Friday, 10 April 2015

MoCA @ Loewen: My Takes on Chinese Contemporary Art Scene


After my rather upmarket visit to the White Rabbit, I walked around the area and looked for a cab. I ended up just outside the Museum of Contemporary Art (or they would like to be known as MoCA @ Loewen). I was unaware of this museum. The Chinese PPA (Political Pop Art) sculptures behind the wire fence drew my eyeballs like magnets (this suggests my eyeballs are made up of either iron or rare earths, which China has dug out plenty of, but decided to leave it in the ground later).

The front entrance looked very much shut. But the vehicular metal gate on the other side was open, and so I ventured in.

Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA @ Loewen), Singapore
MoCA from Harding Rd

As I walked around the ground, some staff  looked at me curiously. I interpreted those glances as something like, "Hey! Who are you? Are you supposed to be here?" I played dumb (maybe I wasn't playing). Besides, I don't read eyes, and even less mind. So I strutted in (walking gingerly simply raised suspicion). I was surrounded by artworks of Chinese contemporary arts. I felt like a kid in a candy store with shelves that are stocked with eye candies that have fillings of socio-political messages. Yummy!!!

Most of the art pieces on the lawn were in the PPA style, which is my kinda style, and always puts a smile on my face. While the father of this style - Wang Guangyi (王广义) - pioneered this in the 1990s in the oil medium, other Chinese artists had diversified this PPA genre into other media.

Duo Exhibition by Jiang Shuo & Wu Shaoxiang, Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA @ Loewen), Singapore
The exhibits of collective red guards in MoCA @ Loewen

Red Guards, Chinese elementary book cover
Credit: "Red Guards" by Villa Giulia
Scan of cover of non-copyright elementary school textbook from Guangxi 1971.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons 

One can easily detect the parallel between the 2 images of the red guards holding the Little Red Book vertically up in the air with one hand, and extending the other hand horizontally to form something like an "L" shape. Together these hand gesture resembles something like a traffic cop giving directions where to go or naval semaphores for instructions of what to do (in semaphore signals, the "L" shape above represents the letters "P" or "J", depending on which hand points to sky).


The PPA movement makes use of stock images from the Mao Era's propaganda art - especially those from the Cultural Revolution - to critique the unfolding Chinese industrialisation and modernisation since the Opening-Up in 1978. In other words, the main theme of this art movement explores the issues arising from the tumultuous transition from communism into capitalism in the last 3.5+ decades.

Here's a nice example where a red guard is holding a red book that alluded to the Mao's Little Red Book in the heroic pose that was typical of Mao Era's propaganda iconic image. Upon closer look, the red book has the words "property deed" (房产证) inscribed on it . The previous pursuit of Maoism has given way to the contemporary chase of Materialism.

Duo Exhibition by Jiang Shuo & Wu Shaoxiang, Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA @ Loewen), Singapore Duo Exhibition by Jiang Shuo & Wu Shaoxiang, Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA @ Loewen), Singapore


Another topic which is quite popular in the socio-political discourse in the PPA scene is the worship of Western - or more specifically - American cultures. This can be seen in this delightful set of 3 piece sculptures depicting 3 ecstatic red guards who are jumping for joy, doing somersault, in embracing American pop culture.

Duo Exhibition by Jiang Shuo & Wu Shaoxiang, Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA @ Loewen), Singapore

Duo Exhibition by Jiang Shuo & Wu Shaoxiang, Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA @ Loewen), Singapore Duo Exhibition by Jiang Shuo & Wu Shaoxiang, Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA @ Loewen), Singapore Duo Exhibition by Jiang Shuo & Wu Shaoxiang, Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA @ Loewen), Singapore

The 1st figure stands on a red apple, which I've little doubt is an allusion to the Apple company and its products (more Chinese own iPhones than Yank). He's holding a cup of potato chips (or French fries to you Yanks) in one hand and a soft drink (or soda if you're Yanks) in the other. The soft drink is almost certainly Coca Cola. The ballet pose comes from the most iconic of the Mao revolutionary opera ballet The Red Detachment of Women (红色娘子军). This ballet is probably better known outside than inside China because it was the revolutionary opera that was performed for Richard Nixon on his historic visit to China.

A scene from Red Detachment of Women opera ballet
A scene from The Red Detachment of Women.
Just place a bag of French fries and drink into each of her hand, and you get a model for this exhibit

The 2nd or middle figure jumps over a globe, which on closer inspection is composed of rectangular strips with faces of Washington on it. This joyous leaping over the sphere suggesting the Chinese migration to USA with the lure of American greenbacks.

The 3rd figure is doing somersault (Chinese version of cartwheel) over a hamburger. Well known move in many Chinese traditional operas.

If I maybe so bold as to entitle this set piece "The MacDonaldisation of Modern China".


As a counterpoint to this view, let me say this. The Chinese must not forget that Marxism is as much a product of the West as capitalism. Mao adopted Marxism with Chinese characteristics and called it Maoism while Deng adopted Capitalism with Chinese characteristics. It's just nobody had called it Dengism. I try to spread this term (don't think he'll roll over his grave for this).

The Chinese Communist propaganda art and architecture were also imported from Soviet (with Chinese characteristics, of course!).

In other words, Western cultural influence were in China during Mao and post-Mao Era. It's just with the Maoist socialist ideals of the equality of poverty, there were simply little to remind Chinese of foreign culture. More importantly, Chinese majority live in countryside during Mao Era, which tends to be free of foreign cultural symbols. The urbanisation (which is part of industrialisation) let city folks today come into inevitable close contact with the rich tapestry of foreign material cultures.

Karl Marx and Soviet is no less Western than Adam Smith and USA.

Both Marx and Smith were Old World European. Both Soviet and USA were "New World" superpowers during the Mao Era.

In general, the cultural isolation of China during Mao led to less foreign cultural import. I don't see this as a positive cultural development.



Duo Exhibition by Jiang Shuo & Wu Shaoxiang, Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA @ Loewen), Singapore


This Confucian scholar or simply Chinese in traditional attire is a personification of Chinese traditional culture, who's weeping for the loss of Chinese culture or its place in Chinese society. Once again, this occurred during Mao, especially during the Culture Revolution.

In fact, Chinese has a strong cultural revival in the last 3.5 decades since Opening-Up to external cultural influx. Many more foreigners now learn Chinese than ever (via Confucian Institutes and other avenues). There's even talks among some Chinese scholars to bring back traditional Chinese characters, which the Mao simplified as a symbolic way of moving further away from traditional Chinese culture. Chinese culture had never been so flourished than today.

If anyone tried to get rid of Chinese traditional culture, it was Mao.


Duo Exhibition by Jiang Shuo & Wu Shaoxiang, Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA @ Loewen), Singapore

These 2 heads are ballooned to disproportional size and distorted shape by the filling with thoughts of money that indicated by the dollar signs. The body, as typified in PPA spirit, dressed in Mao suits. The silvery surfaces reflecting the image of observers.

The dominant theme of money - the symbol of capitalism - spread throughout the various sculptures that are made out of American greenbacks. The pedestals where the red guards stand on, and the "hollow people" are created out of American greenbacks.

Duo Exhibition by Jiang Shuo & Wu Shaoxiang, Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA @ Loewen), Singapore
Pedestals that made from American greenbacks
Duo Exhibition by Jiang Shuo & Wu Shaoxiang, Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA @ Loewen), Singapore
Hollow People

It wasn't all PPA works. There're these lumbering "man-cattle" that suggest Cynical Realism genre to me. I really love the forms.

Duo Exhibition by Jiang Shuo & Wu Shaoxiang, Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA @ Loewen), Singapore

Duo Exhibition by Jiang Shuo & Wu Shaoxiang, Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA @ Loewen), Singapore


I enjoy looking at PPA works. They're playful, imaginative, humorous with important messages (regardless if I disagree with most of it). But...

As you can see, there's an overwhelming denouncement of capitalism and materialism in the works of PPA scene. Wang Guangyi, who gave birth to this genre, is now a Jaguar driving millionaire. The very thing that he was and still is critical of in his works made him one of China's nouveau riches. I'm sure he appreciates the irony.

He's still making the similar works that made him wealthy. I wonder if all those who followed his steps are trying to be the young Wang or the old Wang? But then, one would say, "Isn't that's the point? Capitalism isn't just corrupting the society at large, it can also corrupt the purity of the soul of an artist?"


It wasn't until I got home that I realised that this was Duo Exhibition by Jiang Shuo & Wu Xiaoxiang, which ended in 2014. Judging from their ages, these 2 artists are contemporary of Wang Guangyi, just lesser known. They're the generation who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, which naturally had profound personal impact on their psyche.

MoCA was in the process of changeover to another exhibition. I was fortunate to be there before they removed it. Now I understand their glances. Maybe they thought I was the new removalist.

I really enjoyed it. While I had a disappointing lunch with the White Rabbit, this exhibition left me with a lot of food for thought. The best dessert money can't buy.





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