The Art of Revolution

Photo: Thomas Fuesser, Xu Zhen, 2015


In 2011, the China Academy of Art (CAA) in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, aided by the municipal and provincial governments, purchased a collection of European design pieces from German collector Torsten Br.han. The collection will be the anchor collection of the planned China Design Museum in Hangzhou, which would in turn reinforce the position of Zhejiang Province as a creative design and manufacturing centre within China. Central to the purchase was a group of over 300 pieces of Bauhaus-related objects. The Bauhaus pieces were subsequently displayed at the National Museum of China, in an exhibition titled “Design as Enlightenment: The Bauhaus Collection of the China Design Museum”, which opened on 28 October 2014 in Beijing, the country’s political capital.

On 15 October 2014, two weeks before the opening of the exhibition at the National Museum of China, Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China and General Secretary of the Communist Party, delivered a landmark speech at the Beijing Forum on Literature and Art, essentially outlining the CCP’s stewardship on the role of the arts. In it, Xi laid out five “issues” pertaining to artistic production in China—1) that Chinese culture is intrinsically tied to the wellbeing of the nation; 2) that art must  reflect the zeitgeist, and must recognize the market,new technologies, etc., but must also strive for quality over quantity; 3) that art must be by the people and of the people; 4) that Socialist art must find its basis in Chinese values and tradition, even while we acknowledge and learn from foreign cultures; and 5) that the CCP must strengthen leadership over the arts.

Xi’s speech is remarkable in its self-conscious referencing of Mao’s famous speech on literature and art held in May 1942 in Yan’an, a veritable rappel . l’ordre for artists in service of society. Similarities notwithstanding, Xi’s speech foregrounded the relation of the arts and society within a different context from Mao’s: that of an increasingly globalized and digitized China, where the Party is poised to take cultural leadership not only on the national level, but on the world stage. Xi also expanded on his definition of art from Mao’s to include architecture and design—when the speech was first delivered, Xi’s supposed castigation of “strange architecture” often accompanied by works of foreign or foreign-trained architects such as Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid, was widely reported with the assumption that such foreign-led, and often expensive designs were opposed to the spirit of artistic production as espoused by Xi.

In many ways, the call for the arts and design to respond to a nation building agenda found in Xi’s speech can be found in the history of the Bauhaus. The early influence of the Bauhaus in China was particularly centred around Shanghai, the most cosmopolitan city in China in the early part of the 20th century. This was facilitated by returning Chinese designers trained in Europe and the United States, and foreign practitioners based in Shanghai, who built both private and public commissions. Nor was the influence of modernism restricted solely to architectural production. Richard Paulick, who worked with Gropius in Dessau and Berlin, had emigrated to Shanghai in the 1930s and was a key figure in drafting the 1949 masterplan for Shanghai prior to the fall of the Nationalist Government. Huang Zuoshen, a student of Gropius’ at Harvard GSD, returned to Shanghai to establish an architecture program at Shanghai’s St John’s University in 1942, one that was predicated on the Vorkurs at the Bauhaus.

In the same year that Huang established the architecture program at St John’s University, Mao delivered his seminal speech at Yan’an, laying the roadmap for the role of artistic production for the following decades. A rousing battle cry for the Communist revolution, Mao’s speech sought to reposition art “for the people” by setting up oppositional terms along Marxist lines—artistic value is derived only from the masses; Shanghai, the nexus of modernity and modernism in China, was seen as emblematic of the problem of artistic production by the rarefied avant-garde. Art was to serve the people through the lens of political ideology, “popularization”, and a rejection of “art for art’s sake”.

The after-effects of Mao’s speech would have a tremendous impact on Chinese artistic production in the following three decades. Artists turned to tradition and crafts for inspiration, both in form and content—woodblock prints, once experimented upon by the left-leaning avant-garde in the 1930s, took on a distinct pall of folk culture as it became a powerful tool of political propaganda. Chinese dance and music productions such as “The White-Haired Girl” articulated the class struggle of the proletariat against the oppressive bourgeoisie.In architecture, literature, and art, socialist realism was enshrined over abstraction and modernism, which were seen to be out of touch with the everyday. Politically, the speech was an important milestone in the Rectification Movement. Its call for art to reify socialist politics and the rejection of the avant-garde would pave the way for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

The privileging of vernacular arts and craft-forms is significant. In 1923, four years after the declaration of the “Bauhaus Manifesto and Programme”, Gropius, realizing that the future lay in modern industrialization rather than a return to traditional craft, reworked the art-craft axis to become “art and technology—a new unity”. The Communist Party similarly recognized industrialization, similarly with art, as fundamental to the future of the China, instituting programmes such as the Great Leap Forward and mass collectivization to accelerate the nation’s industrial production. Yet the artistic and industrial spheres would be brought into a different relationship with each other—while scenes of industry, technology and science were depicted in artistic production, they were framed in purely representational terms, in contrast to the art—technology gestalt embodied in the Bauhaus mission.

It would, however, be erroneous to say that the Communist victory in the civil war brought about the demise of Bauhaus ideology in China. In 1951, St John’s University was integrated into Tongji University. Tongji, in its direct genealogy from St John’s and through Huang Zuoshen, has been seen as the bulwark of Bauhaus design in China. Even through the Mao years, professionals from Tongji produced modernist designs such as Wenyuan Hall, seen as Tongji’s answer to the Bauhaus Building in Dessau. Similarly, between 1947 and 1952, Liang Sicheng, the University of Pennsylvania-educated founder of the architecture programme at Tsinghua University, attempted to institute a Bauhaus-inspired curriculum. Ultimately, Tsinghua University’s architectural programme, in its interest in historical revivalism, would come to be aligned with the Beaux-Arts tradition, and by extension, with a national (as opposed to an international) style. Nonetheless, the Party’s attitude to architecture is seen in the fates of their respective founders—Liang became a lionized figure in Chinese architectural history and is associated with the state-approved Big Roof style, while Huang faced political persecution before and during the Cultural Revolution.

The purging of intellectuals and so-called “right-wing” artists that culminated in the Cultural Revolution would give way to a more tolerant attitude by the end of the 1970s. With the open-door policy and Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, state control over artistic production relaxed in the next decade. Even though many subjects, including sex, vice, violence, and criticism of the Party were still considered taboo and subject to censorship, artists now had access to once-forbidden ideas and artistic movements. From the 1980s onwards, Chinese intellectuals, and artists would once again take on the mantle of the historical avantgarde in producing art aimed at critical reflection and political agitation.

As the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 became increasingly distant, China was also seeing the fruits of Deng’s economic reforms—new forms of technology, a liberalization of state and media, the rise of a wealthy middle class meant that artists dealing with the everyday and social sphere had to reorient their form and content. Xu Zhen’s Supermarket (2007) embodied this shift—his installation of empty cans and bottles within a new space of commercialization invited audiences to purchase, if not consume his art. The work, in its intertextuality and immediacy to the everyday, drew on both foreign and local historical and artistic references, highlighting the complex relation of artists to larger geopolitical and economic networks in post-reform China. Artists like Wang Guangyi and Feng Mengbo appropriated state propaganda through new “popular” media such as advertising and video games.

Industry and art would continue to interact in a new way in late 20th-century China. The market reforms resulted in the reorganization of industrial production in China, moving centers of production to the fringes or hinterland. China’s trajectory of de-industrialization mirrored that of western cities, only at a far accelerated pace. Spaces of industry gave way to spaces of artistic incubation, such as M50 in Shanghai and the 798 Art Zone in Beijing. This adaption of industrial spaces for artistic production was both top-down, aided by local policies that recognized the perceived benefits of such spatial rehabilitation, and bottom-up, with enterprising artists forming strategic alliances with local resident and developer groups. In a significant way, China was also having its own “Werkbund moment” by the early 21st century—the global financial crisis of 2008 resulted in a rethinking of China’s model of export manufacturing.

In 2009, the government announced a new plan focusing on raising the quality of its own industrial manufacturing output. Called “From ‘Made in China’ to ‘Created in China,’” the economic strategy aimed to strengthen the local design industry from perceived foreign threats. Together with other landuse and zoning policies facilitating the change of use from industrial to cultural, this resulted in a boom of so-called “creative clusters”, many adapted from factory campuses. Nonetheless, while the policies aimed at a larger category of “culture”, it also unwittingly set the stage of the competition between art and design, with artists being increasingly pushed out of rehabilitated industrial sites by creative industries with higher capital investment.

It is within this new globalized and market-driven context that we should look at the significance of Xi’s speech at the Beijing Forum on Literature and Art, as well as the Bauhaus collection purchased by the CAA and the city of Hangzhou. If Mao’s Yan’an speech and the “Created in China” policy peddled in a more confrontational rhetoric (Hu Jintao, the ex-president of the PRC announced in 2013 that “China must strengthen its cultural production to defend against the West’s assault on the country’s culture and ideology”), Xi’s approach provides a more nuanced reading of global relations as it pertains to artistic production. In it, Xi exhorts that “[W]e [the Chinese] must earnestly study and learn from the excellent literature and art created by the people of all countries in the world. Only by persisting in using the foreign for China’s benefit, pioneering and innovation, combining Chinese and Western content, and mastering this through comprehensive study will it be possible for our country’s literature and art to flourish and develop.”

Significantly, the 2015 release of the transcript of the speech a year after it was made had redacted the comments on “strange architecture” and the implications on foreign and experimental design practices, and the China Design Museum by local Prizker Award-winner Wang Shu in collaboration with Alvaro Siza and Carlos Castanheira is on track for completion. It would be idle to speculate if a major Bauhaus exhibition in Beijing had an effect on this. At the same time, Xi’s call to strengthen Chinese art and design culture does not preclude an active engagement with foreign cultures, even if a nationalist agenda was articulated in the speech.

It remains to be seen how Xi’s speech will impact the state of the arts and design in China in the long run, and how the Bauhaus collection and the China Design Museum, being ensconced within an academic setting, can actively engage the social. Indeed, some scholars have already observed that the Bauhaus collection in Hangzhou risks omitting the larger historical and geopolitical implications of the movement, thereby reducing the works to objects of formal study in order to further strengthen the national economic and strategic agendas.
China and the Bauhaus
The closure of the Bauhaus in Germany in the 1930s is closely linked to the perception of its orientation and teaching as politically leftist and internationalist. What influence did Meyer’s credo of “popular demand instead of luxury demand” have on the art and architecture of Communist China?

Koon Wee (Singapore) is a program director at the Faculty of Architecture of The University of Hong Kong. He advises government agencies and non-profit organizations. Together with Darren Zhou he founded the renowned SKEW Collaborative.





This article was written by Koon Wee and was published at the magazine "bauhaus now #2 – Where does the Future Take Space?".

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