Shen Jiawei: the Art of Politics

August 1, 2010

Shen Jiawei became an artist during the Cultural Revolution, making his first major works in the service of the state, embodied in the figure of the Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong. For roughly a decade, from 1966 onwards, every aspect of daily life in China was politicised in a way that seems to defy logic. It was a time of political hysteria, in which people could be vilified, denounced, beaten and murdered for the slightest deviations from an ever-changing party line. The mere possession of a book – any book except the little red one that contained the Chairman’s thoughts – was often viewed as a capital offence. Respected teachers and community leaders were removed from office, humiliated and assaulted. Pupils denounced their teachers, children denounced their parents. Temples, museums and libraries were vandalized. The madness extended from the remote villages to Central Committee, where Mao’s enemies were systematically purged.

The young Jiawei became a team leader in the Red Guards, but found it hard to work up the same passion for destruction that came naturally to some of his peers. By nature Jiawei was a thinker, skeptical of the simplistic decrees that turned allies into enemies overnight. He could never accept that respected teachers could suddenly be revealed as class enemies. The prohibition on so many books made him all the more anxious to read these forbidden texts. Even in these early days, Jiawei was an incipient member of the intellectual class that Mao had set out to destroy.

In 1958, in one of his most infamous boasts, Mao compared himself to the ancient despot Qin Shihuang (260-210 BCE). “What can Emperor Qin Shihuang boast about?” he asked. “He buried 460 Confucian scholars alive, but we buried 46,000 intellectuals.”

Mao’s hatred of the intellectuals was well founded. His ambitious economic policies at the time of The Great Leap Forward had brought about famine and disaster. Up to forty million are said to have died in the years from 1958-1962, when these policies were in operation. He could not afford critics because the magnitude of his errors was almost beyond belief.

Jiawei’s reading of one banned book had a huge impact on his attitudes towards Mao. Red Star over China (1937), Edgar Snow’s classic account of the early days of the Chinese Communist Party, had been instrumental in portraying Mao and his comrades as heroic figures, both to the Chinese people and the rest of he world. It did this, in the words of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, by brushing over the Party’s “blood-soaked past”. But even this was not enough for Mao, who had gone on to consign many of his former comrades to political oblivion or worse. By the time of the Cultural Revolution, Red Star Over China could no longer be read, as its already-sanitised version of history conflicted with later developments.

While Jiawei would enjoy the favour of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, for his work, Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland (1974), he was already at odds with the official versions of Chinese history. In remote Heilongjiang province, where he had gone to work for the Revolution, in 1970, he tried to reconcile his Communist beliefs with his growing disenchantment with its leaders.

This finally found expression in 1987, in the eleven-metre painting, Red Star Over China, the first of a series of large-scale history paintings that reflect Jiawei’s growing desire to cut through the layers of propaganda and show the past in a new light. In the ten years since the end of the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao in 1976, Jiawei had pursued the art education he had previously been denied. As he absorbed influences and honed his skills he became caught up in the idea that a new reign of democracy was about to begin. In Deng Xiaoping’s era of reforms, activists spoke out about social and political injustices, while artists made works that challenged the threadbare hegemony of Socialist Realism.

Jiawei was drawn to many different styles of painting, but remained true to those skills he had been refining for the past decade. It was his subject matter that gave the work a new, critical dimension. In Red Star Over China he sought to reinstate all the Communist leaders that had been effectively written out of history by Mao’s campaign to refashion the past in his own image. He thought it was a daring thing to do, and wondered if he would get in trouble with the authorities. But his timing was better than he had imagined. The first showing of the work coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the Red Army. The painting was acclaimed as a patriotic tribute to the people’s heroes, and acquired by the National Art Museum where it remains to this day.

His next foray into the disputed territory of twentieth century Chinese history was Tolerance (1988), which included portraits of sixteen leading figures from the May Fourth Movement that promoted the cause of Chinese nationalism in 1919. Once again, the role these intellectuals had played had been extensively rewritten in order to conform to the requirements of Maoist orthodoxy. The great writer, Lu Xun, for instance, had been celebrated as a hero of Communist ideology, when he was profoundly opposed to all forms of ideological thinking.

By this stage China’s nascent democracy movement had become so voluble that a crisis was imminent. In such an atmosphere, a work such as Tolerance was not to be tolerated. Jiawei left China in 1989, shortly before the Tiananmen Square incidents. Despite the many changes that have occurred over the past two decades, and unlike many other Chinese émigré artists who came to Australia in 1989, he has not felt tempted to return to his ancestral land. In a 2006 interview he told me: “When I left China it was the worst of Communism. When I go back I see the worst of communism and the worst of capitalism.”

In Australia Jiawei has led a double life as an artist. On one hand he has become a successful, much sought-after portraitist. Having spent his first three years in this country drawing portrait sketches at Darling Harbour, he has now painted Princess Mary of Denmark, former Prime Minister, John Howard, and a host of other well-known figures.

The portraits have brought him an income, and a measure of local fame, but they represent a sideline to his central ambition: to make large-scale history paintings that capture the absurdities, the horror and grandeur of the modern era. Having grown to maturity during the Cultural Revolution, he is unusually well qualified to attempt such a project. No-one could live through those events and remain unclear about the true nature of politics. No-one could maintain a belief in the fundamental goodness of Communism, or any other political system.

In paintings such as Beijing Jeep (2001), Jiawei constructed a satirical image of Mao and Jiang Qing riding in an open jeep with those former comrades who were concurrently being condemned as enemies of the people. The smiling Lian Biao, who holds the little red book, would soon be disgraced, dying in a mysterious plane crash. Millions of copies of Mao’s gospel would be recalled and pulped to eliminate Lin Biao’s sycophantic foreword. Only the stoic Zhou Enlai would survive Mao’s enmity, dying of cancer and being mourned as a hero by the masses.

Jiawei has not painted a bitter condemnation of Mao but a mock-celebration. The Chairman looks relaxed in his dressing gown, while Lin Biao and Jiang Qing are ecstatic. His bound enemies, Peng Dehuai and Liu Shaoqi are beyond redemption, while the shadowy enforcer, Kang Sheng lurks in the background.

Part of the impact of the work derives from its exacting realism. The figures are instantly recognisable, even though the jeep ride is an outrageous stunt. This is not ‘realism’ as the illusion of life, it is a realistic style put at the service of a fiercely critical vision of history. The convincing nature of the likenesses makes the satire more potent.

Jiawei expanded on this base with his 259 x 356 cm, canvas, The Third World (2002), which I’ve discussed in detail on other occasions. Suffice to say the work includes 92 separate portraits of heroes and villains of ‘third world’ politics, not in neat, separate boxes in the manner of Gerhard Richter, but as if they were posing for a team photo. The picture is irresistibly reminiscent of the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. Mao plays a prominent role, but so do Mother Teresa and Pol Pot, Nelson Mandela and Idi Amin, Gandhi and Saddam Hussain. At the back we spy Osama Bin Laden, making an early cameo appearance. Today he might warrant a place in the front row.

The Third World was widely misunderstood when it was first exhibited, but there was some truth in the idea that the painting seemed slightly “menacing”. The Third World, a term coined by the 18th century French writer, Georges Balandier, became an extremely menacing idea in Mao Zedong’s formulation. Pronouncing China to be the leader of the Third World, he conjured up a grand alliance of mistreated, underprivileged nations that would rise up against the capitalist domination of the West. To Mao, the Third World was the place where his dream of “permanent revolution” would be realized.

Jiawei’s Third World is a much more problematic place – an impossible summit where the most unlikely encounters are made. The painting is a commentary on the bottomless complexities of politics and the inadequacies of ideology.

The idea behind The Third World was expanded even further in 2008, with the nine-metre long painting, Merdeka (AKA. ‘Freedom’), made as a commission from Malaysian collector, Yap Lim Sen. For many months, Jiawei worked in collaboration with his wife, Lan Wang, and friend Wang Xu, to complete an epic canvas that encapsulates the entire history of Malaysia in 261 separate portraits.

One might imagine that the effort required to research and execute such a monumental work would have cured the artist of any urge to paint on a large scale, but even before Merdeka was complete, he was planning a larger picture based on the Tower of Babel, a work that is still in progress.

While he has been working on these monster canvases Jiawei has also produced paintings such as Absolute Truth (2000), showing Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II meeting front of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement; 1972 Imperial Palanquin after Yan Liben (2002), which restages President Nixon’s historic visit to China, as a scene from an old master painting where the Emperor Tang Taizong greets a group of courtiers; and Peking Treaty 1901 #2 (2006), where Mantegna’s foreshortened Christ lies on the table between eastern and western diplomats, as they negotiate a settlement of the bloody Boxer Revolution.

To this must be added a succession of punning self-portraits that play on the artist’s dual identity as Chinese émigré and new Australian, and pictures that look at an even more ambiguous Chinese-Australian, the nineteenth century Sydney shopkeeper, Quong Tart (1850-1903) who spoke English with a thick Scottish accent.

Jiawei’s extraordinary productivity has been sustained by his pleasure in these works, and the intellectual exercise that each one represents. Each work is full of irony, black humour and satire, but none of them are simple parodies. In every picture Jiawei is reflecting on historical and political matters, drawing unexpected parallels between present and past; looking at the tragic events that underpin famous meetings and acts of diplomacy. These historic encounters between the great and the good only seem to occur after the damage has been done. Nixon calls on Mao after years of Cold War hostility, the diplomats in their frock coats seek to resolve an uprising that has cost the lives of millions. The cordial nature of Gorbachev’s meeting with the Pope makes one forget how much pain and horror might be tallied up on behalf of the Soviet Union and the Church of Rome.

These pictures might be seen as ‘conversation pieces’, but it is either an impossible conversation, as in The Third World, or an exchange that comes at the conclusion of an apocalyptic cycle. What is exceptional is the way these paintings posit a new form of political art that does away with the slogans, the sentimentality and propaganda that we associate with this ill-defined genre. Having been a propaganda artist in his younger days, Jiawei is well aware of the fatuity of artworks that are chiefly concerned with conveying positive or negative messages.

This has, of course, been the historical role of art since time immemorial: a handmaiden to Power, whose practitioners often enjoyed no more celebrity than bricklayers or decorators. Art celebrated the magnificence of the ruler, his power, wisdom, and mandate from God. Its complementary role was to reveal the evil nature of the ruler’s enemies, both within and outside of the state. The complexity of an entire culture was reduced to a simple confrontation between good and bad, with citizens left in no doubt as to who was wearing the white hat.

Lenin updated the metaphor when he said that art and literature were “cogs in the whole revolutionary machine” – not servants to a static entity but vital parts of the dynamic, ever-changing apparatus of the Communist state. The reign of the Bolsheviks was a gigantic experiment in political science in which every aspect of life had to make its contribution to the advance of socialism. Because there was no historical precedent for such a state, there was no clear understanding of what a true “revolutionary” art might look like.

With the end of the absolute rule of kings came an explosion of political discourse. All modern revolutions, from the Bolsheviks to the present day, have generated a mass of competing theories and arguments as to what form the state should take. Even when an all-powerful figure such as Mao or Stalin has emerged on top, it was only after violent factional struggles and a huge expenditure of rhetoric. Until the supreme ruler was set in place a large part of the culture was in flux, or rather, in a state of negotiation.

The modern liberal state – called by the German jurist, Carl Schmitt, “the total state” – represents a radical departure from the absolute state that flourished up until the French Revolution, and the more neutral model that existed throughout the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century it becomes increasingly difficult to draw a dividing line between the state and society. The state becomes another form of association in which everyone has a stake. Yet as a consequence of this, paternalism gives way to a micro-politics in which the state shows an unprecedented concern for the individual. The patrician politicians of the nineteenth century, elected by a mere fraction of the population, did not have to make such strenuous efforts to be all things to all people. Today’s politician is an impossible Everyman – at home with the rich and the poor, the unemployed and the captains of industry. The result is a situation where the powers of leadership and decision-making are paralysed by a fear of unpopularity, born from focus groups and opinion polls.

In the “total state”, as opposed to the totalitarian state, everyone is everyone else’s friend. One need only glance at the Australian Labor and Liberal Parties to see they have much more in common than they would like to admit. Their stated policies are remarkably similar and getting closer all the time, as consensus becomes the new political ideal. It is likely that hung parliaments will become the norm, as traditional support bases are eroded and voters fail to distinguish between the major parties.

This is the state of politics today. A clear demarcation between friend and enemy has given way to an ideological limbo, in which politicians search for an ideal inclusiveness. Yet those original divisions are never far below the surface, and may be activated by issues such as Australia’s ongoing paranoia about asylum seekers. Are we growing more tolerant, or more hypocritical? In the past, politics was defined by acts brought down from on high that brooked no dissent or discussion. Today, politics is a vast, multi-layered hubbub in which everybody talks at once and nobody seems to be listening.

Art with a broadly political motivation is so common that one could list many different examples and sub-genres. The one thing all this work has in common is its ineffectiveness. The last great work of art that had a powerful political impact may have been Picasso’s Guernica (1937). In more recent times one may cite iconic photographs and film footage from Vietnam, which helped galvanise opposition to a war that had dragged on beyond the point of public forbearance. This was not strictly ‘art’, but these images have been shown many times in galleries and museums. It is difficult to think of anything from the media-managed conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan that has enjoyed an equivalent status, with the possible exception of the pictures of hooded prisoners from Abu Ghraib.

Anybody can declare themselves a political artist nowadays, but few honestly believe that their work is actually helping to bring about social change. Among so-called ‘political artists’ almost nobody shares Jiawei’s recognition of the all-encompassing nature of “the total state”. Few have the ability or the desire to understand the difficulties, frustrations and absurdities posed by any artistic activity that sets out to make an impression on this monolith. To persist, in the sure knowledge of one’s ultimate failure, is the kind of dilemma that the Existentialists saw as fundamental to the human condition. For a veteran of the Cultural Revolution, to survive, to laugh, to make sense, and to shine a beam of light into the murky recesses of politics, is a kind of triumph.

Catalogue Essay, Shen Jiawei, Hazelhurst Regional Art Gallery, August 1, 2010