'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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.