Bad Citizens and Symbolic Subjects: Wang Jin, Zhou Tiehai and the Art of (In)Civility

Ros Holmes, The University of Manchester

On January 28, 1996, a crowd began to gather at the heart of Erqi Square in downtown Zhengzhou. Braving sub-zero temperatures, they arrived cocooned in hats and scarves, down jackets and padded coats. The mood was one of jubilant expectation, heightened by the promise of a commercial spectacle whose much anticipated unveiling had been insistently announced in a flurry of flyers and promotional banners, monopolising the city’s billboards and airwaves, its television screens and newspaper columns in the preceding weeks. Just beyond the crowd lay their avowed destination: the glittering facades of the newly rebuilt Tianran Department Store. Yet obstructing their entry to this consumer paradise lay an unexpected impediment: a two-metre-high, thirty-metre-long wall of ice.

Positioned above the expectant shoppers gathered below, a photographer took a covert shot of this initial moment of encounter, capturing the crowd’s somewhat bemused reaction to this unforeseen obstacle. The photographer, Jiang Jian, had been stationed there by the artist Wang Jin (b. 1962), who, working with a team of assistants under the cover of night, had erected this impenetrable line along the periphery of the plaza immediately outside the store’s main entrance, shielding the installation process from public view with the help of a strategically placed billboard. Over the course of three days, Jiang would proceed to take a startling series of documentary photographs that would chart the history of Wang’s wall and the crowd’s interaction with it, culminating in the protracted and public nature of its destruction. These photographs would come to mark Ice-96, Central Plain as one of the most original works to emerge from the hyperactive and increasingly commercialized art world of 1990s China, yet one that, as I argue in the course of this article, has not received the academic attention it deserves. For while scholarship, both within China and beyond its borders, has predominantly focused on the work’s engagement with China’s burgeoning consumer culture and its time-based and transient nature (Zhang, 1996; Song, 1997; Gao, 1998; Wu 2004; Cheng, 2007), these approaches have critically overlooked what I regard as its most salient and innovative contribution to contemporary art, namely its overt engagement with, and contestation of, the trope of civility.

Civility ( wenming) is a complex and multi-headed discourse in China, one that entered the country through a “complex global loop” involving transcultural exchange with Japan and Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century (Duara, 2001; Liu, 2011). Following the founding of the PRC, its semantic currency experienced various fluctuations in a narrative that reflects the turbulent history of China’s twentieth century, but it experienced a major renewal following Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. Under Deng’s leadership, the two intertwined concepts of wuzhi wenming (material civilisation) and jingshen wenming (spiritual civilisation) were revived as central components of his programme of “opening and reform”. No longer was wenhua (culture) the primary arena for struggle and change; civility effectively paved the way for both a rejection of Maoist ideology and, coupled with spiritual civilisation’s stabilising counter-effect over the material sphere, a legitimate embrace of the market. The return of civility in postsocialist China therefore signified not just a “return of the repressed”, or to employ an art historical discourse, a “return of the real”, but perhaps we could also view the “strange temporality” that Hal Foster talks about as a conscious decision by Chinese reformers of the 1980s to “turn to past paradigms to open up present possibilities” (Foster, 1996: xi).

If the recuperation of civility enabled Deng to push forward with his economic reforms by replacing class struggle with a new, cooperative, and harmonious model which reinforced a positive relationship between material and cultural progress, as the CCP divorced itself economically from Communist practice (Dynon, 2008), not all of Deng’s leadership was as sanguine as him about the impact of this burgeoning consumer-oriented culture. Viewed as having a detrimental effect upon the moral fibre of China’s urban citizens, the rise of “spiritual civilisation” was also promoted as a means of resisting the erosive influence of “bourgeois ideology”, and combating what was perceived as a growing national crisis of faith (Ding, 1994). While Deng revitalized the concept, it was his successor Jiang Zemin who ensured that the promotion of civility reached a new level of coordination and institutionalization, directing “provincial, district and danwei-level Spiritual Civilization Offices to transmit the civilization discourse produced by theorists onto streets and into neighbourhoods and work places across China through the coordination of massive multi-layered promotional campaigns” (Dynon, 2008: 96).

Visual depictions of civility subsequently became ubiquitous throughout the country’s panoply of street-level banners, posters and promotional media signs, with government produced propaganda mirroring commercial advertising in its depiction of new apartment blocks, shining public spaces and depictions of comfortable, affluent lifestyles that in many ways helped to visually construct an image of a more affluent, “civilised” nation that corresponded with new consumer identities. With media outlets keen to be seen to be supporting the civilization drive, “news reports throughout the late 1990s described many activities and good deeds performed by Party organizations, military personnel, model citizens, residential districts and work units as examples of the grass-roots adoption of socialist spiritual civilization” (Dynon, 2008: 98). By the 1990s, Jiang had even broadened the concept into a campaign to re-establish a national ethics based around hygiene, morality, legal consciousness, decorum, manners, and discipline. As such, the government’s promulgations on civility included visual information that not only encompassed behavioural standards but also prescribed order to the unlegislated minutiae of citizens’ daily lives. Not only did these visual representations make the message of civility voluble, even pervasive, within a rapidly growing and changing market-driven advertising industry, but these mutually reinforcing promotional mechanisms served to afford civility new visual and lexical legitimacy.

In 1996, the year of Wang’s installation, the promotion of civility under the new guise of “spiritual civilisation” had returned as an ideological offensive more vigorously than at any point since its inception in 1979. The 1996 Zhongguo nianjian ( China Yearbook) summarised the Party’s rhetoric for that year, placing particular emphasis on the promotion of “spiritual civilisation”: “In the building of modernisation, we cannot seize only material civilisation without seizing spiritual civilisation, and we cannot sacrifice spiritual civilisation in exchange for momentary economic development” ( Zhongguo nianjian, 1996: 88). Yet despite this prominence in political and cultural discourse, research on the relationship between artworks produced in the 1990s, and narratives of contested civility are, however, completely absent. Offering a re-positioning, as well as a re-visioning, of the role of civility in contemporary art, this article explores the cultural implications of this complex discourse by focusing on a close visual analysis not just of Wang Jin’s Ice-96 Central Plain (1996), but also a photographic series produced by Zhou Tiehai (b. 1966) in the same year, in which the artist parodies the trope of the model citizen, confronting the idealised and embodied nature of civility and its basis as a prerequisite for citizenship.

If civics is the study of the rights and responsibilities of citizens, reflecting the shared etymological root between civil (from the Latin for “resident of a city” or “townsperson”) and citizenship, civis has always been associated with the courteous manners of citizens as opposed to soldiers. Similarly in Chinese, as Wang Gungwu has aptly pointed out, civility ( wenming) derives from wen which provides an important footnote in conveying what has perhaps always been considered the key to being civilised in China, “namely the acquisition of language, literacy and the non-military aspects of government and education” (Wang, 1991: 146). But as the artworks examined in this article demonstrate, at times, the diversity of citizens, and their often unpredictable behaviour, also connotes a political threat: that civis may destabilize the polis and that the wen (the literary, artistic and cultural aspects of society) can sometimes rub up frictively against the pellucid promise of a bright and “civilised” future, muddying any attempts at clarity and offering a more occluded and at times equivocal frame through which to view these interactions.

Foregrounding how artists not only slyly subverted, but at the same time brazenly opposed the CCP’s desire to police the boundaries of morality and its attendant physical, mental and behavioural qualities, my analysis therefore not only illuminates the relationship between contemporary art and public visual representations of civility, but more crucially, sets out an important agenda for understanding civility: proper attention to the impact of the visual. Rejecting the binary terms with which civility is commonly constructed—between model and shameful forms of deportment, between appropriate behaviour and unseemly conduct, civil and uncivil, good and bad—this article directly challenges the social and political role of civility as it is constructed, imagined and “imaged” in postsocialist China, illustrating how by implication, citizenship, a concept partially forged as a consequence of these polarized assumptions, is similarly ensnared within this limited framework.

This article therefore fills an important gap in the existing literature by providing an evaluation not just of how civility has been visualised, but also an examination of how the concept has been critiqued and resisted through the visual. For if the artists discussed in this article sometimes disagree with the government over how the intertwined concepts of civility and citizenship come to be defined, the works they produced also question the assumption that proper conduct is the foundation for model citizenship. By countering the dominant approach which has focused on the differentiating discourse of civility, with a focus on those who are civilised and those who are “civility’s others”, and examining the points at which civility mediates subject and object, exclusion and inclusion, the dominant and the subaltern (Bakken, 2000; Friedman, 2004; Nyíri, 2006), this article will explore the cultural implications of this complex mediation and delineate how it has become imbricated with other pressing concerns: urbanisation, globalisation, the overt commercialisation of Chinese society and a government relentlessly concerned with image and ideal citizenship.

Combining interviews with Wang Jin, and translations of Chinese artistic texts with a close visual analysis of the works under discussion, the article stands as an argument for considering the multifarious forms that civility takes and for moving beyond the contours of existing scholarship to reveal its manifold effects in shaping citizenship. My analysis therefore not only finds focus in the intertwined concepts of civility and citizenship, but crucially argues that the courteous foundation of citizenship is not as certain as the polarized terms of debates on civility would suggest; as many of the artworks discussed here illustrate, civility can frequently be dislodged from its ideological apex and incivility can, at times, paradoxically serve as a basis for citizenship.

Walls of Ice and Civilities of Surveillance

The expectant crowd who assembled on that cold January morning in Erqi Square, Zhengzhou, had gathered to mark the reopening of the aforementioned Tianran Shangsha, (Tianran Department Store), destroyed a year earlier in a conflagration that heralded a dramatic climax to the “Zhengzhou trade wars” that raged throughout the 1990s. [1] Wang Jin even wryly alluded to this event when he encased photographs of fire fighters dousing the store’s erstwhile predecessor to the outer façade of his icy barrier. The store’s competitors were the six shopping centres that encircled the square, whose giant neon signs, glittering glass facades and imposing architecture both staged and framed the confines of this commercial arena. As they vied for visibility, the battle to be crowned as Zhengzhou’s ultimate consumer mecca had resulted in a hyperbolic war of words and images played out on giant billboards and glossy handbills throughout the city, as well as increasingly theatrical publicity stunts devised to entice Zhengzhou’s burgeoning consumers. Ironically, Wang Jin’s wall of ice was originally intended as one such event, erected after Wang was commissioned by the Department Store to create a spectacle on a scale befitting their commercial rejuvenation. [2]

But instead of the customary commercial banners and promotional paraphernalia, the assembled onlookers were confronted with the unexpected sight of Wang’s frozen installation. Beyond the wall’s improbable building material, another facet of its construction elicited significant interest. Composed of over six hundred individual blocks of ice, the wall’s outward appearance was deceptive, and its gelid surfaces belied a deeper artifice, for encased within each brick, Wang had chosen to suspend over a thousand sought-after commercial goods. These ranged in size and value from cosmetics to cell phones, watches and gold rings to cameras, television sets and even air conditioners, whose entangled piping protruded incongruously beyond the rough-hewn contours of the wall’s façade (fig. 1). The majority of these consumer items had been provided by the department store itself, although Wang informed me in an interview that he had also contributed popular consumer items purchased from the smaller shops that lined the streets between the six retail behemoths.

Wang Jin Bing-96 Zhongyuan

Figure 1: Wang Jin , Bing-96 Zhongyuan (Ice-96, Central Plain), 1996, Gelatin Silver Print, 77.2 by 114.9 cm. Copyright artist Wang Jin. Photo courtesy Pékin Fine Arts.

Wang apparently travelled to Zhengzhou twice before finalising his proposal, [3] with Ice 96 being hastily approved by the store’s management team, eager to entice new consumers through their doors. With the consumer goods selected and assembled, Wang oversaw their transportation to an industrial icehouse, where each was suspended in a steel mould filled with water and left to freeze for twenty-four to thirty-six hours. During the crystallization process, air pockets and other impurities were gradually removed from each block with varying degrees of success, ensuring that some of Wang’s ice bricks were rendered translucent while others remained tantalisingly opaque. With a staggered production process that required over a week to complete, the six hundred blocks that formed Wang’s wall were stacked vertically on wooden pallets within the warehouse, ready to be assembled on site.

Despite the unusual nature of Wang’s installation, other aspects of the store’s commercial reopening were rather more prosaic: a city official had been invited to cut the ribbon; dancers, musicians and folk performers were hired to enhance the festive atmosphere, while firecrackers, drums and gongs resounded as the crowd of jubilant spectators descended on the square (Cheng, 2013: 303). Security guards hired by the department store initially instructed onlookers not to get too close to Wang’s wall, and formed a small cordon encircling its periphery. With the crowd’s ranks swelling rapidly to over one thousand people, however, their numbers quickly overwhelmed the guards, who relinquished their duties with phlegmatic resignation. The photograph shot by Wang’s assistant Jiang Jian captures the crowd’s initial reaction to these events and to the petrified goods visible within the wall of ice; fingers point and heads tilt, torsos incline and knees flex, as the assembled onlookers lean in to survey the frozen vitrines in front of them. Some press their faces against the ice in disbelief while others exchange quizzical expressions with their fellow spectators as they jostle for space on the concrete paving slabs that fan outward from the store’s entrance (fig. 1).

As a substance whose materiality is intertwined with ephemerality, it was inevitable that Wang’s construction would undergo changes in its physical state, indeed the outer surface of this icy installation was expected to respond to daily fluctuations in temperature by sporadically thawing and freezing, presenting both occluded and vitreous views of the goods encased within. Given Zhengzhou’s sub-zero temperatures in January 1996, Wang Jin anticipated that his wall would retain its structural integrity and solidity for a week to a fortnight, but while the wall was expected to slowly distribute its wares in a time-sensitive and sustained release of both product and promotion, the actions of the crowd who congregated outside the store made any such plans redundant. Whereas the majority of existing literature on this artwork has described the almost immediate destruction of the wall by the assembled spectators (Song, 1997: 102; Zhang, 1996: 64; Gao, 1998: 67; Cheng, 2007: 153; Wu, 2004: 159), Wang Jin informed me in an interview that this so-called “spontaneous irruption” was in fact a far more protracted affair, one that did not culminate in the destruction of the wall until a full three days after the opening.

In a series of black and white photographs shot covertly by Jiang, we see the initial salvoes of this action unfold: a woman stabs at the wall with a rock while behind her the camera captures the spectral presence of a man’s motion-blurred hand caught mid-blow, the exertion of his efforts accentuated by the strained grimace on his face. In another, a member of the crowd attired in what appears to be the silk garments of a folk dancer smiles as he drives a ceremonial spear into the ice, while two female spectators behind him survey his efforts appreciatively. In the background, two figures crouch on top of the wall in order to gain a better angle from which to pitch their assault. The mood of these photographs is almost gleeful, capturing not just the eclectic range of implements used to dismantle and effectively destroy Wang’s icy installation, but also the unbridled joy derived from these destructive acts, and the carnivalesque atmosphere of this collective action. In Jiang’s photographs, the handful of security guards tasked by the shopping centre with controlling the crowd point impotently at the ongoing demolition, unable or unwilling to intercede in the crowd’s restive desire to liberate these coveted possessions from their icy alcoves (fig. 2).

Wang Jin Bing-96 Zhongyuan

Figure 2: Wang Jin , Bing-96 Zhongyuan (Ice-96, Central Plain), 1996, 7 Gelatin Silver Prints, Each image 77.2 by 114.9 cm. Copyright artist Wang Jin. Photos courtesy Pékin Fine Arts.

As Meiling Cheng notes, it was ironically and ultimately this irruption of audience participation, unforeseen by the artist, that became, in retrospect, a determining factor in the socio-historical significance of the work (Cheng, 2007: 153). But while the assembled crowd did foreshorten the duration of the installation, the true nature of their participation demands further scrutiny. Over two decades after the work was realised, why does the narrative of the wall’s immediate destruction persist? What is it about this received version of events that makes it so compelling? In most interpretations of the work, the crowd’s actions are read as a direct signifier of the kind of economism and pragmatism of the post-Deng era, in which Wang’s wall of ice serves as an appropriate coda to the self-generating follies of the participants’ journeys into urban and consumer modernity. As Cheng comments, “their concurrent privatized actions transformed a solemn allegory against mercantile seduction into a combustible show of China’s accelerated market economy” (Cheng, 2007: 153). Wu Hung has similarly commented that “the ice wall in Ice. 96 Central China was a catalyst that dematerialized itself through an ensuing performance it visually provoked” (Wu, 2004: 159). Like Cheng, Wu has focused on the allure of those commodities suspended in Wang’s semi-clear ice “chest” that tempted the spectators to “perform en masse, the capitalist machinery of desire”, in which these “accidental co-performers” were united in their respective quests to convert “what they saw as ‘images’ into material things, able to be possessed and carried away” (Wu, 2004: 159).

I would argue that there is nothing combustible or spontaneous about the deferred actions of the crowd, who did not finish “dismantling” the ice until a full three days after the opening. Yet this temporal delay, and its impact on the interpretation of this work, has been critically overlooked: what prevented the crowd from instantly sating their consumer appetites? What mitigating factors engendered their destructive procrastination? While Wang’s Ice 96 Central Plain is indeed a time-based artwork, I would argue that far from being transient, it stands as a testament to the endurance of civility as an ordering construct, and its persistence in governing public conduct. Seen from this perspective, it is possible to see Wang’s work, and the audience’s direct engagement with it, as more than the uncontrolled manifestation of material desires, in which contemporary China is reduced to “an amalgam of appetites and afflictions” (Chen, 2007: 5). As economic class and status distinctions became more pronounced after two decades of economic reform and “open door” policies, Wang’s work stands witness to how the urban landscape in the 1990s underscored the importance of self-regulation within the public sphere, and how the crowd’s deferred actions were precipitated by latent fears over impugning their civility and, by extension, their citizenship.

While the site specificity of Wang’s work has not been given the analytical attention it deserves, it provides a crucial contextual framework to these arguments. Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, is situated amidst China’s north central plains. Bordering the Yangtze River, its population of roughly eight million inhabitants categorizes it as one of many “second tier” cities whose ranks have swollen significantly since the onset of the economic reforms. [4] While the city has benefited from financial and economic stimulus packages in the last ten years, at the time of Wang’s work in 1996, Zhengzhou was still largely viewed as a provincial backwater, a city whose geographic location on the periphery of both political and economic power ensured that it was better known as one of the country’s most pivotal railroad junctions—a place of transit rather than a final destination. While this status may hint at how one’s proximity to China’s power centre, Beijing, opens or closes the apertures through which information (and capital) flows, its status as a commercial and cultural hinterland was also enhanced by Henan’s reputation as one of China’s most populated provinces as well as its most underdeveloped—its landlocked, predominantly agricultural economy instead determining its role as one of the country’s largest exporters of migrant workers to other provinces (Li, 2012). Natives of Henan frequently complain that they are the subjects of national discrimination, in which they are construed as the backward, rural and uncivilised “other” against which urban elites in cities like Beijing and Shanghai distinguish themselves (Ma, 2002; China Daily, 2005).

The central government’s visible emphasis on the promotion of spiritual civilization within the urban landscape of 1990s Zhengzhou was therefore directed at a population perceived as “ill prepared for an era which is simultaneously more progressive and more economically demanding” (Friedman, 2004: 697). If the subjective orientation of the spiritual civilization campaigns of 1990s China promoted a mode of being that had to be internalized through the didactic power of the state, and displayed visibly through practice and speech (Friedman, 2004: 702), then the collective actions of the crowd who deconstructed Wang’s wall show the failure of the moral imperative embedded at the core of spiritual civilization discourse. For instead of ridding the uncivilised bodies of Zhengzhou consumers of their bad manners and backward habits, in the process creating obedient, disciplined and compliant citizens who were automatically deemed to be of “higher quality” ( gao suzhi), the sustained demolition of Wang’s wall shows how the performative aspects of civility could often be publicly discarded under the pressure of the state’s promotion of market-oriented economic growth.

At the time of Wang’s work, Henan’s vast untapped consumer market made it the “ground zero” of the trading wars that were set to sweep through central China. Most interpretations have therefore read Wang’s 1996 artistic intervention staged at the heart of its commercial epicentre as a microcosm of the changes provoked by this consumer revolution. But the site of this transformation becomes even more ironic given that Erqi Guangchang (Erqi Square), the commercial mecca where Wang’s work was staged, was originally designed as a memorial site to China’s revolutionary history. Built to commemorate the 1923 railway workers’ strike which was violently suppressed on February 7 by the local warlord Wu Peifu (1874-1939) (Williams, 2010; Saich, 1991), the fourteen-story pagoda situated at the centre of the square was built in 1971 to house a museum dedicated not just to the strike but also the city’s early communist credentials (Chang, 1987). Over the years, however, Erqi square has gradually transformed from a site of revolutionary history into the city’s premier destination for leisure consumption. Glimpsed in the periphery of some of the documentary shots of Wang’s work, the pagoda stands as a spectral reminder of this layered history.

In Wang’s work, this quasi-commercial/public square is therefore not just an inert space, but a critical site for the performance of civility and citizenship. Within this context, it is important to remember that public squares are strategic sites within China for the display and enactment of a wide variety of activities designed to promote and reinforce the importance of civility (Boutonnet, 2011; Hoffman, 2006). From organised dancing troupes to prominent visual displays and public service advertisements (PSAs) educating the public on appropriate public conduct, they serve as an arena for the types of “model” behaviour which the government espouses as part of its rhetoric in constructing “civilised” citizens (Lewis, 2002). As Pow Choon-Piew notes, “the territorialisation of social relations in public squares and other civic spaces is undergirded by a moral order that frames spaces according to an aestheticized world view and civilised values that emphasise the safety, order and citizenship aspects of the wenming discourse” (Pow, 2009: 112). They thus showcase and effectively stage civility for communal consumption by advising citizens, directly and indirectly, to comport themselves civilly, that is, to exercise continued judgement and vigilance in both their behaviour and those of others.

Wang’s staging of this event in this politically and socially loaded space therefore also calls into question the authenticity of the government’s decree in constructing “spiritual civilisation”, as the actions of the audience are instead shown to represent a subversive force which not only spatially, but also spiritually, transgresses the boundaries between social discipline and a particular kind of performative civility. For beneath the spectre of the uncivilized appetites and desires so prominently showcased in Wang’s work, there lurks a thinly disguised emphasis on the ways in which such practices constitute not only a rejection of the socially productive effects of self-restraint, but also of the civilizing process, with its emphasis on the coordination of the body’s cultural management. Seen from this perspective, Wang’s work draws out these palpable distinctions between civility and incivility, between the seemingly savage appetites and behaviour of the crowd and the need to comport the body in accordance with an etiquette of consumer citizenship. He thus illustrates that the spaces of civility are just as important to consider as the bodies engaged in performances of civility’s manifold gestures.

As the conceptual instigator of the work, Wang Jin remained a backstage figure during the wall’s three-day demolition, and although he might have predicted how the crowd would react to his site-specific installation, he was certainly powerless to intervene in its deconstruction. Given the covert nature of the extant documentary photographs, the majority of the Zhengzhou inhabitants caught by Jiang’s camera were probably wholly unaware that they were unwitting participants in a piece of performance art. However, as Meiling Cheng notes, if the artist was unable to direct how his live audience would interact with his installation, he did have some influence over how his ephemeral artwork was read going forward (Cheng, 2013: 305). In a statement issued in 2000, Wang asserted that the original goal of the project “was to cool down and purify the public with ice, with reason” (Wang, 2000: 136), a post-mortem pronouncement that appeared to eerily echo official government promulgations on the creation of a more “spiritual civilisation” in its calling for a cooling and coagulation of material desires.

If Wang’s art historical addendum sought to imbue the piece with socio-political significance, like so many works of performance and installation art that emerged from the restive reality of 1990s China, the nature of its contemporary mode of transmission, dissemination and display is also of critical relevance. In the absence of the extant work, it is Jiang Jian’s frozen stills which instantiate Wang’s wall, and which not only secured its iconic status, but which continue to ensure its viability as an object of art history inquiry. Condensing the jagged textures of Ice 96 into a flat surface and crystalizing the three day duration of the piece in these printed images, Jiang’s photographs turn the uncivilized actions of the crowd into a permanent object of spectatorship, and serve to transmute the performance of the crowd far beyond the “evanescent primary act” (Park, 2016). They thus serve as a stark reminder of André Malraux’s famous dictum that “art history has been the history of that which can be photographed” (Malraux, 1949: 32). For if Wang originally proclaimed that the work represented an attempt to dismantle the authority invested in these commercial objects, over two decades after the event, it is ironically these photographs’ transmutation into limited edition, large format works of post-produced “performance photography”, and their insertion into transnational circuits of exhibition and display, that has ultimately transformed the work from a limited site-specific installation responding primarily to local and national concerns into a commodified, aesthetic spectacle of international contemplation and collection.

We could therefore read Wang’s work as an investigation and reflection on the consumer revolution of the 1990s whilst simultaneously serving as a document of the changing social norms governing civility and consumer citizenship from the post-reform period to the present day. In Ice 96 Central Plain, a department store may be a public space for consumption which in some sense could “replace” the politicised square, but the mall also exists as a source for the creation of the private sphere (Venturi, 1977; Wang, 2001). In this regard, the covert nature of Jiang Jian’s documentary photographs is also worth accentuating. Would the crowd have reacted in a similarly candid and gleeful fashion had they been aware their actions were being recorded? If the rhetoric of civility is designed to guard against public lapses in propriety, then an allusion could also be drawn to the panoptical gaze of the State, which, wary of any transgressive acts that could threaten its stability, polices the boundaries of morality and reinforces the self-regulatory impulses of the crowd. Wang’s wall, however, not only screened off the store’s facade and the goods contained within it, but also partially screened off the crowd’s actions from public view, thereby challenging the norms of legibility and offering the possibility of confounding the state’s biopolitical desire to disclose the body’s truths. Through its repudiation of this civility of surveillance, one which frequently finds expression through techniques of behavioural vigilance and identity management, Wang’s work confounded the state’s macro-level concern with imposing boundaries, by paradoxically employing his own boundary to put those less intelligible bodies beyond state scrutiny.

In this work, civility is most conspicuous in its absence, as we are confronted with the spectacle of the very uncivilised behaviour that the government (and urban elites) try to repress. Whereas urban civility has often been held up as a positive moral virtue that helps to ease social tensions and facilitates social interactions in a democratic and pluralistic society (Pow, 2009), the simmering uncouth and uncivil underside to public culture highlighted in the behaviour of those who deconstructed Wang’s wall reveals the rippling undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the promised “better life” that the economic reforms were meant to deliver. In Wang’s work, the civility of conspicuous consumerism is thus subtended by the incivility of the wall’s breach. Instead of projecting colourful images of consumerist plenty, the monochrome and muted palate of Jiang’s black and white photographs also seem to annul and contradict the joy the audience hopes to find in their blind pursuit of material objects.

While the audience’s promethean efforts to acquire the objects of their desires form the main structuring locus of the performance, Wang Jin also crucially deprives us of the afterimage of his spectator’s consumerist fulfilment, leaving us to ponder the reaction to their acquisition of these fetishized objects. They thus provide a strange ellipsis that both negates, undermines and questions the entire process of capital accumulation, foreshortening and framing these actions as a moment of delayed violence that curiously undercuts the system that has created them. Wang Jin’s wall could therefore be considered as a paradoxical landscape boundary fraught with internal contradictions and tensions that disrupts and unsettles the boundaries between the civilised desire to consume and the uncivilised process of attainment, between “inside” and “outside”, “us” and “them”, provincial and urban(e), “civilised” and uncivilised. By problematising the binary logic of spiritual and material civilisation, and further destabilizing the false dichotomy between civil and uncivilised behaviour, consumerism and culture, Wang illustrates how the processes constituting these social relationships are in fact complex and intertwined.

If semantically, the Chinese term xingwei encompasses both the idea of “daily conduct” in its quotidian sense, and that of “action” in all its socio-political potential (Wong, 2012), then the new “behaviour” demonstrated by the crowd who forcibly deconstructed Wang’s wall could be approvingly recognized as “individual xingwei”, as a reflection of broader social change, increased citizens’ awareness and the desire to exercise their consumer rights. As “performance art” in mainland China is similarly referred to as xingwei yishu, Wang’s performance piece ironically underscores the impotence of the official sphere and its aggrandizement of ideal roles and behaviours, while simultaneously pointing out the performativity that conditions it.

By contesting and redefining civility, Wang’s artwork revealed how the “disorderly” and “uncivilised” behaviour enacted by those who destroyed the wall does not render them morally and socially incongruous with the bright new capitalist future of postsocialist China promised within the gleaming walls of the adjacent department store. Rather it is their incivility, their emphasis on sating their individual desires, and their disregard for collective self-regulation, that paradoxically serves to signify them as the type of subjects capable of fulfilling the imperative of get rich quick individualism. For if the Chinese party-state’s emphasis on the rhetoric of civility in the 1990s signalled the creation of a new regime within a socialist market economy, and restructured the incentives and permissible limits of consumer and citizen action (Wang, 2001: 92), then Wang aptly demonstrates how new consumer and citizen xingwei, or “behaviours”, became visible, diverse and contestable.

Civility and the Politics of Visibility

In a work produced in the same year as Wang Jin’s wall of ice, the artist Zhou Tiehai probed this aspect of civility further. Zhou Tiehai’s 1996 work Jia fengmian ( Fake Cover) features a self-portrait of Zhou in an ersatz mock-up of the front cover of Newsweek magazine (fig. 3). In the image, Zhou is portrayed as a well-groomed, besuited businessman, photographed against a reproduction of his own work. The main cover line at the foot of this pseudo-publication is worthy of analysis, as Zhou has sub-headed his edition with the words: tai wuzhi, tai jingshen (too materialistic, too spiritualised). The English translation which Zhou has given the work perhaps does not adequately capture the semantic nuances of this construct; by placing the adverb tai in front of both wuzhi and jingshen, Zhou imbues them with a deliberately droll emphasis that might be more accurately translated as “ really materialistic, really spiritualised”.

Fake Cover was the first in a series of works featuring Zhou on the front cover of an array of international news media and art publications, including the New York Times, Der Spiegl, Frieze, Flash Art and ArtNews (fig. 4). Zhou created these simulacra as a means of interrogating the structures and power relations at play in the artworld of the 1990s, when “Chinese” contemporary art underwent an unprecedented surge in demand in the global artistic arena (Huot, 2000; Andrews & Shen, 2012). This era of accelerated development was undoubtedly galvanized both by the country’s burgeoning economy and by the new geographies of access opened up by the exigencies of globalization, in which art from previously “marginalised” countries was suddenly thrust into the tectonic undertow of international biennials, museums, and auction houses.

Jia fengmian (Fake Cover)

Figure 3: Zhou Tiehai, Jia fengmian (Fake Cover), 1996, Print, 26.9 x 20.5 cm. Image courtesy of Zhou Tiehai and the ShanghART gallery.

Disillusioned with navigating the nebulous array of relations between gallery owners, museum curators, art writers, critics and other artists, Zhou’s magazine covers were designed as a critique of the path to artistic notoriety and recognition. Satirising the hierarchical systems of influence and power which condition and control the international art world, we could read Zhou’s ironic covers as presenting a threat to the gatekeepers of the canon, the predominantly foreign curators and collectors who have so long determined which artists and works gain visibility while others are relegated to obscurity. They simultaneously lampooned the Western enthusiasm for “new” Chinese art, evident in many of these publications’ sensationalized reports on the art scene of the 1990s, which was invariably presented “as a post-cold war political phenomenon in a Communist Country” (Wu, 2014: 130), betraying a deep-seated and somewhat entrenched ignorance of the social and artistic realities of the time.

These counterfeit covers, as the curator Pi Li noted, “created a false image of Chinese contemporary art as causing a constant sensation on the international stage. […] Left unspoken was the fact that Chinese contemporary art had neither entered into Chinese society, nor been debated seriously in the Western art world” (Pi, 2003: 47). In 1993, the writer Andrew Solomon came to China to write about Chinese contemporary art for the New York Times Magazine; he acted, so Zhou Tiehai decided, “like Columbus discovering a new continent” (Zhou, cited in Smith, 2016), prompting the artist to create another work in which he satirised Solomon for his imperious attitude. [5] Thus while many artists and critics were bemoaning the hegemonic power of Western cultural practices in China, Zhou addressed these asymmetries of visibility through his art in a hyperbolic gesture that both parodied and made explicit the artist’s critical complicity with these forces of globalised consumption.

As Zhou commented, "As a Chinese artist, you have to be on the cover of the West for people to know you" (Zhou, 1998). Zhou’s appropriation and manipulation of these renowned publications thus coldly deconstructs the aura of Western contemporary art as an industry sustained, like any commercial venture, by a systemic consensus created between curators, institutions, the market and the media. This irreverent reworking of canonical publications instead documented and exposed the obsession with the process of vying for visibility on the horizons of the foreign media, and highlighted the chasm between the alleged advancements ushered in by the economic reforms and the often “uncivilised” means used to achieve international recognition. In this sense, we might regard Zhou’s covers as a struggle for what Rey Chow has termed “post-colonial visibilities” (Chow, 2012); to seize control of the media frame is to compete for “the right to own and manage the visual field, to fabricate the appropriate images and distribute the appropriate stories” (Chow, 2012: 161). By placing himself squarely (and repeatedly) in the picture frame, Zhou demonstrates how his cosmopolitan civility and transnational media appeal afforded him a heightened degree of agency in a “political economy of representation and performance” (Chow, 2012).

If the nationalism of Jiang Zemin’s concept of spiritual civilization in the 1990s was not only a product of domestic politics, but also an emerging popular self-confidence centred on China’s growing world status—a status reinforced by the country’s accession to the WTO and Beijing's successful bid to host the 2008 Olympics—then Zhou’s ersatz photoshopped parody also visually articulated an erosion of Western cultural hegemony. In a pose that is studiously off-centre but exquisitely self-conscious and supercilious, looking up from his would-be absorption in the serious business of being a global art star, with a diffident expression that does not return the viewer’s gaze, in Fake Cover Zhou primarily advertises himself (fig. 3). While the exaggerated bold red typeface of the publication’s title dwarfs the characters in the background of the work, the smaller type at the foot of the image advertises the publication’s international distribution channels by listing its price in a variety of foreign currencies, ensuring that the image drips with a cross-cultural affection that underscores the artist’s international appeal.

Zhou Tiehai, Jia Fengmian (Fake Cover)

Figure 4: Zhou Tiehai, Jia Fengmian (Fake Cover), Prints, Offset Print, Paper, 1995 – 1997. Images courtesy of Zhou Tiehai and the ShanghART gallery.

More than just some fanciful photoshopping, the artist’s Fake Covers are confusingly real; a satire not just of the fetishisation of the Chinese artist by Western print media, they also embody a Warholian questioning of his own position and subjectivity within the mechanisms of that artworld. The hybrid civility of Zhou’s Fake Cover thus becomes a manifestation not of powerlessness, but of newly acquired power. Zhou’s initial Fake Cover is dated April 10, 1995, and the distinction between the real and the copy is further obscured by Zhou’s decision to sell his Fake Covers at the same price as the original publications. Ironically (or perhaps intentionally), it was Zhou’s meta-critical appropriation of these modes of display that first assured him coverage in the self-same publications that he had originally critiqued.

But why “too materialistic, too spiritualised”, which appeared not just on Zhou’s first Fake Cover, but was also the title of his first solo exhibition, organized by the curator Hans van Dijk (as the New Amsterdam Art Consultancy) and held at the gallery of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (then known as Cifa Gallery) in 1996? [6] We could read Zhou’s reference to these terms as an instantiation not just of the drive for economic modernisation prioritised by the onus on material civilisation, but also one in which the body of the artist is also reified as the apotheosis of the spiritually civilised subject. Cast as a besuited businessman whose imagined artistic fame and wealth has ensured his appearance on the cover of one of the world’s most renowned publications, Zhou exemplifies a modern socialist morality—one robust enough to handle the challenges of the socialist market economy.

As a Chinese artist entering into the international arena, he also embodies the two sides of the discursive coin outlined by the material/spiritual binary: the need to be both globalised and patriotic, adept at navigating an increasingly multicultural artworld, yet also a representative of “the positive repackaging of China’s cultural traditions.” Indeed, it is his position as a paragon of the spiritually civilised and highly cultured citizen that allows him to enter these international networks of display and circulation, in which he casts himself as the literal “cover boy” for these societal changes. In this work, the possibilities of art in a society quite clearly “on the move” becomes the central issue, characterised first and foremost by its materialistic needs. In his caricatured critique of the capitalist yuppie, Zhou thus both deconstructs and debunks his own status and identity as an emergent player on this global stage, becoming a contiguous exemplar not only of material advancement, but also its spiritually civilised corollary.

As a Shanghai-based artist who first exhibited this work in the gallery of one of Beijing’s most famous art academies, the work also probes the complex links between aspiration and hierarchies of civility in operation at the close of China’s long twentieth century, revealing the disparities in wealth distribution, segregation and stratification that have accompanied China’s process of urbanization. For if Wang Jin’s ice wall and Zhou’s Fake Cover series complicate and unsettle the convergence between aspiration and civility, between bourgeois presentations of the urban(e) self and instrumental representations of the provincial/rural other, they also demonstrate how civility is deployed as a technique for both grooming and inculcating consumer-conscious “cosmopolitan” citizens, and for rehabilitating and chastising improper ones.

As Ann Anagnost has demonstrated, official media frequently portray the civilised citizen as a productive person who then, in turn, shares the fruit of his or her economic accumulation, so furthering the goals of spiritual civilisation (Anagnost, 1997). Zhou’s fictitious casting of himself, not just as a modern subject endowed with qualities compatible with the principles of the market economy (including competitiveness and adaptability to the requirements of a neoliberal economy), but as an internationally renowned artist who has successfully conquered not just the foreign artworld but also its media, ensures that his ranking on the hierarchy of material and spiritual civility is exponentially high—a surplus reflected in his ironic self-referential captioning as “too materialistic, too spiritualised”. His creative reworking and appropriation of civility’s rhetoric thus also serves to highlight how this drive for both economic and spiritual advancement impacted the Chinese artworld of the 1990s, instigating a flurry of artistic experimentation that attempted to grapple with the thorny issue of China’s position within a globalised artworld eager for politicised art from one of the world’s most powerful emerging economies (Dai, 1996; Lu, 2001; Wu, 2001).

In Zhou’s Fake Cover series, civility is therefore more than just a state imposed, top-down rhetoric, whose primary goal is frequently to create a productive and organized citizenry. In his ascension of the hierarchy of civility, Zhou’s status as a successful Chinese artist in the rapidly globalising contemporary art world has afforded him a stage upon which he can enact his civility. Through this restructuring and deterritorialisation of geographical (and cultural) space, he thus becomes a truly global “citizen of the world”. In his Fake Covers, the transcultural mobility and civility of the artist is exploited and parodied to maximum effect, reflecting more than just a society and government relentlessly concerned with image and ideal citizenship. In Zhou’s hands, civility is converted into a device for exploring the ways in which China has not only come to be represented by the West, but also for measuring and critiquing the accuracy of those representations, and ultimately for an ironic reflection and rebuttal of their validity.


The two artworks examined in this article demonstrate how the power of cultural representation in the 1990s was often directly related to, and woven out of, the fabric of civility, making it central to the ways in which we understand and conceptualise the art of this period. If Wang Jin’s installation visualised civility as a force of self-actualisation, linking the term to the growth of a consumer citizenry that is unafraid to exercise new consumer rights and behaviours, then Zhou Tiehai’s parody of the Chinese artist vying for visibility on the glittering shores of the international art world serves as the ultimate embodiment of the awakened, civilised citizen, one who is perfectly at home in a post-socialist era dominated, above all, by the logic of global commodification.

By creating artworks that both counter-balanced and mordantly satirised the prevailing ethos of get-rich quick vulgarity, and instead advocated an irreverent approach to the social realities of postsocialist China, these artists sought to extend a wry artistic gesture of resistance against the multifarious forces of commodification and government-sanctioned mercantile aggression. If the government, as outlined in the China Yearbook of 1996, attempted to commit the country to the solemn and burdensome task of civility, then Wang offered a carnivalesque rebuttal of the feasibility of such a civilizing mission. The increasingly “uncivilised” array of activities that Wang Jin’s audience engaged in to acquire the goods embedded within his wall directly contradicted the moral imperatives called for in the building of “spiritual civilisation”: namely the emphasis on manners, upright morality, a correct political stance and correct “lifestyle choices” (Wang, 2002). In their blind pursuit of material civility, their level of spiritual civility was thus inversely drained. Exposing how the “exemplary behaviour” usually on display in public squares is as fragile and porous as the ice encasing his fetishistic display of luxury goods, Wang accentuated how the veneer of civility can be easily eroded, highlighting how the “spiritual” aspects of civility endorsed by the government instead became sublimated within a wider discourse that privileged material advancement over upholding spiritually “civilising” norms.

Zhou Tiehai similarly challenged these socio-political terms by aesthetic means, exploring the analogies between the seemingly mutually exclusive systems of the art world and that of the political terrain and rampant consumerism of Chinese society in the mid-1990s. In his Fake Cover series, Zhou presents this as an equivocal discourse that is ironically embraced by the artist as an affirmative mode of self-identification—a double-edged means of generating cultural and social capital through an exploitative “system of signification” that emphasises and exploits civility’s attendant rights of political representation and social recognition.

Wang Jin’s Ice-96 Central Plain, and Zhou Tiehai’s Fake Cover, thus point to a reconsideration of the easy accessibility of civility promised by capital acquisition. They instead question and problematise the idea that happiness and increased civility can be fulfilled by the relentless acquisition of consumer goods (or status). If their works forcefully stage the contradictions, ironies, and uneven cultural formations between the local and the global, and the native and the foreign, then they also expose how the struggle to acquire either luxury goods, or international fame, could similarly be read as national allegories of the pursuit of material and spiritual civility emphasized so prominently in the political and social rhetoric of the time. As I have argued throughout the article, these works instead reveal a moment when the parameters of civility and citizenship were vexed and contested, as artists sought to navigate the fraught terrain between ideology and market reforms, consumer citizenship, and the exigencies of globalization.

Exposing the complex links between civility and citizenship, these works of art therefore form more than just a simple critique of the reform era national agenda of modernisation, with its emphasis on the material acceleration of society epitomised by the glib catchphrase “to get rich is glorious”, [7] with the added expectation that “it doesn’t matter if some areas get rich first.” Reflecting a society in which civility becomes more and more a matter of fast consumption and outward displays of wealth, they provide amusing yet acute reflections on the collusion of state and capital, culture and commodity, commitment and cynicism, that rested at the core of civility’s spiritual/material divide at the close of China’s long twentieth century. More than extending a poignant, if somewhat subdued artistic gesture of resistance against the multifarious forces of commodification, they alternatively question and expose the process of development in both the economic and moral spheres represented by the two civilities, questioning what it means for China to have achieved its developmental ends without losing its spirit in the process.

If civility has previously been framed as a discourse of lack, and its adoption and visualisation essential as a strategy to transcend China’s subaltern position in the global community (Anagnost, 1997), the rapid and vertiginous transformations that began in the early 1990s meant that in Wang and Zhou’s works, it spoke to the aspirations and desires of a modern, globalising and consumer-conscious society. In these artist’s visualisations, civility therefore becomes a surplus quality, an embodied excess, something which could be performed, parodied or publicly cast off. These works therefore offer not a rejection but rather a redefinition of civility, exposing how it triangulates the “bad” crowd, the “good” consumer and the “successful” Chinese artist within a constantly contested continuum of citizenship and self-cultivation.

The pursuit of civility in contemporary China ultimately still remains as much of a prickly issue today as it was in the 1990s, or indeed at the beginning of the twentieth century, in part because it cuts at the heart of how “progress”, “development” and “tolerance” continue to be defined in China. In the decades following both Wang and Zhou’s work, civility has continued to accrue new aesthetic, market, consumer, cultural, and nationalist values, to the extent that “there is almost nothing which cannot be done in a ‘civilized’ or ‘uncivilized’ way” (Brownell, 1995: 172). From anti-spitting campaigns to the arrest of feminist activists and the forced detention and “re-education” of thousands of Uighurs, many read the renewed calls for civility under Xi Jinping’s leadership not as an exhortation to virtue, a minimal conformity to norms of respectful behaviour and decorum, nor as a way to reconcile the tension between diversity and disagreement, but as a covert demand for conformity that delegitimizes dissent while reinforcing the status quo.

The exclusionary essence that lies at the heart of civility, its emblematic power to silence, deflect and exclude anyone uncivil enough to question it, points to a complex system of interactions designed to transform a number of external and internal features not just of the individual, or of Chinese society or culture at large, but in some cases, of the nation itself. As China’s national identity has become increasingly bound up with its rapid integration into a transnational economy in the reorganization of capitalism that has been characterized as “the age of flexible accumulation”, we must acknowledge that “the complexity of wenming discourse cannot fully be understood as a process internal to national borders; its sites of production are also global” (Anagnost, 1997: 76). Civility is therefore something which continues to ignite highly charged debates about the role of the state “in an increasingly globalised but not always entirely civilised world” (Golley, 2013: 91).

If the evolving and overlapping valences of civility have become difficult to disentangle, it is also this ambiguity and imprecision which has ensured its survival within the socio-political and cultural landscape of contemporary China, providing artists with the means to both question and critique its continued deployment in the visual sphere. Highlighting how civility can be deployed as an asset or a tool, a mechanism or even a technology for the purposes of political, artistic and cultural re-positioning, the performative parodies that Zhou and Wang stage illustrate how civility frames and shapes the meanings of citizenship, in the process articulating and agitating both the visual parameters of civility and the overlapping and competing civilities of the visual.


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Ros Holmes is Presidential Academic Fellow in the History of Chinese Art in the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester.


  1. The term Zhengzhou shangzhan (Zhengzhou trade wars) first came to prominence due to a regular half hour television segment of the business news which was first broadcast on CCTV from December 1991. The programme commented on the fierce competition between the six department stores (Yaxiya shangcheng, Zhengzhou baihuo dalou, Zijingshan baihuo dalou, Shangcheng dasha, Shangye dasha and Hualian shangsha) in the square. The ensuing price wars that escalated between them meant that their combined sales for the 1991 financial year reached one billion yuan, resulting in five of the six shopping centres entering the national top ranks for the retail industry. For more information on the trade wars, see Sina (2005). ^
  2. The Department Store first contacted Chen Daliang, who subsequently got in touch with the art researcher Xue Encun, who was familiar with Wang’s previous work and approached him in Beijing with the commission. Wang worked with fellow artists Guo Jinghan and Jiang Bo in the realization of the project. Information supplied by Wang Jin, interview with the author, Beijing, 24th July, 2012. ^
  3. Various proposals for the opening were discussed before Wang settled on “Ice 96”. These included hiring a helicopter to strew flowers and footballs on the gathered crowd, as well as a spectacular firework display. These were ultimately dismissed as either too extravagant or too dangerous. Information supplied by Wang Jin, interview with the author, Beijing, 24th July, 2012. ^
  4. Information and statistics on Zhengzhou’s population are available via the Henan government website, available at (accessed 25/3/2018). ^
  5. The work was entitled “There Came a Mr. Solomon to China” (1994), and featured Solomon arriving on a gondola steered by Marco Polo himself, surrounded by other trappings of Western culture he had ostensibly carried “East”. ^
  6. The exhibition opened on the April 26, 1996 and ran until May 8, 1996. A selection of photographs from the original exhibition has been archived by the Asia Art Archive (AAA), and can be viewed online at 39852.pdf (accessed 16.04.2018). ^
  7. Ironically, although this phrase is often attributed to Deng Xiaoping, it does not appear in any of his official writings. The phrase may have been popularised as a result of Western news coverage and books such as Orville Schell’s (1984) To Get Rich is Glorious: China in the Eighties. ^