Stages of History | Rent Collection Courtyard

Cultural Revolution, Chapter 2; Expatriate Artist Updates Maoist Icon and Angers Old Guard

The New York Times, August 17, 2000, Sec. E, p. 1
By Erik Eckholm

With a typically enigmatic installation that won high honors at the most recent Venice Biennale, the expatriate Conceptual artist Cai Guo-Qiang has unexpectedly achieved every artist's dream: he has provoked a debate, long overdue, in his officially stifled native country about the meaning of art, originality and the avant-garde.

At the center of a lively discussion among artists and scholars in seminars, journals and popular newspapers is Mr. Cai's partial re-creation in Venice last year of a famous work of 1960's propaganda called "Rent Collection Yard."

The original, a Socialist Realist tableau of 114 clay sculptures depicting the ways a cruel landlord exploited his peasants, still stands where it was made, in a former landowner's courtyard in Sichuan Province. In the late 1960's and early 1970's during the Cultural Revolution, it was praised by Mao's powerful wife, Jiang Qing, and fiberglass duplicates toured China and other Communist countries.

To Mr. Cai's professed astonishment, his anachronistic reconstruction of this icon of class struggle in the rarefied air of the Venice Biennale -- he describes it as a meditation on time, sculpture and history -- has stirred outrage in China, and the startling threat of a lawsuit. One critic denounced his work as a postmodern approach to postcolonial imperialism.

The debate began in earnest this spring when some of the original 1960's sculptors at the Sichuan Academy of Art in Chongqing announced plans to bring legal action against Mr. Cai and the Biennale for copyright infringement.

To outsiders accustomed to the role that appropriation plays in contemporary art, such a lawsuit may occupy a position between naive and absurd, especially since it involves a collectively produced work of public art made in an era when the very idea of intellectual property was spat upon.

But the ensuing debate has exposed the wildly different artistic sensibilities that coexist in China today, as well as the nationalistic resentment stirred by Chinese artists who succeed abroad. Most instructively, it has brought out defenders who are trying to explain just why a modern work like Mr. Cai's can carry a meaning different from its source. "This debate has become a work of performance art in itself," said Wang Mingxian, a Beijing art historian. Mr. Wang extols the visual power of the original tableau, but along with many Beijing intellectuals he appreciates Mr. Cai's use of it in a radically different time and place, calling the Venice project a provocative transformation.

"I hope this will lead to something positive," Mr. Wang said. "Chinese people don't know a great deal about contemporary art, and they don't know what performance art is."

Government officials have not spoken out so far on the matter, but China remains a Communist dictatorship whose bureaucrats say that art should serve the people and who often forbid installations, performance art and oddity of any sort in public exhibitions.

At the same time, in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and other cities, clusters of frustrated artists are in touch with the creative frontiers in New York or Berlin and stage brief exhibitions or guerrilla performances in private.

The attackers say that Mr. Cai doesn't know much about sculpture -- he had a team of Italians and Chinese create the figures step by step in front of viewers in Venice -- and he didn't invent anything new. So what exactly did he contribute?

"I simply believe that Cai Guo-Qiang has violated our creative rights," said Wang Guanyi, a 64-year-old professor at the Sichuan academy who helped make the original tableau in 1965. "He did this without our approval."

"He might say that this is common in the world of modern art," Mr. Wang said in an interview, "but as far as I'm concerned he did nothing creative. Cai Guo-Qiang has exploited the weighty and profound impact of the original 'Rent Collection Yard.'"

In an article in the magazine Sculpture, Mr. Wang wrote: "This is different from Duchamp painting a mustache on the 'Mona Lisa,' because in that case the copyright protection time had expired. If da Vinci and Duchamp were both alive today, they would surely end up in a copyright suit."

A team of lawyers is working to build the infringement case, though they have not yet decided in what legal venue, if any, they can proceed.

The charge of creative theft has been accompanied by strident personal attacks involving Mr. Cai's expatriate status. Mr. Cai, who was born in 1957, left for Japan in 1986 and later moved to New York. With acclaimed installations in Japan, Europe, the United States and Australia, he is one of a handful of Chinese-born stars on the global art scene.

In one of his best known events, he ignited a spiral of helium-filled balloons and firecrackers in downtown Hiroshima, creating the impression of terrible fires being sucked back into the earth; next month he plans a large installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The Chinese press has gleefully quoted academic critics who belittle his work, describing Mr. Cai a "green card artist" or a "banana man" -- yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Such critics accuse him of pandering to malicious Western misconceptions, in the case of the Venice exhibit, scoring easy points by mocking the excesses of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

In a newspaper interview, Dao Zi, an art critic and teacher at the Sichuan Academy of Arts, called the original "Rent Collection Yard" "a milestone in the history of modern Chinese art." He condemned Mr. Cai's collaboration ith Harald Szeeman, the director of the Biennale, who had been fascinated by the original "Rent Collection Yard" and encouraged Mr. Cai to take on the project.

Mr. Dao calls this an example of postcolonial cultural imperialism in which China is demonized as backward and despotic. What's more, he charges, Mr. Cai is "using the approaches of postmodern art and his privileges as a 'green-card artist' to ingeniously violate copyright law."

Chinese of any background might be forgiven some bewilderment about the high honors awarded to Mr. Cai at the Biennale, where he won one of three international prizes. In its brief citation, the jury praised the work as "strong and surprising and perfectly balanced in its space" and noted how "the artist questions the history, function and the epic of art through temporal and physical contextual isolation."

In an interview, Mr. Cai spoke enthusiastically about the layered meanings of his Venice version of "Rent Collection Yard," which he insisted was not a high-camp parallel to Warhol's Mao portraits.

He said he had long been thinking of an installation based on the fluidity of time and that he was attracted by the narrative qualities of the Sichuan tableau, a version of which he saw as a youth.

By showing the process by which the work took shape in Venice, he said, "apart from the narrative depicted in the story, the sculptural process was also depicted as a story." Because the clay in Venice was not fired, it began cracking during the show, he explained. evoking "a life and death cycle."

Another inherent "time line," Mr. Cai said, was the history of realistic sculpture, which began in the West but was taken up in the Soviet Union and China just as the form was being all but abandoned by mainstream artists in the West. Creating the sculpture in Venice, a seat of Renaissance art, added resonance, he said. "You think of sculpture as dead, but there you saw it being reborn again."

In this final Biennale of a century that witnessed the rise and fall of socialism, Mr. Cai said, the work also evoked the relationship between art and politics. Watching the sculptors create the figures, viewers got a sense of the noble sincerity of the original artists, he said. Yet, he went on, today's viewers can also recognize the tragedy of such artists' being used by the state.

The partly completed work was finally left to disintegrate, another sign, Mr. Cai said, that "the process was most important, not the work itself."

Mr. Szeeman, who as Biennale director is another potential target of the lawsuit, said: "Cai was making his interpretation of a great monument. It could only be done by an artist with his modern sensibility."

Part of the intense interest in the project, Mr. Szeeman said in a telephone interview, reflects the recent shift toward figurative art as many Westerners grow weary of abstraction.

In Beijing in June, the editors of the magazine Avant-Garde Today held a seminar on the dispute that was attended by numerous influential Chinese artists, critics and journalists.

"I think nearly everyone at the forum felt that Cai's 'Venice-Rent Collection Yard' was a valuable work," said Shi Jian, an editor of the magazine. "Whatever differences of opinion there are about it shouldn't be settled legalistically. After all, in modern art, appropriation and quotation of previous work and traditions are very common."

"The whole dispute reflects different understandings of what art is," he said. "Chinese art has been going through massive changes, and the dispute reflects the clash of different ideas."

Such debate is healthy, Mr. Shi said, because "it's forcing art critics to shift from being purely concerned with the art itself to engaging the wider culture -- considering how art relates to society, politics and law."

Mr. Cai, who has followed the debate from afar, said he had initially been startled by the nationalistic attacks on his work but was now happy to see a counter-reaction building on his behalf.

"For many years Chinese artists working abroad were pretty much dismissed within China, seen as living in a separate world," he said. Now artists and critics in China "see that what is happening in the outside world really does affect them."

The debate has also provided a rare opportunity, he said, for contemporary art to be discussed outside of elite circles.

"Chinese artists and critics living abroad are very much interested in reaching the people of China," Mr. Cai said. "And I hope that students and artists in China will show more interest in the ideas and struggles of Chinese artists abroad."


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