Contemporary Chinese artists and
the worker’s experience
In 1972, a 16-year-old Sui Jianguo took the place of his mother as a worker at the Tongyao Workshop of Qingdao National Cotton Mill No. 2; in 1977, a 20-year-old Wang Guangyi left a farm in Heilongjiang province, where he had worked as a sent-down youth, to become a railroad worker at the Harbin Railway Administration; at the end of the 1970s, Gu Dexin was hired as a temporary apprentice at a synthetic resin factory; around the same time, a 16-year-old Zhuang Hui entered the Luoyang Red East Tractor Factory, where he became a foundry worker; in 1992, Third Front factory apprentice Zeng Hong graduated from his technical secondary school and became a teacher at the middle school attached to Sichuan Zizhong Oil Machinery Factory, where he worked until 2000.
Besides their working-class family backgrounds, many contemporary Chinese artists also have firsthand experience working at large state-owned factories, where they witnessed the changes that rocked the sector. This is an interesting fact that is largely ignored.
An artist’s experience as a worker is a link that connects materials with production tools, class structure with factory politics, individual with group. It also constitutes a faintly discernible connection between the artist’s understanding of Chinese society—in all its complexity—and his or her own artistic practice: Sui Jianguo’s obsession with overcoming the resistance of hard materials, Zhuang Hui’s enduring scrutiny of the working class and fondness for controlling large spaces, and Zeng Hong’s attempts to revisit realist traditions under neoliberalism all come to mind.
How should we consider the relation between an artist’s experience as a worker and his or her artistic practice? What influences or disjunctions can be observed between the former and the latter across different historical periods? How much of a driving force or source of creative energy can this worker’s experience be? And how does the artist remold this subject with a critical dimension?
The experience of the factory does not only concern individual artists; it is rooted in China’s contemporary historical experience. To investigate contemporary art history from the angle of the worker’s experience requires analysis of the relationship between the artist’s personal practice and historical context, in order to reveal how these relics shape the artist’s subject and how the full range of the artist’s personal experience is granted a new sense of perception through his or her work.
As a political entity and performative cultural product, the transformations of the working class are at the core of China’s entire contemporary narrative. After its role as “master of the country” during the foundation of the socialist state in the 1950s and its instrumental status as “the most advanced class” during the Cultural Revolution, the working class turned into an increasingly voiceless group of “state-owned enterprise employees” in the 1970s; it became the bought-out “lower-class” of reform society at the end of the 1990s, and ended up as the workforce selling its labor within the “factory of the world” after 2000. The various discourses surrounding workers keep reformulating the relations that connect the political notions of revolution, country, market and capital.
As the starting point of a research project, this article conducts a case study of Zhuang Hui’s performance Serve the People, which he created while he worked at a factory. My purpose is threefold: first, to investigate how Zhuang’s experience as a worker might be linked to and influenced by the working class’s historical transformations; second, to analyze how Zhuang availed himself of his worker’s experience as a source of artistic practice; and third, to reflect on the possibility of using the language of revolutionary realism to criticize reality.
Zhuang Hui’s Serve the People: A Case Study
Zhuang Hui, born in 1963, certainly doesn’t have a typical working-class family background. Having lost both parents at an early age, he drifted for several years before he joined the Luoyang Dongfanghong Tractor Factory in 1979. He remained a factory worker for about 18 years, from age 16 to 33, and undertook different tasks including mold making, acid washing, management, and logistics. Unlike Sui Jianguo and Wang Guangyi, he did not leave his position as a worker by passing the entrance examinations for an arts academy; having never received any formal academic training, his artistic practice started as part of his career as a worker.
The site of Luoyang Dongfanghong Tractor Factory was decided by Mao Zedong himself, and became an important component of the foundation of the socialist state. Following its opening on National Day, 1955, more than a thousand elite workers and their families were transferred from all over the country. As direct participants in the socialist project of industrial modernization, these workers gained a sense of pride for being part of the traditional working class, and the consciousness of being “masters of the country.” Factory painters depicted major events such as Zhou Enlai’s inspection of the factory and the 1958 launch of China’s first tread tractor, moments that resonated with the visual history of the People’s Republic and reflected how socialist republic envisioned its modern utopia. By the time Zhuang Hui entered the factory, however, the enchantment of the socialist utopia had already long faded.
Strictly speaking, the working class that Zhuang became a part of at the end of the 1970s had already lost its leadership role, becoming an indefinable and strangely silent underclass. From 1978 to 1979, the system of “major collectives” (dajiti) was created to find place for 15 million unemployed urban youth. Workers who took part in this system did not enjoy the same social status as regular state-owned enterprise employees: besides receiving lower salaries and poorer social welfare, they were not considered full-fledged workers, and had difficulty ascending the social ladder. In a society grappling with economic reform, they were quickly marginalized. A dajiti worker, Zhuang never felt loyal to this sort of employment. From the start, he defined his identity as a common member of the underclass making a living by working here and there. His sense of having to resist his fate originated from this awareness. To the worker Zhuang, making art was more than following a childhood dream; it was a way of life, and a means of resistance.
It was in the early 1990s that Zhuang Hui started to consciously engage in art. After 1989, the sudden changes affecting society made him dispirited. What disgusted him most was how certain artists took refuge in exotic mysticism or awkward interpretations of imported theory. Instinctively, Zhuang came to the conclusion that “one should not look for one’s materials within art history, but come to grips with the actual 1990s.” This decade, as he experienced it, underwent a crisis of values. The certainty that Chinese society was “bidding the revolution farewell,” and that the language of class struggle had become dysfunctional, was now part of the collective consciousness. When tycoons and celebrities are extolled as the heroes of the age in a marketized media environment, the definition of workers—as a social class and as a concept—loses clarity; the same goes for another notion: the people.
In 1992, Zhuang Hui created the first work of his career: Serve the People. In July, he traveled to Foguang Village, near Luoyang, and carried out three performances. First, on the 200-meter-long dam of a water reservoir, he used lime to paint a huge slogan, “Serve the People.” Then he went to a limekiln and distributed white towels to migrant workers employed there before inviting them to an outdoor film screening on the square in front of the village office. The following October, he moved his performance space from the village to the factory. On a day of high activity at the Luoyang Bearings Factory, he appeared with a dozen fellow workers on the plaza in front of the entrance; each of them wore a white t-shirt reading “Serve the People.” At the foot of the plaza’s giant Mao statue, Zhuang wrote the same words on more than 700 sheets of red paper, imitating Mao’s style of calligraphy. While he wrote, his friends assembled the sheets of paper into the characters of the slogan. Finally, he pasted and hung more “Serve the People” posters of different shapes and sizes inside the factory proper. Following these performances, as he had foreseen, Zhuang was imprisoned and interrogated, his home was searched, and his mail opened.
This was Zhuang Hui’s first adventurous performance work. It evinces a kind of avant-garde spirit born of his experience as a lower-class factory worker—a “worker’s avant-garde” unrelated to art history or theory, but engendered by the workers’ impulse to unite and resist within public social space. Zhuang chose sites known to the working class, such as the reservoir or the factory; his performance of writing required body control within very large spaces at the expense of physical energy and coordination with his fellow workers—aspects that bring to mind the worker’s daily labor and ability to produce large-scale public works in a controlled environment. It was an unprecedented challenge to the power structure underlying such spaces. Zhuang made use of the labor, space, visual resources, and degree of political tolerance that were available to a worker, all in order to turn workers’ knowledge and experience into artistic practice.
Zhuang Hui’s mode, scale, and language of expression were resolutely disconnected from his social status. Not only did he imitate the monumentality of a leader’s script, but his writing, due to its context, was truly that of a worker. Spread over the floor at the entrance of a factory, the writing could be read in two ways: first, from the point of view of the workers gathered all around and, second, from the fixed gaze of the Mao statue. The former was the perspective of an anonymous member of the lower class, and the latter that of a great historical figure. While the former originated in the post-socialism of the here and now, the latter was locked in a revolutionary era fading from the collective memory.
In the mingling of these two perspectives, the slogan “Serve the People” turns from an obsolete socialist relic into a trigger for new questions. In the 1990s, is the definition of “the people” still valid? These unvoiced questions created an uncomfortable polarity between the country and the underclass, as well as the group and the individual. Far from attacking any particular leader by means of political pop, Zhuang Hui created a public happening that unleashed the critical import of the revolutionary-era leader’s message vis-à-vis the present time. Although the artist might not have clearly articulated these specific ideas at the time, they form the emotional impetus that propelled the conception and execution of the work.
Zhuang Hui certainly didn’t intend to use performance art as a statement of his status as an artist. On the contrary, he used art to confirm his identity as a worker, a worker with the ability to turn his perception, thinking, and action into public matters. By practicing what he was preaching, Zhuang engaged in a counterattack against fossilized forms of art, effectively probing and challenging the established order of society.
Throughout the ensuing 20 years, Zhuang Hui’s work continued to embody the three essential aspects we observe in Serve the People: first, his identification with the perspective and social position of workers; second, his skeptical and rebellious approach, taking careful aim at the political system while displacing or sideswiping it; and, third, his subversion of the historically specific experience of socialist visual language. These three aspects of Zhuang’s work, rooted in his worker’s experience, grew progressively to form his artistic consciousness.
Back to reality and realism
There is an unshakeable connection between the creative processes of artists who worked in factories and the complex reality of China’s lower class. In the practices of artists such as Sui Jianguo, Zhuang Hui, and Zeng Hong, we find a persistent focus on the themes of society’s productive forces, production relations, and workers, and a reflection of how socialism and global capitalism constitute the artist’s concrete reality. The thread connecting their works is the question of how these artists turn realism, this deep-rooted historical experience, into a working method imbued with contemporary thought.
Zhuang Hui’s Serve the People turns revolutionary language and ritual into a vehicle of renewed realist criticism. In his installations Dormitory and Belted Steel Workshop, he used the medium of ultra-realistic representation to introduce factory work and life spaces into 798 Art District. His Seeking Mou Lili also made use of the pictorial language of socialist realism. Sui Jianguo, who considers himself “still primarily a worker,” consciously avoided the early 1990s techniques of academic realism in order to confront the essence of things. Later on, in his Study on the Folding of Clothes series, he returned to realism as a medium and reflected on China’s modernity by contrasting classic artworks and the Mao suit as two faces of the same object. As for Zeng Hong, who personally experienced how workers were laid off by large state-owned factories, his latest work, Chou Zhen, is an attempt to revisit the origins of realism in order to look critically at the forms of power concealed within everyday life and its capitalist logic.
In the words of scholar Huang Zhuan, “Can we take the specific history of Chinese realism and refine it to extract a visual logic that is suitable for us? By reflecting on history and safeguarding memory, can we establish a new artistic subject built on a dimension of critical thinking and skepticism?” These questions—based on history, but addressing the future—constitute an important starting point for future research.
(Translated by Dorian Cave)