Asia Society interview with Melissa Chiu, Museum Director and exhibition co-curator
Asia Society: Why is Asia Society Museum presenting this exhibition?
Melissa Chiu: This project—more than five years in the making—is the first-ever exhibition dedicated to presenting revolutionary art in China. As Museum Director and also as a specialist in contemporary Chinese art, I feel strongly that contemporary art, visual culture, and more broadly society as a whole in China cannot be contextualized properly without examining the significant role and influence—both positive and negative—of the period that Mao was in power.
AS: What is meant by the title Art and China’s Revolution?
MC: The word “revolution” is used broadly to signify the profound shift in aesthetic values that occurred in China after the Communist Party took power in 1949. We are looking at a complicated and tumultuous period of time: the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, that includes the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) and the continuing influence of revolutionary art on Chinese artists today. The exhibition addresses the contradictions and the great tragedy of these years.
AS: What is the artistic significance of this period?
MC: The exhibition is full of the stories and fascinating personal experiences of individual artists. Though we see many accounts of struggle and oppression portrayed in the works, we also see moments of artistic integrity. In many cases, we see how artists, even in severely controlled circumstances working in service to the state, were able to incorporate their own ideals into their work and sometimes to question or rebel against the state through their own artistic vision. One example of this process is Liu Chunhua’s painting, Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan.
AS: How is the history addressed?
MC: The exhibition is organized into thematic sections and importantly, includes archival materials such as personal objects and household items from the period, artist sketchbooks, and more. In conjunction with the exhibition, Asia Society and Yale University Press have copublished a major, full-color 260-page book, which includes first-hand accounts by several artists whose work is included in the exhibition, and historical and cultural essays on the period. We have drawn from historical writings published in China and abroad for the first hand account of the period and also include primary source materials in the form of excerpts from speeches and publications by Mao, and Jiang Qing, his wife. An extensive timeline is included in the book and presented in an abridged form in the exhibition. The inclusion of historical photographs and other materials provide context and illustrate the great variations in experience of artists during this time. By adding this element to the exhibition, the Society seeks to provide a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the period. Lastly, we have organized extensive public programming around the exhibition (for details, click here).
AS: What was the experience of individual artists during this era?
MC: The exhibition features works by more than 50 artists and highlights their varied individual experiences. Several of today’s leading contemporary artists, such as Xu Bing, Chen Danqing, and Zhang Hongtu, attribute many of their artistic influences to their years spent in the countryside as part of their “reeducation.” Also considered is the role of then senior artists, such as exhibition cocurator Zheng Shengtian, who was imprisoned for outspoken opposition to Red Guard violence. He embodies the hope and ideals, as well as the challenges and hardship that faced artists during this period. Other senior artists, sometimes referred to as “black artists” for their heavy use of ink in their paintings, include Pan Tianshou, Li Keran and Shi Lu.
AS: What are some of the most significant works in the exhibition?
MC: Few of the works in the exhibition have ever been seen in the United States and many of the drawings have never been exhibited at all. Some of the most important works from the Cultural Revolution, the model oil paintings, which were reproduced tens of millions of times as posters, are included such as Shen Jiawei’s Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland, Chen Yanning’s Chairman Mao Inspects the Guangdong Countryside, and Liu Chunhua’s Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan.
AS: Are the works in the show presented as propaganda or as art? Where is the line between propaganda and art?
MC: The distinction between art and propaganda in China was essentially dissolved in 1949. In some ways it may be said that especially during the idealistic 1950s, there was a shared spirit among artists and intellectuals to live in service to the people, with many willingly subscribing to an ideal of politically engaged art. Of course, during the Cultural Revolution, individual creativity and works addressing subjects other than revolutionary ideals were actively stifled and even punished. Some of the works may be seen as purely propagandist, others may be looked at as serving both aesthetic and political purposes. We have not attempted to present artworks strictly as art or strictly as propaganda; instead, we seek to explore the tension between the two.
AS:What has been the reaction of the Chinese government to this exhibition?
As has been reported in The New York Times, The Art Newspaper, and other journals, the government of China decided to deny permission for us to borrow works for the exhibition. One unofficial reason was the sensitivity of this history, although no official reason was given. In order to provide a full representation of this period, the Asia Society was able to secure other loans—from private collections and artists—that are of major historical significance and illustrate the sophistication of artistic production in the 1960s and 1970s. We also have sculptures of the famed Rent Collection Courtyard, which are on loan from a Chinese municipal government museum.
AS: You mentioned drawing a connection between art of this era and artists working today—how is this addressed in the exhibition?
MC: In addition to presenting works and reflections by several leading contemporary artists who lived during this period, we have also included material about The Long March Project, a Beijing-based artist collective working today that explores revolutionary memory and historical consciousness. We have also facilitated the installation on Park Avenue by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation of a sculpture by Sui Jianguo, a 10-foot high steel Mao jacket, titled Legacy Mantle. The project is produced in cooperation with the Fund for Park Avenue Sculpture Committee.
AS: What do you hope people learn or take away from the exhibition?
MC: As an institution, Asia Society is trying to provide a forum for considering some of the most powerful objects and images created during this period, some never seen before outside China. We hope to provoke considered thought, lively discussion, and reflection on the most fundamental questions about the relationship between art and politics and the power of art and artists to transform societies. I also hope people are able to draw inspiration from some of the artists themselves, many of whom shared personal and painful histories and who have not received the attention and recognition they deserve.