CAI GUO-QIANG, Footprints of History: Fireworks Project for the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, 2008, photo documentation of fireworks installation. Photo by Hiro Ihara. Courtesy Cai Studio, New York.

Shock of the Obvious


In 1993, the centenary of Mao Zedong’s birth, the chi-chi Beijing eatery Maxim’s de Paris organized a celebratory buffet for 200. The invitations bore the slogan “Long live Chairman Mao!” and patrons were requested to wear Mao suits. The restaurant was decked out with pictures of the chairman and Cultural Revolution posters. While the food was European haute cuisine, the evening’s entertainment featured an excerpt from The White-Haired Girl, a showcase production of the Maoist era.

It was a kitsch party to the memory of a man whose legacy remains hotly contested. More than anything it highlighted how, shortly after the ugly events of 1989, which saw the crushing of a nationwide protest movement, international marketeers—Maxim’s was a Pierre Cardin franchise—combined consumerist savvy with a nod-and-wink readiness to ingratiate themselves with the regnant power.

In the July 9 issue of The New Republic this year, the art critic Jed Perl published “Mao Crazy,” a scathing review of the Guggenheim Museum exhibition, “Cai Guo-Qiang; I Want to Believe” and the Rizzoli publication of Charles Saatchi’s private collection, The Revolution Continues: New Art from China. Some readers reacted to Perl’s speaking truth to the market with outrage. They were affronted that this outsider critic was gauche enough to point out the general artlessness and ideological canker of so much contemporary Chinese art. In remarking on the “tulip mania-like” frenzy that has seen ridiculously inflated reputations and prices reach dizzying heights on the international art bourse, Perl was also boorish enough to reflect on the compromised morality of many of those “on the low down” in China. Others, like this writer, were intrigued that a non-specialist critic finally had the gumption to comment on “the Chairman’s New Clothes” (pace Sinologist Simon Leys) with such verve.

Departing somewhat from his brief as an art critic, Perl remarks that the nature and content of some of the most popular artwork from mainland China “compels a political analysis.” “Much of the work,” he observes, “is powered by a startling and completely delusionary infatuation with Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. This is more sinister than anything we have seen in the already fairly astonishing annals of radical chic.”

Perl’s essay and the ire of his critics are both worthy of lengthy analysis, but for the moment I can offer only a few simple thoughts. It is true that Perl overlooks the powerful and disturbatory origins of some contemporary Chinese non-official art. He also seems to be unaware of the complex history of alternative cultures in post-1976 China, where non-state creators played on and subverted party orthodoxies, or the impact of American academe on the rise of neo-Marxist apologists for Mao since the 1990s. I would observe that it is two decades since John Minford and I wrote in Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience: “It is in the borderlands of permissibility that contact between alienated or marginal writers and the State takes place. They barter endlessly, using different rates of exchange—freedom to publish, or the right to remain unmolested, permission to enjoy the privileges of the cultural elite or even to travel overseas. Deals are cut, or fall through as the case may be. The sensitive pressure points of the individual are laid bare, in the antechambers of the Velvet Prison.”

To follow the evolution since then of the complex relationships between the party-state and various artists that have been lubricated by opportunism and offshore capital is endlessly fascinating. Perl and others are alarmed (or delighted, as the case may be) by the unsettling politics of contemporary Chinese art and its marketing or, to quote Perl, “the extent to which contemporary art can give authoritarianism an international cachet.” Nonetheless, the nascent forms of co-optation and mutual infiltration were evident from the mid-1980s, and they have developed apace. Hungarian dissident Miklós Harastzi, who coined “velvet prison,” remains a useful guide; years ago he wrote, “The more talented and flexible the state, the more pleasurably it can suck the dissidents’ vital fluids into the organism of state culture.” Of course, once-dissenting cultural figures are not averse to feeding off the over-state either. With the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics on August 8, 2008, which featured the talents of both filmmaker Zhang Yimou and Cai Guo-Qiang, we have witnessed this process achieve a zenith, as well as an international mass-media audience. It was, to take a line from Perl, “the most expensive propaganda the world has ever seen.”

When I saw the Guggenheim’s Cai Guo-Qiang show reprised at the China Art Gallery during the Olympics, I recalled the advent of non-official art in that place two decades earlier. What I wrote then still seems relevant: “What perspective does the cultural scene in China allow us, compared to the Peking Spring, the Democracy Movement, the troubled birth of artists and literary self-expression ten years ago? What perspective is possible now that the China Art Gallery, the proletarian palace of socialist art, makes its halls available to virtually any self-styled avant-garde artists who can afford the rental fee? The end-result of Reform may well be the creation of a new avant-garde art-to-order: dissent on tap."