Confucius and Mao at the Mall
On a typically muggy day in Chongqing, a heartland metropolis that has grown so fast it awes even the Chinese, I spent a morning in a sculpture studio set high on a bluff above the Yangtze River. On the grounds of the studio complex — a decommissioned state-owned cup-and-bowl plant still named the Chongqing Industrial Enamel Factory — artist Zhang Xiang showed me his latest creation-in-progress, a clay mock-up of a frieze propped against the factory wall. The frieze and its accompanying sculpture presented the Song dynasty general An Bing as an avatar of benevolent authority: the towering commander, with neatly-trimmed mustache, flowing beard, and dramatic cape, is portrayed handing out grain to the region’s children and elderly, who line up to thank him. The sculptor, a youthful 35, dressed in hip gray sneakers with a matching gray backpack, told me that he was particularly proud of this work, because it had afforded him a degree of autonomy rare in government commissions.
The People’s Republic of China has always sponsored public art. But a new kind of work is proliferating amidst the greatest city-building binge in human history.
State-sponsored public art has long been woven into the urban fabric of the People’s Republic of China, but such works have proliferated in recent decades as the country has embarked on the greatest city-building binge in human history. For residents of cities like Chongqing and Shanghai, propagandistic political imagery like that in Zhang Xiang’s An Bing series has become as ubiquitous as capitalist advertisements — in fact, the two often alternate in the ads that flash across flat-screen TVs in every subway car and city bus. One minute a smiling animated sheep is beckoning viewers to dine at a local hotpot chain; the next, a computer-graphics montage shows shiny molten metal pouring into a mold and emerging as a mighty hammer and sickle that rises triumphantly over the city. At first glance, the figure on the billboard looks like a happy little boy rendered in trendy kawaii style. Look again, and he is revealed to be rosy-cheeked Lei Feng, the model soldier of Maoist propaganda, wearing his trademark winter hat with ear-flaps and toting an automatic weapon.
Mao regarded his revolution as an historic rupture. But the Party now presents its regime as a restoration, returning China to its traditional place as the world’s largest economy and most powerful state. In the last fifteen years or so, official edicts have elevated numerous philosophers and statesmen from the ages of the emperors — including Confucius and An Bing — to secular sainthood, part of a growing pre-Communist pantheon that emphasizes parallels between the wealthy and powerful Middle Kingdom that endured for millennia before Western imperialism, and the nation eclipsing the West today. The government has an ambitious ideological agenda to push and full coffers from the state-capitalist boom. For China’s artists, there’s never been more money to be made in Communist art.
For China’s artists, there’s never been more money to be made in Communist and traditionalist art.
Zhang Xiang is a prolific sculptor of Mao Zedongs and Deng Xiaopings, and makes nonfigurative assemblages and installations as well (such as his recent massive ball of recycled clothing tied together with ropes). For him, the pleasure of the project he showed me lay in the convenient fact that no period portraits of An Bing exist, leaving room for wide creative license. (The only information about the general’s physical appearance comes from a medieval poem that, predictably, describes him as tall and handsome.) By contrast, official images of Mao and Deng are hemmed in by long lists of regulations. On canvas, paramount leaders always appear bathed in light, like Catholic saints in European art; Mao is never portrayed in any medium, including the lithographic portraits reproduced on every denomination of Chinese paper currency, without his trademark chin mole.
As always, authorities are on the lookout for ‘hard mistakes.’
Governmental authorities order art the way they order any other commodity — with a procurement contract. The bidding process is often opaque. For Zhang Xiang, this particular commission came via Zhang Lang (no relation), a forty-year-old colleague in the sculpture department of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Though Zhang Lang is still an active artist, these days he has also become a businessman on a fairly large scale. Zhang Xiang is essentially a subcontractor; it is Zhang Lang who won the contract, covers rent on the studio, and pays the artist’s fee. Chain-smoking as we sipped tea in front of his own recent work — a white gypsum sculpture of a maternal-looking People’s Liberation Army doctor healing a Tibetan child — the wiry Zhang Lang bragged about the origins of the Guang’an piece. It had initially been slated to be put on out for multiple bids, but he’d scored an inside deal. When I inquired about his connections with city officials, he demurred, sharing only that he’d presented a good preliminary sketch and quoted a good price. Contract in hand, Zhang Lang tapped Zhang Xiang and gave him the work-space and specs — the size of the wall to receive the bas-reliefs and the dimensions of the city square where General An Bing would preside.
Like much of the Chinese economy in recent decades, the enamel-cup-and-bowl factory had been “privatized,” meaning that real-estate investors have been granted multi-decade land-use leases. But despite the massive scale of these privatizations, the industrial building in Chongqing — and indeed all land in China — remains officially owned by the state. When fields on the outskirts of cities are rezoned for housing, offices, and shopping centers, leases bestow development rights only, not ownership. If push ever came to shove in court, even the land-use rights would be unenforceable.
Between 2011 and 2013, China poured more concrete than the U.S. poured in the 20th century.
China’s state-backed real-estate boom and concomitant public-art boom have attained a magnitude that is difficult to fathom: Consider that between 2011 and 2013, mainland China poured more concrete than the U.S. poured in the entire 20th century. 2 And even such stunning factoids fail to capture what it’s like on the ground, firsthand. Local and regional governments are spending lavishly to establish a new kind of public space in China, marked by a disorienting hybridization of Communist, nationalist, and capitalist symbols and functions that is, by turns, futuristic and nostalgic. Even the most pedestrian-hostile, neo-Corbusian developments include some officially-zoned walkable area, typically a shopping plaza, and here developers pay de facto in-kind kickbacks to officials in the form of sycophantic public monuments. Public spaces like parks are dotted with nationalistic art sponsored by flush municipal bureaus. The aim is to unify an ever-wealthier yet increasingly unequal society, as well as to exert the soft power of unelected authorities both Communist and capitalist.
Wandering China’s sprawling new cityscapes, today’s flâneur observes an incongruous procession of innocuous “peace trees” and brand-new military monuments that appear to have been shipped in via time-machine from 1970s East Berlin. This is not what the phrase “Chinese art boom” generally conjures beyond the borders of the People’s Republic; international audiences typically think of the contemporary projects that have filled Western galleries, headlined the biennial circuit, and set records at premier auction houses. Such works are made by independent artists (those operating “outside the system,” as the Chinese put it), most famously the dissident Ai Weiwei. But in terms of sheer output, artists working “inside the system,” taking on public commissions and holding professorships at state-run academies, dwarf the internationally-celebrated practitioners. Focusing on China’s art-world superstars would be like a foreign correspondent in the U.S. reporting on American culture through art-house cinemas while ignoring Hollywood blockbusters, or covering American cuisine without mentioning McDonald’s. “Outside the system” art may be more innovative, but it is “inside the system” works that reach hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens. These works are interesting because they are so uninteresting and yet so ubiquitous. This is the art that Chinese urbanites see, whether they want to or not.