Avant Garde Protest in China: Commodity Packaging, Serial Reproduction, Totemism, and Blank Faces

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Early After-Mao Protest Art, but against What and FOR what?

The themes and images of self-styled protest art of the early Deng Xiaoping years (1978-1989) are by now so well known as to have become virtual cliches. They share many icons and certainly a insubordinate irreverence for State iconographies – mainly Mao of course but extending outward to the Qin terracotta warriors, even state currency…..

It is no accident that there is so much repetition both within individual works and across the collective, for the movement that spawned this first post-Mao generation of painting and sculpting was in fact a kinds of small political party (it had 23 original members), called (misleadingly in English) the “Star” group (in Chinese xingxing meizhan 星星美展 or something like Brushfire Museum – the term Star-Star originating from Mao’s “A Single Spark can Ignite a (Revolutionary) Prairie Fire .

As the name so well emblemizes, the participants had political objectives, though they were not separated out from aesthetics, if that is the right term. Like the ad hoc art (and other) students’ leagues in the 1848 and other street-protest movements in France, they were anarchist to the bone, thus self-persuaded that bold demonstration by “the few” would and should entice “the many” into SPONTANEOUS likeminded political/cultural street action.

In the end, that hope was fulfilled a decade later, in May-June of 1989, though by that time the agitprop “museumers”‘s iconography had faded, to be replaced by manifestos, placards, and of course Lady Liberty – very largely because that was the resistance vocabulary then gaining ground in the Soviet-colonized puppet states of Eastern Europe.

But, though, as I shall try to show, the symbolism – or rather allegory – hoisted by the ’79-ers was a kind of graffiti art meaningful for time and place but drawing on nothing larger (most of its practitioners swiftly moved on to higher goals), American collectors went to the end of their bank accounts (many quite large) to acquire those relics from the 79-ers that had made it out of the country, or which were reissued by the original creators in US or European exile.

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