In the mid-1980s, Wang Guangyi espoused a humanist vision of art for post-Mao China. His series of paintings entitled “Frozen North Pole” sought to evoke, in the artist’s words, “a kind of beauty of sublime reason which contains constant, harmonious feelings of humanity.” Abstract human figures placed in orderly, grid-like arrangements face uniformly forward, as if moving toward an auspicious future. The message is utopian and optimistic: these humans are evolved creatures of rationality and feeling who are ready for an ideal world.
Great Castigation Series: Coca-Cola, 1993
Three years later Wang’s art and ethos had undergone a complete reversal — his new aim was “to liquidate the enthusiasm of humanism.” Shifting to a cut-and-paste method and deploying Warhol-inspired references to mass culture, Wang began to produce Political Pop art rife with irony. He saw irony as a necessary tactic in the tense atmosphere that preceded the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. It was a reaction against the tragically sincere use of symbols (such as the Statue of Liberty) seen elsewhere in the showdown between Maoism and democracy.
Wang’s new art appropriated communist propagandist images from China and mixed them with corporate advertisements from the West. They are literal depictions of the conflicted values descending over China. Poster-style Red Guard soldiers stand under the Coca-Cola logo; the kitsch of communism rubs elbows with the kitsch of capitalism; the art of assemblage mirrors the patchwork of contradictory ideologies that China endures. Both “Mao Zedong Age” (1991) and “Workers, Peasants, Soldiers, and Coca Cola” (1992) bathe the age of Mao in the aura of Hollywood, rendering the difference between the two indiscernible.
Wang suggests an affinity between the means employed by capitalism and those employed by socialism in the efforts to promulgate certain social visions. Both rely on popularized images and catch-words to create community — be it a community of citizens or consumers. In fact, the difference between consumer and citizen dissolves in the post-history, contemporary world.