Yin Zhaoyang:The Suspension of Opposition (Without
Robert C. Morgan
For most Westerners the concept of the individual as being separate from the collective whole is something quite foreign. While many Americans, for example, would see the individual as the motivating force behind their style of corporate oligarchy, the attitude of most Chinese would probably move less in the direction of the individual than towards a form of collective consciousness by which to unify a national position. Yet in recent years the subtle collision between these two notions – the individual and the collective — has emerged not only as the result of an accelerated economic boom in China, but also has engendered a shifting psychological and social awareness, largely stemming from the advent of global capitalism. (1) The impact of this shifting awareness is the predominant notion that runs through much of the figurative painting, sculpture, photography, film, and other new media forms in the new Chinese art, which begins in the eighties. These ravaging and disparate new works were made by artists who were born either proceeding or during the Cultural Revolution. With the eighties came the growth of a market economy cautiously instigated by Deng Xiaoping that would have an indirect, yet unpredictable impact on advanced art. A provocative new momentum in art, previously unknown to China, suddenly became evident as artists struggled for global recognition. (2) Yet, at the center of this outward struggle lay the lingering internal conflict between the individual and the collective – a bifurcated struggle that required more than a simple aesthetic or purely conceptual response. The implicit tension between the outward and inward struggle – toward a post-ideological identity — haunts much of the avant-garde work produced in China over the past two decades. Even so, some Western artists, who regard these works as existing outside of a psychological and social context, are less prone to realize the deeply embedded impact of this dichotomy. Fueled by the media and by rumors of an explosive art market in China, Westerners tend to
(mis)read the current avant-garde as the product of clever entrepreneurship, rather than as a reaction to the reverberating consequences of censorship and repression during the Maoist years. While the marketing of art and the rise of investment strategies are clearly symptomatic of this reaction, the cause and effect historical underpinnings cannot be omitted from the current reality. It is important to recognize that much of the complicity between the art media and marketing strategies that affects the sale of Chinese avant-gardism has come from interests in Europe and America, not entirely from inside China. Still, there are cultural misreadings that may extend to China as well as the West, but in a slightly different form. In the eighties, when crumbled images from art magazines promoting neo-expressionism, transavantgardia, arte povera, and post-conceptualism arrived in China, they were often deciphered as icons of capitalism that escaped the irony implanted within the structure of signs. It was a problem of interpreting the visual semiotics. Yet, in some ways, it was also the absence of irony in these appropriations, reinterpreted by Chinese artists in the eighties that gave this work its inherent strength and its power of originality.
I mention this as an introduction to the work of Yin Zhaoyang, because it is an issue that is often addressed in relation to his work, particularly the series of Maoist portraits and, to some extent, his colorful plastic Pop figures, all generally titled “Passing by Mao Zedong.” However, these are not the only works that bear evidence of the artist’s allegiance and conflict to the time at which he was born (1970). There are well-known traces in his early so-called “Youth Cruelty” paintings, which depicts sexual violence, abrasive portraits, delinquent gestures, or paintings of boys mindlessly picking up large stones, almost as a testament to the Sisyphean legend in ancient Greek mythology. Of course, these works were done at an earlier than the Mao series, presumably without self-censorship, as statements of frustration over the artist’s identity in the distraught years following the passing of Chairman Mao. Clearly, the Great Leader was the all-pervasive, patriarchal figure, endemic to the artist’s youth. (3)
Yin Zhaoyang’s virtual identification with Mao is interesting, and may at times appear excessive. There is some debt to the blurring style used in Gerhard Richter’s portraits, both in 2003, where the artist depicts himself seated next to Mao or is looking at him in the blinding light, and in 2006 where he portrays Mao towards the end of his life (as Mao was represented in photographs). When asked in an interview about his reasons for doing the Mao series, the artist responded: “I just want to draw him in a new way, a way in which I could see him in a normal Chinese’s eyes who lives in the 21st century. After thirty years of his death, I want to represent a distance, a distance between his time and ours.”
Like other artists of his generation, avant-garde painters older than himself preceded Yin Zhaoyang – painters who were also absorbed with photographs and painted portraits of the Great Leader. These included the paintings of Li Shan (b. 1944), one of the earliest painters to incorporate forbidden sexualized, androgynous imagery into his paintings or to show shadowy images of the young Mao in Shanbei in the thirties. Other artists included the Pop styles images of Yu You Han (b. 1943), in which Mao is shown with flower patterns surrounding him in a nearly comic style, or younger artists, such as Wang Ziwei (b. 1963) and Lui Wei (b. 1965). The discrepancy of style in the work of artists, such as Li Shan and Yu You Han, in contrast to that of Wang Ziwei and Lui Wei — literally born a generation apart — is interesting. In the latter case, the images of Mao appear to hold much less critical tension. Is this because they had no previous memory by which to compare Mao with the monarchy of the past? Was Mao, in fact, their “father figure” as well as the ultimate patriarch? For example, the paintings by Lui Wei, called the “Revolutionary Family” series, reveal portraits of Mao in the background of a household scene as if he were the divine protectorate of the family. The artist Wang Ziwei echoes this point of view: “I prefer reading books by Mao Zedong to philosophy books. Mao’s understanding of freedom is much more profound than that of an intellectual … Mao cares for the masses and communicates with them. This is quite a Pop attitude.” (4) Wang’s paintings of Mao are a fashionably explicit Pop art appearance, not unrelated to the portraits of the American Pop artist Andy Warhol.
By the end of the eighties, Warhol was becoming a household name among Chinese artists in that he represented the trends of the new era, the post-Mao era, and the era of corporate enterprise, expensive wristwatches, BMWs, and luxury Condos. One might visually argue – as the artist Zeng Fanzhi has shown in his recent portraits/landscapes – that the weirdly asexual image of Andy Warhol, who died in 1987, has somehow overlaid, if not usurped the image of Chairman Mao. (5) Does this suggest that Warhol has become the new icon of contemporaneity in terms of life-styles among the fast-growing wealthy young entrepreneurs in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou? This takes us back to the question of the individual and the collective and the consequential identity crisis that has come to occupy people of all ages in China? Exactly where does the status quo exist? Is it still within the collective consciousness promised by Chairman Mao or has it shifted radicality – as Zeng Fanzhi’s recent paintings suggest – toward the individual entrepreneur whose concerns are elsewhere in territories made accessible through globalization, but not necessary fixed on China?
Enter Yin Zhaoyang, who was born halfway through the Revolution. His numerous paintings of Chairman Mao at various stages of the leader’s life may, at first glance, verge on an obsession. In the famous portrait of 1936, the artist intentionally montages his own face into the portrait of Mao, thereby uniting himself with the Great Leader. Within the mythos of art, they stand as one. Conceivably, the paintings of Mao by Yin Zhaoyang outnumber those by any artist who painted the Great Leader prior to him, even those who were hired as official portraitists. The critic Zhu Qi interprets the Mao series by Yin Zhaoyang as a project that ultimately deflates the image of Mao as “a symbol of the soul.”(6) Instead of retaining the old symbol as the spiritual father of the Revolution, Mao is transformed into a symbol of self-creation, ironically uniting the scope of previous history as it connects with the commercially laden present. According to Zhu Qi, the artist has further cleansed the image of Mao of any ideological connotations and thus has given it instead “the representation of a human and spiritual purgatory that unites modernity and self in conflict.” (7) If we follow Zhu Qi’s argument, the artist’s project further suggests that the conflict of a split identity sustained by the presence of the individual self in relation to collective consciousness may find repair once Mao’s image is understood not from the perspective of harsh systems of control and influence, but rather from a more humanistic perspective of seeing Mao in the throes of self-purgatory. This spiritual search for the self within the context of collective consciousness is what Zhu Qi believes Yin Zhaoyang has clarified through the Mao series.
After the Mao series, Yin Zhaoyang moves through an expressionist phase related to the “Youth Cruelty” series, in a sculpture entitled “The Twilight of A Man.” The sculpture carries a more extreme visceral aspect as a decaying figure represented in three-dimensions, a ghoulish figure verging on a kind of existential euphoria. “The Twilight of A Man” is a kind of installation in which a skeletal figure in resin and plastic is covered with clay and wax. Over a duration of time, a welding torch is used to disintegrate the figure. By the conclusion of the exhibition, most of what remains is the skeletal armatures. In the original installation, the artist mounted paintings of “the poet” around the two sculptural figures – one male, the other female –that were presented as a tableau. The poet represented a youthful ideal that has been cast to the winds of fate. From a Western perspective, “In the Twilight of A Man” may be read as a work about vanitas given to overt narcissism and self-indulgence. Yet Chinese viewers may see this work as a re-emergence of conflict between the collective and individual self still struggling for resolution – a perennial theme that infuses most of the artist’s work. (7) Philosophically, the crux of the problem resides here. One might argue that within our postmodern globalized era of high transition, there is no resolution. The belief in resolution was the tragedy of the twentieth century. Through Freud, we learned that Oedipus believed in a perennial search, insisting that a resolution could be found, that opposites could find synchronicity, and that contrasting antipodes could become one. If postmodernism has any meaning in terms of actuality, it is this — opposites cannot be forced into a resolution. Instead, we might discover a fresh perspective on time within history through the suspension of opposites within a similar field of energy. On the surface this may sound more like Lao-tse than postmodernism, but in the case of Yin Zhaoyang’s “In the Twilight of A Man,” we might consider the absence of resolution within the realm of the poet. Is absence, after all, not the poet’s concern? To seek the moment of emptiness within nature through the passing of time and to sense through feeling that exhilarating instant. “In the Twilight of A Man,” what is left in the end is only the absence, the non-being of nature and the given forces that manifest its construction. The message that transmits in Yin Zhaoyang’s installation is the embodiment of poetry as a force that emanates through the momentary physical self.
The sign of events as they reveal themselves in historical time is essential in realizing the evolution of nature. This is where the recent paintings and sculpture of Yin Zhaoyang reveal their internal necessity, their passion, and their intention. What began as a series of paintings representing the space of Tian An Men square in 2006 – the space of absence – soon was occupied with people. Gradually within a few months the people gathered into larger and larger crowds of spectators, wanderers, visitors, beggars, and tourists — ordinary people functioning within the space and time of their everyday lives. Eventually, the traditional buildings that identified the familiar square in Beijing in these paintings became a generic space – any square where a large group of people might congregate or stroll, moving in various patterns. The dark sky reveals circular light forms like beams emanating from a planet or a bright star. These paintings are titled “Spectacles.” If the spectacle exists within an open square, then what is the subject of interest? What are the spectators looking at? Perhaps, the spectators are suddenly transformed into a spectacle? The French philosopher Guy Debord discusses in his book, “The Society of the Spectacle” (1968) the essential fact that people in a state of political unrest may either demonstrate against power or they may avoid the problem by looking for diversions to avoid the obvious. (8) Thus, the spectacle, for Debord, is a diversion that averts the problem of power and, in turn, offers relief from the pain of capitalist exploitation. This is when dissatisfaction turns inward in order to avoid the politics of power. This may range anywhere from a watching television to watching a parade or entering into a space where other people have gathered, even when no demonstration is imminent. But the force of the crowd can turn instantly from passivity to anger, from an apparent peaceful gathering to a raging mob scene. One might say that the crowd is fundamentally neutral, but the political circumstances are not. The context of what is happening within the psycho-sociological construct of a society at any given time can become volatile. Passivity moves towards activism, and power responds, always with a crushing blow, which becomes the signifier of its fragility in the face of time.
Not only has Yin Zhaoyang painted throngs of people on canvas, he has also created two carved sculptures in white marble that represent the same idea. In these works, the deception of a tactile pattern in stone holds the allure of innocence. “Weathering” is a table sculpture in which the myriad of small figures is basically attached to one foundation, while another sculpture, titled “Tower,” moves vertically upward with carved figures that appear to cling to one another. Is it possible that the horizontal sculpture, “Weathering,” suggests non-action whereas the vertical one, “Tower,” suggests some kind of aftermath, some catastrophic incident where people have run out of space, yet are intent on survival? These works may operate on a metaphorical level, but in either case there is a situation of defiance in which the crowd functions as a whole independent of any single individual. The collectivity is, in fact, stronger that the individual as a historical force for change.
Other recent paintings include the “Qualm” and the “Trepidation” series – both dealing with the image of a crowd from differing, sometimes humorous points of view. The “Qualm” paintings suggest some kind of official business meeting, a committee, an elitist gathering in which decisions are being made, not at the service of governance or the people. The characters that the artist depicts are male. They wear suits. They are either on the verge or in the throes of anger. The circular patterns that reside beneath the painted surface give the circus event a particular meaning, a kind of anxiety or hysteria that constitutes a meaningless act and will disappear within the collective of time and history. The “Trepidation” series pushes this idea in yet another direction. Trepidation recalls the fear of the irrational, or in terms of Western psychoanalysis, fear derived from unconscious impulses that are repressed — fixations within the psyche that hold fear in check. Here the artist resorts to a kind of Pop image – the dinosaur or hybrid land and sea monster that suddenly erupts over the heads of his spectators as in a Keith Haring drawing. Somehow the puppet-like, large-scale monster fulfills a requirement, a necessary trepidation for the crowd. As the crowd transforms itself into spectacle, so does the erupting, ejaculating monster. The crowd requires the spectacle, and the spectacle requires the crowd. It is a mutual symbiosis. The spectacle must function in a way that creates an upheaval of consciousness, a relentless episode that will augment the hormones that will detour reason in order to unveil the irrational impulse, where the neurons move into high gear and control all the switches.
What is evident in this recent series of works by Yin Zhaoyang is his Nietzschean will for indulgence not only in the spectacle of Mao, but in the spectacle of surface entertainment, including affectations that arouse a seductive form of standardization. Here in a world of standardized affects, only the bleary sky with its soft sudden lights can offer solace. The soft spectacle of light above the heads of the crowd moves in and out of the sky in search of some new form of life, some new collectivism within the irrational hearts and minds of individuals lost in the temporary fog with no direction other than the consumer fare that bides the time, the infinite night.
1) Nicholas Jose, “Towards the World: China’s New Art, 1989 – 93” in Chang Tsong-zung and Li Xianting, China’s New Art, Post 1989, Hong Kong, 1993; pp. XXXVII – XL.
2) Zhu Qi, “The Solitary Existence of a Utopian: A Hermeneutic Analysis of Yin Zhaoyang’s Mao Paintings” in Passing By Mao Zedong: Yin Zhaoyang’s Work, Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2006; pp. 22 – 25.
3) Wang Ziwei in Chang and Li, op. cit., p. 34.
4) Interview with Zeng Fanzhi, Kunlun Hotel, Beijing (September 23, 2007).
5) Zhu Qi, Ibid. p, 25
6) Zhu Qi, Ibid.
7) Carol (Yinghua) Lu, “The Contrast between Individual and Collective” in The Twilight of A Man: Yin Zhaoyang’s Work, Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing, Project’s Section of 2007 ARCO international Contemporary Art Fair: pp. 4 – 5.
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit, Michigan: Red and Black Press, 1977.
Robert C. Morgan is an international art critic, curator, artist, and lecturer. He is Professor of Fine Arts at Pratt Institute in New York and has published books on contemporary art, including Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge, 1996), The End of the Art World (Allworth, 1998), Gary Hill (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), and Bruce Nauman (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). He received the Arcale award for international art criticism in Salamanca, Spain in 1999, and has written museum catalogs, translated into Chinese, on Zhang Jian Jun and Zeng Fanzhi. He writes for The Brooklyn Rail (New York) and is Contributing Editor to Sculpture and Tema Celeste.
Yin Zhaoyang’s Myth
“Chinese contemporary art” is being shaped by all kinds of passion and desire abroad and locally, white it is still something that is unfathomable and indefinable. She seems to have become a certain art of the future. Financial interests and historical responsibilities are closely intertwined and mixed up together. Excitement, obligation, strategy and instinct keep on arising alternatively in the atmosphere of “Chinese contemporary art” that is in the making as economic incentives and historical responsibilities with and take advantage of each other. Artist Yin Zhaoyang has emerged in such an environment and meanwhile his art intensifies the tension of this atmosphere through certain specific reference.
Like most artists working in China, Yin Zhaoyang is a young artist who has received realism education in art. Realism has become his most basic way of practice. However, unlike most Chinese contemporary artists, his realism has little to do with the specific nature of everyday life. His realism is not specifically related to any contemporary time, which distinguishes his work the most from that of the “new generation” of painters in the 1990s. In the meantime, his realism isn’t critical of the reality in a comic way. “Cynicism” regains its gravity in his work, where specifically described objects and events are always tightly linked to some purpose and ideal. His paintings are not time-specific. On the contrary, they are tied to the timeless ideas of eternity, sublimity, grandness, ideal and tragedy. Unlike in classical art, this tie has clearly been ruled by the artist’s own current intension. In his “Utopia” series of paintings, the artist himself frequently appears in the “grand” and “classic” images that we are familiar with. But his symbolic realistic depiction of the architecture and sculptures around the Tian’anmen Square doesn’t mean that the artist has any interest in these specific icons. Instead, it is a way to painstakingly highlight an atmosphere, a self-contained heroic one. The artist portrays these specific icons repeatedly in his paintings. He doesn’t mean to release the aesthetic meaning of these specific objects, but instead he tries to assemble an individual energy. In his work, we don’t see the artist’s response to trendy everyday events and objects. Instead we can picture a historical responsibility and an individual ideal of the artist. In his latest “Myth” series, this individual ideal and historical responsibility has further evolved into a desire to forcefully possess individual ideal and historical responsibility. The artist has directly borrowed the tale of Sisyphus but his intension doesn’t lie in the philosophy of this story and he doesn’t try to express this philosophy either. The real purpose of the artist is to showcase an irrepressible energy of the individual. From pure images of characters to images of both figures and rocks, then to pure images of rocks, a kind of unstable, glittery, and even violent element is always present in every corner of his paintings. Classic subject matters and realistic technique have gained a sense of being at the spot in this uncertainty. Eternity, sublimity, grandness, ideal and tragedy regain their existence in this sense of being at the spot. It’s only that they no longer function as a value being pursued by the artists but as an energy being occupied by the artist. This kind of possession has something to do with the greed brought out by the fast development of market economy in China.
In his “Myth” series, “rock” themselves are full of bizarre quality. Here, “rock” seems to have become huge “gem” and Sisyphus’s spirit of moving the rocks up to the mountain has become an endless chase after profits. It is more of an everyday reality than a modern fairy bale. The artist has brought these two split extremes together in a miraculous and unobstructed way. Is this the characteristic of “Chinese contemporary art” or that of Chinese society? Or is it the characteristic of the artist himself? Whether realism is calling for a historical responsibility or a possession of the reality will become our issue and characteristic in a period of time. Yin Zhaoyang is inarguably a special holder of this issue and characteristic.
Postscript to the Notes on the Stones
From the Stones on
Long long time ago is one of the bitter sentences. To put it exactly, it referred to five years ago, how short and long that five years! How that depressed feelings be erupted! Even if I fear the premature aging, I have begun to accept the unacceptable maturity against the oppressive attitude for the past five years and all what happened before.
Did I really encounter that stone on my way to my way to home? Perhaps! But is it so legendary as I describe? After five years, due to instinct, I begun to suspect my description, even I feel uneasy for what I said emotionally. For anytime, being over sensational will lead to being affectedly unconventional. That is a smelling trap, unbearable and warning.
For that stone, that is very common-looking one. Such a stone is available everywhere in that place, used by the peasants to put on the roadside to keep the traffic from nearing their houses. Because of an occasional glimpse or over-gaze, it was carried back to my home impulsively one night. When I recall this fact, I feel so uncertain about my memory! What I am just satisfied is that the so-called remembered truth is not what I look for. ‘Myth” has appeared, despite it might come from a lie.
Undoubtedly, all these paintings named as ‘Myth’ are fabulized by me, what is said about civilization is fictitious. There are two explanations about ‘Myth’ in dictionary: 1.noun, A story of ancient heroes about immorals or mythology, a kind of innocent explanation and an aspiration on natural phenomena and social life. 2. something absurd. Since the original meaning has been abused repeatedly, my eisegetical explanation, even somewhat reluctant, might be coincident with such fantastic tale.
Myth is a story, centered by a person and a pile of nondescript stones, as well as a depressing immanent ambience. Faced with such elements, I couldn’t help having a strong intention to glorify them, to imply those tumultuous worldly things around me, then, to realize my ambition of representing a world of mind.
From the first drawing I made six years ago, my life has been full of confrontations, struggles and ambition, and even today after six years without any hint of subdual. Even if I don’t feel uneasy anymore in such dilemma, these leisureliness will never change my tragic awareness of this psychological reality!
Myth, however, is a sublimation of lie, which is permeated with romances and wonders with tragic tones!
It has nothing to do with ‘Sisyphus’
Language is always full of eeriness and ambiguity. This is a deepening experience that I got in my grown-up years.
Who is ‘Sisyphus’? does my story really have nothing to do with him?
That seems more like a ritual, and from my limited understanding, I can only make my actions take orders from a more powerful impulse-transform all the crazy or folly ideas into the works as a physical fact. Sometimes, I am successful. Those images do not become blurred after five years’ suspension. They are like the beast hibernating, they would roar more rapidly and loudly in my mind once they got released from the chains of temperature, what I could do is to capture them one by one in a more powerful rationality and self-righteousness. Even stiff and breathless, I will sacrifice myself!
At the moment as if it has really nothing to do with the hero written by Camius. I would be drowned myself in my happiness and depression of capture, tirelessly and intently.
When I was a kid, I once heard that a young pal said his hatred and anger at a clasp. He said whenever he saw a lonely clasp in his palm, he couldn’t endure it. That exciting anger and nondescript hatred made him hammer that innocent clasp into pieces, only did such action make him feel relaxed for his intense and paranoiac mind.
There are only two ways out for such angers and depressions: stiff digestion and more stiff explosion. To choose a relatively reasonable silence could not avoid the emergence of inner hurt. And then someone always chooses a more extreme explosion, but the destiny of explosion is that breaking. This action is imbued with quite paranoiac meaninglessness-the only destination of their destiny.
The story of Sisyphus is full of sermon and strongly warning ambition. That is after all one person’s story. I would like to regard it as an attitude-self-slavery and self-exile. That would be more significant than warning and sermon. Recently I often talk of that ‘life is not wonderful, but so short’, which is from an American movie director. Such eternal judgment at once reveals a secret of life. And then all the hints are entangled into a senseless rope, which harnesses most people, they don’t want and can’t draw out of such somewhat tragic bloodiness.
To live is for living itself-I hold such belief firmly. Because I am proving this sentence with my glorious life.
Time elapses quickly.
Six years ago, I once saw that many people held a stone, big or small, in their clothes, walking lonely, nervous, ambitious, weak and vulnerably hurt. Six years later at present it is same.
I recall an old saying: ‘nothing new under the sun!’
The Roots of Modern youth Mao and the Post-Mao Squ
In Yin Zhaoyang’s painting “The Heroes Have Gone Away”(2000), a red flag is shown in a wide snow covered landscape, the dusky light causing the flag to cast only a slight shadow on the snow. Footprints are scattered haphazardly all across the broad and empty expanse of snow, so we don’t know kin which direction the heroes have gone. This painting has now become a series, an envisioning of Mao and of the public square after Mao.
Mao is sitting on the bank of the Yellow River; beside him the artist has added a child, a child who was once influenced by him. It seems that Mao has not noticed the child, as he continues to gaze into the distance, perhaps using his poetic imagination to envisage the long course of the Yellow River as the long river of history. In short, both Mao and the child who represents Mao’s children are lost in thought, but whether they are thinking the same things, that neither of them can know.
Could Mao have known a few years earlier? Yin Zhaoyang has also painted a group of sad-looking, naked fat boys standing in the Northern sunlight. They are helpless and anxious as they wait in the sunlight, a picture of youthful sadness, emptiness, absence of thought and disillusionment with life, and behind them lies the desolate snows cape from “The Heroes Have Gone Away”. If Mao could know thins ,would he also be sad?
Without question, Mao was daring and vigorous in his youth, a scholar who threw down his pen and became a soldier, altered the political landscape, and stirred up revolutionary winds that grew into raging storms. Not only was his own youth volatile and colorful, the state system he set in place through revolution plunged his children into a sort of national insanity in their youth. Mao liked the idea of utopia, of changing the world, he liked youthful spirit and vigor, movement and struggle, he sought to achieve sublimation in the midst of contradiction and conflict. He could not tolerate the revolution being unfinished, coming to a standstill or even progressing at a slower pace. All this made his children excited and adoring, but all this no longer happened after Mao was gone.
Now that the heroes have gone away, Mao’s children are left emotionally maladjusted. They are faced with the aftermath of the collapse of utopia, an age in which boundaries are indistinct and the doctrine of each man for himself rules, an age of mass cultural violence, materialism and uncertain values. Coming out of this background, the “cruel youth” paintings of yin Zhaoyang and other artists began in the late 1990s to express conflicts within the Self and the emotions of depressed youth.. This type of painting is not confined to Yin Zhaoyang; similar qualities- such as the vanishing of communal spaces, allegories of Self, and an absolutist self-reference-can be seen in the paintings of many other artists born in or around the 1970s.
A change is visible in Yin Zhaoyang’s new “Utopia” series, a change that is actually a reversal. The works are clearly going in a different direction of youth, turning from historical spaces towards the observation of Mao as an other, and returning to the psychological field of symbolic social spaces. I interpret this change in the following way: after conveying images of youthful sadness and moral anxiety amid the uncertain transformations of an era, Yin Zhaoyang is now searching for the roots of the modern youth represented in those images.
Who was Mao Zedong?
Who was Mao Zedong? This is a question that concerns an other, and also concerns the psychoanalysis of portraits. Yin Zhaoyang has boldly carried out the displacement of a portrait, it is as though while looking at a portrait of Mao Zedong, he stared fixedly at the portrait until he found that he was less and less able to recognize Mao, and finally he discovered the contours of his own face, or his own self, in the face of Mao. Yin Zhaoyang regards the photograph of Mao taken in front of the cave dwellings of Yan’an as the best looking photo of Mao ever taken. He is in his prime, his gaze is steady, his mood avant-garde he stands among the great talents of a revolutionary and golden age.
This portrait of mao represents an interweaving of youth and modern ideology that is both perfect and insane, but the majority of his children will perhaps never be able to see it close up, they can only look at copies reproduced in print or shaky images on a television screen. On that day in 1936 when Snow took this photograph of Mao wearing an octagonal cap, he was already becoming a legend because of the Long March. This for Mao was a transitional moment, the moment that he broke away from historical conventions. He would no longer follow his ideology down the route of the Long march, as it was already possible for him to manage the political and military systems, after the structure of state and society and change the ideology of every person within that structure while based in shanxi. Mao’s expression at that moment is almost perfect, and it comes not just from his total assuredness of the correctness of his political beliefs. He has also started to be worshipped by Western left-wing intellectuals and women; more and more people want to travel to Yan’an to meet him and capture his image with their cameras. Mao’s expression in this photography is mysterious, with a sort of Mona Lisa-like inscrutability. It does not look like the satisfied complacency of a man who brings together both ideology and power in his person, neither does it seem to come from the satisfaction of imagining how henceforth his ideology could draw support from a modern military government, thus bringing in more and more people to carry out social operations.
Mao’s mysterious expression in fact comes from a sort of self-absorption as he faces the camera lens, or a conscious entering into his own image. During that period of time Mao was becoming aware that his portrait was gaining in symbolic status, that through the publication of Snow’s photographs in the West it was possible his image could become a symbol. Mao should already have been aware of the media effect of the political use of modern photography, but it is unlikely that he could have foreseen the adoring and fearful pattern of influence that his portrait would have after 1949. So it is improbable that he is trying to project any controlling force through his expression, because at that time he really didn’t have that kind of power. He had seldom been photographed before reaching Yan’an, and although his expression is very self-confident as far as politics and beliefs are concerned he is not very experienced in becoming a symbolic icon. As the photograph was taken he was not just looking at the lens, but at the same time he was also uneasily self-aware, attempting to imagine and be conscious of his own image. All of which means that this portrait of Mao conveys a genuine modernity, showing as it does a young man who is attaining a position of symbolic consciousness, already more dashing, expressive and steadfast than the average politician. He has broken the conventions of history, and even broken the conventions of history, and even broken the conventions of selfhood on the Long March. A new iconographic destiny has appeared on his face, that he himself had to re-identify with. Mao’d expression looks cool because he is pictured during a moment of modern, conscious self-scrutiny.
Compared to this photo of a strong and handsome Mao, Yin Zhaoyang’s “Mao” seems full of darkness and confusion. His eyes are blurred, his countenance heavy. As one of a generation who grew up in the state created by Mao, looking at Mao’s portrait, there is no longer any history behind Yin Zhaoyang’s depiction of “Mao”. The cloudy expression on his face indicates a complex and conflicting state of mind. Just about all that remains in this painting is a sort of uneasy self-absorption. Looking at Mao now, he no longer has any feelings of fear of devotion, but a strong sense of unease, as if he feels uneasy because he cannot be as steadfast and penetrating as Mao.
In this painting Yin Zhaoyang is experimenting with iconological psychoanalysis; the image conveys a self-doubt that is ambiguous and hard to describe, and in this way he breaks away from the ideas of traditional iconography regarding the representation of others. His portrait doesn’t just borrow and distort the ideological images of photographic portraits, but also through self-displacement conducts an emotionally imaginative self-analysis of the ideological origins of portraits.
The emotional relationship with Mao envisioned in Yin Zhaoyang’s painting reflects the ideological influence of his portrait during the childhoods of the post-revolutionary generation. This influence was strongest in visual impact after 1949 when Mao’s portrait saturated the media and was seen everywhere.. The portrait visually invaded the self image of a generation and formed an emotional aesthetics that is also one of the roots of modern youth. Mao’s faith in Utopia, passion for revolution, and mania for conducting mass ideological education and developing economic and cultural movements by using the large-scale centralization of political power, all formed a modern template for the post-revolutionary generation growing up in the 1970s. But Mao’s modern qualities, aside from being culturally characteristic of a Chinese-style Asian agricultural society, were in fact closer to Rousseau’s idea of the modern character, dating from the early days of the Enlightenment.. Rousseau-style modern men possessed youthful and romantic qualities, specifically a sort of intellectual omniscience and omnipotence, a lofty personality passionate about saving the world, and an eagerness to throw themselves into revolutions and mass movements.
Besides imitating portraits, Yin Zhaoyang’s has also envisaged the modern spaces that produced Mao. This series of paintings includes the two titled “Looking Up” and “Sitting Together”, ”Looking Up” emphatically shows the sky changing as Mao walks past ten metres away. It is a modern sky of the kind Mao liked, prone to dramatic weather conditions-scudding clouds swept along by the wind, or dark clouds gathering and a rainstorm on the verge of breaking, or very golden light-in short, aesthetically it goes from dense dark clouds to blinding sunshine, extremes of heaven or hell. A political aesthetic interpretation of such skies was later often written of or spoken of by Mao, serving as a metaphor to convey revolutionary aesthetics and states of by Mao, serving as a metaphor to convey revolutionary aesthetics and states of mind, and this sort of visual metaphor has the basic modern characteristics of Maoist aesthetics.
We could say that “Looking Up” is a source of self for Yin Zhaoyang’s generation a modern myth and aesthetic sensibility imparted to them by Mao, To get close to Mao, to quietly sit by his side and gaze into the distance together as though he were a grandfather or uncle, or to seep into his body, envisioning how the inner self engages in imaginative and conscious activity; for the post-revolutionary generation this has apparently become an imaginary verification that they need to complete in order to redeem themselves. Whether “Imitation of a Portrait”, “Looking Up” or “Sitting Together”, these three series show three kinds of relationship between Yin Zhaoyang and Mao, the other, namely: looking up to the other, putting oneself in the other’s place and seeing what he sees, and staring at a portrait of the other until it morphs into a portrait of oneself. “Looking Up” shows a moment in which an individual feels insignificant as Mao’s gigantic figure walks past, and feels that Mao’s state is unattainable. It is also a moment in which this divine and gloriously resplendent other brings enlightenment to a generation; he is no longer the dashing revolutionary of the Yan’an days, but a modern giant with limitless power.
“Lushan Mountain” and “The Yellow River” are two imaginative scenes that express different sentiments and modern predicaments. The Lushan scene shows Mao gazing into the distance and thinking back over things after an ideological battle. It is a momentous moment when victory is in reach and the outcome a foregone conclusion, but the other young man in the picture is frowning, still not understanding this quandary. Mao gazes into the distance, ceaselessly pondering, but the young man feels there is only emptiness in front of him. “The Yellow River” is a relatively peaceful scene of concentration that shows Mao meditating, confronting the difficulties posed by the natural world. The sense of peace in this picture has a psychological quality similar to that of Yin Zhaoyang’s earlier work “Youth has Gone Away”. Because Mao is next to him the young man seems to want to make his gaze follow Mao’s, to look into the distance at the enlightened world beyond the edge of the picture. In these two scenes, the relationship between Mao and the young man by his side is like the relationship between an adult and a younger relation, for example grandfather and grandson or uncle and nephew, and as a form of self-expression, “Sitting Together” conveys an emotional identification with Mao as if he were immediate family, or a sort of unconscious reverence for family heroes. In “Looking Up” and “Sitting Together” Mao does not visually resemble the image in modern European culture of a father who must be rebelled against, but resembles a Chinese-style grandfather or uncle, sitting next to him one can feel a sort of mysterious psychological connection.
In these two sets of themes Yin Zhaoyang has used an unhistorical alteration of photographs, and made a mosaic of emotional connections between the characters, altering the scenes in imaginative ways. This approach is an attempt to get close to the adult psychological field, and also to understand the historical and poetic aesthetics of Mao’s modern quandary.
Life After Death
Mao’s modernity doubtless represents a certain resistance or historical indeterminacy; in Yin Zhaoyang’s imagination, Mao’s modern aesthetics are clearly enthralling and a deciding factor in the course of this saga. When Mao, the active subject of revolution and change encounters a difficult position, a quandary or unclear prospects, an all pervading aesthetic vision seems to be more helpful for resolving fear, doubt, conflict, anxiety, low sprits and other internal self conflicts than the power and methods that actually produce the outcome, and this is an important link in the creation of a mighty history. Yin Zhaoyang seems to have dedicated himself to portraying an aesthetic scene, a scene that is not just a modern origin of his youth, but is also an ideological way to his self-redemption.
“The Square” is different to the envisioning of Mao in these pictures, it is a realistic depiction from the “Utopia” series. It shows life after Mao’s passing, and on the whole, Yin Zhaoyang engages in expressionistic experiments in these paintings, makes the Square appear strange and unfamiliar. Viewed from the Tian’anmen gate tower, the Square is suffused with an air of turbulence; it is a confusing daydream, full of squirming human heads. Alternatively it is shown in the second half of the night, lit from above, deserted, the atmosphere now one of desolate emptiness and quivering restlessness. The gate tower and the other buildings appear as if behind glass, layers of superimposed glass plates that add a thick red color, making the image mottled and murky. Of the sculptures that flank the mausoleum and commemorate the soldiers who fought for Mao, one group is bathed in the blue light of morning while the other stands in the warm hues of dusk. Their figures are sculpted in symbolic revolutionary postures, postures that express a modern nationalism influenced by classical heroism.
In the painting where the Square is filled with an undulating crowd, the weather and the mood of the crowd seem to share a wavering inquietude, reflecting a post-Mao space that is modern in the true sense of the word. It is no longer a romantic, lofty, fervent, lucid, Rousseau-style modernity, the Square appears as a psychological field, and has a sort of blurred, confused, shaky air. In this space where Mao liked to hold assemblies and which turned him into a symbolic deterrent, the people seem to be wandering, not knowing where they are going, but they are located within a spatial structure defined by Mao.
The paintings in this set show four sides perspectives that correspond to the four sides of the Square. Yin Zhaoyang’s treatment of the space seems to express confusing and difficult sentiments; the figures are no longer subjects, the buildings no longer symbolize anything, they merely wait for time to give them color, they are reduced to stage sets.
“The Square” has in fact been given a coat of post-ideological color and functions as a post-ideological space. It is depicted in these paintings as a psychological space that conveys post-ideological psychological symptoms. The idea of “The Square” with its multitudinous crowds and buildings has an ambiguous and unclear atmosphere, you don’t know what might happen there, and in this it is comparable to Mao’s mysterious expression as photographed during his Yan’an days. Visually it has a sort of psychological tension that comes from a temporal sense of movement and narrative uncertainties. Yin Zhaoyang doesn’t see this turbulent psychological field as something terrifying; on the contrary, the scene represents the tensions and possibilities brought about by the changes that are occurring in the post ideological age.
The envisioning of Mao and the expression of the psychological symptoms of the post-Mao Square, indicate an aesthetic escape from the youthful sadness and self allegories of the 1970s generation, a self-salvation that gets back to the inner roots of modern youth. Mao is an example of modernity, and Yin Zhaoyang is attempting a political envisioning of Mao. In order to return to his portrait and the place where his events occurred, it is necessary to start from Mao’s ideological ideas, to do something on a level that relates to his modern portrait and political spaces. The painting of youthful sadness has now returned to introspection on an ideological level, but this envisioning of roots has not yet reached an ideological criticism of visual symptoms, but only a kind of aesthetic imagining, drawing on photographic images to enter the psychological field of history, becoming aware of symbolic ideas and envisaging the self. This is somewhat like Mao at his most dashing in the octagonal cap, he know that a layer of ideas had already started to adhere to his consciousness, and ultimately those ideas would seep deep into the consciousness of every generation that came after him. Now, Yin Zhaoyang is trying to strip that layer of ideas away from the depths of his self-awareness; it is part of the roots of modern youth, and he feels it still has a very cruel sort of beauty.
Beijing, December 22nd 2003