Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Propaganda (Posters)

In a crummy old complex of apartment buildings in downtown Shanghai, you have to know what you're looking for if you wanna find it. A security guard sits in an old singlet, in a small box beside a broken boomgate, and if you know how to say bowuguan (museum) he’ll gift to you a small photocopied rectangle of paper with a dotted line that snakes around numbered blobs which are supposed to represent the apartment buildings which all look identical in their brown brick 90’s facades. The map tells us to find building four and take the elevator to the basement. The numbers on the buildings are obscured by residents’ drying laundry, and we feel distinctly foreign – yes, even more so than we normally feel in China.

We would have missed the entrance if it were not for an old man sitting in his car mumbling away at us and gesturing to small steps leading to an elevator. I don’t know how he guessed we weren’t residents.

Whilst waiting for the elevator we heard televisions and children and kettles and all manner of residential sounds you would expect in such a location. I was so sure that this was all a big scam for kidnapping stupid tourists. Either that, or this museum was actually an illegal commercial operation in an obviously residentail-zoned area. Probably the latter, but I can never rule out the former when I’m in China.

The elevator doors opened to a starkly lit, freezingly air-conditioned , low-ceilinged space which was very obviously a basement. We passed through one of those thick plastic half-door/half-wall-hanging things that you see at butchers, and paid our 20 kuai to a tall man with Harry Potter glasses and a long white silk shirt. A pleasant Engrish introduction gave us an overview of the history of propaganda posters in China, and then our perusal began…

The location might have been less than optimum, but the collection was nothing short of incredible. Hundreds of posters sat on the walls, each with a small foam plaque featuring the year it was created, the artist (if known), the style it featured, and the English translations of the slogans. We spent at least ninety minutes in a space no bigger than your… well – no bigger than your basement.

The progression of the propaganda styles was what impressed me the most. I didn’t realise that the forms and mediums changed so drastically throughout the years, and it was interesting to see the correlation between the messages of the government and the visual applications used. Periods of intense military action have a very easily recognisable style. The typeface, colours, and portraiture ideas are bold and simple and often appear aggressive in nature. In times of (relative) peace, however, much more positive and colourful representations of China and Chinese people can be seen, the government is encouraging extra crop production and informing peasants of optimum modes of farming and family life. You can read a much more detailed account of it here and here and I cannot recommend a quick perusal of both those sites enough. Really enlightening stuff.

The ever-iconic Banksy street art.
Another thing I found incredibly interesting, was the obvious influence this propaganda and poster art had on modern poster art forms, such as street art and music posters. Without any former education on the subject, you could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the Chinese Communist Party propaganda team took their inspiration from Banksy, and not the other way around. The similarities are obvious to the point of alarming because the irony is so rich – that this medium, once used for political control and brainwashing, is now being used in an attempt to wake people from their government/corporation-induced brain slumber. I suppose when clarity of message and ease of mass production are two of the main goals of the work, it is not surprising to see so many similarities.

Many of the later styles of posters also resemble, in a very frightening way, children’s illustrations. Bright colours and happy faces and full bellies with fine black outlines suggest these drawing should be in hardback format about a mouse who plays piano. Instead, they are peddling all kinds of ideals and concepts and notions to a nation of non-readers. I suppose there is always something incredibly condescending about propaganda. I feel it was the same with the nazi propaganda, and is something at the very root of the medium – that your audience is uneducated and so must be treated as such, in the manner one would communicate with a child. One black person represents Africa. The small snake/toad/monster pictured with the American flag as skin represents the United States. There is only ever one sentence on the poster, and it is almost always a command. We found ourselves laughing at many of the images out of their sheer ridiculousness, but it is a stark reminder of the intellectual state that the CCP wanted their population to remain in. If the people honestly believed what these posters were telling them, then I have no doubt that they would follow Mao to puritan communism, then poverty, then starvation.

'Mambo' brand of artwork created
by Reg Mombassa. It's particularly
famous in Australia .

Another similarity I found is perhaps less apparent, but nonetheless interesting - you can see it if you really look. The Mambo brand (artworks by Reg Mombassa) style of block colour with strong outlining is also a little reminiscent of some of the earlier propaganda poster styles. The almost linoleum-printed effect of strong black outines, with crosshatching or straight-rowed strikes to create shadow and movement (on the posters) is strangely similar to the iconic Mambo pastel and crayon and painted and printed images I see on t-shirts and music posters all over Australia and the world.The experience of being at this museum really inspired me to go home and start painting again myself. I would not have suspected that propaganda art could stir within me so much interest - not because of the history, but because of the creation in istelf. It was a true art form, and there were masters and famous poster-creators celebrated in the way we celebrate painters and sculptors today. The papers and inks they used to print the posters were special and bright and durable, the woodblocks were hand-carved and some still exist, the characters were stylized and painted in clearer new kinds of fonts... The more I read about it the more enthralled I become.

One content-related thing we did appreciate was the general gender-neutrality of the posters, especially the early ones. In the encouraging depictions of agricultural life, both men and women were tending the fields with equal baskets of harvested wheat. Small boys and girls either both played or both bathed or both slept. The elderly were all wise and equally respected. This idea is reflected in the language development as well. The current Mandarin pronunciation of ‘he’ and ‘she’ or ‘him’ and ‘her’ are all the identical sound of ‘ta’. The title of ‘comrade’ was used between people of equal standing. It is a shame that the only real time of gender equality in China came at a time of horrible turmoil. During my research I also learnt that Mao’s wife was responsible for many of the most horrendous policy decisions made by the CCP’s regime. Perhaps she had at least this small good influence of gender equality on the people of her time... Then again, perhaps not. There are no real ‘facts’ about this entire period of Chinese history.

There was an obligatory gift shop at the exit of the museum, and I was excited to see what I could take home for myself. Propaganda posters are especially cool on the walls of distinctly non-Chinese apartments these days.For example, my room back in Brisbane. I dig the street-art style, and the slogans are hilarious when out of context. Anyways, to my surprise the shop was actually full of original pieces that people could buy. They had a good collection of copied posters which they apparently made themselves, but what really interested me was their collection of non-poster memorabilia for sale. There were real original Mao pins, and real “Little Red Books” and real Korean magazines from the 1970’s. I’m such a sucker for history. I picked up an old stamped bicycle license and couldn’t believe that thing I was holding had been held by a person in the grip of one of the most brutal communist regimes in the history of humankind. Then I walked a little further and found an incredible find – a small collection of original propaganda vinyl records!!!!

THEY WERE FUCKING INCREDIBLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

“MAO IS OUR SHINING RED SUN” Was the first title I laid eyes on, and I lifted the article delicately to examine it’s originality. It was the real deal. Official red stamp and everything. The record itself was a little scratched, but with my gramophone at home, I was sure I would at least get a couple of minutes of peep out of it. The cover was bright and cheery like the later, more childish posters I was telling you about – obviously printed/created a time of relative prosperity and positivity. It was wonderful, and I had already done the math about how much it would cost, when my eyes (naturally) wandered and found something even better!

I now have, in my possession, an original propaganda vinyl record from 1968 communist China. The style is much earlier in it’s Mao-worship type of portrait representation, and the type face is also the older, more classic kind not found on later works.

Isn’t is incredible? Yes, is the answer to that question. Yes, Bri, that thing you bought is the most insanely radical thing that anyone has ever bought in the whole world ever. Thanks, I think it’s pretty cool too.
How much did it cost? HolyshitwaytoomuchandIhavetoeatwontonsforaweekandIcannotbelieveIjustboughtthisthingbutitssoooototallyworthit!!!
What am I going to do with it? I’m going to take it home, play it on my gramophone and record it. Then I’m going to post it so that everyone can hear what Mao wanted his comrades to hear when he was re-educating them. Then I’m going to frame it alongside my amazing new purchase of modern Shanghainese artwork. The perfect juxtaposition.
Is there anything else I would like to gloat about? No, thanks, I think that’s about it for today.
Dad, consider it an investment – a wise purchase made with long-term resale intentions… Things like this can only go up in value as the number of hipsters in the world continues to drastically increase.

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