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Details of two separate artwork images, one depicting a video installation featuring a partly loaded image of Mao Zedong’s head, the other, an oil-on-paper painting of a red stop sign on a road surrounded by muted brown trees. The images are separated diagonally by a white line that runs across the picture.

'How did you two meet?' is a ‘recipe’ for a public programme from the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal. The CCA invited us to put our spin on this recipe at M+. Our recipe goes like this: pick two seemingly disconnected objects in the M+ Collections, usually by juxtaposing some of the oldest and newest objects, and narrate a story that connects them.

This time, two visual art curators have accepted the challenge, exploring two works—one old, one new—by Chinese artists. Pi Li (Sigg Senior Curator and Head of Curatorial Affairs) introduces a 1974 piece by Beijing-based artist Zhang Wei, while Isabella Tam (Associate Curator, Visual Art) chooses one created by the Shanghai- and New York-based artist Miao Ying in 2016. Below, we share the result of this ‘meeting’.

Red Stop Sign (1974) by Zhang Wei

Oil painting on paper depicting pale grey roads lined with muted brown trees. A round red-and-yellow stop sign stands at a corner atop a red-and-white striped pole.

Zhang Wei. Red Stop Sign, 1974. Oil on paper. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. © Zhang Wei

Pi Li: Zhang Wei (born 1952) created Red Stop Sign in the mid-1970s. The piece depicts an autumn scene on the outskirts of Beijing. The upper third of the painting consists of yellow trees, with a winding road in the middle extending out to the viewer. The entire painting is greyish, and there is no one on the road; the only thing that indicates there may be people around is a yellow-and-red traffic sign with a red-and-white pole supporting it. An uninhabited landscape on the outskirts of Beijing in 1974 may seem unremarkable today, like an ordinary landscape painting, but when we take a closer look at the situation of artists at the time, we may have a different perspective.

Oil painting on canvas depicting men and women on snow-covered ground, smiling and flushed as they lean forward to move a section of an aqueduct. A figure on the viewer’s right holds up a green flag. The partially completed aqueduct forms the backdrop in the upper half.

Sun Guoqi, Zhang Hongzan. Divert Water from the Milky Way Down, 1974. Oil on canvas. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation. © Zhang Hongzan, Chen Yulan

Also created in 1974, Divert Water from the Milky Way Down, by Sun Guoqi (born 1942) and Zhang Hongzan (born 1944), was on display at the National Art Exhibition. The workers and peasants in this piece are all smiling and moving quickly, presenting an image of collective labour. The figures in the painting are full of emotion, the polar opposite of Zhang Wei’s unpopulated piece.

At that time, many families were being persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and were sent to work in the poorest rural parts of China. Young people like Zhang Wei would later return to Beijing having no work and no family there. Their only communication with others came through getting together to paint. However, painting outdoors was a taboo in China and would arouse suspicion. So artists used extremely small boxes of oil paints, about half the size of an A4 sheet of paper. They would do a small painting inside it, and when someone came to check on them, they could quickly close the box and leave.

Small wooden paint box with a leather handle and metal latch. The insides are covered with smears and streaks of muddy green oil paint.

Installation view of Zheng Ziyan's Small Oil Paint Box (circa 1970) from M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

In my opinion, Red Stop Sign is a particularly interesting way for modern art to start. It looks ordinary, quiet, and sad, but it gave birth to possibilities for the future—the biggest such possibility being a nascent emphasis on the individual, a chance to express personal emotions. When everyone is so impassioned and happy, as in Sun Guoqi and Zhang Hongzan’s piece, can I express my sadness? Once artists begin to think about such questions, they begin to open up the possibilities for contemporary art.

Zhang Wei: Inside 'Fusuijing Building'
Zhang Wei: Inside 'Fusuijing Building'

Zhang Wei describes the conditions of living in the Fusuijing Building in 1970s Beijing

Video Transcript

(Original language: Mandarin)

ZHANG WEI: This building was completed in 1958. They used leftover materials from 'The Ten Great Buildings' to build it. The building was designed to control the minds of its inhabitants, hence, it was an ideological product. They wanted to embody socialism in this building, so no kitchen was built. Every single family and every single inhabitant had to eat in the public canteen. However, soon after we had moved into this building the Cultural Revolution started. During the Cultural Revolution people in the building became very nervous. Every inhabitant was worried that something might happen to them the next day because this was a special building in Beijing at that time. It was tall and chic. Many people wanted to live there, especially the ageing intellectuals and capitalists. Those who had once been a little bit well off would try to find a way to move into the building. These people, however, were doomed during the Cultural Revolution. They were all under surveillance by the relocated original inhabitants, and their everyday conduct was reported. Many who lived in this building during the Cultural Revolution were kept under control.

When I was painting this picture, I specifically wanted to express the difference between the indoor and outdoor moods, meaning the mood of the harsh political reality outdoors where weird things happened every day and the mood of the home, indoors. Home is warm and a place where one can casually do one’s own thing, think of one’s own stuff and speak freely. The difference in mood between indoors and outdoors was something I very much wanted to maintain. Home is particularly intimate and important to each of us because my family is simple and has few members. It is convenient for people to come over to pour out their hearts have a casual chat or an in-depth discussion about art. It is a place where we can find mutual support and comfort. These people always gathered in my home and gradually a small organisation, 'No Name Group', was formed. In 1974 the group’s first underground contemporary art exhibition was held in my home. I remember the date: 31 December 1974. We hung our paintings on the walls in my home and laid them on tables and chairs. There were more than ten of us, and our paintings were everywhere.

At the same time—in part because painting en plein air could be politically risky—Zhang Wei also painted a lot of scenes looking outside from inside. Doing so allowed him to capture the changing landscape in relative safety, from behind closed doors. After the Cultural Revolution, artists began to get exposure to overseas exhibitions, which influenced their efforts to use more radical, more abstract techniques to create pieces of vastly different styles. When we look at these later works, we shouldn’t forget the humble beginnings of contemporary Chinese artists. This is what makes Red Stop Sign particularly meaningful.

Problematic GIFs, Miao Ying (2016)

Isabella Tam: I want to introduce you to Problematic GIFs, created in 2016 by Miao Ying (born 1985). This work consists of seven screens: six small screens surrounding one big central screen. On each of the small screens appears animated images of celebrities, K-pop idols, and animals clapping, all of which are commonly used by people on social networking platforms like WeChat. The big screen in the centre shows a GIF of Mao Zedong, but the picture appears frozen, the portrait never fully downloading.

Problematic GIFs highlights the Chinese internet phenomenon of using the Great Firewall to hide harmful or politically sensitive information. The portrait of Mao Zedong cannot be successfully loaded, reflecting the censorship mechanism of the Chinese internet. Miao Ying has turned the visual culture that people encounter daily on the internet into an artistic creation and a new artistic language.

A video installation consisting of seven television screens positioned together in both portrait and landscape orientations. A large screen sits in the middle of the installation. It depicts a partly loaded visual of the top of Mao Zedong’s head. The Apple ‘spinning pinwheel’ sits in the middle of this screen, indicating that the image is still loading. Images of cats and celebrities such as Heath Ledger (in-character as ‘Joker’), Kim Jong-un and Kanye West are depicted on the screens surrounding the middle one.

Miao Ying. Problematic GIFs, 2016. Seven-channel video installation. © Miao Ying; Photo: M+, Hong Kong. M+ Council for New Art Fund, 2019

Video still showing a female news presenter in a black shirt and orange blazer. Seated before a microphone, she reads from an open dictionary.]

Zhang Peili. Water: Standard Version from the Cihai Dictionary, 1991. Single-channel Betacam-SP transferred to digital video. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation. © Zhang Peili

There are also other media-focused works in the M+ Collection. In 1991, artist Zhang Peili (born 1957) created a video work titled Water: Standard Version from the Cihai Dictionary, inviting a prominent newsreader, Xing Zhibin, to read aloud words that start with the Chinese character for ‘water’ from the Cihai dictionary, along with their definitions, in a steady tone from a broadcast room. Through this piece, Zhang Peili attempted to explore questions of repetition and manipulation.

Unbox M+: RMB City
Unbox M+: RMB City

David Smith (Conservator of Digital and Media Art) and Pi Li (Sigg Senior Curator and Head of Curatorial Affairs) explore this offline version with Cao’s original avatar, China Tracy, and discuss the challenges of collecting an artwork meant to be played live and online

Video Transcript

PI LI: Hey, David. I think I know this work.

DAVID SMITH: Yeah. This is the offline version of RMB City.

DAVID SMITH: This is China Tracy. So we can fly around.

PI LI: Wow. Great. Don't jump . . . jump.

DAVID SMITH: Oh. I mean, you can fly. It's okay.

PI LI: Hi. My name is Pi Li. I'm Sigg Senior Curator and Head of Curatorial Affairs of M+.

DAVID SMITH: Hi. My name is David Smith. I'm the Conservator for Digital and Media Art here at M+.

PI LI: David, I feel very happy to see the RMB City again here. I haven't seen the work for many years. This is a work by Cao Fei, a Chinese artist, and she created this work in 2008, the year when Beijing hosted the Olympics. Basically, she invented the whole city. The work is talking about the city, urbanisation, and how people are dealing with this kind of massive, rapid urbanisation in the computer game called Second Life.

DAVID SMITH: Yeah. So, Second Life was a really interesting project. It's still going. It was popular into the kind of 2000s and was one of the first really kind of mass simulations where it was less about a game having a beginning, a middle, and an end, and action elements or narrative elements, but it was kind of open and free and you could do basically whatever you wanted.

PI LI: The whole point for the work is that people can really hang around in this cyber city, and people can meet the other people who play the game. I think Cao Fei spent like four or five years on the internet to build up every part of the city and also invited art people, creators, and artist friends to come to RMB City to play with, to dialogue over. It was quite popular since then. A few of the internet games have been updated so fast, so after 2011, it seems like the whole Second Life game became a little bit quiet.

DAVID SMITH: Yeah. Over time, the internet evolves very, very quickly, and although there are lots of efforts to try and archive parts of the internet and catalogue and log things, there is a huge amount of loss. Like a lot of our digital and time-based media works, it came on a series of hard disks and flash drives, so we’ve migrated those into our digital preservation infrastructure. And as computers get more advanced, what we'll actually have to do is look at emulating the entire computer operating system and then render this version of RMB City within that emulated operating system. It sounds quite complicated, but it's actually one of the digital preservation routes that's available to us.

PI LI: Yeah. For me, it's quite poetic. It's like you're hiding into an abandoned city, like you walk into the Pompei by yourself. So on that level, it's quite interesting. Whenever you use a very classic media or use such a higher . . . like an internet media, the art is always dealing [with] this kind of the time, the concept of time in a very unexpected way.

PI LI: You know, many people had a party here many years ago.

DAVID SMITH: Did you visit yourself?

PI LI: I visited once in a wild Friday night.

PI LI: Virtually dancing, drinking, chatting, hanging around with other people.

PI LI: After many years, I still think that this is a very crazy project. I mean, when Cao Fei decided to make this work on the Second Life and Dr Uli Sigg, a Swiss collector, supported her to make this project, and he also collected the work.

DAVID SMITH: Was he the first mayor of RMB City? Or . . .

PI LI: Yeah. He was the mayor of the RMB City.

DAVID SMITH: So, yeah. So it's really nice that he's the person who's donated a kind of virtual copy of it to us.

PI LI: They created something that does not exist. They collect something that does not really physically exist.

PI LI: And then they donate it to M+ and then we have to find a way to make that more tangible.

Then, in the late 2000s, the artist Cao Fei (born 1978) created one of the first internet artworks in Chinese art, RMB City. This work condensed the characteristics of a city under economic reforms, constructing an entirely virtual modern metropolis and letting art collectors buy necessities and houses in it.

A white-walled exhibition space with an inkjet print leaning against a wall on the left-side of the room. A monitor is attached to a pole on the right-side of the room. The inkjet print depicts a screenshot of an Apple desktop. Various files and folders are scattered across the desktop space. The desktop wallpaper depicts three black couches in a white-walled room, along with a rug and a television screen.

Lin Ke. Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 11.46.20 PM, 2016. Inkjet print mounted on aluminium panel. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Wang Bing, 2019. © Lin Ke

Another media-centric piece is by artist Lin Ke (born 1984). He created Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 11.46.20 PM with a screenshot of his computer desktop. For his desktop background, he used a photo of his living room, with three sofas and a TV; on the desktop itself is a variety of files and folders. This work is like a window, offering us a peek into human life in the real world and online. For artists of Lin Ke and Miao Ying’s generation, the online world may better reflect their real lives, behaviours, and activities.

How are these objects connected?

Isabella Tam: Although Miao Ying’s piece seems very lively and Zhang Wei’s empty, both have a kind of hollow feeling.

Pi Li: Yeah! Zhang’s piece shows us how he was facing a mass movement alone, and the expressionless and applauding characters in Miao’s piece have a sense of being forced to be happy, thus making us wonder about the reason why they’re acting happy, and what it is they might really be feeling.

Isabella Tam: Although there is endless space on the internet and social networks make communication easier, Miao’s work reflects censorship and constraints on free expression, which may explain why it feels hollow. Although the two pieces are from different times, both artists faced tall walls that they wanted to scale, and both had limited space in which to do whatever they could.

Pi Li: In Zhang Wei’s time, artists were taking a risk by painting outside because the style and subject matter of their paintings were not officially condoned. As such, going out to paint was a brave, even rebellious, act. It may have been forbidden, but artists just wanted to paint as they liked, and to paint something different. The relationship between censorship and the censored that underpins Red Stop Sign is very similar to that in Miao’s piece. Both artists were pursuing larger spaces free of restrictions, walls, and censorship; their desires are exactly the same.

The above interview has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories. Watch the full interview on YouTube.

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