40 years on, the Cultural Revolution comes full circle

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Red Flag-waving Chinese soldiers, muscle-bound peasants, nudes, dancing girls and women soldiers, and scores of Mao Zedong pictures, sculptures and photographs. Whatever would the Great Helmsman have thought?

China's Cultural Revolution, which began 40 years ago this month, is the theme of this year's Dashanzi International Arts Festival in Beijing. Much of the work confronts some of the horror of those 10 years of hardline Communist mania which saw thousands of intellectuals and artists attacked and humiliated by dogmatic Red Guards.

The Communist Party is still in power, and some elements are still doctrinaire, as a crackdown on freedom of expression shows. The Culture Ministry asked three galleries to remove more than 20 paintings with political content. Few of the thousands of visitors at the Dashanzi festival - the prime date in China's contemporary art calendar - noticed any official hostility though. Plenty of challenging pieces have been left on display at more than 80 galleries and studios.

In one, a member of the Red Detachment of Women dances with the Statue of Liberty in a Marilyn Monroe dress. People sip espressos as Mao's portrait looks on. The Cultural Revolution ended with Mao's death in 1976 - another big anniversary this year.

Many of the exhibits are about how people are coming to terms with the years of the Cultural Revolution. Photo-realist studies, based on photographs of people from the time, act as a commentary on the fickle nature of memory.

Qu Yan's heavy oil paintings of dark trains bearing important dates in Chinese history - 1949, for instance, the year the Communists came to power, or 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics - examine the way China is dealing with the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Dashanzi began when a group of artists rented a former munitions plant, Factory 798, in 2002 and set up galleries and workshops there. It has thrived ever since, despite occasional official disapproval.

Art in China is fiercely tribal and regional. While Shanghai, the glistening financial metropolis, has shiny galleries of contemporary art. Beijing, the grungier political capital, houses its artists' colonies in disused factories and condemned villages, but is where many of the emerging talents live. Factory 798 is trying to help Chinese artists forge an identity. It is as much a community centre as a Hoxton-style hang-out.

Mao is everywhere. In Ma Han's work, people issue forth from the Great Helmsman's mouth, while the Zero Field gallery has a sculpture of the young Mao, taken from a famous picture, gazing keenly at the viewer.

"The Cultural Revolution was a special time, it never happened anywhere else, it was unique, and it figures in both the young and older artists' work," said Susan Sun from the New Art Warehouse.