Artist lays bare social maladies, beliefs and challenges to the human condition in contemporary China.

Mao Tongqiang critiques China’s socio-political landscape with large-scale installations of archival documents, ancient scripts and found objects. 

Mao Tongqiang, '"Archives" (detail), 2012, archival documents. Image courtesy the artist.

Mao Tongqiang, ‘Archives’ (detail), 2012, archival documents. Image courtesy the artist.

Spanning nearly four decades, Mao Tongqiang’s work examines the impact that rapid urbanisation has had in China by taking a close look at the remnants of the past and the signifiers of the present. Like his contemporary Ai Weiwei relayed in the book Mao Tongqiang: The Classic Ready-Made, Mao’s work is characterised by an intersection of symbolism and history that often plays out beyond the obvious:

While it is possible to literally translate Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” and convey the underlying spirit and idea as mere meanings of words, would we be able to take in a truer and more complete kind of “translation”, one that re-embodies rather than simply relates? This matter belongs to the domain of historians. For an artist, it is difficult to really go this far. And even if one does, there can be no full conveyance if people in real life fail to comprehend the attempt. Nevertheless, I feel there is value – and, indeed, strong symbolism – in doing such a thing. This is precisely the hallmark shared by all of Mao Tongqiang’s works – i.e., that many objects he present bear a certain symbolic significance beyond the factual basis and their being a piece of history in themselves. The symbolism may be about Fate or a sense of helplessness. Whatever the case may be, its presence is undeniable.

Mao Tongqiang, '"Archives" installation view, 2012, archival documents. Image courtesy the artist.

Mao Tongqiang, ‘Archives’ (installation view), 2012, archival documents. Image courtesy the artist.

Mao Tongqiang was born in 1960 in the city of Yinchuan, a northwestern Chinese city located along the Silk Road and former capital of the Western Xia Empire (1038-1227). The artist was a young boy during Mao Zedong’s tumultuous decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which unleashed the Red Guards upon the populace, resulting in deaths of an estimated two million people. He then came of age seeing the death of both Premier Zhou Enlai and Chairman Mao and the rise of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms resulting in an opening up of China to the world.

Mao Tongqiang graduated from the Art Department of Ningxia University in 1980 and between 1984-1986 studied at the China Academy of Art (previously known as Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art) in the institution’s Oil Painting Department. His work has been shown at select venues worldwide, including solo shows at the China Art Archives and Warehouse and the Singapore Art Museum and is found in private collections in China, Germany and Singapore. Most recently, Mao’s work was included in MOCA Yinchuan‘s inaugural biennale. The artist divides his time between Beijing and Yinchuan.

Mao Tongqiang, "Tools" installation view, 2008, hammers and sickles. Image courtesy the artist.

Mao Tongqiang, ‘Tools’ (installation view), 2008, hammers and sickles. Image courtesy the artist.

Sticks and stones

Mao’s practice often involves collecting found or ready-made objects, as in his early work Archive of the Dead, looking at the “complex social issues” surrounding the impermanence of life in modern-day society. From 2008 onward , his work blossomed into large-scale curated collections of archival documents and common, everyday materials.

His installation Tools represents Mao’s multi-year journey to amass some 30,000 hammers and sickles, which at first blush might simply signify the popular iconography of the Communist state and the uprising of peasants upon the feudal system throughout China’s dynastic past. The genius of Mao’s work, however, lies in the underlying tones that implore the audience to look beyond the surface, across time.

According to Chinese art critic and independent curator Feng Boyi for NY Arts Magazine, Mao deftly transforms the historical narrative into one that holds a particular relevance for a contemporary Chinese audience creeping ever further away from traditional agrarian society:

The way Mao presents these tools is different from the traditional manner in historical narratives. He chooses a specific entry point into historical facts, demonstrating his calm and objective insight and eloquence in a low-profile and artistic manner. Mao doesn’t present history in an ordinary way or just transform historical materials in a modern visual language. He uses history as the background of his work and focuses on the most common tools in people’s daily lives, recording their roughness and hardship in history, thus creating a simple sense of reality. This happens to be consistent with a commonly believed historical perspective: history is written by the winner.

Mao Tongqiang, "Title Deed for Land" installation view, 2010, archival documents. Image courtesy the artist.

Mao Tongqiang, ‘Title Deed for Land’ (installation view), 2010, archival documents. Image courtesy the artist.

Mao’s installations Archives, Leasehold and Scriptures include collections of archival documents. An impressive bounty of discarded land deeds, religious paraphernalia and documents reporting individuals’ misdeeds are displayed in carefully laid-out presentations. Reversals of fortune, attitudes towards spirituality and punishment are revealed. In an excerpt from the artist’s Archives installation, Mao seeks to turn the reporting into the constructs and reach of the modern-day State:

The archive is the last trace left in history. However it is processed or whichever method of archiving is being adopted, when one looks back at it, the documents provide evidence for judgement. During the revolutionary period, people were serious about the archive. Among the 1300 archives, every piece of content from today’s perspective would be an unimaginable process of development.

For example, Yao Tingli, a female nurse, and her husband was a soldier in the Republican army. After the war, her husband left for Taiwan, and due to various reasons, she stayed in the Mainland. During the Cultural Revolution, a series of investigations was carried out on her, from her work to her personal life, her work unit, her job, who she came into contact with. A thick stack of materials that left no privacy of the subject unveiled, and the conclusion of the document was: the person died from falling off the stairs. Without this document, we might not even know that she had once existed, and the only evidence to prove of her existence is this document.

Mao Tongqiang, "I have a dream" installation view, 2010, Xiaxia characters on marble. Image courtesy the artist.

Mao Tongqiang, ‘I have a dream’ (installation view), 2010, Xiaxia characters on marble. Image courtesy the artist.

Looking beyond China’s shores, the ancient past collides with 20th century America in the artist’s installation I Have a Dream. Marble blocks based on text from Reverend Martin Luther King’s iconic speech are replicated in Tangut script, the language of the late Xia empire. This is of interest to Mao, as Yinchuan relies heavily on the tourist trade and it is with particular irony that although very few people can read Tangut, its presence is quite noticeable throughout the city. As Angie Baecke relayed in an article on Frieze, the significance of the language is secondary, with Mao seeking to dispel the manifestation of freedom, human rights and justice:

To Mao, the Tangut he sees around him is an empty signifier: its presence accepted but unexamined. His installation similarly severs the relationship between the signifier and the signified, asking if an object can still possess its subject if the subject is made illegible. Does the essence of King’s speech emanate from the stone stelae, even if its form is unintelligible? It’s absurd, even, that someone interested in the message of King’s speech would translate it into a dead language, and in that sense the work is darkly satirical – the black stelae as tombstones, the foreign script as an elegy to ideals that have long gone missing or were never truly present.

Modern noise

In 2016, Mao was approached by MOCA-Yinchuan, a contemporary museum established in 2015, to create a piece for the first edition of the organisation’s biennale curated by Kochi-Muziris Biennale Co-founder Bose Krishnamachari. Mao’s installation 15 db represents a bit of a departure for the artist, with tranquil video screens juxtaposed with the raucous beat of Ode to Joy in a lounge-like atmosphere.

Mao Tongqiant, '15 db' (installation view), 2016, video, psychedelic TV, garbage. Image courtesy the artist and MOCA Yinchuan.

Mao Tongqiant, ’15 db’ (installation view), 2016, video, psychedelic TV, garbage. Image courtesy the artist and MOCA Yinchuan.

As the artist told Art Radar during a symposium held at the Biennale, 15 db represents modern Chinese society in all of its multifaceted nuances, and holds the microcosm of society in it’s pulsating orbit while taking a close look at its citizen’s lack of religion and belief in God:

The installation that I did for the Yinchuan Biennale is something that I feel people will be familiar with. We already have something similar in Chinese cities – the Karaoke bar. This is a space full of joy. It’s a place where many different levels of people can get in such as politicians, businessmen and even lower level people like prostitutes and drug dealers. They come for different reasons but can all get into the same space together.

What I want to talk about or discuss is the happiness of all the people who come together. What we see on the video screen is like the spiritual joy – your happiness from spiritual life and how your joy influences other’s joy.

The substance on the table represents the influence that drugs have on your brain and nervous system and one’s spirituality. So what I want to talk about is the joy and happiness that is dominated by some others.

Lisa Pollman


Related Topics: Chinese artists, found object, identity art, political, Cultural Revolution

Related Posts:

Subscribe to Art Radar for profiles about China’s most thought-provoking artists









By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *