By R. Orion Martin
It’s difficult for me to remember the first images I saw of Chinese art, but it’s almost a certainty that Wang Guangyi’s commercialized propaganda paintings and Fang Lijun’s yawning mouths were among them. As Chinese contemporary art emerged onto the world scene in the 1990s, two groups of artists, labeled Political Pop and Cynical Realism, came to represent Chinese art to the western world. Although these works continue to fetch some of the highest prices in the Chinese art market, they have been criticized both from within and without the Chinese art community. I spoke to curator and artist Luo Fei about the origins and legacy of these artists. Our discussion is divided into defining the works, a discussion of the works themselves, and a review of how they were received.
Defining Political Pop and Cynical Realism
Orion Martin: Li Xianting was the first to propose definitions for these styles in a 1992 issue. Can you give me your personal understanding of what defines Political Pop?
Luo Fei: Personally I’m not sure if it’s Li Xianting who put forth this concept. In fact this kind of art is not particular to China, in the Western political waves of the 60s and 70s there were already artists who employed this kind of style. An example is Andy Warhol’s Mao Tse Tung. The concept of Chinese Political Po was established and widely excepted during the 1992 “Post 89 Chinese Modern Art Exhibition” in Hong Kong.
Political Pop is often understood as appropriating images of political images and symbols, and mixing them with a commercial style. I think first of a few artists such as Wang Guangyi and Yu Youhan.
It’s primarily oil painting?
In the beginning it was only oil paint. Later, there were sculptural pieces and prints as well. It’s worth mentioning that early American Pop art was all prints. It was an important method for the copying and mass production of Pop art, and Wang Guangyi’s Political Pop is oil painting that mimics the style of printmaking.
How about Cynical Realism?
It was proposed by Li Xianting. I first think of Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Yang Shaobin. Besides Yue Minjun, the other artists later gave up their early period Cynical Realism style. I think Yue Minjun’s paintings remain Cynical Realism through and through. They are very boring, just ridicule and self-mockery.
The East Village of Beijing was an important center for artists, and there are many interviews from that period. Among these were a group of artists who, after the suppression of the 1989 student movement, felt intensely disappointed by the incident, and disappointed by authority figures. They felt it was all a kind of joke, and this changed their attitude. I think this is the generational background for the appearance of Cynical Realism in the early 1990s.
They are quite different than the philosophy inspired artists of the 1980s.
That’s right, the 1985 movement believed that this (1989) was the time for them to change society and art. They were possessed by a heroism complex, that they want to save this sick society, a kind of intense feeling of historical heroics. Afterwards they found that the people in power aren’t ready to accept change.
Wu Hung has described this as a feeling that art is powerless in the face of political power.
These artists are in Beijing, and as a result they are influenced by the center. In Yunnan at that time, artists were more interested in the artist’s inner life and psychology, and these art styles were called “life flow.” The Beijing artists, in contrast, were very influenced by the political environment of the capital.
Is it fair to group Political Pop and Cynical Realism together or are they quite different?
According to the terminology and style they are different, but there is an inseparable spiritual connection between them. Generally we can say that they are two sides of the same thing. Political Pop is trying to use a playful attitude and the forms of capitalism to break open the existing system and ideology. Cynical Realism is a form of nothingness. Meaninglessness with a mocking attitude. This not only happened in art but also in Literature, like the writer Wang Shuo.
I believe that the common ground of Political Pop and Cynical Realism is that they lack an active response to problems and a direct response to history. They lack the strength of spirit to be farsighted and constructive. This also certainly influenced the widespread cynicism in later Chinese contemporary art and the focus on nothingness. But from another angle, their visual production also became a prediction of the collective decline and materialist lifestyle that dominated Chinese societal values in the coming years. At least in this respect, they were quite prescient.
Li Xianting also talks about this attitude in post-Cui Jian rock.
That’s right, at that time, the bands Three Prominents of Moyan and Tang Dynasty were representative.
Is there work being made today that fits these categories?
Generally speaking this type is used to describe a group of post-89 artists, but it also certainly influences many artists even today, particularly recent art school graduates. If you went to 798 in Beijing in 2005 you would see many followers of this kind of work. Among them was a style that Gao Minglu named “Big Face Group.” These are derived from cynical realism. They feature enormous self portraits, pink bodies, simple and flat painting styles, superficial images, etc. These things influenced art styles but also the spirit of art and the attitude of artists.
The Work Itself
Now I would like to take a moment to analyze the way these works typically operate. Political Pop is known for adapting symbols from China’s tumultuous recent history, including Cultural Revolution and Mao symbolism. Why was this an important development?
I think these images are an important visual resource. This history was never clarified. Many things were concealed or hidden, even until today. Through the art, the artists are trying to express their feelings and attitudes towards this past. It is a stone in Chinese history it can’t be moved. Artists can only use their own way to challenge or express it.
David Spalding has pointed out that for a long time, these images were “the only images allowed,” and so any artist looking into the recent past of art and culture will unavoidably confront them.
I agree. Reality can’t jump over such a thing, you must face it. We say that for the Beijing artists, this is their reality. All of China went through this struggle and all Chinese artists exist in the course of all of Chinese history. And yet the vast territory of China and established traditions determined great differences in the local and intellectual trends. The local art styles during the 1980s and 1990s are radically different based on location. At that time there were many artist groups, such as those in the Northwest, Southwest and South, who did not express this narrow political topic. Different locations found their own traditions and predicaments.
Yunnan artists never paint Chairman Mao. If they did, other artists would wonder why. This is also why landscape is so popular, because this is the reality for Yunnan artists.
Some critics have interpreted these works as China publicly engaging with its past. Was it that significant? How were the works received by the Chinese Audience?
Before they became successful in the western world, normal people would never have seen those images. In recent years, after they became successful they also gained influence in mainstream media. Sometimes you can see works by artists like Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang on novels or films.
But how do normal audiences see them? I’m not sure. There was a period of time when many essays criticized them for showing a terrible side of China to the western world.
Gao Minglu has commented that they are not really “Pop” because Pop relies on contemporary images while these artists reach into the past.
Warhol and other American Pop artists did not use historical images.
But Warhol is definitely the biggest influence for these artists, correct?
I think perhaps he’s not the only one, as the influence of Pop reached very far and in affected the artists in many ways. In 2005, for example, there were many Yunnan sculptures using a Pop style. Their typical method was to use fiberglass with car paint finish, creating a glossy and flat sensation. At the same time it gives one the feeling of industrial production.
A feature of Political Pop (and to a lesser extent Cynical Realism) is that the works deal directly with political themes but refuse to take a stance. Can you comment on this strategy? Is it a result of the political environment? Does it reflect a true ambivalence of these artists towards the past?
I think that for many it’s a kind of marketing strategy. It is more successful in the market. There is of course political risk. For example Tang Zhigang’s work initially was influenced by Political Pop and Cynical Realism, both in terms of style and content. But his works have a piercing yet humorous style, as they deal with the army, human nature, and our society. He couldn’t publish on magazines in the early 2000s. One of his appearances in an art university newspaper was published but then recalled, and all of the copies had to be kept in storage. There is attitude in his work, but all artists must find a balance between political, business and art.
But I think the majority of Political Pop works lack attitude. They’re focused on the surface symbols and posturing, but they don’t engage the politics.
Let’s talk about some of the contradictory ways these works have been interpreted. Sometimes they are described as very critical (commercialism is the new communism), and other times they are seen as nationalistic (as if saying “we need a new propaganda to resist commercialization”).
Personally, I don’t think this art is critical. Maybe in the beginning it was, but today it is not. It’s more like a game in which you use Communist symbols and brands.
Wang Guangyi has said his work comes from a non-standpoint (无立场), in which every standpoint has merit so none is correct.
I think many artists use this strategy. It is very difficult to interpret a single work of art. In order to understand their viewpoint and works, we must use a longer view to look at their production, such as their work over many years or even their life.
As for Wang Guangyi, I would agree that his works come from a nationalist standpoint. In 2008 there was a protest against France after Sarkozy invited the Dali Lama. Wang Guangyi and other artists joined the protest and refused to exhibit in France.
In general, non-standpoint is a valid strategy for artists. However, I think that when look at Wang Guangyi’s career, it is clear that he is indeed taking a stance. Other artists are the same. Looking at one piece it looks neutral. But if you look at their work for a long time, not even a long time just ten years, you will have a deeper understanding of them.
Gao Minglu has been a vocal critic of the artists such as Wang Guangyi for tapping into the suffering and profiting from it. He says they are complicit, no longer seeking confrontation.
I agree. It’s like rotten food. The artists themselves don’t eat it, they package it nicely and give it to others. I think artists need to go deeper into the history, and not just exploit it.
Are there examples of other artists who have gone deeper and examined this more successfully?
It depends on the definition of successful. If the standard is market success, then although some artists go deeper into these issues, they are not necessarily more successful. If the standard is whether artists take responsibility for history, and whether they participate in constructing a public society, then I think there are some artists on this path. Wang Nanming (art critic and author of The Rise of Critical Art) is interested in this kind of investigation by artists like Lei Yan (who, for example, has made works that examine the history of China’s wars).
Wang Ziwei (王子卫) started painting Mao as early as 1987 but these works made no impact either in China or abroad. Why were such images more important in the 1990s?
I am not to clear on the concrete conditions of this artist. Sometimes the development of artists is tied to their participation in important exhibitions. Sometimes the time also needs to settle. 20 or 30 years later, people can look at the history more objectively, and reevaluate the art of the past.
An important part of that publicity was Li Xianting’s essay, which became famous not only in China but also among western art audiences. Did Li discover this trend or did he create it?
I don’t think he created it. He encouraged it, but in the beginning it stems from the artists themselves. As far as I know, after the events of 1989, many people had the same feeling of disappointment, dejection, and profound powerlessness. However, he discovered that many artists were very happy and joyous. They were having lots of parties, looking for girlfriends, and dancing. He asked himself, “How can they have this attitude?” and concluded that this was a new attitude. Of course at that time he was also very influential so if he encouraged this kind of art, more and more would flock to join it.
The first Chinese artists in the Venice Biennale were invited by the curator Achille Bonito Oliva in 1993 and were drawn almost exclusively from Political Pop and Cynical Realism. Was this a valid strategy in 1993, or was he overlooking other artists? Did this help solidify the reputations of these artists?
I’m not clear about how many artists he saw or who was the bridge or contact person for the curator. I don’t think he could pick the artists by himself, because normally foreign curators depend on a contact person from China. Perhaps the foreign curator and the Chinese contact argued because of differences in opinion.
In Oliva is not the Savior of Chinese Art, Wang Lin (王林) writes that he had a Chinese advisor who presented many works, but then went on to choose only Political Pop and Cynical Realism.
I can imagine that, because these works coincided with the conjectures and imagination of the western world after Tiananmen. The western world still had no conception of what was going on in China, and these works shocked people. If we saw this art coming from North Korea today we would also be shocked.
The market has embraced these artists an unprecedented way. How much was that a factor?
At that time I think the market was very important, especially the western collectors. In the 80s or 90s it was considered pretty good if artists were able to sell work to foreigners. Li Xianting also presented a thorough academic background to explain why these works were important. The art critics also supported its rise.
It was like a perfect storm in which the market, critics, and curators all converged on these artists.
This example still has influence on the way art is organized in China. If organizers can combine the support of critics with the purchases of collectors, than that art is labeled successful.
Finally, I want to ask a more subjective question. These works are the best known Chinese contemporary works, the most prominent in world art history. Do they deserve this position?
They have an established position in today’s art history. I don’t know if they will still be there 100 years later. I imagine they will be, but I don’t know if it’s really important, if it will really have influence. Personally I don’t think these artists are particularly mature or outstanding in terms of art and consciousness.
However, I do think that the images these works produced will be important to a generation of visual studies. When I toured European museums with other Chinese artists, we got to see the works of true masters. I and the other artists felt that our works were weak in comparison, and yet Chinese art has become so expensive. It’s almost the same price as those masters now.
I think it’s because these works are important in understanding China. They may not be as important as other recognized masters in art history, but do in fact represent an image of China. In this respect, they may be considered classics.
Many thanks to Luo Fei for working on this text with me. For more resources on Cynical Realism and Political Pop, see these sites.
The Paintings of Wang Guangyi: Revolutionary Acts? by David Spalding
Mao Zedong – Stylistic Resume as Critical Method by Martina Köppel-Yang
Cynical Realism – An Exponent of Contemporary Chinese Artistry by Annette Labedzki
Pop Art: At the Time of China’s Cultural Revolution by Lihua Zhao, for Fine Art Registry
Don’t believe the hype about Chinese art by Ana Finel Honigman
A Brief History of Cynical Realism via Fang Lijun by Sinopop
Between Bada and Calvino–Guangci’s Post-Political Pop Narrative by Zhu Zhu