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 The Flower Girl


Hi Art, April, 2008


I only attended two exhibitions last year; my solo show in Brussels, Belgium, and a show about materials used for home décor at Juran Furniture shop on the fourth ring road in Beijing. During the past year, I’ve only watched two movies, Lust Caution and Assembly.  I was obliged to attend my solo show due to inescapable social obligations, but attending the exhibition on home décor was completely out of interest and probably related to the fact that I was in the process of renovating my studio. I watched Lust Caution because I was curious about how the Chinese director would address the range of psychological states during the republican era, which is a theme that has not been addressed on the Mainland or Taiwan. I watched Assembly to see how a local film director can create a mainstream film that surpasses the action flick without a Hollywood budget. The other exhibitions (several thousand) and publicly screened movies (more than four hundred) did not arouse my interest.  Despite my efforts, I was dragged to some of these events on the way to dinner parties with friends. This year, I plan to simplify things and will only attend one exhibition, my solo show of ink paintings at Chen Xindong’s gallery in the 798 Art District in October.  I am also planning to attend the North Korean revolutionary opera Flower Girl at the end of April.  This epic is being performed at the newly constructed National Theatre.

Flower Girl tells the story of three siblings and their struggles with their landlord while living in a grim feudal society (most probably a market economy).  It is essentially the story of three siblings who live by the code; I will not die as long as you are alive.

Looking back thirty years, I am reminded how most of the Chinese population watched the film Flower Girl, which had been adapted from the opera. During that time, schools would reserve the entire theatre and crowds would line up to watch the film.  Everyone began weeping as soon as the lights went down and the music began to play, especially when the story of sister Shunji unfolded.  The landlord’s wife beat Shunji for stealing a sweet potato (her last resort to avoid starvation), beat her head on the stove, and burned her eyes with boiling ginseng soup.  Eventually Shunji went blind due to this torture.  The sobbing in the audience reached a pinnacle at this point and this type of emotional outburst has not been seen for a long time.  Perhaps it will be difficult to create this feeling again. Even the theatre employees who had watched the film numerous times stood in the corner sobbing. The popularity of this film can be compared to Titanic and its song Spring Comes To The World Every Year was just as popular as My Heart Will Go On. Perhaps the North Koreans still haven’t seen the Hollywood flick Titanic and the flower girl was probably lucky compared to the people on that cruise!

North Korea’s Sea of Blood Opera Troupe was founded on July 17, 1971 with special permission from the Kim family. Kim Jong-il proofread the script over one hundred and fifty times.  More than one hundred and fifty members of the opera troupe received the honorary title of People’s Artist, People’s Actor and Actor of Merit.  Flower Girl was performed more than one thousand four hundred times in North Korea and countries including the Soviet Union, France, Italy, Germany, Algeria and Japan.  The opera traveled to more than forty countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Flower Girl traveled to China on several occasions and was well received in Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Wuhan. The Sea of Blood Opera Troupe will send over one hundred and eighty actors, gathering the most acclaimed musicians and artists from North Korea for this trip to China. Among them, over fifty have received honorary titles including People’s Artist, Actor of Merit and the 2 -16 award - the highest artistic achievement given in North Korea.  A symphony orchestra is also traveling with the troupe.

Flower Girl has achieved such a level due to its outstanding originality, nationalism and modern characteristics.   If the opera had been adapted from Anderson’s The Little Match Girl, it would not be nearly as interesting. 

Last spring when a group from the Guggenheim Museum in New York visited Beijing, I had a serious conversation with Alexandra Munroe-the museum’s Senior Curator of Asian Art. In my opinion, Chinese contemporary art began by copying from the West in an effort to catch up with the international contemporary art world.  This is natural for the development of contemporary art in any country. However if China does not produce its own voice as time passes, the west will only see a shadow of contemporary western art rather than real Chinese contemporary art.  The influence of western contemporary art on other parts of the world creates a type of self-deception.  I do not think westerners are only interested in seeing mirrors of the west. Although the cultural phenomenon surrounding Chinese contemporary art seems to be a result of cultural colonization, we are no longer in a colonial era. Oil painting and filmmaking entered China about a hundred years ago, and has not influenced the tradition of Chinese painting or folk art.  Furthermore, China’s native cultural foundation has not been affected. Contemporary art today is like a layer of oil floating on water- it will not dissolve into or soak up the water. 
Historically, most Asian countries such as Japan and Korea have emerged from an agricultural economy while western countries are based on an industrial economy.  For this reason, conceptual and installation art from the west made us feel winded and inadequate as we could not compete. Why settle for mediocrity, is it satisfying? With each dynasty, Asian countries such as China, Japan and Korea established distinct art traditions with a rich history of ink painting, New Year Pictures and folk art including sculpture. Throughout history each Asian country experienced innovation and diverse art practice through the official art academy system and local art studios. Wouldn’t it make the most sense to start analyzing the similarities and differences between eastern and western art by learning how they compliment each other?

The current state of Chinese contemporary art can be broken down into three points of view. The official attitude emphasizes national interest and opts to turn a blind eye, making it unnecessary to support or condemn Chinese contemporary art. The western attitude is aware of the derivative elements and is generally interested in encouraging more opportunities and offering support to Chinese contemporary art. The third opinion comes from local art enthusiasts who are profiting from Chinese contemporary art.  These people classify it as contemporary and glorify its successes and achievements.  As a practicing artist today, I believe art should be entirely original. It does not matter if we categorize it as contemporary or not. Wouldn’t it be frustrating for a woman to endure ten months of suffering while pregnant to ultimately give birth to a baby who looks like everyone, except the mother!

Flower Girl is an authentic work of art inspired by local ideology and crafted by the North Korean people.  It travels to palaces around the world without fear of coming off as derivative.  This work of art maintains integrity.  The performance brings audiences around the world to tears. Regardless of nationality, viewers are left to reflect upon why these tears were shed…

Zhu Wei

Sunday, March 16, 2008











三十多年前几乎每一个中国人都不止一遍看过由这部歌剧改编的同名电影。当时每个学校都包场,全体出动排队去电影院看。灯黑音乐一起就有人开哭,这都是看过一遍的,等演到妹妹顺姬因为饿极了偷吃了地主家一白薯遭地主婆毒打,头磕在火炉子上,被正炖着的参汤活活烫瞎双眼,疼得满地打滚的时候,全场哭声一片。那种哭声已久违了,恐怕很难再听到了。电影院里的工作人员不知看了多少遍,还是站在墙角哽咽着。这部电影在当年的流行程度不亚于《泰坦尼克号》,插曲《春天年年到人间》更不逊色于《My Heart Will Go On》。朝鲜人民至今可能还没机会看到好莱坞的《泰坦尼克号》,不过没看也罢,与卖花姑娘相比那一船人算是幸福的。 





对于中国当代艺术,现在有如下的不同反应:一,睁一眼闭一眼看发展,从国家根本利益上看不予否认也没打算承认,这是政府的观点;二,有点意思,但学得还不太像,要给予机会和扶持,这是从西方的角度来看;三,是当代艺术,不但是而且还争着抢着说自己立了头功,这是来自于民间当代艺术热衷者和既得利益者的心声。作为这个时代的一个艺术家, 我的看法是:当代不当代不重要,但一定要是原创,连帮带瓤都是自己独创的才感觉踏实。就像妇女生孩子,遭了十个月罪,费了半天的劲,结果生下的孩子说不清是谁的,看着谁都像,就不像自己,那才懊恼呢。 



2008.3.16 星期日







manuscript of The Flower Girl