I saw the British Museum I Object 2018 exhibition on dissent and subversion though objects. There were several Chinese objects showing covert protest. The oldest was the wonderful handscroll The Fascination of Nature, by Xie Chufang, with exquisite plants, insects and other creatures painted in Song dynasty meticulous style. At first glance it seems an idyllic evocation of nature, but then you notice the lurking snake and toad, and the butterfly helplessly carried along by a winding column of ants. It is probably a protest at life under the new and brutal Mongol Yuan dynasty. One of the contemporaneous inscriptions says “Small insects labour to eat, each to his own, Hiding and spying they ambush each other. immoral men seek profit not according to justice. Their wisdom is also the level of those kinds”.
Two twentieth century teapots reflected catastrophic events:
- a black peony design: the loss of colour from this normally high-status bloom echoing the loss of prestige of the elite the collapse of the Qing dynasty.
- a peaceful landscape contrasting with a heartfelt inscription “never forget the country’s shame” after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.
Huang Yongyu’s “2 Owls” featured, of course, with reference to his imprisonment for his original winking owl of 1973 because it was considered a comment on Mao’s ill-health.
Yang Yongliang’s Phantom Landscape III is a collaged photograph that at first glance seems an elegant ink fan, but reveals cliffs of piled-up tower-blocks and pylons instead of trees. Even the mist begins to seem more like industrial smog. I particularly liked the seal resembling a manhole cover.
The most recent item was “Learn from Comrade Lei Feng” (2012). A soldier of the People’s Liberation Army, Lei Feng featured in multiple propaganda images (I even saw one in 2018 in Tibet), always in his furry hat. By depicting him as an ancient terracotta warrior, artist Qu Leilei is suggesting that there has been no progress in 2000 years.