Written by Yanshuang Zhang.
Guo Jian, a globally acclaimed artist, may not be widely recognised back in China. The Chinese Australian artist’s name has become a sensitive word on Chinese Internet, where the only searchable news about him is about his detainment by Chinese authorities in 3 June 2014, just one day before the 25th anniversary of the June Fourth event. After that, he was banned from entering China for 5 years.
The controversial artwork that put him in this situation was titled “The Square”, a diorama of Tiananmen Square covered in 160 kilograms of minced pork meat. The artist claimed that the work represented the rapid urbanisation of China, a process which frequently sees cultural landmarks demolished, and that nothing was safe if we continue down this road, not even the strongest symbols of Chinese culture. The pork meat was explained as a sign that everything will go rotten. Apparently the Chinese government did not take kindly to his interpretation of the iconic political landmark in view of the sensitive timing of his art-making. His history as a student demonstrator in 1989 would only make the situation worse. The artwork was destroyed immediately by police after he was taken away from his studio in Beijing.
Later when Guo was back in Australia, he admitted in the interviews that he did create the artwork to privately commemorate the Tiananmen Square event, and that he felt he needed to speak up about the event that was still taboo in the mainland. And in late September of 2014 when he went to Hong Kong to reunite with his parents, he found himself joining the pro-democracy protest again, instead of staying out of trouble and muting himself politically. In October, he went on to bring his new “meat city”- a mix up of landmarks from different cities- to the New York exhibition titled “#Surrender”. He stopped in Ferguson, Missouri, where civil unrest over the police shooting of a black teenager led to widespread protest, to inform his new work, and then collaborated with artist Marcus Eriksen, a former US marine who served in Iraq, to create a pair of anti-war memorials: Guo’s meat city and a contemporary, anti-militaristic take on the iconic Iwo Jima sculpture.
Guo’s artistic choice is not made by any chance. Born and raised during the most turbulent period of modern China, a period that included the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Sino-Vietnamese war, and the Tiananmen Square movement, Guo ‘s art is heavily influenced by the social ethos of those times. His experience in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as a poster painter provides Guo’s art with the source of his central theme: the propagandistic arts that motivate soldiers and sway public opinion. His paintings often use images of females in army uniforms, and highlight the implied innocence and the underlying eroticism of women used to motivate and manipulate male soldiers and common public in society. The traumatic nature of his military experience used to torment him with nightmares, but painting has become Guo’s special therapy that alleviates such symptoms.
As an artist Guo also explores other common themes and approaches in both Chinese propaganda and Western propaganda. Yet on the whole his style falls within one of the most popular Chinese contemporary art movement – cynical realism – that began in the 1990s in Beijing. The core of cynical realism lies in the pursuit of individual expression and breaking away from the collective mindset that long existed in the Chinese psyche. Its majors themes tend to focus on socio-political issues and social movements since revolutionary China (1911). In this sense, artworks associated with cynical realism are intrinsically political and critical, which may easily draw fire from the Chinese government against the artists. Unfortunately, Guo has become one of them.
Among many of Guo’s contemporaries, Shen Jiawei, Australia’s leading portrait artist, once included a portrait of Guo Jian entitled “Guo Jian and Elly” in his exhibition at the Australian Portrait Gallery. As a winner of the 2006 Sir John Sulman Prize, Shen’s more playful works examine political and cross-cultural issues through appropriation. His primary reputation came from his “revolutionary” images of workers and soldiers, and gained popularity with the Chinese government therefrom. His large-scale history pictures are often represented in major public collections, including the National Art Gallery of China and the Museum of the Chinese Revolution. Similar to Guo, he emigrated to Australia after the Tiananmen event, but adopted a quite different approach in terms of looking back at history and expressing political experience in his artworks. As Chen Danqing, a famous Chinese painter observes, Chen cherishes rather than escapes from his political experience of being fooled, fiercely questions the betrayed revolution, and in the historicising passion attempts to rescue, and reserve revolutionary paintings, and to make them truly revolutionary.
Comparing the different fate of the two artists, we cannot help but think about the complex relationship between the arts and politics. As they respond to events and politics existing at or occurring in the same period of time, arts take on political as well as social dimensions, becoming themselves a focus of controversy and even a force of political as well as social change. A society’s tolerant level of arts, in particular those “revolutionary” ones, depends on the fundamental nature of the political systems they take root in. Thus the conflict between the arts and tyrannical governments seems to be predestined, as such governments tend to view anything outstanding and creative as straying from the dominant ideology, a jarring note and a stride towards revolution. So in this sense, Guo is a courageous activist whose art explicitly problematizes authority, domination and oppression and seeks to alter the current situation. A quotation by Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei may best illustrate the value of Guo’s art:
In any society, if there is going to be change, it will take individuals, who come from different backgrounds to show a true concern about the human condition and the rights of people of different groups and the demands of those different groups……and those individuals, who are devoted to facing this kind of system, must make people aware of the situation and search for possible better ways. Very often that does not happen immediately. But I think they are visionaries, because they believe and trust in humanity.
Yanshuang Zhang is a lecturer at Guangxi University, China. The image was provided by the author and was originally shared on social media by Guo Jian himself.