Commentary Against Commercialization in Contemporary Chinese Art
Contemporary Chinese artists, from the 1980’s to present, have shown they are not afraid of addressing continuous issues with their art. Their subject matter responds to the Cultural Revolution, events in Tiananmen Square, and the influence of Western art. To learn more about the time period listen to our podcast episode, Exhibit Revisit - No U-Turn. Among these themes is also one of rising commercialization in modern China. Two artists who address this concern are Zhang Dali and Sui Jianguo. Each artist approaches this matter differently, but with the same commentary in mind.
Zhang Dali is China’s first graffiti artist. His guerrilla style artwork began in the late 1990’s after he returned from an extended stay in Italy. It was during this time that the Chinese capital, Beijing, was undergoing a radical change. Old Beijing was being demolished to create New Beijing and the places Zhang Dali remembered no longer existed. In response to this eradication of the old for new he began spray painting a distorted version of his profile on buildings, the series Dialog. Up until this point there had not been graffiti in China. Zhang Dali was influenced by the excess of graffiti he saw while abroad. He strategically chose buildings that were condemned for destruction as the canvas for his work. After choosing a site he painted a distorted version of his head in profile in an unbroken line of spray paint. During the period when the works were anonymous Zhang Dali choose to sign them with the moniker “AK-47.” This relates back to a famous saying of General Mao’s that “power comes from the barrel of a gun.” Because the buildings he chose were either about to be destroyed, or were already wrecked, he documented his temporal artwork through photographs. Zhang Dali does not document himself in the process of creation, only capturing the completed work of art.
The subject of the above photo is again Zhang Dali’s head in profile view, but this time it is carved away from the side of a building. The building is in the process of being destroyed; the wall stands but a huge hole has been torn out of it and the roof is missing. The foreground is littered with the rubble created from making the hole. Zhang Dali used this preexisting hole as the basis for his head and then preceded to carve away the shape of his profile. Traces of black spray paint can be detected around the edges where the artist traced the shape. Through the hole, the roof of another building can be seen, perhaps the next marked for demolition, and beyond that an ornate golden roof of another building. By marking these buildings before they are completely destroyed Zhang Dali is paying homage to the character of Old Beijing, and the people who lived there before they were completely wiped out in the pursuit of progress and a New Beijing.
Sui Jianguo also comments on the commercialization of China, but in a more permanent form of paint on fiberglass. In his series, Dinosaur – Made in China, Sui Jianguo created a thousand dinosaur sculptures, sixty in blue and nine hundred forty in red. Each dinosaur has “MADE IN CHINA” stamped down their chest. The choice of the color red for the Tyrannosaurus rex is deliberate, the color being a commentary on Communist power. The subject matter is also a play on the production of many items, like toys, made for exportation to other countries. The viewer is reminded of the artwork’s place of origin, and simultaneously of the many other items all marketed as ‘Made in China.’ While Zhang Dali’s work from Dialog is a photograph of the original artwork, Sui Jianguo creates these more permanent brightly colored sculptures. They simultaneously attract the viewers’ attention and invade their space. The subject matter is approachable, but the artists adds the text to remind the viewer of the implications behind its creation. The Tyrannosaurus Rex also symbolically becomes old China trying to rise into the contemporary age; during this time the country was struggling to find a place in the global market. Artists like Zhu Fadong and Wang Guangyi also play with influence of Western products, and the production and exportation of these same products for Western consumption.
Over the years Chinese contemporary artists have used art to confront their society and government. Zhang Dali and Sui Jianguo use this strategy to create two different interpretations on China’s commercialization. Zhang Dali uses spray paint and photography to protest and document the destruction of Old Beijing for modernization, while Sui Jianguo creates brightly colored symbols of China’s growing exportation economy. Both artists use subjects that are not overtly threatening to point out flaws within the cultural move to modernize. While both artists do not like the ways in which their country has commercialized, a paradox exists with the fact that they are both making profit from their artwork on the subject.