Challenging and Mediating: Art and Society in the People’s Republic of China

Title: 1042 | Challenging and Mediating: Art and Society in the People’s Republic of China
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: Art/Art History
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Yiqing Li, University of California, San Diego, United States (organizer, presenter)
Julia Andrews, Ohio State University, United States (chair, discussant)
Kuiyi Shen, University of California at San Diego, United States (discussant)
Yifan Li, Ohio State University, United States (presenter)
Zhiyan Yang, University of Chicago, United States (presenter)
Yanhua Zhou, University of Arizona, United States (presenter)


This panel proposes to present the changing ways that art engages and mediates the social transformations in the People’s Republic of China. While artistic creations and receptions are subjected to the drastic socio-political movements in Chinese communist society, both artists and art audiences have played an increasingly active role in formulating new art vocabulary, networks of exchange, and modes of practice in order to challenge the ossified official ideology and to address the menacing issues posed by urbanization and globalization.

With each presenter concentrating on one distinct medium – propaganda poster, oil painting, architecture, and socially engaged art, the panel together argues that the changing roles of art in society signifies an arduous search for the freedom of expression, which, in turn, affects the subjective experience of art through worshipping, viewing, living, and direct participation. Yifan Li, PhD candidate of Ohio State University, will open up the panel with the examination of the pictorial representation of Mao’s swims and its role of political propaganda in establishing the Mao’s cult in the early period of PRC. Yiqing Li, PhD candidate of University of California at San Diego, however, will present intellectual painters’ reaction against the art of political propaganda to facilitate the legitimacy of self-expression in the post-Cultural Revolution period. Yang Zhiyan, PhD candidate of University of Chicago, will discuss how contemporary architects borrowed from art practices as a means of understanding urbanization and reclaiming social responsibility. Zhou Yanhua, PhD candidate of University of Arizona, will end the panel presentation through analyzing socially engaged art in both rural and urban places in order to rethink critical models of art by considering the emerging practices and the new types of audiences in the post-Socialist period.

Panel Abstracts:
Water Control, Mao Cult, and Mass Sport: Picturing Mao Zedong’s Yangzi River Swims
This paper examines the pictorial representation of Mao Zedong’s Yangzi River swims with a focus on three swimming events from the 1950s to 1970s: Mao’s two swims in Wuhan respectively in 1956 and 1966 and the nationwide commemoration of the 1966 event in 1976. My contextualist reading will argue that swimming in the Yangzi River was not merely a physical exercise or leisure-time recreation; it was a strategically orchestrated and manipulated public spectacle and political statement to showcase Mao’s physical and mental strength as a qualified leader. It was also charged with multifaceted time-specific socio-economic and political significance in the history of early People’s Republic of China concerning issues of water control, Mao cult, and mass sport. Based on a close study of the formal properties of the multimedia pictorial materials depicting the swimming Mao, namely ink painting, oil painting, photography, and propaganda posters, and their interrelation maintained by reproduction, the paper will explore the pivotal role they played in popularizing and reinforcing these socio-political agendas. I consider the pictorial representation of Mao’s Yangzi River swims a unique, experimental case in the history of modern Chinese art and visual culture as it complicates the tradition of the Mao images by dealing with the conundrum of publicizing the extremely private dimension of the leader while monumentalizing and deifying him. The combination of careful visual analysis and historical contextualization will allow us to gain a more in-depth understanding of the understudied iconography and the social engagement of visual art in Maoist China.

Rejecting Subject Matters: Abstract Painting in the Post-Cultural Revolution’s China
The decade starting from the Reform and Opening policies in 1979 to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 was a pivotal moment of Chinese ideological and cultural transformations. The Union Soviet's aesthetic principle of Socialist Realism began to lose its dominant role in the realm of art, as China embraced diverse cultures of the world after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Against this backdrop, the paper investigates how abstract painting, a Western avant-garde art that had been denounced as corrupted art of bourgeois class, came to regain its position in society and to question the long-held tenet of art serving political propaganda. Through contextualizing the nationwide debate on abstract painting launched by reformist artists and intellectuals in the post-Cultural Revolution, this paper analyzes the difficulties of legitimizing abstract art in society, including its implications of capitalist ideology, and its visual and conceptual incomprehensibility to Chinese viewers. In facing these dilemmas, artists and intellectuals integrated abstract art forms with classic Chinese aesthetics of calligraphy, landscape painting, and folk art to break down the constructed dualism, namely East versus West, communism versus capitalism, and tradition versus modernity. This paper argues that artists' promotion and practice of abstract painting played a significant role in liberating artistic creations from the restrictions of political subject matter and in changing art viewers' conventional ways of viewing and understanding art. Furthermore, abstract painting positions China on the map of global abstract art, along with European Informel art, American Abstract Expressionism, Japanese Gutai paintings, Korean Monochrome, and Latin-American abstractions.

From “Concrete Architecture" to the "Other" "Experimental Architecture" - Li Juchuan and His Architect without Architecture
When Chinese architecture shifted its ideology-laden and dogmatic approach in the early decades of PRC era to become a more diversified field since the 1980s, the motivation of change mainly lies in the possibility of exploring new technological and theoretical models, reconnecting with the rest of the world, and, on a more conceptual level, reconsidering what defines as good architecture in the post-socialist era. “Architecture by the people and for the people” was almost an obfuscatory notion due to its association with both the planned economy and anachronistic ideology. While most contemporary architects were preoccupied with establishing their economic foothold and unique cultural identities against the context of marketization and globalization, some critical attention concentrated on trying to enact the built environment as a site to address social issues such as relentless urban renewal and widening social stratification. The desire of seeing architecture as a strategy of social critique and/or intervention, or a lack thereof, writ large around 2000 forms the central focus of this paper. One of the most outspoken interlocutors, Li Juchuan, re-introduced the fundamental question of why architects build and who they are supposed to build for. Deliberately relinquishing the practice of designing physical buildings, he instead employed writing, paper architecture, and artworks with strong social-awareness to reflect the meaning of “Experimental Architecture” and architects’ social responsibility. Consequently, this paper hopes to provide a necessary step to understand what sociopolitical and cultural circumstances enabled the architectural world to become more receptive and welcoming to socially conscious thinking.

Art for the New Masses: Social Engagement, and the Aesthetics of Identity in Post-socialist China
This project approaches socially engaged art in contemporary China by blending a critical awareness of a largely Western conception of social artistic practices with a consideration of the socialist legacy of “the masses” (qunzhong) as it has evolved in contemporary China. I name the new role of the masses “the new masses”. Compared to the masses in socialist China which refers to the collective body of the people, the new masses in post-socialist China signifies the individual body of the citizen. Through ethnographic studies on the participants in several participatory art projects, such as Picun New Worker Art Troup, Bishan Project, Yangdeng Art Cooperatives, and Shijiezi Art Museum, I capture the particular hybridity of these new roles and relationships with the phrase the new masses. These new masses have become participants in novel artistic and curatorial practices that understand them alternately as individuals, as well as members of a political collective; as consumers and producers simultaneously; as both the audience and the medium of new forms of artistic engagement. Accordingly, these forms of artistic engagement are tellingly hybridized, with roots in both the socialist legacy of the mass art, and the liberal progressive legacy of the avant-garde. I investigate how the changing historical, socio-political and cultural contexts of China affect these emerging practices that both protect cultural memory and facilitate new forms of consumption simultaneously. I argue that socially engaged art has become central to the negotiation of emerging categories of political identity in post-socialist China

This panel is on Thursday - Session 03 - Room 5

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