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In the second half of the 20th century, the development of Chinese art in different historical periods is accompanied by the great changes in social ideology and economy, from the Cultural Revolution, the economic reform to political system reform. Especially after the Cultural Revolution, between the years 1978 and 2000, China was facing the most innovative period of time in art history. Many art groups, events and movements emerged one after another, such as Scar Art, the Stars Art Group, the ’85 New Wave, political pop, Gu Dexin and New Measurement Group, the 1989 China/Avant-Garde Exhibition, Big-Tail Elephant Group and so on, which are widely recognized as the most initial appearance of Chinese contemporary art. In the second decade of the 21st century, artist Pu Yingwei tries to revisit the state of artistic concepts and ideological construction of that period under today’s realistic context, he raises the concepts of “Speculative Pop”, “Pan-Chinesism” and “Obscure Adventure”, and he conducts a tentative practice in Start Museum’s “Genealogy Study of Artist” program, which dedicates to case studies of artists.
The exhibition is a dialogue with the past, selecting nine works from the collection of Start Museum to reinterpret the painting language and images. Continuing his Empire Font series of paintings in recent years, Pu Yingwei creates a symbolized font library in “Empire Font (Subtle Difference between Reds)” (2021), responding to Wu Shanzhuan’s painting “32 Wrongly-Written Characters: 3/3” (1985). The “Red Humor International” initiated by Wu Shanzhuan in the mid-1980s dispelled the ideology represented by “red” and the political judgments of Dazibao, by creating typos and pseudo-characters. While retaining the writing style of Dazibao, Pu Yingwei translates Wu Shanzhuan’s painting into another unreadable language symbol that is outside the Chinese character system, making this unreadability more universal.
As the most important icons of political pop, Wang Guangyi, Li Shan, Yu Youhan, and others have done a lot of re-creation of Mao Zedong’s image. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the input of modern Western trends of thought also led to the development of commerce, capital, and consumerism. Political pop was born in the transformation of the grand socialist political plot to the daily realistic social experience. In “Mao and His People: Blue” (1995), Yu Youhan places the image of Mao in the group portraits of female workers. To correspond to this, Pu Yingwei uses the Chinese character “Hua (华)” and the image of African female workers shaking hands with Mao, and overlays it with a piece of red in “Hua (CHINAFRICA)” (2021). A similar technique can also be found in his appropriation of Wang Guangyi’s use of quick-drying industrial paint to overlay a famous Western classical painting: “Hua (Overlaid by Color)” (2020) uses a black “Hua” to overlay the colored background, the cover of “20th Century’s African Art” is set at the base of the painting. The relationship between China and the West in the last century has turned into a complicated and subtle political and economic tie between China and Africa. As a result, the directions of “Speculative Pop” and “Pan-Chinesism” have gradually become clear. The former is a rethinking of the significance and potential of political pop in today’s China, while the latter is a reflection and imagination of how contemporary China construct and expand its subjectivity in international society, the process of thinking and practicing the two concepts is an “obscure adventure”. The obscurity of history and the absence of future eventually entangle every aspect of the present like a ghost.
Li Shan’s political pop has always combined political power and erotic charm in his image grammar. In “The Seventh Day of Every Week No.67” (1994), the two identical geese with a single bright pink lotus in their mouth are translated into the appropriation and collage of various visual symbols in Pu Yingwei’s “China Capital” series. Using the words “China Capital” written in Coca-Cola’s English font, 1978, the image of Deng Xiaoping, portraits of the working class, and the image of the two big geese are all collaged and reorganized in the painting “Dream of Unity (Lovers)” (2021). Li Shan uses animals in his work to dramatically illustrate the construction of vitality and lust beyond human rationality, while Pu Yingwei takes a more externalized and direct method to construct a state where the two major ideologies of capitalism and socialism compete with each other. His response to Gu Dexin’s embroidery work “B44” (1983) is more concrete, bold and straightforward. The two fairytale-like strange images in “B44” unabashedly showed their sexual characteristics and ambiguous interaction. Pu Yingwei interprets it as the concretized intercourse of socialism and capitalism in the painting “Symposium of the self (Love Making of Soviet Art History and Western Art History)” (2021).
In addition, the two separate works “Sketch of FATHER, or Visual Politics Preface” (2019) and “Imitating Pan Yuliang (Black Man)” (2019) at the entrance of the exhibition respond to two paintings that don’t belong to the Start Museum collection: Luo Zhongli’s “Father” (1980) and Pan Yuliang’s “Black Man” (Undated). The former creates a dialogue where the artist traces back to the social realist painting tradition and political energy that his alma mater, Sichuan Fine Arts Institute once carried, from “Scar Art” to “Flow of Life”. While the latter recalls the artist’s educational background in France, it is the exploration of the reality when facing the framework and context of cosmopolitanism. I would like to re-examine this exhibition in conjunction with the discussion on “hauntology”; this concept proposed by Derrida in the 90s may help us understand the artist’s attempt to restart the early Chinese contemporary art. In the past two decades, the ongoing “retro aesthetic” in contemporary culture, the repetition and nostalgia of cultural forms, and the constant solidification of the capitalist system have prompted the “hauntology” to be widely used in the theoretical criticism within literature, art, music, politics and so on. Whether it is the “lost futures” proposed by Mark Fisher or the “end of history” by Francis Fukuyama, they point to the ubiquitous “ghost” that comes from the past, but does not belong to the past in “hauntology”. In this exhibition, what we see is the reappearance of the ghost from the past decades of history in China, which is attached to the nowadays context that seems brand new, a result of continuous entanglement by the past, which makes art’s originality gradually become a false proposition. The shadows left by the 20th century’s social, political, cultural and artistic changes have a constant and huge impact, and the artist is continuing his adventures in this undissipated shadow.
(The article is originally published on “LEAP” SPRING/SUMMER 2021)
Suchao Li, graduated from the University of Glasgow with a Master’s degree in History of Art, currently lives and works in Shanghai. Her writings, including critical reviews, artist profiles, interviews and essays have appeared in ARTFORUM China, LEAP, ArtCo, Ocula, The Art Newspaper China (TANC) as well as many other art publications. She was the Assistant Curator of the Future, Future – Young Artists’ Experimental Film Project (2020) launched by the artist Yang Fudong and Centre for Experimental Film (CEF). In 2019, her article Summoning the Souls of Gwangju – The Former Gwangju Armed Forces Hospital as Art Site has received the second prize of the Sixth Edition of the International Awards for Art Criticism (IAAC). In 2017, she was appointed as the translator for the jury committee of the 11th Award of Art China (AAC). Her recent research interests are on the interdisciplinary subjects connected with contemporary art, science and the philosophy of technology.