Sydney Morning Herald Column

Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture

Published October 13, 2012
Yu Youhan, ‘Untitled (Mao Marilyn)’, Oil on canvas, 2005. 150 x 149 cm

There is a simple explanation as to why Chinese contemporary art is so relentlessly satirical: 27 years of ideological rectitude, including that final decade of Mao-induced madness known as the Cultural Revolution. From the time the Communist Party took over in 1949 there was nothing much to laugh about. The workers paradise had been achieved, and the nation’s political leaders were all super heroes.
Cartoonists, satirists and polemicists had to fall in with Mao Zedong’s view that it was the role of art to serve the people. It was an idea that did not allow for shades of grey. For almost forty years Chinese artists produced little more than propaganda images of happy, smiling peasants, workers and soldiers. The dark side was provided by lurid caricatures of China’s enemies, chiefly the Americans.
The best place to see all this is the Propaganda Museum in Shanghai, a small, privately run gallery in the basement of an apartment block. The official museums would like to forget about the political kitsch of the recent past, which now feels like an embarrassment. This is one of the reasons that art in China today has taken on a more honorable role as the enemy of forgetting.
Chinese critic, Zhang Letian, touches on this issue in the catalogue for Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture – an exhibition shared between the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, and the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Paddington. To a new generation, says Zhang, the thirty humourless years since the founding of the Republic were synonymous with ‘absurdity’.
Today the Chinese are laughing at themselves and at everybody else. And why not? The world gets more absurd every day.
One of the chief absurdities is that liberal democracies are no less enamoured of the old-fashioned propaganda that Mao and his team found so attractive. The level of political debate in the United States is not much of an advance on Mao’s rhetoric, and Australia is taking the American route.
Of all our art institutions the National Portrait Gallery may be the best indicator of our local wellsprings of pride and insecurity. Its brief is to bring together images of notable Australians, but few of those notables seem to have been immortalised by a great painter, sculptor or photographer. In most cases the gallery has had to make do with the best available image. After a few years it’s getting increasingly hard to name notables who are yet to be represented.

Uli Sigg, the great Swiss collector of Chinese art, who has provided the works for Go Figure! believes that a national portrait gallery is an Anglo-Saxon concept. In Switzerland, portraits are integrated within the collections of the major art museums. Think about it for a second. Would you, as a tourist, make a special visit to the Swiss National Portrait Gallery?
Looked at from this angle one sees the difference between a culture that looks outwards and one that looks inwards. The Swiss might feel it is a vainglorious thing to have an entire museum devoted to famous citizens, especially if the portraits are not all first-rate works of art. In Australia such scruples have never entered our minds.
In this new, globalized world of the 21st century there is less and less scope for an island mentality. The Swiss have always known this, and Sigg has shown the breadth of his own outlook by agreeing to assign the bulk of his collection to the new M+ art museum in West Kowloon, as part donation, part sale. He has said many times it was always his intention that the work return to China and he is making good on his promise.
The Chinese themselves have embraced globalization voraciously. Their business interests extend all over the planet, and Chinese contemporary art is now a form of international currency, as proven by this week’s auction results from Sotheby’s Hong Kong.
It is, therefore, a neat piece of innovation for the NPG to step outside its conventional brief and host an exhibition of Chinese art. It is a double innovation to do so in partnership with a private foundation.
One requires a degree of imagination to see many of the items in Go Figure! as portraits. Almost every piece is making some general – often satirical – comment on the state of China or the world. The subjects portrayed tend to be ‘types’ rather than notable individuals.
The exception is Ai Weiwei’s life-like silicone figure of Uli Sigg reading a newspaper, that you might bump into as you enter the SCAF gallery. Out the back is a semi-melted portrait of Chairman Mao by Shen Shaomin. This is matched in Canberra by Wang Guangyi’s image of the Chairman imprisoned behind a bright red grid; and Yu Youhan’s amusing Untitled (Mao Marilyn), which morphs two famous Andy Warhol images into one.
One could argue that Mao, who died in 1976, is more of a symbol than an individual. It’s unlikely any face in history has been reproduced with greater frequency.
This leaves a large, green-grey picture of an anonymous young man by Li Dafang; a triptych by Yu Hong, showing three views of the same unnamed woman; and an unprepossessing group portrait of his art school colleagues in bathing trunks, by Liu Xiadong, who is obviously no flatterer.

Chen Wei is showing a photographic self-portrait in which his face is completely obscured by a burst of bright light. Some may recall Tim Storrier’s faceless self-portrait that was awarded this year’s Archibald Prize.
Claire Roberts, who made the selection from the Sigg Collection, has been happy to expand the definition of a portrait to the point of invisibility. In some ways portraiture is only a Trojan horse for the desire to shown a cross-section of iconic works from the collection and provide local audiences with an overview of the field. This includes pieces by big names such as Zhang Xiaogang and Fang Lijun, but probably the single most significant work is Geng Jianyi’s Second state (1987), a set of four paintings showing the artist’s own face laughing hysterically. This ensemble was Geng’s response to a teacher who told him his works lacked positive content, but it has become a powerful symbol of the absurdity and extremity of that period when China was testing the limits of Deng Xiaoping’s era of reforms.
Yue Minjun’s Founding Ceremony (1997) is a kind of non-portrait, in which the absence of figures speaks eloquently to the initiated. All we see is an empty balcony looking out over Tiananmen Square, but Chinese audiences would instantly recognise the reference to Dong Xiwen’s painting, Proclamation of the New Nation, which showed Mao and other party leaders announcing the birth of the Republic. The work was finished in 1953, only to be repainted several times over the years as various comrades fell out of favour and were airbrushed out of history. Yue has got rid of them all, even Mao himself, suggesting that history will keep its own accounts.

Just as penetrating are Wang Qingsong’s photographs called Past, present, future (2001). The first picture shows a bandaged veteran looking up at a procession of clay soldiers advancing to the left. In the second panel the viewer has a lapdog and a baseball cap, and the silver-garbed workers are advancing to the right. In the final scene everyone is united on circular pedestal, gleaming of pure gold.
If there is one guaranteed crowd-pleaser in this exhibition, it is Old Peoples Home by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, at the SCAF Gallery. This installation consists of life sized silicone figures of thirteen old men in automated wheelchairs that trawl round and round the central gallery, like blind machines bumping into each other.
These aged, decrepit mannequins are dressed in suits and uniforms. They are politicians, still clinging to their pomp and dignity at death’s door. One can hardly avoid thinking of the old men of the Central Committee who ruled China for so many years, although the artists have been careful to draw their subjects from many different places. It is not a group portrait of world leaders, but a snapshot of power in decline.

Whereas most sculptures of powerful men represent them in their prime, Old Peoples Home is an anti-monument that emphasizes their frailties and their grotesque, threadbare vanity. It does not celebrate the legacies of self-styled heroes, but their impending mortality. The message is clear enough: the age of heroes is over. Send in the clowns.
Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture: National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, September 13-February 17, 2009
and at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, September 15-November 1, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 13, 2012