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Contemporary Art in China? Yes, but Only if it Sells: Mao Tongqiang and the Collective Archive

The impressive work of collecting and exhibiting documents and materials by Mao Tongqiang's works is a real cultural operation.

Mao Tongqiang Tools

3 minutes


The impressive work of collecting and exhibiting documents and materials by the Chinese artist Mao Tongqiang (1960, Yinchuan, China)’s Tools, Leaseholds, and Bibles (2008) is a real cultural operation. An operation that he kept performing in the auditorium of Frigoriferi Milanesi (Milan, October 11) during his conference Chinese Cartography… a Gift for Marco. The art director of the space, Marco Scotini, has conversed with MT, defining his works as “collective ready-mades.”


What the Western art world would define as pseudo-appropriation art or ready-made is, for Tongqian, a real socio-political occasion. An impressive bounty of archival documents, discarded land deeds, religious paraphernalia and work tools come from Chinese history and allows us, today, to reflect on issues such as freedom, human rights, and belief in Chinese society. Accordingly, this documental corpus reports deeds that, according to the Communist Party back then, were considered criminal and undermining the collective.


“Throughout the 1980s, Western art and culture had not penetrated China, but now this same country is investing a lot in contemporary art, experiencing a sort of schizophrenia between censorship, traditional academies and governmental institutions,” Scotini explains.


“After 1949, China went through many internal conflicts, striving to overcome difficult moments until the 70s” MT explains. “In China, the archive has been an instrument of control. What happened within the social life could have been reported to investigating authorities … Most of the owners of these files are dead.”


During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, human relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) experienced a total annihilation of their privacy and of their very existence (involving MT and his family themselves). For this reason, the artist chose to use these files as proof of what Scotini defines as a “perverted utopia.”


In Tools, the 30 thousand sickles and hammers collected between 2006 and 2008 were the ones actually used in rural China. And these were also the ideological “tools” that the Party used to turn China into a communist country, but that, as the artist says, “didn’t do anything but push it toward the most brutal capitalism and toward atrocious wars for control of the land. The abandoned work tools also mirror an abandoned thought. Today, China is a rich country, but such richness is concentrated in few hands.”


mao tongqiang, leasehold

Leaseholds, paper and wood, 2008. Installation view, courtesy of the artist. Above: Tools, 30000 sickles and hammers, 2008. Installation view at Wuzhen International Contemporary Art Exhibition. Courtesy of the artist.

The land problem is a recurring theme in Tongqiang’s practice, specifically in his Leaseholds, a collection of land deeds from the end of Qing dynasty and the birth of the Democratic Party in 1911 until the 1949-52 China; a period in which private property totally disappeared. In these works, MT studies the relationship between the land and the man as a prime condition and fundamentals of the Chinese Revolution, declaring “the land problem literally tore China apart.”

The action of MT could then replace the one never performed by Marco Polo (that is the name given to the conference), who in his Travels never fully described China’s culture and people – which would have gained a real interest among the public. This is the reason why MT does not hesitate to doubt that Marco Polo actually visited China.

“How meaningful has the discovery and the gradual introduction of contemporary art been in China?” asks Scotini.
“In China, contemporary art is not considered “official” yet. It is linked to the Western world rather than the State. In the first years of the ‘80s there was still a powerful rejection. Today, things have changed but only due to economic reasons. But what is important to me about contemporary art is freedom”
“How does modernity and censorship live together in China nowadays? The government has given a lot of space and huge art studios to the artistic community in the suburbs during the ‘80s”
MT: “It did and it does so for two reasons. First, because art still represents a powerful instrument of cohesion and unity. Second, for economic and commercial reasons. However, these are potential places in which to grow an artistic desire and strive.”
MS: “What would you take from the China of the 50s to 70s?
MT: “Nothing. Rather, I am trying to forget. Those years are worth nothing to me.
Now, a thought comes in my mind. In a country based on profit-making and in which – as MT asserts – there is not a proper artistic and cultural line of thought, could such indirect authorization for these documents being publicly displayed and consultable by an internationally recognized artist make China a country that is starting to question itself or, at least, its recent history?

After earning a BA in Art History (with concentration on modern and contemporary art) she realized her deep interest in museum studies while attending the MA in Visual Arts and Curatorial studies in Milan. Her research is focused on the cultural dynamics of museums and public collections and on their capacity of creating critical spirit within different audiences.

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