Art for art’s sake…? Some thoughts inspired by a visit to China’s Changchung sculpture park

Thanks to TomG for this contribution. More about the World Sculpture Park in Changchung can be read here. “Achieving Harmony takes effort and the Chinese authorities have certainly put their collective shoulders to the wheel and in their prosecution of the ‘for’ case they have discovered an old ally in Confucius, not to mention the courts. Those wishing to prosecute the ‘against’ case are likely to be prosecuted”.

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While in China several years ago visiting friends we had the opportunity of visiting a sculpture park in Changchung, a city in north- eastern China. The park itself was huge, similar in size perhaps to Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens and too big to ‘do’ in one day. The exhibits were international and the invited theme to contributors was ‘friendship and cooperation’, themes that dovetail neatly with the Chinese regimes need for Harmony (read suppression of dissent). Revisionists do have a thing about insisting that contradictions must be either ignored or, when  that doesn’t work, suppressed.

What follows are selections of the notes I took that day with some minor editing. Thoughts of Brecht’s poem The Doubter and Mao’s Yenan Talks began to accompany me as I moved around the park. Art for art’s sake? I think not. Art for the advancement of an ignoble political/social agenda? We’re on the right trac; so let’s have a look at the relationship between the art and the politics as reflected in this park.

The park was simultaneously very impressive and disappointing. Covering a huge area it may have up to a thousand exhibits. The concept of the park was impressive and on entering I was duely impressed. The more I  walked around, however, the more I came of the view that a fine concept had been nobbled (undermined) by the paltry world view of the new Chinese ruling class. It was not that the numerous artists lacked skill – it was there in abundance – but that the works lacked vision. This criticism may be attributed to the artists to some degree, the works were after all theirs, but much more, and fundamentally, to the brief they were given. The themes depicted in the works were safe – mother and child (who could possibly take offence?); friendship (ditto, I suppose); peace (let’s not upset the apple cart, the owners might get shitty); origin myths, spring, new growth (these contained too often unrealised possibilities) and some tribal representations from the developing world I found ambiguous in their value.

What was missing was conflict, representations that symbolically or directly depicted  contradiction, tension or development. Below are my thoughts on several pieces that, for good or bad, impressed themselves upon me. Let’s start with the bad, move onto some good before ending with more bad.

The North Korean piece – (yes, it’s low hanging fruit, but everyone deserves the odd freebie)

This piece, of a girl offering flowers, took top marks for DREARY. The girl’s expression was slightly goofy and forced – a vacant, gormless smile projecting a happiness that feels either stage managed or deranged (OK, I’ll accept both) – as she moves forward offering her flowers to the unknown and universal recipient. For all of the indication that she is moving forward, she is lifeless, a set piece of social realism that fails abysmally to convey anything dynamic or living. It therefore fails as a piece of social realism, being, rather a parody of it. It says a lot about the society it purports to represent and just as much about the society that chose to display it.

The Fijian piece

This was just as bad in its own way as the North Korean offering but without the moral pretentiousness.

Here was a representation of a Fijian noble warrior, a strong, muscled figure ready for battle and/or ceremony. Tribal kitch glorifying something whose time had past. Why would one want to glorify this example of a moribund tribal society, a society doggedly refusing to accept the need for transformation, standing in the path of development? And this is seen as a suitable contribution to international peace and cooperation? As a historical depiction the work stands up, but its place as a piece representing an idealised tribal image is problematic.

The plethora of Mother/Child and Creation/Myth pieces.

It is difficult to take offence at mother/child representations – and there were many – and that turned out to be my problem with it all. There were, indeed, some excellent pieces which bucked the trend, a couple of which were exceptional. But mostly it was all so predictable and safe that it became boring. Viewed individually, in isolation from each other each piece could be seen as OK, if not culturally familiar and somewhat cliched. But en masse, so to speak, the concepts shortcomings, at least as we are familiar with it in the west, became difficult to ignore. Why, I asked myself rhetorically the further we went, the need to play it so safe? Offend me, please!

There were, however, two mother child pieces that I really liked and which, as mentioned, broke through the stultifying nature of the park’s brief and really pushed boundaries. One, semi abstract, was creative in its use of form, the other, realist, in its use of content.

The first, a large, semi abstract mother child piece consisted of a simple arched figure, the mother, and an infant figure beneath her. The mother was nothing more than a downward gazing head atop two arched, elongated arms reaching to the ground. At the base of this arched gateway was the infant, enclosed, invited in, safe and yet separate. Gateways inherently contain exteriors and interiors, inners and outers and I was reminded when I saw this figure of Hegel’s point that as soon as a boundary has been recognised it has already been surpassed. The power of the piece lay in its ambiguity, containing within it not only attachment, but the threat of separation (and abandonment), of containment and safety and of growth and risk. This was more like it.

The second and in my opinion the standout piece of the half of the park we were able to see, was realist in form and consisted of a large – perhaps 6 times life size – beautifully proportioned woman lying on her side, naked, with babe at breast. There is nothing unusual about this, generally or in the park. What marked this piece as exceptional was the sight of her from behind, the direction I had originally approached her (a figure this size cannot be fully seen from one aspect alone). There, clearly showing at the top of her thighs, was her vulva, not hinted at, but fully and naturally displayed.

I found this interesting in two ways. Firstly, it reunites in art what has always been united in nature – the breast with suckling infant and the mother’s gaze and her vulva, her locus of sexual potency and desire. There is nothing neutral or neutered about this powerful piece and she deserved better company. I liked it.

This is not to suggest that she had  no company, perhaps in the parks other half, but those deserving of the description ‘peer’, were few.

A realist piece of a young woman, not a mother child work, was certainly deserving. Naked and perhaps twice life size she squatted by the path, her left leg outstretched and bent at the knee, her head upright and gazing into the distance. She projects strength and confidence, both physical and sexual. This is shown in the strength of her limbs and the openness of her stance. She makes no attempt to hide her sex, the pose being unaffected and natural. If she is aware of a stranger’s gaze, particularly a males or of censorious social ‘betters’, she is free of their power and not bothered by it. She too lifts the tone of the park.

Male/Female

Aside from the above figure male and female forms were common and many were naked – so penises got a showing – but none of the figures I saw showed naked men and women together. Safe, dull. The female form is given fuller treatment – breasts aplenty, some suckling babes, or available for this. Fecundity is thus implied. But with the exception of the pieces I refer to above, this treatment is limp, incomplete and in this sense untrue to itself. It is always after the act, never before and certainly not during. This is, well, a pity. Depicting sexual heat and copulation itself would throw the cat among the pigeons. It is not as if sex has never been depicted artistically – high Japanese art of ancient times, for example rose to the occasion, shall we say, without shame or being squeamish. I also have on my wall a work by a traditional and now deceased Arnhem land artist depicting a couple copulating. The fact that these have been historical or primitive renders them safe, though on the edgy side of safe and quaint. Pornography has stolen the march on high art – in spite of its motives – and art needs to respond for its own sake and for ours. But we mustn’t offend, must we?

Concrete/Abstract

The more concrete a depiction the more it tended to disappoint, the more it fell flat. The problem, as I saw it, is that the closer to the real (or the obvious) a work becomes the easier it is to see it’s failings, or conservatism (being trapped by the park’s ‘brief’). Two pieces dealing with ‘friendship’ illustrate the point.

The first was a sculpture of the ‘big feet’, two human figures with oversized feet, one sitting holding what is presumably an offering, the other kneeling, also holding an offering. Inoffensive thus described. But why is the woman kneeling, in supplicant pose? Why is she lower? This is not a snapshot of an individual couple and hence socially innocuous, but a representation of social relationships. Here it cannot help but reproduce an idealised depiction of patriarchal dominance. The friendship and harmony of the piece are idealised fictions, both depending on an acceptance of implicit, powerful assumptions that reproduce relations between the sexes (and by implication any human relationship founded on pre modern hierarchies) that wouldn’t be given shelf space in a Not Quite Right shop. They are, in Hegel’s sense of the term, unreal.

So too the other piece that got under my skin, five human heads atop five columns, one head of which was male. At this stage of the game no prizes for guessing which was the biggest and tallest. For the ‘socialist’ motherland this is simply not good enough. Nor is it good enough in contemporary bourgeois society where such representations would be met with stinging rebuke.

11 thoughts on “Art for art’s sake…? Some thoughts inspired by a visit to China’s Changchung sculpture park

  1. Interesting post, I’ll get back with a thoughtful comment later when time permits. Just dropping this here to see if it works.

    file:///Users/clairenewlyn/Desktop/DSC01402.JPG

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  2. ‘Other scholars believe that the Maoist ideology, which prevailed around the 1960s to the 1970s, dramatically broke the traditional boundary, and directly influenced the first generation of Chinese Contemporary artists who were born in the 1950s.3

    ‘In the 1980s, after Mao died and the Cultural Revolution ended, a new artistic generation embraced western Modern Art again. And this time, the avant-garde movement emerged with a more radical tone of social and cultural criticism.’
    Ning Lu

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  3. Lijun’s and Wang Niandong’s work that you have posted here are both very interesting pieces and play with different aspects of the modernist spectrum. Both are, in their own way accurate reflections of the challenges and opportunities that come with modernity.
    Are Lijun’s bald men (a reference to Sampson perhaps?) screaming out in existential angst for a saviour, something or someone that imposes limits on their freedom and the responsibilities that come with exercising free will or do we catch them part way through a necessarily painful transformation on their way to being fully modern?. The power of the work lies in it not telling us.
    I like Wang Niandong’s work a lot. New women (and therefore young, in dress familiar to any modern youngster and in an urban environment similarly familiar), one pensive, unsure; one clearly getting into it, as we say; the other and largest figure screaming as if she wants to get out of it (beam me up Scotty). Or is she? Perhaps she is the one, open to it all, who is momentarily overwhelmed.
    The more I look at these young women the more questions I have, the more possibilities I see and like the central lass it’s all a bit, well, overwhelming – I have other things which call me away. But thanks for posting them Egg, the Chinese art scene is producing some very interesting material.

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