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Mao Crazy

Cai Guo-Qiang: I want to Believe

Guggenheim Museum

The Revolution Continues: New Art from China


There are times when art should be the last thing on an art critic's mind. The thunderous popularity of a number of contemporary Chinese artists compels a political analysis. Much of the work is powered by a startling and completely delusionary infatuation with Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. This is more sinister than anything we have seen in the already fairly astonishing annals of radical chic. We are witnessing a globalized political whitewash job, with artists and assorted collectors, dealers, and sycophants pouring a thick layer of avant-garde double-talk over the infernal decade of suffering, destruction, and death that Mao unleashed on his country in 1966. And as we are also dealing with the house of mirrors that is the art world, I have no doubt that somebody is ready to explain that I am confusing appropriation with approbation or that fascism is just another way of spelling freedom. I must say, the theory people have a lot to answer for. But here is the bottom line: the global art world's burgeoning love affair with Mao and the Cultural Revolution makes a very neat fit with the current Chinese regime's efforts to sell itself as the authoritarian power that everybody can learn to love.

A few weeks ago it was reported that Christie's International, in the run-up to the Summer Olympics, was privately offering for sale in Hong Kong one of the largest of Andy Warhol's portraits of Chairman Mao, with an asking price of $120 million. It is only natural that Warhol would figure somewhere in this sordid scene. It was in 1972 that he began painting portraits of Mao. The date is significant. By then the American left's infatuation with Mao and his Little Red Book was cooling, as the realities of the Cultural Revolution began to sink in. And it was then that Nixon went to China, thereby inaugurating what would become a dramatic reversal in Mao's reputation among the American mainstream. So Warhol's Maos, although they riffed on the chairman's status for the more demented parts of the American left, were unleashed on the world precisely as Nixon, in the extraordinarily important opening to China, was also for all intents and purposes sanitizing Mao. Thus Warhol set the pattern for the new Chinese art, with its nauseating mix of romantic authoritarianism, ironic leftism, and capitalist realpolitik.

If you have any doubts, take a look at Zhang Hongtu's Long Live Chairman Mao Series #29, a Quaker Oats container on which Zhang has fiddled with a bit of acrylic paint, transforming the old Quaker gent into the chairman. It's an American-supermarket-meetsCultural-Revolution moment, suggesting that all marketing is equal, Andy's and Mao's. Zhang's Quaker Oats container is included in the collection of the Saatchi Gallery in London. I have studied the catalogue of this collection, The Revolution Continues: New Art from China, and I am pretty confident that it is the most hateful art book published in my lifetime. For the revolution that is continuing is none other than the Cultural Revolution. And if you were in danger of missing the point, the binding of the book, at least in the version published by Rizzoli in the United States, is emblazoned front and back with a photograph of hundreds of Red Guard members in Tiananmen Square in 1966, holding up their Little Red Books.

In the introduction to this extraordinary volume we are informed that contemporary Chinese art "can be understood as an extension of Mao's legacy of rebellion." I do not know anything about the person who wrote these words, one Jiang Jiehong, who is said to be the director of the Center for Chinese Visual Arts at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design. It does not matter. This is radical chic with blood on its hands. Let us not forget that, by the best estimates, at least half a million people perished amid the upheavals of the first three years of the Cultural Revolution.

And let us also not forget that this grotesque book appears under the auspices of Charles Saatchi, the wealthy art collector who, in an earlier incarnation as an advertising wizard, brought Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives to victory in England with the slogan "Labour Isn't Working." Well, in China the workers never stopped working. One almost doesn't know where to begin, but I am reminded of a recent remark by an architect named Mouzhan Majidi, who worked with Norman Foster on the construction of the new Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport. Majidi was glad to explain to The New York Times how much easier it is to build in China than in England, where there are so many rules and regulations and labor unions. "It evoked what it might have been like to build the pyramids," he commented. The pyramids? They were built by slaves.

Anyway, he might not have said this if he had been speaking a few weeks later, after shoddy construction led to the collapse of some seven thousand classrooms as a result of the earthquake in Sichuan province. But of course the standards used to build schools in a remote province cannot be anything like those used for Beijing's Terminal 3, a project designed to project a new hipper- than-thou authoritarianism, which will be further reinforced during the Olympics by the displays of work by the new Chinese artists.

While it might be an exaggeration to say that every Chinese artist who has gained an international reputation in recent years has a thing for Mao and the Cultural Revolution, the obsession is hard to avoid. Zhang Huan, the subject of a huge show at PaceWildenstein's two spaces in Chelsea, derives most of his photorealist paintings from photographs taken during what he calls "the time of Mao." And although Zhang explains that Mao's values are not his own, he characterizes Mao's viewpoint as "in essence ... idealistic--not mine but never the less idealistic." Getting comfortable with Mao is a frequent theme in contemporary Chinese art. In the Saatchi catalogue, photographs of China during the Cultural Revolution are juxtaposed with the work of contemporary artists, as if all images were equal, and all of them just images. In a sequence of two double-page spreads, the photograph of Tiananmen Square awash in red banners and Little Red Books that is on the book's cover is followed by a red-on-red room-sized installation by Cai Guo-Qiang, whose retrospective recently closed at the Guggenheim in New York. If this juxtaposition suggests that fascism is just another incarnation of formalism, what are we to make of the observation by Britta Erickson, a curator in the catalogue of a show mounted last year at Denmark's Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, that in the mid-1980s some Chinese artists, "reprising the Red Guards' antiauthoritarian stance to art, sought to bring down the institution of art itself through Dadaist strategies"? In what sense, pray tell, was the Red Guard anti-authoritarian?

Cai's fondness for the new Red Guard chic is nothing short of obscene. Here is part of what he has to say in the catalogue of the Guggenheim show, which is called "I Want to Believe": "To us, Mao Zedong is the most influential person in the latter half of the twentieth century. He is the idol, God-like. His artistic talent, calligraphy, poetry, military strategies, philosophy, essays, and revolution[ary] movements deeply influenced my generation, despite the fact that later on we all started to question his ideologies." Alexandra Munroe, who quotes this statement in her catalogue essay, goes on to explain that "the argument that certain of [Cai's] strategies--in addition to iconography--are derived from his idealized memory of Maoist revolutionary culture is both persuasive and illuminating.Mao's slogan 'No construction, no destruction' ... is central to Cai's practice, for example. Revolution, transformation, and idealism are born from radical elimination, and the foundation of new culture must lie in the demolition or reconfiguration of the past."

This man, who apparently associates artistic innovation with totalitarian atrocities, was more or less given the run of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. His work attracted large crowds. So it is important to recall that the Guggenheim was originally founded in large part to celebrate the art of Kandinsky, who during his life was displaced by not one but two totalitarian regimes, first the Russians, then the Germans. Kandinsky died in exile in France in 1944. Cai, who lives in New York City, will be the most prominent artist at the Beijing Olympics. His retrospective is going to be up at the National Art Museum, and he is collaborating with Fireworks by Grucci on a pyrotechnic display for the opening celebrations.

One of the works on display at the Guggenheim was Cai's Rent Collection Courtyard, 1965. This is a reconstruction of a piece of Maoist propaganda, a group of 114 life-size clay sculptures, bland naturalist figures, which are said to represent the misery of peasant life in prerevolutionary China. In the Guggenheim catalogue we are told that "for a decade, it was reproduced and erected in cities throughout China, where it was the most emotionally charged and ubiquitous political image after Mao's portrait." In 1999, Cai was invited by the director of the Venice Biennale to reconstruct Rent Collection Courtyard. Now, you might suppose that resurrecting Maoist propaganda at the Venice Biennale would be an act of ironic appropriation, rather like Du champ's idea of relocating a urinal in an art gallery. But it turns out that Cai was aiming to teach the West a lesson. By showcasing the deep feelings lodged in Maoist agitprop, he meant to improve us. Munroe dutifully explains that the point of "showing a socialist-realist work of such emotional power was to subvert contemporary Western notions of art by revealing its own stylistic constraints and fundamental lack of creative freedom." In other words, let's get over this decadent European infatuation with formalism and abstraction (although Cai himself has done lots of non-representational stuff and is best known for his use of gunpowder and gunpowder residues in performances and paintings).

"I do not know," Cai said, "whether it is the artists of the Cultural Revolution or us who hold the strongest attachment to art, but the people of that time believed in a new society and an ideal for mankind." Those are the staples of Stalinist double-talk. Perhaps you still remember them. The bourgeois West does not know the real value of art. Only communal art, proletarian art, the people's art, is real art. And so on. "Today we regularly hold biennales and the like," Cai asks, "but why do we do this?" It is a question he ought to have no trouble answering, as his career is based on his success in these venues. Perhaps it is his close study of the mass mentality of Maoist China that has enabled Cai to seduce the mass audience that visits today's tonier museums. These artists have pulled off a feat unprecedented in modern history: they have figured out a way to be communist fellow travelers and capitalist fellow travelers at the same time.

The Venice Biennale has played a significant role in the reception of the new Chinese art; think of it as Marco Polo in reverse. It was at the Biennale in 1995 that Zhang Xiaogang had his big breakthrough in the West, with Bloodline: The Big Family, No. 3. Works by Zhang, whose portraits of Maoist-era families sold for a total of $56.8 million at auction last year, are emblazoned on the covers of the Saatchi Gallery and the Louisiana Museum catalogues. The figures in Zhang's paintings, rendered in the airbrush-smooth technique of a magazine illustrator, stare straight out at the viewer. They have blank, mask- like faces, and wear the monochromatic clothes that were regulation garb in the 1960s. The most salient features of Zhang's androids are their eyes, which are huge and dark and opaque, each illumined by a dash of white paint. For anybody who is old enough to remember, Zhang's portraits immediately bring to mind the assorted waifs done by the San Francisco artist Margaret Keane in the 1960s, which were nicknamed "Sad Eyes" and "Big Eyes." Keane's paintings--promoted at the time as being by her husband, Walter--became a joke among the Bay Area intellectuals, although I do remember a few people with really advanced taste who said that Keane's work was so bad that it was good. Zhang's work is so bad that it sells for millions of dollars. His paintings are said to reflect the tensions of the Cultural Revolution, when children were known to turn their parents in to the authorities. In the Louisiana catalogue, this schlock is described as showing people "isolated in their own emotional universes" or shaped by, "mysterious, unknowable forces." The only mysterious force from which Zhang is isolated is the art of painting.

To anybody familiar with developments in art in the past quarter-century, the new Chinese stuff has a deja-vu-all-over-again quality. Zhan Wang makes scholar's rocks out of stainless steel, in much the way that Jeff Koons and Sherrie Levine recast objects in unexpected materials. The impact of Anselm Kiefer can be felt on many of these artists, not only on the deep perspectives in a painting by Zhang Xiaotao and on Zhang Huan's collages with carved and photographed elements, but also on the heterogeneity of a career like Cai's, which moved from performance art to painting. Zhang Dali's Chinese Offspring, life-size cast figures hanging from a ceiling, suggest Bruce Nauman's cast animals. Yu Hong's simpering painterly figuration relates to Elizabeth Peyton. There are shades of Marlene Dumas's nightmarish ambiguities in Yang Shaobin's work. Zhang Huan's black-and-white renderings of photographs (although done in ash, a medium he regards as quintessentially Chinese) are retreads of Gerhard Richter's black-and-white photo-realist compositions. And Shi Xinning is the Mark Tansey of Chinese art, doing renderings of historic moments in the lives of the Queen Mother or FDR, only with Mao popping up in a starring role. The multimedia, jack-of-all-trades look of the big shows we have seen in New York, whether by Cai or Zhang Huan, is indebted to a funhouse exhibition style that has been embraced by Matthew Barney and Paul McCarthy and other Americans.

That these Chinese artists, many of whom were born in the 1950s and 1960s, have turned for their models to Europe and the United States is perhaps inevitable, given that during the Cultural Revolution the art academies in China were closed, and only the most restricted forms of socialist realist expression were permitted. As far as earlier Chinese art is concerned, there was almost nothing to see, since Chiang Kai-shek hauled the finest classical work off to Taiwan and the mayhem of the Red Guard did away with a good deal of what remained. The power of totalitarian regimes to wipe out a visual arts culture generally exceeds their ability to obliterate a literary culture, and it is by no means clear that such traditions can be revived. Recall that in Russia at the start of the twentieth century the visual arts were flourishing as never before, with Kandinsky, Malevich, Chagall, and many others at the beginnings of extraordinary careers. Lenin and Stalin put an end to all that, and it has never come back. This is not to say that there is nothing of value going on in China today: I do not know all there is to know about art in China. What I do know is that the work that is being promoted around the world as the cutting edge of new Chinese art is overblown and meretricious.

So what is going on here? To answer this question, we need to go back to Warhol, who first made Mao a hot topic in contemporary Western art. What precisely Warhol had in mind when he painted the chairman is difficult to say, since Warhol was never anything but tongue-in-cheek. In the catalogue (there is a Mao portrait on the cover) of an enormous show of Warhol's late work, mounted by Larry Gagosian in 2006 and called "Cast a Cold Eye," Vincent Fremont, one of the inner circle at the Factory in the 1970s, recalls the beginnings of Andy's Maos. "The original idea," he explains, "was to paint a portrait of someone who was a global icon and major influence on people's lives. Andy chose Mao because in China alone a billion people gazed upon his face. Andy used the most common image of the Chairman, the frontispiece from the Little Red Book. The resulting Mao series was the most important group of paintings since Elvis, Marilyn, and Liz."

The way Fremont tells the story, Mao is Marilyn, only more so. The terms "icon" and "global icon" are nowadays tossed around with slapdash glee, so it is important to make a basic distinction. It was the moviegoing public that made Marilyn Monroe an icon, because they responded to her beauty, her charm, her wit. The people who hang posters of Marilyn on their walls do so because they like her. It's that simple. But the omnipresence of Mao's image has an altogether different origin. While Leftists in the United States in the late 1960s may have gladly chosen to hang Mao's portrait on their walls, among the billion Chinese who were sure to have his portrait in their homes and in their workplaces, it was understood that they would have endangered their own safety if they did not put his portrait where Mao wanted it to be. There is a world of difference between an icon freely chosen and an icon imposed from above, and the difference has more than a little to do with the difference between a liberal society and an authoritarian society. Warhol's way of blurring this distinction leads straight to the political pornography that characterizes so much of the new Chinese art.

The distinction was not lost on Warhol. According to one of the umpteen books on him that has appeared in recent years, Warhol "often stated that his goal was to obtain the patronage of a dictator, who would then mandate that Warhol's portrait be placed in every governmental office, school, and so on, ensuring the artist unlimited financial opportunities." Was Warhol kidding when he fantasized about being a dictator's court painter? To some degree, of course, he must have been. But then again the fascination of Warhol's work was based on a confusion or conflation of a number of different kinds of power, beginning with the power of celebrity and the power of advertising and the power of art. In the early 1970s he added to that incendiary but still somewhat benign mix another element: the power of communist propaganda. That was the point at which his work turned foul. Warhol's Maos--as well as the Hammer and Sickle still lifes from later in the 1970s and the Lenin portraits of the 1980s--bring his own mercenary spin to a Western love affair with the certitudes of absolutist politics that dates back to the 1920s and 1930s. That was when some members of the European and American intelligentsia decided that the bombastic images of healthy working men and women coming first out of Russia and then out of Nazi Germany offered a relief from the intricacies of modern art. After all, there is nothing less intricate than a painting by Andy Warhol.

The impact that totalitarian imagery can have on free people is an enduring problem. Susan Sontag's essay on the subject, "Fascinating Fascism," was published two years after Warhol began to paint Mao. She could just as well have been thinking of Warhol's Maos, and more generally of the leftist infatuation with the iconography of the Cultural Revolution, when she remarked that the sophisticated public was beginning "to look at Nazi art with knowing and sniggering detachment, as a form of Pop Art." Sontag, who never liked to get too far ahead of her audience, was aware that her readership had still not quite outlived its infatuation with the Maoist look. But she made an important point when she observed that there is a difference between appreciating the peculiar power of a certain kind of totalitarian imagery and going right ahead and succumbing to that power.

There is a conundrum here. And it is the subject of a brilliant little book by Saul Friedlander, Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, which appeared in 1982. "Attention," Friedlander wrote, "has gradually shifted from the reevocation of Nazism as such, from the horror and the pain--even if muted by time and transformed into subdued grief and endless meditation--to voluptuous anguish and ravishing images, images one would like to see going on forever.... In the midst of meditation rises a suspicion of complacency. Some kind of limit has been overstepped and uneasiness appears." There is a point, Friedlander is telling us, at which contemplation drifts into romanticization and even obfuscation. I think this rather neatly describes the allure of Zhang Xiaogang's paintings of families in the grip of the Cultural Revolution. Zhang has transformed the horror of their lives into greeting-card kitsch. He has reduced historic catastrophe to those big, black, cartoonish, deer-caught-in- the-headlights eyes.

By aestheticizing historic catastrophe, the art world's unholy synthesis of Maoism and kitsch enables people to blur their own memories. Perhaps this is why the work has such a mighty appeal among Asian collectors, some of whom are surely as intimately acquainted with the worst calamities of the Maoist years as many Jews are with the horrors of the Final Solution. At a time when fewer and fewer people want to confront the dark side of China's authoritarian version of Western-style capitalism, it probably comes as a relief to find artists who are drawing a curtain across the uglier aspects of a regime whose lineage goes straight back to Mao. If there is something new about the new Chinese art, it is the extent to which the old modernist fascination with irony and ambiguity has become a way of spreading disinformation about Mao and his legacy. In Wang Guangyi's Great Criticism: Coca-Cola series, Maoist youth share space with the logo for the world's most popular soft drink, and the result is a kind of apolitical political message art.

Contemporary art, especially of the neo-Maoist variety that I am describing, makes the Chinese government look rather alluring. It is no wonder that the list of art events timed to the Olympics is long. There is the Beijing International Art Biennale. There is an exhibition at the new Ullens Center for Contemporary Art that includes many of the best-known figures on the international scene. The PaceWildenstein Gallery is opening a space in Beijing in August. And on display at Beijing's Galerie Urs Meile until late August is a work by Li Zhangyang that brings together statues of Chairman Mao and Joseph Beuys, the dominant German avant-gardist of the post-World War II period. I have not seen this work, but it has been reported in the art press that "a seated Mao Zedong [is] beholding a future pointed out by Joseph Beuys, who crouches at his side with right hand raised in a gesture usually associated with the Chairman himself."

The central figure in this new age of disinformation may well be Yue Minjun. Yue paints figures that cartoonishly mimic what we are told is his own laughing face, and the only unambiguous thing about his best-known painting, Execution, is the price it fetched last year at Sotheby's: $5.9 million. Execution--with a composition very loosely based on Goya's The Third of May, 1808--represents a mock firing squad, with executioners who are not in fact holding guns and victims who are in their underpants, convulsed with laughter. Execution is almost invariably said to have something to do with the crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989. But Yue is evasive. "The viewer should not link this painting to Tiananmen," Yue explained in an interview with CNN. Then he hastened to add that "Tiananmen is the catalyst."

Huh? Whatever Yue may be, he is certainly a master of double-talk. And his paintings are a visual equivalent of double-talk. Who knows what Execution is about? The men standing before the mock firing squad are treated as such impersonal caricatures that I am left with the suspicion that Yue is victimizing the victims. Or perhaps not. Yue told CNN that in his work he aims to "express my confusion over what I see." Isn't what Yue describes as his "confusion" just an artsy way of saying that all is right with the world? When Execution was bought in Hong Kong in the late 1990s by a young stockbroker named Trevor Simon, the subject was so incendiary that the painting had to be hidden in a London warehouse so as to protect Yue, who lives in China. Now Yue's work is widely exhibited in his homeland. What a difference a decade of international trade can make. "He's no longer repressed by China," Simon explained. "And I'm no longer repressed by commercial ambition." Freedom, it turns out, is just another word for multimillion-dollar auction sales.

While the Chinese government may not have carefully calculated the extent to which contemporary Chinese art can give authoritarianism an international cachet, the effect is beyond doubt. In the work of Zhang Huan, Cai Guo-Qiang, Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, and Yue Minjun, some of the worst atrocities of the past fifty years are rehabilitated. Make no mistake about it: many among the current generation of Chinese artists are in the business of re-educating the public. By the time they are done with the Cultural Revolution, it will be just another art event, neither more nor less significant than a performance by Joseph Beuys or Matthew Barney. These artists are dishonoring not only art, but life as well. So, too, are the collectors and curators and critics who abet them. What we have here is the most expensive propaganda the world has ever known.

Jed Perl is The New Republic's art critic.

By Jed Perl