-by Ernie Diaz
All the Internet pics, videos, and picayune information, has it left you any wiser, even in the ways of the lolcat? The Internet favors the timely and distracting, so that we will all soon have the discernment of bonobo apes. The past loses importance exponentially now; Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. There’s the value in a great painting, a gripping sculpture, right there. The electronic file of a great painting is only an echo, a bankrupt currency in the Information Age.
Today, greatness is virtually absent in China’s modern art. Great art comes in waves, attendant on the cycles of history, which run from tragic to complacent. China’s squarely midway between the two right now.
What’s the emotional equivalent of holding a door shut against an invasive ogre, staring in mute horror at it, while the crack inches bigger and bigger? A decade China went through, of that strain bearing on the punished and the punisher alike. Imagine the relief when the ogre finally gives up and shuffles off, and you can lock the door shut. That panting euphoria sets off whole new ways of looking at the world.
Those most stricken who survived the Cultural Revolution still walk among us now. They are the fifty-to-sixty-somethings, those who can’t see the point of not wretching up phlegm in public, or charging into an elevator before the occupants debark. Despite the lack of frills, they are iron.
And their painters are great. Are? Were, unquestionably. Now, the great are so in the manner that Robert Plant is great, post Led Zeppelin. There’s your analogy. British teens rebelling against the stodgy confines of English society in a post-atomic world, drawing from the vitality of blues, transmogrifying it.
Scar painting reflected realism PRC style, but its lifeblood gushed from the West, Impress/Express/Fauv/Cub-ism. Dada. Some teens who came of age in the Cul-Rev had no locks on their doors, had to come to terms with the ogre which had menaced them. Ma Dasheng, Huang Rui, these are the Waters and Claptons of China’s Age of post-tragedy, great modern art, 1977-1983, seven years, just like the Beatles, producing slews of hits before breaking up and moving to Paris and New York.
Where is their classic rock station? Dumb question? There are no dumb questions! Only unimaginative answers. One of you go develop an app that displays Scar paintings on mobile home screens, with an ad on every fifth slide. You’re welcome.
It galls that no one credits these post-Revolution revolutionaries for what they were – rock stars. They knew it, sure enough, keeping it Bob Dylan real: leading rallies, cops breaking up shows, pulling groupies, and not just the unkempt art groupie-type. This ill assortment of pencil-necked geeks and nerdy eccentrics flipped-off authority like bastard sons of Johnny Rotten and Che Guevara. No wonder they soon took to calling themselves Stars.
The Stars embodied ziwo: self-image, ego, long kept jack-boot squelched for that phase of their lives that treasures it most, adolescence. Forget Ward grounding Beaver for sneaking out in the jalopy, we’re talking about five-year bids in Chinese countryside, hauling dung all the way to political study hall. Yikes, indeed.
Where, the hell, is the movie. The Stars’ September 27th, 1979 makeshift exhibition in the park next to today’s National Art Museum in Beijing, that’s the break with reality to close the first act. The heroes left their art school shyness there, and moved into a new world with, if not deadly, at least disastrous stakes. The guarded curiosity of the crowd, a lunch-stroll from Zhongnanhai, must have been an awkward miracle of enthusiasm struggling with circumspection. Surely the Beida and Tsinghua students, the first in a decade to be permitted serious reading, validated the show’s intellectual edginess, Chinese intellectuals circa ’79 as edgy as gangster rappers circa ’90.
Edgier. Neigh, hippier. Definitely ballsier then bragging about your past life selling drugs. The next day, authorities declared the Stars’ exhibition illegal. In protest, the Stars organized a demonstration march. That’s right, a round decade before Tiananmen, Gang of Four depredations still fresh wounds in all hearts, xylophone-ribbed Ma Desheng joined arms with young comrades in art and marched on National Day – October 1st.
While the protest a decade later would ride the bulldozer of democracy, the Stars wielded a rapier: Let us express ourselves. As a result, they received permission to exhibit a month later, in Beihai Park, where the show went on from November 23rd to December 2nd.
The next exhibition, August 24th, 1980, will open the second act of Stars: the Movie. This was China’s Woodstock, Xinhua-reported at 80,000 attendants, but reliably estimated at 200,000. Nudes and abstracts in profusion turned on hordes, who for a brief idyll tuned out a million megaphones screeching slogans.
A three-year montage set to early acid rock can round out the second act. Lovingly slow pans can drive home the ethereal sacrilege of Wang Keping’s Idol, Mao turned anti-Buddha. Idol was the original Chuck Berry pentatonic riff on the PRC’s first and last emperor. Twenty years on, similar licks portraying Mao in a tutu or frolicking with clones, can-can style, had all the rebellion of Keith Richards on tour in the nineties, but also commanded millions apiece.
The third act should be as poignantly nostalgic as Jim Morrison absconding to Europe in The Doors. The Stars’ last exhibition in 1983 took place at Beijing’s Zixin Road Primary School, and was closed down, authorities in the midst of their self-mandated spiritual cleansing campaign. Getting your exhibition busted was suddenly passé. The group broke up, only to come together with new members four years later in New York, now the Chinese United Overseas Artists’ Association.
Minds were there, but the early spirit had dissipated, and by the 20th anniversary show in Tokyo, the Stars reflected lofty self-consciousness, lethal to greatness. Would that the Party had shown the foresight to keep enough pressure on the Stars to leave them relevant, but free to keep working in China. The credits may have had yet to roll.