or "Dropping the Urn," albeit a less
pronounced one. When the government is actively taking steps to
suppress undesirable content, the absence of apparent political intent
can in fact imply a hidden political message. Additionally, many
artists prefer to turn away from politics and focus instead on
criticizing or lampooning the media or culture, yet both of these are
intrinsically tied to politics. Especially tied to contemporary
politics is the media, because as much as they've tried to establish
themselves as reliable news sources, they are still all state-owned.
Xu Zhen took on the media with 8848-1.86, a film presented in a
documentary style that shows the artist and several other men removing
the top few feet off of Mount Everest. During its premiere at the
2005 Yokohama International Triennale, attendees were further confused
by an actual report released at the same time announcing Mount Everest
to in reality being a little shorter than originally estimated. A
happy coincidence for Xu Zhen, perhaps, but the ensuing confusion
helped get across one of his points of how readily we accept the
information presented to us on a daily basis; a harsh critique on news
networks, and by extension, the government.
So if every piece of art produced in China today is tied to politics,
where does that leave freedom of expression? Is every artist forced
to comment on the government against his or her will? Well in a
sense, yes. Of course artists are free to let their art guide them
and tackle any subject they desire, but whether or not they're
focusing on politics, their art will still reflect the current working
atmosphere. They can directly tackle politics, like Ai Weiwei, they
can indirectly tackle politics, like Xu Zhen's 8848-1.86, or they can
avoid politics altogether and in doing so comment on either the
government's suppression of such works or lack of desire to
participate in the ongoing quarrel. Complicating the issue further is
the government's funding of certain spaces such as the Duolun MoMA,
indicating at least some party officials see a value in contemporary
art. How can a tourist traverse the art scene and know which artists
are speaking directly from the heart and which ones are
state-sponsored slogans? Fortunately, independent artistic spaces
such as M50 exist which provide galleries a space to both produce and
engage with the marketplace. Artists need a safe haven to take a step
back from their surroundings and reflect and contemplate. Much in the
same way one gains a greater understanding of the contemporary art
scene which each successive gallery visit. One needs contrasts to
draw distinctions, and it's fantastic the government allows spaces
such as M50 to not only exist, but thrive. However, here we have yet
another connection between art and politics in Shanghai. With the art
scene developing as rapidly as it is, the government would have a hard
time containing it, and instead allows it to flourish. Yet this
back-and-forth between artists and government forms the foundation for
the connection that is present in the art.
Ultimately, art is always tied to the times during which it is
produced, although some works are more evocative of a certain period
than others. This is especially evident in today's China, which is
currently undergoing one of the greatest transitions in recent human
history. In time, we may come to think of the Communist Party as
another dynasty following a lengthy tradition of Chinese tradition. A
dynasty that has produced its own art, its own culture. As Jiehong
Jiang puts it in the preface to Burden or Legacy: From the Chinese
Cultural Revolution to Contemporary Art, "The drama of Chinese history
is always reflected in the arts. During the social, ideological,
political and cultural conflicts of the twentieth century, Chinese art
changed more rapidly than in any other period" (vii). This period of
development and change continues on today. The legacy of the Cultural
Revolution, a massive political movement, lives on in just about every
aspect of modern Chinese life. School children are ingrained with the
beliefs of the party to the point where they reside as subconscious
memories once they are adults (8). Another leftover from the Cultural
Revolution era is the depiction of Chairman Mao, a staple in the
lexicon. Many contemporary artists reproduce the classic Mao portrait
with their own unique spin or style, others seek to deface the image.
Such works can be seen all over the art scene in Shanghai, and whether
these works are born of creative expression or satisfying the market,
they are reinforcing the link between politics and art.
As long as the Communist Party maintains a shred of its suppressive
tendencies, Chinese contemporary art will continue to constantly
reflect the political climate. When something as inherently about
message and context as art is so subject to the whim of a larger body,
it is inevitable that the two shall become intertwined both
consciously and subliminally. Whether an artist goes the way of Ai
Weiwei or Xu Zhen or Song Haidong or Birdhead is entirely up to them.
No one besides the government is expecting the art scene to do
anything other than collectively express themselves, however they see
fit. But for the time being, Chinese art cannot escape from politics,
much as it cannot escape from history. However, one day, there is the
hope that Chinese artists will be able to freely express themselves
without fear of arrests, early closures, or demolitions. When that
day arrives, Chinese art will no longer be rigidly tied to politics,
and will be free to grow without worry or constraint.
Gabbatt, Adam, and Tania Branigan. "Ai Weiwei's Shanghai Art Studio to
Be Demolished." The Guardian. 3 Nov. 2010. Web.
Gordon, Susie. "Moganshan Lu and Beyond – Shanghai's Art Scene Past
and Present." Expat Corner, 16 Jan. 2009. Web.
James Cohan Gallery. Xu Zhen: Just Did It. Xu Zhen - February 2 -
March 8 2008. 2 Feb. 2008. Web.
Ji Weiyu and Song Tao. "Interview with Birdhead (Song Tao and Ji
Weiyu)." Interview by Paul Gladston. ShanghART Gallery. 2008. Web.
Ji Weiyu, and Song Tao. "Welcome to the World of Birdhead 2011 - For
Passion." ShanghART Gallery. 14 Mar. 2011. Web.
Jiehong, Jiang. Burden or Legacy: From the Chinese Cultural Revolution
to Contemporary Art. Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 2007. Print.
Sheridan, Michael. "Ai Weiwei Held for 'obscene' Political Art." The
Australian. 11 Apr. 2011. Web.

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