Artist Profile visits the Beijing studio of painter Guo Jian to discuss the paintings inspired by his time in China’s military that reveal the contradictions behind the country’s propaganda machine.
Performance, music and visual arts have long been used by armies as a way of rousing troops to their cause, but perhaps nowhere on such a grand and systematic scale as China. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been the central actor in the Chinese Communist Party’s myth making. Since the founding of the Republic in 1949, traditional novels, ballets and operas have been reconfigured into stories and images of the PLA’s modern military triumph. While the disastrous policies of The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a destructive social-political campaign aimed at purging the party of Mao’s imagined enemies and enforcing Maoist orthodoxy, are now officially repudiated, major works from that era such as the ‘Red Detachment of Women’, performed for US President Richard Nixon during his 1972 visit, are still part of the repertoire of the National Ballet of China.
Even today an estimated 10,000 ‘entertainment soldiers’ – dancers, singers, musicians and acrobats – are charged with the business of raising morale both for the military and the public at large. Meanwhile, popular media also plays its part: turn on state television and there is a devoted channel for gala performances, blockbuster movies and countless hours of popular TV dramas on military themes. The message through all is clear: the PLA is the bedrock of China’s modern identity and the key to its future security.
Artist Guo Jian (b.1962) born in Guizhou, China, has known the PLA from both behind and in the front of front lines – from enlisting in the late 1970s to escape the drudgery of small town life as an army propaganda painter, to a decade later finding himself among the students carting bodies off Tiananmen Square as those same forces opened fire on him and his classmates during the tragedy of June 4, 1989. His extraordinary experience has been the inspiration for a life’s body of work that reworks elements of the state’s propaganda to document the milestones of his generation: from a rag-tag bunch of poor rural kids manipulated by a closed cultural and political system, through momentous, heartbreaking change as China struggled to absorb the influence and criticism of the outside world.
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