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Artist seeks to sculpt a post-Mao China

Wang Keping, a provocative artist critical of China's government, has opened his first solo exhibition in Beijing.

Last updated: 09 Nov 2013 12:14
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Wang Keping's artwork has often been critical of Mao Zedong, a taboo in China [Kevin Holden/Al Jazeera]

Beijing, China - A Chinese artist who has been waging a decades-long battle against the spirit of Mao Zedong and the forces of dictatorship here says the contest will only be won when Mao's portrait is stripped from its sacrosanct position above the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Tiananmen Square.

Since becoming a sculptor in 1979, Wang Keping has been one of China's most provocative artists, satirising the country's best-known leader of the 20th century and leading daring street protests calling for freedom of speech and democratic rule.

His sculpture of the founder of Communist China, named "Idol", features a yin-yang-like combination of opposites - part Mao Zedong and part Buddha - in a commentary on Mao's effort to become a demigod. As part of the decade-long Cultural Revolution that he launched in 1966, Mao aimed to elevate himself by crushing Buddhist temples and Confucian thinkers, along with liberal writers and artists who presented alternative visions of China's future.

Although Wang's carved critique of Mao has since been reproduced in countless art history books abroad, it has long been taboo inside China.

Despite opening his first solo exhibition this September at the Belgian-founded Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, Wang says the political atmosphere is now too tense to display "Idol" or a companion piece named "Silence", which features a youth gagged and partly blinded.

"'Silence' is a symbol of the lack of freedom of expression since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949," Wang explained, noting that a widening array of activists and bloggers critical of the government have been detained in recent months.

'The Stars'

Wang Keping has a long history of clashing with the government. He started out as a member of "The Stars", the first wave of experimental artists to emerge in China following Chairman Mao's death in 1976. The Stars staged "guerilla exhibitions" outside the walls of the state museums and held marches for freedom and constitutional rule, said Philip Tinari, the director of the Ullens Center who organised Wang's current exhibition.

In many ways, Wang said, China was far more free then than it is now. The post-Mao leadership had initially tolerated calls for democratic reforms and had arrested the top party rulers who helped Mao wage the violent Cultural Revolution. Some hoped that Mao himself would be indicted, along with the still-living organisers of his last revolution, as part of an overall reversal of Mao's war against freedom of thought and belief.

"Mao was dead and the Gang of Four had been detained," Wang said, referring to four top-level party officials who orchestrated the Cultural Revolution, "and everyone was full of hope for change across China."

They have no new ideology, so they can only fall back on Mao Zedong's ideology.

Wang Keping, artist

But while the Gang of Four, headed by Mao's wife and comrade-in-arms, was ultimately charged with persecuting nearly one million priests, professors, artists, actors and writers, and with causing the death of tens of thousands of people, Mao himself was paradoxically exonerated as "a great Marxist and a great proletarian revolutionary, strategist and theorist" in the official party archives.

Although Mao's widow was sentenced in a show trial to life imprisonment, the Communist Party began building a magnificent tomb for Mao in Tiananmen Square that would rival the afterlife palace complex that China's first emperor had built for himself 22 centuries earlier.

And China's brief flowering of freedom, it turned out, had been triggered by a battle for power among Mao's successors rather than a consensus for democratic reforms. As Deng Xiaoping consolidated his position, he orchestrated the trial of China's leading dissident, Wei Jingsheng. Just weeks after The Stars' street march for freedom in central Beijing, pro-democracy activist Wei was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment for calling for sweeping political reforms. His trial - publicised across the nation - also marked the death of China's short-lived era of liberalisation, said Wang.

Today, China's restrictions of speech on the internet carries echoes of Wei Jingsheng's prosecution, the artist added.

He said he opted not to include his most critical works, like "Idol" and "Silence", in the current exhibition because he feared China's cultural commissars would ban the entire show.

The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art is part of a small but growing network of private museums and galleries set up over the past decade that provide sanctuaries for experimental Chinese artists who are frozen out of government-run museums, which still predominate in the People's Republic of China.

While these private art centres are more open to displaying controversial paintings, sculptures and films, they are still required to submit every work in a planned exhibition to China's cultural apparatchiks for prior approval, said Fan Ling, a professor at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. During this mandatory screening process, he added, any work determined to be critical of the government is virtually certain to be axed from the show.

'They have no new ideology'

Yet while Wang Keping's most provocative sculptures have long been blacklisted inside China, they have become prominent abroad. Weeks after The Stars' first guerilla exhibition in the Chinese capital, Wang Keping and his sculpture "Silence" were pasted across the cover of the New York Times.

Wang Keping's sculpture, Silence [Wang Keping]

His sculpture "Chain" was acquired by former Swiss ambassador Uli Sigg, one of the world's leading collectors of contemporary Chinese art, and was part of Sigg's massive donation of more than 1,400 works of art - collectively valued by Sotheby's at $168m - to the new M+ museum now being built in Hong Kong. A bronze cast of Wang's sculpture "Idol" was sold by Christie's at a May 2011 auction for $119,000.

Wang has crisscrossed the world exhibiting his works - from the Pompidou Center in Paris to the Brooklyn Museum in New York to the Chinese Modern Art Center in Osaka - despite being blackballed from China's government-operated museums.

Meanwhile, he says the Communist Party's current plans to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong's birth signals a resurgence of leftist thinking in China's top echelons of power. "They have no new ideology, so they can only fall back on Mao Zedong's ideology," Wang said.

Yet he still hopes that the embers of aspirations for democracy will again ignite the imagination of the Chinese people. Ultimately, he believes, China's leadership will heed calls for political reform and an end to party controls on speech and culture.

When will that happen? "On the day that Mao Zedong's portrait is lowered from its position above the Gate of Heavenly Peace," he said. Only that act, he said, "will show that China has fundamentally changed".

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Al Jazeera
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