Review: Workforce: Representing Labour in Chinese Propaganda Posters at UTAC.

March 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

Fa Tu Qiang Zi Li Geng Sheng Jian She Zu Guo, Chinese Cultural Revolution poster, Collection of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

UTAC’s current exhibition, Workforce: Representing Labour in Chinese Propaganda Posters, offers up a beautifully surreal portrayal of the indisputable connection between art and life. The show’s curator Elizabeth Parke brought together 16 posters from the Mark Gayn Collection, located in U of T’s very own Thomas Fischer Rare Books Library. These hand-selected pieces represent Chinese propaganda both before and after the country’s Cultural Revolution. However, while these 16 works are certainly bound through the fact that they are all examples of offset printing, they also aim to show the definite symbolic content behind the Chinese figure of the worker.

In the People’s Republic of China, the imagery surrounding labourers, workers and peasants was dramatically revamped. This new-found idealization was essential to the promotion of China as an industrialized nation that could potentially surpass the progress of the West. While this type of artistic propagation was employed again and again throughout history, Elizabeth Parke hones in on the extreme painterly effects of particular Chinese posters. This nearly photographic aesthetic is evident in one the show’s more compelling posters, Li Mubau and Jin Chenzo’s “Mao Greets Model Workers” (1964). The piece portrays Mao Zedong casually conversing with three individuals who are adorned with Chairman Mao Badges, given to them in honour of their hard work. The poster’s formal naturalism therefore masks its loaded message and effectively fulfills a propagandistic function, producing an emotional rather than rational response. In addition to this, Elizabeth Parke highlights the period’s artistic impulse to pick and choose formal tropes that also connote Communist iconography. One example of this is can be seen in Long Ka’s “Under the Red Flag of Mao Zedong,” which draws attention to the main figure of Mao, through the fact that his size is most prominent and that he is detailed in red. Parke’s joint focus on the realism and ideological coding of these works adds to their strange and wonderful presence.

UTAC’s Workforce: Representing Labour in Chinese Propaganda Posters is worth a visit as it is thoughtfully put together and offers a good range of prints that pinpoint the political trajectory of China in the 1960s. Also be sure to check out the Thomas Fischer Library for more propaganda posters.

The show runs until April 12.

– Stella Melchiori

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