Chinese army is the largest military force in the world, made up of over 2 million men and women in active duty. Theoretically, the army can expand up to 400 million people. It takes the state nearly $150 billion to support its military.
This powerful and disciplined army has never been involved in any annexation wars. It was born 90 years ago in 1927 as a communist Red Army and in 1946 acquired its present name: Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). During its early stages PLA had been significantly aided by the USSR. A number of Soviet military men who helped defend the country against Japanese aggression later received Chinese names and became popular heroes. At various times, thousands of Soviet pilots patrolled the Chinese sky. In the 1990s Russia exported multiple military provisions to support proliferation of Chinese navy and air force. Today, in a different geopolitical climate PLA works closely with Russian armed forces, conducts joint training maneuvers, while the military industrial complex is modernized to match the interests of both countries. Russia and China work together to help resolve issues of global and regional security. According to Sergei Shoigu, Russian Minister of Defense “Russian-Chinese relationships are on an unprecedented level and continue to develop expedentially”.
Apart from battle and line training, PLA traditionally pays significant attention to political and cultural work. Military parade that takes place by the walls of the Forbidden City during the celebration of the National Day of the People’s Republic of China (October 1) is a truly impressive event. People and machinery from all branches of the army are brought together in a powerful production, brimming with the sense of spirit and unity.
PLA Academy of Art was founded in Beijing in the year 1960. It’s the only comprehensive educational facility that prepares professionals to work in the fields of culture and research in the area of military arts and literature. The institution is broken into 7 departments: literature, theatre, music, dance, troop culture, fine arts and cultural communications. Educational programs include secondary professional education (baccalaureate), higher and primary education, postgraduate training plus advanced training for soldiers and officers. Motto of the Academy is "Staunch politics, rigorous study, serving the soldiers, virtuous art”.
What makes the situation truly unique is the involvement of the state in the formation of cultural ambiance that rests on the support of the certain portion of the artistic community. This is inevitably reflected in the works of civil-minded artists yet doesn’t limit aesthetic choices or variety of tools for artistic expression. Chinese military artists enjoy both traditional guohua art and pop art, social realism and neoprimitivism, whilst often times covering people, items or nature in camouflage.
PLA provides artists (including some of the senior officers) with certain privileges. Still, the artists try to express themselves by challenging the times they live in: they can’t help but react to the changing artistic landscape. This combination contains a very peculiar drama. The exhibition illustrates how the world’s largest army is represented by artists awarded with a mission to create its image.
The exhibition took 5 long years to prepare. We’ve seen hundreds of works by hundreds of artists published in special outlets of PLA, exhibited inside the Academy and outside, in national museums and small galleries. The challenge wasn’t only to select the most interesting and the most illustrative works but to put together works of art from different cities of the enormous country. Basically, we’re looking at the most ample exhibition of PLA artists outside of China. This project would not have been possible without the support of PLA Art Academy leadership including personal involvement of Colonel Li Xiang and support of Phu Xiao who helped us not to get lost in translation.
Lastly, we can’t but mention our big friend Anton Gubankov, head of the culture department of the Minister of the Defense and an avid supporter of this exhibition whose life tragically ended in a terrible plane crash. Mr. Gubankov did a lot to strengthen Russian-Chinese bilateral relations and helped organize various exhibitions of military artists both in Beijing and Moscow.
In the entrance hall we preserved the boxes used to transport the exhibited items. The boxes are raised above the floor and fixed to the ceiling beams with lifting straps. Some boxes have painting descending right from within. A red banner colored wall starts at the entrance hall and divides the lower level into two; paintings are exhibited on that wall. The paintings are guarded by 18 sculptures, the so-called “terracotta warriors” standing in the sand and crushed stone. For the visitors on the side galleries this part of the exhibition appears below them reminding them of archeological discoveries near Sinai. On the second floor the paintings are grouped by theme and placed on big boards, painted in camouflage colors.
Semyon Mikhailovsky, curator of the exhibition, Head of St. Petersburg State Academic Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (the Academy of Arts), Commissioner of the Russian pavilion at both Venice Biennale of Art and Venice Biennale of Architecture