Zhu Jinshi and Jin Shan
Written by Lauren Fung
History has a symbiotic relationship with the present. It contextualises and informs the present whilst also being composed by it. We choose to commemorate our past by documenting it in the hopes that future generations will gain insight into what was at one point, the present. Though time is a constructed mechanism by man, it seems that it is time itself which dictates and contextualises global socio-political development. Our histories, traditions and beliefs inherently frame our reality and understanding of the world. The rapid development of globalisation during the 20th century highlighted the international need for an increased range of communication. One form of communication that transcends any language barrier is imagery; a language older than time itself. One could argue that it is this aspect of the Arts which has continued to keep itself culturally relevant irrespective of its locality. This by extension has enabled visual arts to continue to embed itself into remaining socially, politically and culturally relevance on a global scale.
With an international focus and recognition on Western art history as the pillar of artistic development, it is important to acknowledge the significance, which is placed on it, as it is more-so indicative of the Imperialistic lens which has framed the global art scholar communities’ perspective for the past two centuries (Jin 2019). With the current projection for the 21st century to be considered the ‘Asian Century’, a further developed understanding of how this shift in dominance has occurred is necessary in order to cultivate a socio-politically responsible transnational network.
Since the development of contemporary visual arts in the past century, we have learned that Art’s role in society has transformed into becoming a voice of social self-reflection and expression. This is in comparison to the former biblical and historical role visual art had leading up to the increased social liberation of the 20th century, it has indeed been the European lens that has been perpetuated and respected in the global art community.
In order to have a constructive and conversant discussion about the traditions and histories of Asian art, it is important to have a well-developed understanding of the antecedent role of art in Asia. For the purposes of this discussion, I will be specifically referencing artworks from The People’s Republic of China to examine the historical, political and art-related events which have directly influenced China’s social environment. It is important to recognise and distinguish the difference between art in Asia as a whole and art in The People’s Republic of China as they are not homogenous. Historically speaking, Art in The People’s Republic of China has been traced back to 10,000 B.C., where its relationship to culture, politics, economy and social systems were engraved into its history.
A fundamental element of traditional Chinese art that encompasses all mediums of work ranging from ceramics to textiles and painting is the role of colour in evoking meaning to an artwork. Colour plays a significant role in Chinese culture, irrespective of any artistic relevance. Red is known to represent fortune, Yellow symbolises good luck, Azure blue and Jade green denote health and harmony whilst Black and White are used to demonstrate balance and peace. Indeed, the translation and importance placed on colour in China is far more complex than the aforementioned definitions, however for the sake of this discussion it is necessary to establish a foundational understanding of fundamental elements that are central to Chinese culture which distinguish it from other East Asian countries.
These visual elements reach beyond art and have been utilised in traditional cultural celebrations and practices as well as in political contexts. Traditionally, art in China was funded by the Dynasties, depicting prosperous landscape scenes which were inherently politically motivated, signifying the affluence that the Empire provided its nation. The eventual fall of monarchical ruling in China was marked by the 1912 declaration of China as a republic (Volz & Lee 2011). The resulting conflict for political power over China had an insalubrious effect on the lives of its people, fuelling public turmoil and a civil war. Under the guise of a republic government, the Chinese public were left at the mercy of a communist regime causing public pleas for socio-political reform at the death of Chairman Mao in 1976 (Volz & Lee 2011).
The subsequent silencing of the public and their newfound transnational introduction to Western ideology from Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit, left the population exposed to the American ideology of liberty, brotherhood and freedom of speech. The previous prohibition of foreign literature and relations which were implemented during the reign of Chairman Mao meant that these radical liberties eventually ignited a public rebellion.
Oppressed by the government to only create politically approved artworks idolising the authoritarian regime, once exposed to Western art’s avant-garde development during the 20th century. As a result, a small group of liberal artists banded together to demand the freedom for self-expression. This group was called the Stars, perhaps undermining the newly appointed Chinese flag (Li & Rui 2019) which used 4 small stars to symbolise the unification of social classes under the communist regime.
Inspired by his recent exposure to Western art movements such as Impressionism and Post Impressionism, Stars member Zhu Jinshi challenged the cultural and historical traditions in Chinese art by presenting Still Life with Umbrella (1979) in the first Stars exhibition (Li & Hui 2019). Figure 1 is an oil on canvas painting featuring a black umbrella in the centre of the composition. Placed in a homely domestic environment, the umbrella is surrounded by nondescript household objects. Jinshi’s expressive application of paint on the canvas references his exposure to the Western expressionist art movement. Furthermore, Jinshi’s considered choice to present a still life may have been alluding to the apparent standstill in socio-political development during the reign of the late Chairman Mao.
Despite Jinshi’s choice of what was considered to be dated artistic style by Westerners, one could argue that this choice was an intentional utilisation of global contexts to highlight the government's control of foreign relations and developments. In conjunction to this, his choice of colour palette speaks to the aforementioned six fundamental symbolic colours in traditional Chinese culture. In terms of subject, Jinshi’s choice to create a still life of an emblematic object, the umbrella, suggests a protest against the social class system that has been embedded in Chinese culture for thousands of years. Traditionally, parasols and umbrellas have been objects used by the upper class in China to prevent their skin from being exposed to the sun. Fair skin in China is considered to be a visual characteristic of wealth; this concept originates from the working class having dark skin from spending their lives harvesting crops in the sun. By this token, those who have fair skin are perceived to be affluent enough to spend their days inside, exempt from the working-class conditions.
Unfortunately, due to Jinshi’s emigration in the mid 1980s to Germany, most of his artworks during the period of the Chinese cultural revolution have been lost. However, his Post- Revolution works have remained consistent to his work in the Stars group regarding his choice of subject matter.
The consequences of the actions of liberal artists such as The Stars had during the cultural revolution has undoubtedly impacted the rights and lives of emerging artists in China. Contemporary artist Jin Shan, born in 1971 would have only been eight years old at the time Jinshi and the Stars were protesting for artistic freedom for himself and future generations. Jinshi’s involvement in the protests paved the way for following generations of artists such as Shan.
Shan’s 2019 sculpture titled Displaced (Figure 2) explores the extreme underrepresentation of East Asian artists’ contribution to Art History. The plastic sculpture is modelled off Praxiteles’ famous sculpture
Aphrodite of Knidos (4th century B.C.)
(Figure 3). Shan’s work depicts Aphrodite from shoulders up in a romantic pale pink hue. Her profile from the right-hand side appears as perfected and accurate as the original, however as you move around the piece you see the work slowly morphing into a hollow and mutated form. The entire left-hand side of Aphrodite has been removed and hollowed out, revealing her disfigured internal structure. The work has an unsightly alien quality to it; her face grotesque and melted into a tactually seductive form. As a consequence of The Stars group exposure to Western art history, access to this global art history narrative has become far more obtainable.
however critiques the notion of a global art history narrative through its intentional dichotomous composition. This considered erasure of half of the sculpture references the complete excision of any valuable contribution to Art History from East Asians. Despite the acknowledgment and permeation of a globalised international society, it seems regressive to not extend this development to non-colonial countries.
For further evidentiary support of this interpretation, Figure 4 depicts a ‘Retired Pillar’ laying horizontally on a pedestal. The 2010 sculpture Retired Pillar by Shan further emphasises his frustration that European Art History has been credited as the pillar and foundation for all great artistic development.
Shan’s stance on the underlying prevalence of the racial inequality within an art history context is particularly evident in the under-representation of Asian art in transnational galleries and museums in comparison to their European counterparts. The extreme lack of acknowledgement of Asia’s significance and role in art on a global scale underpins the Eurocentric localisation of Art History throughout the ages.
In response to the evolution of circumstances in The People’s Republic of China, Jinshi’s 2008 installation artwork Power and Country (权力与江山) (2008) highlights the generational differences between Jinshi and Shan. As an instigator of change, Jinshi is renowned for his critiques of the Chinese governmental system. Figure 5 attests to this understanding through its choice of scale and colour. The vivid red wall which references tonally the shade of red used in communist propaganda sits in the centre of an empty room. The extreme scale of the wall emphasises the black sedan which has intentionally crashed through it, revealing a jagged star shaped tear in the wall's structure. Based on his involvement in the Cultural Revolution, it is likely that this work is a commentary on the damaging impacts the Communist regime has ensued on its country’s future.
From a globally inclusive perspective, the international consequences of The People’s Republic of China’s governmental power struggle have vastly increased tension within its relationships to other nations. The fear instilled in the Communists' own people has bled into the oceans and resurfaced in intercontinental socio-political discussions. Western society’s choice to remain silent on the continued oppression the Chinese public is exposed to, has only heightened the obvious friction which is preventing a genuine transnational assimilation between cultures, which is particularly evident in the Global Art History narrative. Contemporary art prides itself on its inherently liberal nature; a dialogue which Jinshi and Shan have continued to contribute to for years. If it is indeed true that we are entering the Asian century, then we as a global art community have the opportunity to invest in understanding the significance of Asia’s history. By doing so, we can take the liberty to contextualise our own future and form a genuine transnational network.
Figure 1. Still Life with Umbrella by Zhu Jinshi, 1979, Oil on Canvas
Figure 2. Displaced by Jin Shan, 2019, plastic, wire and pps. 405 x 405 x 805 mm
Aphrodite of Knidos
by Praxiteles, c. 4th century B.C, Plaster Cast. Gallery of Classi Art in Hostinné.
Figure 4. Retired Pillar by Jin Shan, 2010, Installation. 3000 x 1200 x 400 mm
Figure 5. Power and Country by Zhu Jinshi, 2010, Installation. Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong/Shanghai.
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