What is contemporary art in China? And in what way do we perceive the rapidly disappearing Mao murals throughout the ever changing city of Shanghai? Conceptual artist Pia Johanson and street photographer Elke Martini are investigating and documenting these topics in “Mao for Sale”, an exhibition that just opened at The Studio.
The Studio is a collective creative space located at Julu Lu. It functions both as an art gallery and a studio for painting, photography, furniture design, jewelery and whatever else. As you walk through the rooms you can almost touch this aura of creativity – traces of old paint on the tables, a bookshelf filled with art publications. Sunk in the sofa, one of the artists is busy designing a new piece on her lap top and on the walls, Mao is for sale.
Mao for Sale
Where: 796B Julu lu (by Fumin Lu) — The Studio
From: June 5 – June 26
Standing too close renders it a splotchy mess, but take a step back and a huge blurry, distorted image of Mao emerges. Images of power seen from below – a peoples perspective. You might think that the main focus of these paintings was to mock authority but, as a conceptual artist, Pia Johanson´s work is more about criticizing the art world, especially Chinese contemporary art.
When Shanghaiist met her at The Studio, she explained:
You find very little painting in China. The technical skill is perfect, but there´s a lack of content. Artists meet the demand, there´s no conceptualism behind it.
She took the example of Chinese artist Yue Minjun, whose art is profit driven and completely based on replications of Yue Minjun´s own obnoxiously smiling self-portraits. These images can be found in myriads of shops, and are produced in a studio of assistants. The question Pia Johanson wants to raise is: at what point in an artist´s career are they no longer expected to paint their own work?
She chose to investigate this by using herself and her own art as a tester. Her paintings, hanging at The Studio right this moment, are in fact painted by someone else and the images has gone through a long process of reproduction and replication. They are painted by hired artists, who replicated them from photos taken in a deliberately distorted angle from a photo book with Chinese propaganda posters.
“My work is not my own” as she puts it. No, and yet the concept is hers. As such, Pia Johanson´s work asks many interesting and urgent questions.
Speaking of urgent, as Shanghai is getting ready and shaping up before next year´s expo, old rural paintings of Mao are being painted over at the speed of light. Should we see this as a good sign, telling us that China is becoming a modern country, or do we regard it as a part of a sad and thoughtless neglect of China’s cultural heritage? Street photographer Elke Martini, who is also part of the “Mao for sale” exhibition, doesn´t take sides. She is merely an observer.
Her photographs show the old and hidden streets of Shanghai – people moving about, living their lives without taking notice of the weathered faces of Mao who keep watch from the walls behind.
She said of her experiences exploring old Shanghai – the disappearing Shanghai:
People don´t see them anymore.
For example, up until recently you could see these paintings in the French concession. Two months ago I left for the States, and when I came back five weeks later, they were all gone… It´s presenting an image.
The “Mao for Sale” exhibition ends June 26. It´s a bit tricky to find The Studio as it lies hidden behind the main street of Julu lu. Just look for a small sign saying “Exhibition”, and you´re there!