The Rent Collection Courtyard is the most important work of contemporary Chinese art that you’ve never heard of. The USC Pacific Asia Museum has a intriguing focus exhibition on it, tied to the 1965 piece’s 50th birthday.
Rent Collection Courtyard is a group of 114 figures showing the evils of, well, income inequality. Peasants pay rent to a menacing landlord and his minions. They are swindled, beaten, and human-trafficked by the capitalist baddies. Finally they rise up in glorious revolution. Some may call it kitsch. As they say in Hollywood, it’s based on a true story, that of Sichuan province landowner Liu Wencai (who may not have been quite as bad as represented).The life-size figures, designed by Zhao Shutong and Wang Guanyi and sculpted with a team of colleagues at the Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts, were installed in Liu’s former palatial home, and they remain there today.
The Rent Collection Courtyard was a huge popular success—the Big Eyes art of 1960s China. They made copies, and copies of the copies, in every conceivable medium. Madame Mao praised the piece, but some felt it was not revolutionary enough. Additional figures were added, showing the peasants as less downtrodden, more heroic, and carrying copies of Mao’s Red Book. The USC Pacific Asia Museum owns a particularly important set of terracotta reductions made as models for casting in bronze. It’s the original set of 114 figures with artistic refinements. A 1988 gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Whitehead, the Pacific Asia set is shown on a walk-in rectangular table evoking Liu’s courtyard.
In the above image, Liu rests his foot on a grain measure. It’s said he dispensed grain loans with a small bushel and measured repayments with a larger one. Fitted with glass eyes, each figure has intense expressions.
As an ambiguity-free exemplar of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Courtyard had little appeal to Americans of the 1960s. Its influence within China was massive. It revived sculpture as an artistic medium. It also prefigured installation art and social practice. The Courtyard artists interviewed Liu’s former tenants and worked in view of the public, welcoming feedback.
A 1968 Chinese catalog, published in English translation, praised Courtyard as “An immortal work.”
“The artists resolutely followed Chairman Mao’s instruction that writers and artists must integrate themselves with the workers, peasants and soldiers and learn from them. They lived and worked in the courtyard where rent had been collected..…
“The artists cast aside the rules and conventions followed in making statues with plaster, marble, granite or bronze, and critically adopted the traditional techniques of making clay figures loved by the common folk in China.… These clay figures not only meet the aesthetic demands of the labouring people but are much cheaper and quicker to do than statues in plaster and other materials. Straw and clay are available anywhere in the countryside. With such methods, amateur and professional artists can create and exhibit their works on the spot, whether they want to depict revolutionary history or reflect the life and struggle of socialist society today.…”
Some Westerners know the Rent Collection Courtyard via Cai Guo-Quiang’s partial recreation of it for the 1999 Venice Biennale. For many Chinese artists, the Courtyard remains a point of reference, if one that raises mixed emotions. This rare showing of PAM’s set is indispensable for anyone interested in where Chinese art is going.