Burned into the Collective Memory: Mao Zedong.
The presence of the past in the paintings of Shi Xinning ( de )

Galerie Arndt & Partner, Berlin-Zurich, 2008-04-18 - 2008-05-24

When Mao Zedong died, Shi Xinning was seven years old. The artist’s Mao series, begun in 2000, shows the founder of modern China and hard-line proponent of isolationist politics in a wide variety of international contexts.

It thus recalls something that, given the speed with which today’s future-oriented China is integrating itself into the process of globalization, threatens to be forgotten – that in all his ambivalence, the still (and now increasingly) venerated Great Chairman has become a part of Chinese collective memory.

Shi Xinning retrospectively corrects the unbalanced power relation; by inserting Mao into his painted photographs of film stars and leading figures from the worlds of art, literature and politics, Shi depicts the “hero of the Long March” not only as a politician but as a sociable guest, easy conversationalist and lover of art. It is an artistic intervention that brings into focus the fact that nothing was further from Mao’s mind than the furtherance of cultural dialogue or assigning even the slightest importance to artistic freedom. The once sacrosanct ruler becomes a game token that can be played in whatever context we choose. In speculative mode, Shi Xinning sounds out the discursive constellations of historical (im)possibility.

The first of his Mao paintings, Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition (2000–2001) – we see Mao inspecting Fountain, Duchamp’s legendary urinal –, immediately became a classic. It was a triumph of free artistic creation, a vehement challenge to the reduction of art to the propagandist socialist realism that had been practiced for decades, even after Mao’s death. In Shi’s works Mao is required to be and do what he denied his people; he becomes a dedicated protagonist of political events in the capitalist West, and lounges in a bourgeois manner next to high-society beauties on sofas or in villa gardens.

The paintings of Tiananmen Square show how only a very few references are needed to activate the pop-up menu of interpretative possibilities related to this cult figure of modern China. These canvases do not depict the Chairman himself, but simply indicate his distant portrait with a perfunctory brushstroke. In Sacrifice (2005), Shi implants the heroine of The Girl with White Hair, one of the best known Chinese revolutionary operas, into a war photograph by Robert Capa. An almost unsurpassable insult reveals itself in Dressing Room (2007), where the “savior of the Chinese people” is unceremoniously banished to a changing room with scantily clad, scrawny models. The provocative cropping of Mao’s head above the chin tarnishes his image.

In L’être (2007) Shi Xinning places the political philosopher Mao next to the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. The work is based on a photograph of Sartre looking at the misty Seine. The title L’être is an unmistakable reference to Sartre’s main work L’être et le néant (Being and Nothingness, 1943), and one imagines a conversation between the two men, both of them Communists concerned with human liberation, yet utterly different in their attitudes to the self-determination of the individual this implies. The one, Sartre, who argued that the being (“existence”) of the individual precedes his or her divine purpose or meaning (“essence”), thus confronting each of us with the task of defining our own aim in life; the other, Mao, who put forward an opposite argument, subjugating individual aspirations to the maxim of anti-bourgeois Communist China. Perhaps they might have been able to talk to one another by the beclouded river, and to consider the questions of whether perception of the world depends on the individual, and of the role of humankind in the world.

This work aptly exemplifies the artistic intention to which Shi Xinning repeatedly draws attention in conversation: visual narrative. He refuses to classify his canvases as collages, as the inner logic of the entire scene is important to him, despite the obvious false contexts of some of his images. “I want to tell apparently absurd stories. But I still find it important that a context of meaning emerge through the image’s interpretation. Naturally, for the Chinese viewer this is usually different from how it is for a Westerner.” 1

1 Quote translated from an interview that took place on July 20, 2007 in Peking.

First published: Checkpoint #5, 2008, the gallery review of Galerie Arndt & Partner, Berlin/Zurich