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The Future of China: Ma Jun

By Alexandra Chang

In the flowery porcelain world of Chinese sculptor, Ma Jun’s, ‘ New China Series ‘ (2005-2007), Qing dynasty-style chinaware is handcrafted, mass-produced, and comes in the shape of ’80s era TVs, boom boxes, radios, sports cars, Coca-Cola cans and Chanel perfume bottles. His sculptures in blue and white and famille verte were recently presented in the U.S. and in an international setting for the first time at the Scope art fair in New York City and then again this summer at Art Basel with Krampf Gallery. In addition, they were also exhibited at Scope Miami in December, 2007.

A relative unknown in the U.S. art market until now, Ma’s porcelain wares are rapidly gaining popularity. For New York gallery owner, Regis Krampf, Ma’s works came as a surprise. He had been visiting the artist’s partner Huang Min in their studio, when he came upon Ma’s work.

“I was an enthusiast to begin with,” explained Krampf. “It is 3-D, colorful. Clay is an underused medium in the fine arts; it has everything the art world lacks right now. What’s more exotic to a foreigner’s eye than Chinese porcelain? If that sculpture can also play with subject matters that are familiar to us, you have a hit.”

Ma’s pieces are delicate in medium, but substantial in format, with life-sized renditions of TVs and radios that have viewers looking and re-looking. For example, his work ‘Television’ (2005) is created in a traditional blue and white and tinged with a cracklature effect in the glaze, “antiquing” the china. Instead of moving images on the TVs, Ma paints scenes of traditional mythologies and classical stories of what the artist calls “peace, happiness or beautiful wishes” or the “social ideals of ancient Chinese people.” For this work, he has painted a monk atop a mountain surrounded by whirling clouds and a mountainous landscape with visiting pilgrims. On another TV, he paints in famille verte, or a Qing-style technicolor red, green and gold, to show the gallant courting of a beautiful woman. On his ‘Coca-Cola bottles I’ (2006), Ma also utilizes blue and white and cracklature. Instead of a scene, he has completely covered the bottles with flower patterns. For his ‘Chanel No. 5′ (2007) bottles, he paints extravagant multicolor phoenixes mixed with peonies in tangled greens, yellows and reds.

Each of Ma’s sculptures is completely covered in traditional Qing flower patterns, birds, dragons, clouds and scenes. The artist makes no reference to modern brand signage, but instead imprints the pieces with maker’s marks that denote their imagined “official” ancestral origins during the height of Qing dynasty rule under emperors including Qian Long and Kang Xi. For Ma, his references to the dynastic past serve as a concept of a rich cultural and historical tradition. The shapes of the sculptures are immediately recognizable popular brands and items that have become visually branded into the country’s subconscious - the new objects or narratives of the country’s foundational mythology. By using the everyday objects of his childhood and combining them with this decorative style, he retains the notion of a pop-cultural reference to the quotidian sublime, yet references an imagined bridge between the nation’s and a personal cultural past and their intersecting futures.

Ma’s reconfiguration of the order of things, this clash of time and the resulting amalgam of polarities of pop and traditional culture, stems from the artist’s own nostalgic longing for China “once upon a time.” Although cheerfully colorful, even humorous at times, and highly decorative in their painted detailing, Ma’s works impose themselves with vigor as lavish sculptural symptoms tinged with the artist’s sense of a progressive dissipation and displacement of the country’s cultural history. The sculptures are informed from this sense of Chinese everyday life thrown into constant motion by the seemingly chaotic whirl of internationalism and consumerism that has been flowing into and out of the country since the Chinese Economic Reform of the ‘80s.

With the Coca-Cola brand so much of a marker of the West, other Chinese artists, such as Zhang Hongtu and Ai Wei Wei, have also used this symbol in combination with Chinese traditional ceramics. Ai’s ‘Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo’ (1994) is a well-known example. However, Ai’s concept differs in that the urn and the logo are not fused together as one seamless object, but can be seen two ways: with the logo as an act of violent defacement on the urn, or with the logo as artistic Westernized graffiti on the urn of mainstream tradition. The hand of the artist is very much present and emphasized. For Ma, his work also combines design and concept, however, with a preciousness rather than violence about the work and a conscious attempt to avoid direct commentary.

Zhang Hongtu, on the other hand, brings together his Asian-American diasporic experience within his piece ‘Kekou-Kele’ (2002), a blue and white ceramic coke bottle, as well as ‘Mai Dang Lao’ (2002), a bronze fast-food hamburger box and utensils. Both titles play on the pronunciation of the two brands, “Coca-Cola” and “McDonald’s,” in Chinese. On the surface, the pieces may appear to veer closely in concept to that of Ma’s work. However, this is far from the case in that Zhang is fusing together his experience as an artist living within two cultures simultaneously, rather than underlining the urgency of nostalgic longing as Ma does. Unlike Zhang, who has been living in the U.S. for over 20 years, Ma is coming from a completely different standpoint. Also, within Ma’s ‘New China Series’, the bottle serves less as a fusion of East and West and more as an observation of the influx of the Western lifestyle and global consumer culture into China, with an aspiration of maintaining a traditional, historical, and cultural base.

Ma was born on February 28, 1974 in Qingdao, Shandong Province into a military family. His father eventually retired from the army and became a banker, while his mother and sister practiced accounting. It was Ma’s neighbors, who were the musicians, poets and artists, who would initially inspire the young artist. “In my memory the starry skies on summer nights were super clear, and there was the Milky Way, as well as numerous stars,” recalled Ma. “The neighbors always got together to chat, and the mythologies and ancient anecdotes they mentioned were so appealing to me. When thinking back about those days, I believe that was the beginning of my passion for art.” 

During these impressionable years, at just 5 or 6 years old, Ma had already left behind the playground exploits of his peers and began his new fixation - copying the flowers and birds in classical paintings. During primary school, his parents found art teachers to train his passion. Before high school, he had already decided on his direction in life: art. After Qingdao Art School, he graduated from the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts with his Bachelor’s and then Master’s degrees. In 2000, during his first year as a Master’s student, he became acquainted to Huang Min, with whom he shares a 170 -square-foot studio, which they are increasingly outgrowing.

Through his use of medium and references to commercial design, his works cross the blurred boundaries of the categories of high and low art. After working in various mediums including bronze, metal, glass and paper pulp, in 2005, Ma visited Jingdezhen, known for its porcelain since the Han dynasty, and found in its craftsmanship and lifestyle the inspiration for his ‘New China Series’. Each of his works is crafted from clay set from molds made in the forms of TV sets, lipstick, perfume, or other iconic vintage ’80s items, from an era of conspicuous consumption. Finally Ma “antiques” the pieces through a process that can include imparting a cracklature.

For Ma, setting up a necessary distance between his current work and contemporary technology is also important - this breakage in time between his present reality and his remembered childhood. Instead of an mp3 player, it is a dual-deck boom box recorder that he models. Instead of a flatscreen TV, it is a boxy television with UHF dials. Cut off from time and tinged with nostalgia, these retro items gain a different reading as they are painted with the classical flowers, dragons, and idyllic scenes of landscape, pageantry, and love imagined centuries ago. While some of the pieces are created in the same format as the actual item, such as the TV set or boom box, other items such as lipstick and perfume are given larger-than-life sizes. The larger scale is impactful as an emphasis on decadence; yet at times, the artist revealed, the size was also necessitated by delicate techniques used to model the pieces.

On yet another plane, Ma’s sculptures go beyond the clash of East and West or symbolic use of medium. Like the works of Marcel Duchamp, who was an early influence on the artist, the very space-time coordinates of his pieces affect the impact of the work, which is invariably ever-changing. His work takes on a different perspective when it is situated amid an art fair, thousands of miles away in New York City or Germany than when it sits perched within his studio. Thus, the piece is read with a multiplicity of possibilities. Outside of China, the medium itself becomes exotic and foreign. Inside China, the pieces speak of a daily clash between recognizable and ever-present tradition and rapid everyday modernization. For Ma, the pieces illustrate the lifestyle change he experienced while growing up. For others outside of that narrative, it could be decorative artwork for the home or an exotic piece created within a foreign country as it undergoes rapid change. Yet in the U.S. too, there remains something familiar - the Western ’80s culture of extravagance that is also undergoing retro-nostalgia in the popular culture on the other side of the Pacific. However, the perspective is altered, as it is a fundamental longing for memories of a U.S. childhood, rather than growing up amid an infiltration of Western wares and ideals into one’s home country.

With a constantly developing international consumer culture, and tourism and travel, the slow move of certain urban settings into the cosmopolitanism of global centers like Shanghai, Beijing, New York and Tokyo seems inevitable. Along with it comes a constant flow of energy, thought, goods, services, and the people and multimedia technologies that carry them back and forth. As a result, a chaotic ether of cultural histories is generated that threatens to slowly lose its boundaries and shift its meaning as it crosses from one border into the next. A Chanel bottle is brought into China and becomes an organic part of what modern China recognizes as its own. A ceramic piece is brought from China to New York and it is recognized, not as what it stood for in China, but as something completely different, extracted and atop the shelf of an apartment dweller next to a contemporary silkscreen print from Germany. It becomes part of the daily cosmopolitan intermixing with another life.

Though this medium of china, the name of the country itself, brings with it an obvious symbolism imbued with place, orientalism and history, Ma’s sculptures venture further than this clash of cultural and historical timelines. He explains that no one specific time in history or one specific dynasty’s works is more important within the overall reading of his pieces. Instead, it is this idea of a history that is recalled beyond a linear narrative. It is the imagined, yet still very real past of a country or group of individuals- the core comparative past of one generation of Chinese to the next. It is the slowly-fading notion of tradition, of a culture, though it is always shifting and changing in the way it is read and understood. Ma’s works situate and re-situate themselves within a whirlwind of international interest in Chinese art, gaining momentum since the early ’90s, and the burgeoning of global urban centers with their cosmopolitan intermixing of slowly-blurring cultures and traditions within everyday life.

Ma does not criticize this inevitability, but perhaps its consuming totality; if only elements of a traditional China could remain. He recalls his trips back and forth from Jiujian to Jingdezhen on the expressway where he still sees natural landscapes, which could have been the same millennia ago. He fears they too will soon turn into urban settings, too quickly planned, diluting the past.

Instead, he questions: “I’m just raising the question: While our lifestyle is changed by these products, what will our future be like? Will China, the country that appreciates china so much, lose its own aesthetics in china?”

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