The collective creation of a group of sculptors from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 1965, Rent Collection Courtyard was first displayed in Beijing forty-five years ago. Making a return to Beijing, the current exhibition displays copper-plated fiberglass replicas of the original clay sculptures, produced from 1974 to 1978. Compared to its first grand opening in 1966— an occasion that attracted an audience of over three million— the Yanhuang Art Museum’s current incarnation can only be described as a “conventional” art exhibition. While not completely deserted, the exhibition fails to provoke the sort of fervor that truly draws out the masses. Paradoxically, the same group of sculptures caused quite a stir when shown in October 2009 at Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle, alongside China’s appearance as “country of honor” at that year’s Frankfurt Book Fair.
Both exhibitions accord with the original work and its principal constituent scenes— “Bringing the Rent” (seventeen pieces), “Examining the Rent” (fifteen pieces), “Purifying the Grain” (twelve pieces), “Struggle” (sixteen pieces), “Measuring the Grain” (eighteen pieces), “Forcing the Payment” (seventeen pieces), and “Fury” (eight pieces). However, from a curatorial standpoint, the German exhibition placed greater emphasis on the recovery of the sculptures’ original narrative thread. In Frankfurt, the works were displayed in a long, narrow gallery, leading the audience to walk amongst the sculptures such that visual continuity ordered them into a coherent whole. In contrast, the exhibition at the Yanhuang is restricted by the venue’s particular conditions. The sculptures are divided between upper- and lower-level galleries while barrier tape surrounding the pieces leaves an impression of distance between the viewer and the artwork. Keep in mind that the sculptures were originally installed in the former home of landlord Liu Wencai, in a quasi-outdoor space historically connected to the subject matter they depicted.
The written components for the Frankfurt and Beijing exhibitions are likewise distinct. The German exhibition’s documentary presentation includes material from the time Courtyard was first realized, lending it a social as well as an art-historical significance. In this presentation, the archetypal figure of Liu Wencai— the object of criticism in Rent Collection Courtyard— is presented through the lens of his “rediscovery” in recent years. During the mid-twentieth century, Liu was a storied future in Dayi, his hometown outside of Chengdu; he was not the untarnished tyrant the 1960s historians made him out to be. Matching with this is Boris Groys’s catalogue essay “Revolutionary Disney,” which analyzes the model of the socialist hero in China and in the former Soviet Union.
In contrast, the Yanhuang’s wall of written material merely includes art-historical information on the exhibition and on the production of select works, beginning in 1965, when teachers and students from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute started putting together Rent Collection Courtyard. It entirely avoids the historical background of this production, the reconsideration of the Liu Wencai clan during the twenty-first century, and any suspicion and debate over the museum’s fabrication of historical scenes. Close analysis would indicate that the Chinese art world— having moved beyond a period of over-politicization— seems more inclined to read this group of works from the perspective of artistic production. For instance, there are subtle differences between two essays— one from 1966, the other from 1996— by one of the original sculptors Wang Guanyi (not to be confused with the contemporary artist Wang Guangyi) that reflect on the creative process involved in making the sculptures. The first essay makes mainly declarative statements about the importance of collective creation and class analysis, whereas the second text emphasizes a reading of the creative process from a psychological perspective as well as from the standpoint of formal transformation, fashionably citing Susan Sontag’s views to elucidate his own experience. But what can Rent Collection Courtyard really provide for today’s audience if the hulking question of the circumstances that gave rise to it are avoided altogether? In the end, is it just a one-time experience— a semi-authentic “historical novelty ride?” If this is indeed the case, then the sights of Disneyland are not so far away. Zhou Wenhan (Translated by Katy Pinke)