“We’re still inclined to extremes. We always have to obey somebody and assemble behind someone. That’s how we’re raised, and that’s true in all areas of life, including work, education and the economy. On the surface, it may look different, but the ideology is still the same.” Artist Wang Qingsong discusses contemporary Chinese society decades after the Cultural Revolution and how the long-term effects of the period have impacted the country. Wang’s work ‘Competition’ is currently exhibited at the Museum of Photography as part of the exhibition, ‘Working on History’. The exhibition contrasts the work of various contemporary Chinese artists, examining the consequences of the Cultural Revolution and how the effects of the revolution are still experienced today, 50 years later.
This particular subject area has rarely been tackled in the exhibition format, which is surprising considering that there is not one other event that has had such a defining influence on Chinese photography as the Cultural Revolution. The project was co-curated by Wang Huangsheng (Director of the Art Museum of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing), Guo Xiaoyan (Deputy Director of the Minsheng Art Museum, Beijing) and Ludger Derenthal (Director of the Collection of Photography of the Art Library- State Museums in Berlin) with the intention to provide its audience with a better insight into this chapter of Chinese history and how it visually translates in contemporary art today.
Art during the revolution was used as a means of expanding ideology, leaving us with the familiar propaganda imagery we recognise today: idealizing Mao and the army and aiming to provoke a sense of unity throughout China. In ‘Working on History’ this is communicated using different artistic approaches, from those that re-contextualise propaganda imagery, to works like Wang’s that allude to personal memories of the Cultural Revolution while critiquing the socio-political situation today. His work ‘Competition’ is reminiscent of the times when political propaganda posters littered cities. The staged photograph orchestrated by Wang depicts this scene, where the posters and their political agendas have now been replaced by commercial ones, which flood Chinese cities today. His work expresses concern for the recent economic growth that has overtaken the focus of the people and the government, stating that advertising is “like a rash growing out of control everywhere”.
In the exhibition, we encounter a different interpretation of the revolution through artist Cai Dong’s photographic sculpture works, ‘Shooting Practice’ and ‘Fountain’, which do not re-contextualise found imagery from the revolution but, rather, the artist’s personal belongings. Cai Dong started his photography career when he joined the People’s Liberation Army, capturing military portraiture. Proficient in visual theory, Dong’s works echo Duchamp’s, both visually and in the use of his title ‘Fountain’, referring to Duchamp’s readymade urinal. Both exhibited photographs feature readymade objects—a mirror and a tap—toying with the line of representation and meaning. Both works are neatly confined black and white photographs with a nostalgic air, at first easily mistaken for family portraits in the home, but often representing haunting content from the largely unexamined period.
In China’s developing societal identity the Cultural Revolution’s still largely uncontested history of mass violence reverberates in the country’s collective imagination. The ideological movement set to purge every bourgeois element across the country has produced ambiguous cultural relics that contemporary artists are curiously re-working and re-writing in their search for self-identification in contemporary China. The exhibition is a fruitful exchange as part of the 45th anniversary of the ‘German-Chinese Cultural Program’ and the shifting relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the People’s Republic of China.