BETWEEN ORDER & CHAOS

Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.”

百花齊放,百家爭鳴
(Bǎihuā qífàng, bǎijiā zhēngmíng)

Chairman Mao is the Reddest Reddest Sun in Our Heart
1967 Propaganda Poster (edit)

China was an often enigmatic experience during the decade I spent living and working there. I’ve heard it said many times before that New York be the litmus test for strength of character, but after having spent enough time in NYC myself, I don’t think it holds a candle to the stress test that is China. Not even close.

I’ve just in the last few days taken repossession of all remaining edition prints that were produced in my China studio, after 18 months of tussle between myself and the gallery reps to whom I’d consigned everything. From Covid, to exhibition delay, change, or abandonment, all the way on up to the standard ‘it’s too political’ (to show) rhetoric. The latter has always been a good catch-all for halting any further discussion in its tracks. Alas now that I’m in possession of the work, it’s all water under the bridge, and I can finally make the editions available here in the store. I’ve enjoyed looking through them again, they highlight for me many great moments spent in Chengdu, China.

I frequently incorporated Mao Zedong into my work, in spite of all the cliches. I always had great fun playing with it, but I was primarily seeking ways to convey social commentary. This was an immediate intention when I first drafted ‘Mao Money’ in 2011. The work was a meditation on how the future of money might look very different to the ‘dollar-centric’ world we’re used to, as the Renminbi rose to record levels at that time. That seems in fact quite prophetic today, when China’s central bank is trialing a digital Renminbi, and the cryptoverse is (still) predicting the death of the US dollar. The economics however were very secondary to intrigue.

When I first started showing ‘Solid States’ I was taken aback by how few people wanted to touch on it, even if they appeared to like the imagery. This tapped into the essence of what I’d been trying to convey when using his iconography. Though the people were surrounded by his legacy, they seemed compelled to turn away and avoid any engagement. I came to believe that much of this had been encoded into the people, as generations (post cultural revolution) distanced themselves from what little history they’d been afforded. How difficult I imagine this period must have been to contend with, upon the realisation that your forebearers were participant in the decimation of your cultural heritage. The knowledge that it is you who must now face the struggle of a cultural rebirth amidst continued censorship, and the subsequent deficits of national education.

Not long after Mao had passed, it was eventually deemed (by Deng Xiaoping) that the only way forward was consumption. China’s economic development defies convention, but this has been I believe at the cost of something deeper. Philosophical engagement is of no use if you’re only seeking to impress upon superficial ideologies and ambitions. I don’t intend to sound dismissive there, though I’m quite sure Edward Bernays (1891) would have been proud of the propaganda that’s driven China’s economic boom. What paradox then that I had found myself in search of personal enlightenment, in a place so wantonly disconnected from its spiritual past.

This reminds me the occasions when I’d been interviewed for various media, and would always purposefully talk about the consumerist wildfires engulfing attentions across China. I kept trying to point out the irony of there being so many talented artists producing work they couldn’t sell, whilst luxury brands appeared to have no difficulty in siphoning off the nation’s currency. Of course this isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to China, though it remains that the mainland art market is in its infancy. This became something of a private joke as time and again, magazine editors and the like made sure to omit any comments I made on China’s unstoppable appetite for branded goods.

To artists and writers, we say, “Let flowers of many kinds blossom.”
To scientists, we say, “Let diverse schools of thought contend.”

If we want art, literature and science to flourish, we must apply a policy of letting flowers of many kinds blossom, letting diverse schools of thought contend… ‘Letting flowers of many kinds blossom, diverse schools of thought contend’ means that we stand for freedom of independent thinking, of debate, of creative work; freedom to criticise and freedom to express, maintain and reserve one’s opinions on questions of art, literature or scientific research.

There’s a nice analogy to be drawn in all of this with Mao’s ‘Hundred Flowers Campaign’, originally an attempt to allow public opinion to be voiced directly toward the Communist Party. Intended to allow for, and encourage ‘constructive criticism’, the campaign eventually shape shifted into a blacklist of artists, teachers, and intellectuals, or indeed anyone else who may have voiced criticism toward Mao. The response was to call for the eradication of the “Four Olds” (四旧). These were; “old ideas (旧思想)”, “old customs (旧风俗)”, “old culture (旧文化)”, and “old habits (旧习惯)”. Mao would go on to illicit the ‘Red Guards’ youth movement, encouraging them to essentially tear up any cultural remnants of the past that did not represent the Communist party ideology and aesthetic. It is this latter point that is most evident across China today, as the landscape is perpetually engulfed by concrete structures of same.

I continue to think about much of this any time I look upon the works created in China. It was a living, breathing manifestation of order and chaos, occasionally punctured by dissenting voice. The reflection this time afforded me was priceless, and I would urge anyone with either the inclination or opportunity to experience it for themselves.

Please feel free to leave a comment below and engage, or reach out to me directly; brendan@anotherart.space

I’d love it too if you’d consider subscribing to occasional artwork/content updates below. Fear not, I won’t be spamming you, but I would very much like to have your feedback even if that means you think I’ve missed the mark on something. All voices welcome!

Thanks for reading, and until next time be well.

References:

Edward Bernays is a fascinating character, having pioneered social engineering on a grand scale. The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays capitalised on the emerging social sciences to procure vast political and economic influence, well into the twentieth century, and in the process shape the very fabric of modern society.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Bernays

The “quoted” texts are taken from Lu Dingyi’s Supreme State Conference address in May, 1956. As Propaganda Director, Lu Dingyi was responsible for the original “Hundred Flowers’ campaign.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lu_Dingyi

The Hundred Flowers Campaign

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundred_Flowers_Campaign

As I’m finishing this up I’ve been listening through some old ‘tunes’, and landed on Photek’s ‘Complex’ (1995). Photek, a U.K. artist prolific in the 90’s was responsible for numerous seminal releases within the (then) avant-garde genre of Drum & Bass.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3VIv7b9WMc

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