Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 8, 1999
John T. Young Contemporary Public Art in China: A Photographic Tour Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999. 136 pp.; 85 color ills. Paper $24.95 (0295977086)

This book is a collection of photographs of public art with associated notes from comments by the sculptors and others, together with the author’s observations on a journey made in 1995. The photographs, whilst usually good, are by no means as complete records as the text intends, for example there being major details missing from the Monument to the Heroes of the People, 1959, and major works omitted, such as The Rent Collection Courtyard, 1965, even if these may not in 1995 have been open to the author. Nor does the author notice that some artists are from Taiwan, such as Yang Yingfeng. Public art is taken rather unproblematically to mean sculpture commissioned by public bodies and located in public places. There is no definition of whether what “public” might specifically mean in the Chinese context is different from elsewhere, either as a definition of an institutional function or as the qualitative attribute of a site.

The works and accompanying details are grouped by geographical location, with some descriptions of the site and occasionally indications of size. There is a map of China showing where sites are, but no detailed map of particular cities, such as Beijing, even though roughly a quarter of the works cited are located there. There is no separate chronological, stylistic, art historical or institutional classification provided for the works, so despite the author’s occasional useful insights in these domains, this text remains more-or-less a personal tour guide.

The book will have some value as a partial record of these works, and of the author’s peregrinations around them—albeit ones heavily determined by the author’s particular Chinese social contacts and not apparently by any direct access to the Chinese language or even reading of available literature in English. With its heavy dependence on official or quasi-official statements it will also retain usefulness as an informal and largely uncontextualized record of these positions for the period of the author’s visit.

Actually the sources the author has depended upon for his non-visual material are intrinsically compromised, since they all largely benefit from the production of the public art – however defined – he has introduced. Moreover, despite the use of commas to indicate statements which are presumably quoted from translations of interview transcripts, the citational base for these occasionally disappears and what are surely not disinterested propaganda statements appear as authored text [p. 23]. This is no mere textual quibble. In China the Artists’ Association is the only recognized legal organization of artists under the Leninist principle of democratic centralism and supposedly spontaneous organizations of the masses. It is in all but name not only the official art organization through party membership of its higher echelons and regular contacts with the Ministry of Culture and the Party’s Propaganda Department, but with the exception of the Printmakers’ Association – the only legal art organization. Thus what is “public” art is almost entirely under direct state control through the funding committees the author discusses whose personnel are almost all members of the Artists’ Association. The author’s stance is to treat these institutional arrangements as enabling bodies, and not as control structures. Beyond this, the author has not followed through the way in which the opening of the economy has produced a raft of economic entrepreneurs, many involved in speculative land deals or construction, who require theme sculptures for their buildings and environments whose selection is due to the taste and inclinations of the entrepreneur and not directly the state. Although in practice much art patronized by this group is executed with advice from officially recognized artists or bodies nevertheless there remains scope for choices in non-official directions which are sometimes exercised.

The author occasionally shows interest in avant garde practice, and mentions the exclusion of installation work from official gallery spaces. In passing up the opportunity to fully discuss this, I notice a carelessness in the author’s research since the artist he refers to as being in exile, Tang Song, and difficult of contact in Beijing for his assistant in presumably 1995, was actually living in Sydney and being publicly exhibited in 1993. The author’s minor references to the pressures under which such artists operate in China does not thereby understand the negative importance of “experimental art” [Gao Minglu, 1998; Wu Hong, 1999] in countering the conservative stylistic and restrictive moralistic narratives of official art, nor its potential function in creating new publics for sculpture. Indeed, if installation were to be officially approved, this would result in the creation of new participant relations between the public and the work. The experience of these is now only possible at very limited viewings of experimental art for a coterie of “insider” publics in China, and for foreign viewers when, as is usually the case, they only receive broader “public” exhibition in art galleries abroad.

Indeed the naively “descriptive/affirmative” mode of the author’s approach is its most problematic aspect. Not only is he forced to privilege quasi-official statements as if they were final interpretations, he also is loath the make any obvious judgements about many works whose style can only be described as “pseudo-socialist kitsch.” If the subjects shown in “public” sculpture are so predictable and regularized, subjects whose types of canonization the author shows little interest in analyzing and whose varying modes of allegory receive no attention, so the manners in which these subjects are mostly represented in an official bad taste is ignored.

When the Monument to the Heroes of the People was thrown up between between 1955 and 1959, no record was made of the individual contributions by the participating artists. This can be problematic for later understanding which has constructed it around the work of Liu Kaiqu. Some of its most notable panels were actually by one of the merely listed collaborators, Fu Tianchou, who was not Soviet-influenced, was not at Yan?an but at Chongqing during the anti-Japanese war, and was not a communist. Fu based his work, among other sources, on the Song dynasty Buddhist low-reliefs at Dazu in Sichuan Province and on life sketches of People’s Liberation Army soldiers. The artists’ self-perception of their individual historical roles in such massive projects has recently changed. The current largest public sculpture project with a budget of about US $5,000,000 for Beijing city council is for sculptures to be completed by mid-2000 at the park near Marco Polo Bridge will commemorate the sacrifices of Chinese people during the Eight Year War of Resistance Against Japan. But now every stage of conception and execution, from early designs to final maquettes approved by the Beijing authorities is being meticulously documented by the project leader, Sui Jianguo. The sculptures which were already half completed by May 1999 will utimately be composed of thirty-eight cast-bronze pillars, about four meters square at the base by four meters high. When these works are finished and then compared with the relevant published materials, we will hopefully be more able to assess exactly what is “public” about such sculptures in China.

References: Julia F.Andrews, Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1979, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994. John Clark, unpublished personal recollection of conversation with Fu Tianchou in Beijing, August 1981. Gao Minglu, Inside Art: New Chinese Art, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998. Ellen Johnston Laing, The Winking Owl: Art in the People’s Republic of China, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1988 Nicholas Jose. Ed., Mao Goes Pop: China Post-1989, Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art, 1993. Wu Hong, Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century, Chicago, The David and Alfred Smart Museum of the University of Chicago, 1999

John Clark
Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney

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