Commercial Break: Contemporary Chinese Design Imitates Western Styles and Avoids Any Reference to Communism. Advertising Has Become the Nation's Main Art Form, Writes Xiaolu Guo

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The first time I saw the cast of Michelangelo's David at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I was shocked by its size--six metres high. At that time, I hadn't yet been to Florence, and I was dumbfounded at seeing the world's most amazing male body. Then some museum guide pointed at a sculpture of a huge fig leaf. "What is that leaf about? Is it also by Michelangelo?" I asked. People in the museum started to laugh. I was told it had been made in London soon after David's arrival, as Queen Victoria had decided that it should be attached to his genitals to spare visiting female dignitaries' blushes. This logic is not obvious to a Chinese brain such as mine--in my country, either we ban the artworks, or we make millions of pirate copies of them for the mass market.

Last week, I wanted to say hello again to my six-metre-high hero, as I had missed the original when I finally visited Florence. I got to the V & A, but somehow I got lost, and found myself in the new exhibition "China Design Now" instead. Under mysterious pink and blue neon lighting, the first picture shows Two Legs Walking, a design by Chen Shaohua. Here is how the curator introduces it:

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    This is the poster for the first graphic design exhibition held in
    China (1992). The two legs--one in a modern business suit, the other
    in a traditional Peking opera costume--are completely entwined.
    Referring to the ancient legend about Fuxi and Nuwa, the "man and
    woman" who gave birth to Chinese civilisation, the poster sums up
    the traditional status of China's design pioneers.

After reading this, I studied the poster again; indeed, there are two legs, symbolising the mixed state of contemporary Chinese culture. But if the modern business suit stands for capitalism and the opera costume for our past, where has our famous socialist revolutionary history gone? Has the communist ideology inherited from Mao not been the main influence on Chinese society over the past 70 years? Even if the west now preoccupies China economically, recent Chinese society was nonetheless born from communist ideology. There definitely are three legs walking in contemporary China. The two-legs analogy could arguably be used for Japan, or even South Korea, countries that did not go through the turmoil of a communist revolution. But how can a contemporary Chinese artist ignore this fundamental period in our history and collective memory? This grey zone of the communist era is very rarely discussed nowadays when Chinese culture is mentioned.

With a third leg walking in my brain, I drifted around an exhibition hall lit solely by colourful neon-art pieces that leave you as blind as if you were in some trendy East End bar. One of my favourite pieces was Ma Liang's Days on the Cotton Candy. The artist is a famous photographer working in advertising in China. In his David Lynch-style photos, girls dressed like fairies stand in an apartment crammed with washing machines, toilet basins, toys and all kinds of home items, their heads covered in cotton wool or some sort of white bubble wrap. I read it as a comic reference to consumption: the bubbly spirit and empty soul of Chinese youth today. I'm not sure the artist really meant to convey this, though. Under the photos, the caption reads: "A presentation of the feeling of being a young person in China." The "feeling"? What sort of feeling? I suspect the uneasy wording is trying to translate the Chinese idea of gan jue. Or is it an indirect way of criticising consumerist China? Is the cotton wool the money--the dollars--covering youthful heads and blinding young eyes? That's it: a youth without head and eyes.

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It is perhaps not fair to compare China's modern design world with other, much stronger art forms: Chinese independent cinema, for example (with directors such as Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye, Zhang Yuan), or literature (Zhu Wen, Ma Jian, Su Tong), or conceptual art (Liu Jian Hua, Han Bing). …