(Editor's Note: Art in the street can be found in every corner of human habitation: not only urban spaces, but even in the far reaches of rural China. Unlike most street art and graffiti this particular public art project was conducted not only with permission, but with the total cooperation of the community. In this local effort in China, perhaps we find something even more subversive--a collective vision realized in togetherness, in a simple, yet affirmative gesture of opposition against government and corporate cooptation of the walls.)
The unannounced appearance one day of a sign painter covering a Chinese villager’s wall with an advert for the state telco, China Mobile, inspired Lijiang Studio, an arts organisation located in a small farming community in the South West of China, to think about how public space was used in the village and led to the development of their Mural Painting Project as part of their “New Countryside Laboratory.”
The presence of the sign painter was one small realisation of the Chinese central government’s plans for opening new markets in the countryside, a plan that was referred to as creating the “Socialist New Countryside.” Such well-intentioned plans for national development emanating from the corridors of power in Beijing can seem distant and disconnected from the reality on the ground; Lijiang Studio’s series of investigations, of which the Mural Painting Project is part, have been looking into the impact of these governmental proposals on its subjects.
After decades of pushing for city development and encouraging the movement of people from the countryside to urban areas, in the lead-up to the 17th Party Congress in 2008, a new emphasis was placed on the countryside, termed the Socialist New Countryside, for the 11th five-year plan. “One theme in the rhetoric of the Socialist New Countryside is increasing ‘productivity’ and opening the countryside to new markets,” says Jay Brown, founder and director of Lijiang Studio. “Being in the countryside you want to know what the government plans for you – collectivisation, reform, privatisation, etc. We figured laying the rhetoric onto the reality of our village would be a starting point for discussion and action.”
On their relation to the art world in general, Jay Brown says that Lijiang Studio’s place in the village gives them “an indirect relation with the globalized art world” which they find quite helpful for keeping the art and art practices they host “open, and the lack of commercial concerns keep certain definitions of success at bay.”
Now a major tourist destination, Lijiang City in China’s Yunnan Province originally developed due to its location on the Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road (also known as the “Silk Road” of Southwest China) and is predominantly populated by the Naxi ethnic group. About 13km South of the city, Lijiang Studio works out of a courtyard house rented in 2005 in a small farming village. The general aims of the Studio are to organise residencies for visiting artists, exhibitions and events with a focus on involving their neighbours and the local community in the projects.
Organised by Li Lisha, Lijiang Studio’s assistant curator, who was also one of the artists involved in adorning the farmers’ walls, the Mural Painting Project lasted from 2008 until 2010. Jay Brown described it as fitting into their overall activities looking at “counter-narratives of various kinds that might arise between artists and our village.” The participants were young Chinese artists (with the exception of Piet Trantel from Germany) and the basic instructions to the artists were that they “must respect villagers’ requests and tastes, and make every effort to communicate with them,” the goal being “for both parties to accept the mural.” The murals were to live on within this community, both on the outside and within the farmers’ houses, so their input into the production process was an essential element. It was a fact of life that Lijiang Studio had to also negotiate their own long-term relationship with the community, while the artists could leave at any point. The pressure this rural situation put on art led to the acts of diplomacy that Li Lisha in particular had to demonstrate between the various constituencies.
Wu Junyong, painting the murals at He Guizhen's house; Courtesy of the artist.
Graffiti and street art are very much a part of the modern life of the city, as a production of and reaction to city spaces and ways of life, and the cities in China are no exception. China also strongly embodies the earlier history of religious wall painting, through the influence of Buddhism and pagan expressive mark making. In fact Lijiang is itself famous for such activity, as a little to the north of the city can be found the Baisha Murals, an extensive sequence of religious and secular imagery painted during the Ming (CE 1368–1644) and early Qing periods.
In more recent times in China, vernacular wall painting was used as a way for ideological messages to reach out into the disparate regions of such a large country. In remote villages and communities the faded painted slogans still remain as a sign of this. But as the state ideology in China has adjusted from communism to market capitalism, the messages have reflected this change, leading to the advertising for China Mobile appearing on vacant walls throughout the countryside. As Jay Brown says: “China Mobile was so visual and public about their efforts to create new markets in our village that it was a suitable starting point for this mural project.”
In August of this year Lijiang Studio will be publishing a book giving abundant details of the process for each of the thirteen murals that were completed in the village. The preferred style of painting was by and large representational, with a strong emphasis on the symbolism of the images: artist Liu Bin’s cargo plane, for instance, could be read as bringing good fortune to the family of He Simei on whose wall it was painted – the poorest family in the village -- and the interpretation of each element of Li Lisha’s mural by the father of He Hengguang (“the rainbow has 6 colors, and 6 brings luck; the 4 birds stand for ‘safe and sound in 4 seasons’ etc.”). This village is not a rich place, so the artists had the added responsibility of making sure they did not bring bad luck on the owners of the walls on which they were painting. Any favoured or taboo subjects of the owners were noted, and during the painting in their houses and homes these owners were ever-present to provide instant feedback. The results of this process varied. In some cases the artists struck up good relationships with the owners, leading to positive outcomes. While in others they were unable to find common ground leading to conflicts over subject matter and execution.
Tang Yi, Mural for He Chengguang's house, Repainting the mural following objections from the family; Courtesy of the artist.
The two projects undertaken by artist Tang Yi for He Chengguang’s houses, seemed to raise the most hackles amongst the family. Her representation of a magical animal in the form of a snake led to a long process of discussion regarding the meaning of the animal – the farmers’ seeing a snake as bad luck and asking for it to be changed into a dragon. The process and resulting confrontations and accommodations pushed the project to the limits of the artist’s and the Studio’s relationship with its neighbours.
But at the end of 2011, Li Lisha revisited all the sites and found that all the murals had been accepted by the farmers: “even He Chengguang’s family didn’t care what happened before and welcomed us. They were not only satisfied with the mural project, they wanted to participate in other Lijiang Studio projects! Time heals all wounds.”
A book recording the whole project in detail: Lijiang Studio Mural Stories: Contemporary Art Episodes in Rural China, compiled by Li Lisha, will be launched on the 18 August, 2012, at HomeShop in Beijing. Further details about this project and the book can be found here.
(Image on top: Liu Bin, Cargo Plane above Lashihai, Mural at He Simei's house; Courtesy of the artist)