Where Next for Mao? Shi Xinning’s Director's Notes on Chinese History ( de | cn )

Galerie Arndt & Partner, Berlin-Zürich, 2007-09-4 - 2007-09-20

Among the genres of contemporary Chinese art, none is more deeply ingrained in the visual memory of the West than that of Mao Pop. The way to this state of affairs was paved by adaptations of Mao portraits by Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter.

As early as the first officially sanctioned exhibition of contemporary Chinese art in China’s National Art Gallery in Beijing (China/Avant-Garde, February 1989), Wang Guangyi’s portrait of Mao Tse-tung – overlaid with a grid of red paint – proved controversial. Then came artists such as Xue Song, who reduced Mao to a mere contoured outline, and Yu Youhan, who depoliticizes propaganda images by embellishing them with folksy fl oral motifs.

The Beijing-based painter Shi Xinning explicitly distances himself from this tradition. The son of an officer in the People’s Liberation Army, he was born in 1969 in the northeastern province of Liaoning. In a series of oil or acrolein paintings on canvas that he has been working on since 2000, an idealized energetic Mao is seen in the company of Hollywood stars, artists and political figures. But these works do not present retrogressive arguments. Instead they tell fictitious or, as he calls them, “utopian” stories. Shi Xinning compares his work as an artist with that of a film director. He often uses newspaper images as the basis for his paintings. In keeping with the visual qualities of these media images, he employs barely visible brushwork and a washed out, muted palate. Shi Xinning then develops his narratives, substituting objects or people in the original with his own selections, adding elements that were not there in the original, and adjusts the lighting of the scenes.

“I almost always work with a staging of completely incompatible props and scenery. For example, Mao views a Duchamp exhibition in China – something that never took place. Or I place a curved steel sculpture by Richard Serra in Tiananmen Square – facing Mao’s famous portrait at the entrance to the Forbidden City. Or I arrange a meeting between a Mao statue and New York’s Statue of Liberty. […] I am not interested in Mao Tse-tung as a real person. Today, Mao is still an icon in China. He is omnipresent; he defined my childhood and the lives of my parents. I never show him in the real context of the 60s or 70s. I present him as a visual memory.” (1)

The Spectator Makes the Art

At the outset of the 20th century the expressive anti-war woodcuts of Käthe Kollwitz – among others – caught the attention of artists in China. Their influence on Chinese practice quickly became evident. Later, as the country opened up towards the end of the 1970s, Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys were frequently cited as an important source of inspiration by Chinese artists. This is understandable. They were both considered – in China and also in the West – to be expanding the terrain of art. After decades of radical censorship, China’s intellectuals – of whom artists were a subset – now wanted to contribute to the shaping of their country. With its call for a creative social and political role for art, Beuys’ concept of “Soziale Plastik” [social sculpture] was taken up in earnest. With his introduction of the readymade and by elevating the spectator to the position of the actual producer of the work of art, Duchamp revolutionized the accepted notion of art. His ideas were also taken up in China, albeit with the standard delay caused by geopolitics: “and that is why I say that the creative act is solely performed by those who view or read the work of art, and it is through their approval or rejection that the work will or will not endure.” (2) (Marcel Duchamp, 1956)

One of the artist’s first images featuring Mao as the protagonist is Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition in China (2000). The implied irony of this scene operates at a number of different levels. It is well known that in Mao’s day the only art that was allowed was instrumentalized for the purposes of propaganda. One of the foundations of his politics was the protection of the country from outside influences. As a basis for this image, Shi Xinning selected a photo of Mao visiting a trade fair in the company of four party officials. The artist substi­tutes the mass-produced object that Mao had originally inspected with Fountain – Marcel Duchamp’s legend­ary 1917 urinal. We see Mao fascinated – and untroubled – by one of the most important icons of Western art. Adorno’s notion of ‘extorted reconciliation’ lies at the heart of this constellation. It is hard to imagine a more blatant appropriation of Mao for an art form he would have condemned as ideologically offensive.

“First, Shi Xinning’s painting is a response to Mao Tse-tung’s claim that a work of art was obliged to serve society. While this can be declared of a urinal with some confidence, it does not apply to Duchamp’s notion of an object without a use value, destined to be understood only within the context of art. Second, the painting presents an inversion of the concept of the readymade: a mass produced industrial object that has been de­clared as art is returned to its original context – the world of useful, everyday objects. Finally, the readymade – developed by Duchamp as a snub to the traditional medium of painting – now finds itself depicted in oil on canvas by a Chinese artist.” (3)

In conversation, Shi Xinning underlines his guiding artistic intention: a focus on visual narratives. He rejects the notion that his images might be read as collages. Despite the displaced elements of his visual sequences, it is the inner logic of the scene as a whole that is important to him. “I would like to tell an absurd story. But it is important to me that a coherent meaning is apparent when interpreting the image. For the Chinese spec­tator this is of course often something other than that which a Western viewer would pick up on.” If you put yourself in the shoes of a Chinese artist, it becomes apparent that what appears to be an absurd and amusing substitution in Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition in China is in fact a depiction of a debilitating experience. With a totalitarian iron fist, Mao prevented the Chinese people from sharing in developments that occurred outside of the Middle Kingdom. Yet it is clear that an interest for this sort of cultural dialog is enormous: after Mao’s death, contemporary art from China has sought and found its place in the international art world with a speed that is breathtaking.

East West Relationships

Duchamp’s notion of the readymade was and continues to be read in China at a slight remove from his original definition. A clear and recent example of this can be seen in Beijing-based artist, curator and architect Ai Weiwei’s project for this year’s documenta, in which the 1,001 Chinese citizens that the artist invited to Kassel were described as a “socio-political readymade”. It seems that it is no longer significant that Duchamp specifically formulated his defi nition of the readymade to be applied to the conference of the status of art – of the possibility to be accepted as an aesthetic object – onto an industrially produced and functional object. The Chinese adaptation of Duchamp’s notion instead places a strong emphasis on its aspects of decontextualisation, the appearance of something in a foreign or alien environment, and the defining role of the spectator for the work of art. In this respect, Shi Xinning’s work with media images – the ways and means by which he manipulates them – is also in accordance with the criteria of the readymade.

Duchamp’s notion of the readymade was and continues to be read in China at a slight remove from his original definition. A clear and recent example of this can be seen in Beijing-based artist, curator and architect Ai Weiwei’s project for this year’s documenta, in which the 1,001 Chinese citizens that the artist invited to Kassel were described as a “socio-political readymade”. It seems that it is no longer significant that Duchamp specifically formulated his defi nition of the readymade to be applied to the conference of the status of art – of the possibility to be accepted as an aesthetic object – onto an industrially produced and functional object. The Chinese adaptation of Duchamp’s notion instead places a strong emphasis on its aspects of decontextualisation, the appearance of something in a foreign or alien environment, and the defining role of the spectator for the work of art. In this respect, Shi Xinning’s work with media images – the ways and means by which he manipulates them – is also in accordance with the criteria of the readymade. (4). Shi Xinning’s contextualization of Arc in one of the most heavily guarded squares of China is a renewal of the demands of the demonstrators on 4 June 1989 – a call for more individual freedom.

Between Eras

History is either a three- to five-thousand-year continuum that can enable individuals to define their place in the present, or something that can be willfully revised to produce formulas that summarize the deeds of Mao as: “70% good, 30% bad” (Deng Xiaoping). Both positions coexist peacefully in China. As the critical study of history has not really been established there, a further role for contemporary art in China is that of a mediator between these two extremes. In contrast to the scientific disciplines, literature, film, theater and art have the advantage of not having to accept sharply delineated categories. On the contrary, the blurring of boundaries between these forms of expression is precisely what gives them their tension and ambivalence. It is possible for work to evidence positions that remain internally in conflict, perhaps even contradicting the rational order of the world around them.

Images by artists such as Shi Xinning scrutinize the pride and reverence with which many people in China still regard Chairman Mao today – despite all the misery that the Cultural Revolution brought to the Chinese people, not to mention Mao’s hostility towards intellectuals and the arts. Such heroism focuses on the Long March, the establishment of a new national order, the valorization of the rural poor, and the tireless forging of a collective Chinese spirit. Mao’s mistakes are eclipsed by his achievements. They are “the errors of a great proletarian leader,” according to a 1981 Central Committee resolution “on some questions concerning the history of our party.” (5)

“My father was an officer, my mother a civil servant. Our family followed my father when the army moved him to the province of Xinjiang on China’s western border. We lived in an isolated, self-contained military camp. The thing I remember most clearly from that time was September 1976, when Mao died. A loudspeaker announced the news and everybody was called upon to contribute to the preparations for the funeral. My father was drafted for a week. We thought the Soviet Union was going to invade. Military exercises began. Family members of the military were also involved in these preparations.”

Shi Xinning’s relationship to Mao is ambivalent – a fact he is acutely aware of. His images represent this tension in the form of paradoxes: Mao meets the Beatles, admires Christo’s wrapped Reichstag, and – in a gesture that is hard to top – attends a nude performance by contemporary Chinese artists. If Shi Xinning’s art is utopian, this is not because it illustrates a desire for the reconciliation of antagonistic value systems. On the contrary, the artist’s ideals are acted out on a purely aesthetic level in nonexistent moments of history.


1 This and all other quotes by Shi Xinning are taken from an interview given on 20 July 2007 in Beijing. Many thanks to Su Wei for his translation!

2 Dieter Daniels, Duchamp und die anderen. Der Modellfall einer künstlerischen Wirkungsgeschichte in der Moderne, DuMont, Cologne 1992, p. 2.

3 Bernhard Fibicher, Shi Xinning, in: Mahjong. Chinesische Gegenwartskunst aus der Sammlung Sigg, Ausst.-Kat., Kunsthalle Bern 2005; Hamburger Kunsthalle 2006, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern-Ruit 2005, S. 274.

4 Kunibert Bering (Hg.), Richard Serra. Skulptur, Zeichnung, Film, Reimer, Berlin 1998, S. 120.

5 Konrad Seitz: China. Eine Weltmacht kehrt zurück. Updated and revised version. Berlin 2004, p. 216.

Translation: English Express, Berlin

Galerie Arndt & Partner, Berlin-Zürich