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The Rise and Fall

Author: Mai Wang 2008

In 1946, when Chairman Mao's forces broke their truce with Chiang Kai-Shek's and began battling once again for political control of the country, no one in China could have predicted what their homeland would look like 60 years later: a landscape where high-rise apartments are steadily replacing old family compounds, where newly purchased cars are outpacing rusty bikes. Now that China's population is enjoying the economic boom made possible by the country's growing manufacturing prowess, everyone seems to have forgotten the modern country's bloody origins. Zhou Zi-Xi's solo exhibition at Shanghai's renowned ShanghART Gallery, China 1946-1949, pinpoints this cultural amnesia and attempts to dispel it—though the process of recovery, Zhou warns us, will not be easy.

Contemporary Chinese artists generally follow one of two routes when addressing their country's past: they paint the same ironic image of Mao over and over again, or they avoid controversial political commentary altogether. Zhou is unafraid to explore what his press release calls the "menacing weight of history." The centerpiece of his show, a sprawling oil-on-canvas entitled Battle in Shanghai, shows clusters of gray-uniformed soldiers transported out of their original battlefield 60 years past and set in the middle of a modern day construction site. Burning tanks sit next to red and yellow pulleys weighing cement. Soldiers dodge behind a pile of sheet metal. Shanghai's pristine skyscrapers loom ghost-like over the entire scene, and we are reminded that both activities—fighting as well as building—incur a kind of violence to the landscape, leaving a visible scar.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, Zhou turns explicitly to a critique of China's fresh-faced consumerism. In his paintings labeled Image 001-009, the artist unites the aesthetic of modern advertising with the propaganda of Communist films in a set of brand new life-size televisions where old film stills have been frozen on screen: two smiling male comrades bent over a female nurse, a Party leader saluting to a crowd.  In the corners, flashy stickers advertise deep discounts and a free bottle of champagne with purchase. Unsophisticated in their rhetoric, plain in their intent, these forms of communication assume an eager buyer and susceptible viewer, and Zhou points to their shared transparency.

But maybe, as Zhou suggests in works such as The Second Battlefield (two rigid soldiers guarding a desert post) and Captive (a nod to Tiananmen Square, the site of multiple protests in the last century), it's not that the Chinese have simply fallen into a contented silence with their new abundance of material goods. It could be that it's in their best practical interests not to remember too deeply, let alone give voice to their memory, in a country where political dissenters are regularly jailed without trial. By focusing on economic progress alone, they are able to smother their own protests and are rewarded for doing so—in other words, for turning the scar into a skyscraper.

If the Chinese regime has abandoned its original Marxist-Leninist slogan and adopted the outward workings of capitalism yet eschewed all the political freedoms of democracy, what do you call its current regime? Zhou himself is not quite sure. In Wind, one of the exhibit's last paintings, this sentiment is expressed as an empty flagpole jutting into a blank blue sky. While China's old flag has descended, Zhou tells us, its new one has not yet risen.


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China 1946-1949


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