Displaying the Communist Other: Perspectives on the Exhibition and Interpretation of Communist Visual Culture

Barnes, Amy Jane (2011). Displaying the Communist Other: Perspectives on the Exhibition and Interpretation of Communist Visual Culture. In: Dudley, Sandra; Barnes, Amy Jane; Binnie, Jennifer; Petrov, Julia and Walklate, Jennifer eds. The Thing about Museums: Objects and Experience, Representation and Contestation. Routledge.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203803523-30


The visual culture of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76), upon which this chapter focuses – has been, I would argue, an active agent in the development of Western perceptions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).1 Its interpretation may be problematic. Three aspects are key: the tensions inherent in its display (especially outside the temporal, ideological and geographical context of its creation); its role in mediating (sometimes subverting) official and unofficial histories of the Cultural Revolution; and what it represents (both visually and symbolically), challenging the image of contemporary China promoted in the West by the PRC and received images of China and ‘Chineseness’ in the West. With these issues in mind, this chapter takes a critical look at two contemporary British examples of institutions with collections of Cultural Revolution-era visual culture, using aspects of collecting theory theorised by Susan Pearce. I will delimit the extent of contemporary collecting practice within this subject area, and begin to reveal the tension between material of an explicitly propagandist nature, and representations of Chinese art and culture within an orientalising discourse. While recognising that there are highly practical (and pragmatic) influences upon the collection, interpretation and display of this material, among them the challenges of presenting to audiences the Cultural Revolution as a sociopolitical and ideological phenomenon, and the macro political considerations that collecting and displaying institutions have to take into account when entering into high profile and potentially lucrative (in both terms of financial and intellectual return) relationships with the Chinese cultural authorities (for a closer examination of these aspects see Barnes 2009). After a description of the focal collections, this chapter turns to a particular, theoretical aspect: the challenge that the visual culture of the Cultural Revolution presents to deeply entrenched museal representations of China and the traditional Western canon of art.

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