Art workers dispatched by the state to Central Tibet in the 1960s to the 1970s approached image- making and their task of envisioning and rendering a socialist utopian future in their own ways, despite increasingly strict state prescriptions and encouragement to follow formulaic frameworks. This dissertation delves into three instances of PRC art workers traveling to Central Tibet for the purpose of creating propagandistic works that portray ethnic Tibetan people. While the mediums of visual representation—painting, film, and sculpture—are varied, the common threads expanding and compressing the limits of representation run throughout the case studies. Ethnic representation and the formation of subjectivities, image-making as a collective process, and claims of authenticity negotiate with and against each other in an effort to construct an easily legible visual rhetoric for the intended audience; namely, the common masses. Overall, the dissertation argues that the tensions within visual representations of ethnic Tibetan people expose the inherent contradiction of the envisioned socialist collective. The socialist utopian vision contrives to construct a cohesive, singular collective as the main agent to bend history and the natural world to its will, however women and non-Han ethnic people are placed in special categories with strict definitions that prevent them from melding into the collective.
Tensions and contradictions run through the seemingly superficial and one-dimensional propagandistic works portraying ethnic Tibetan people. While state prescriptions push towards a flattening out of forms and a reliance on circumscribed silhouettes, individual artistic styles and techniques push against the lure of the flattened surface. Dong Xiwen, Wu Guanzhong, and Shao Jingkun, in their paintings produced on a trip to Tibet in 1961, attempt to cleave a place for their own representational approaches. In the 1963 film Serf, filmmakers relied heavily upon subjective shots to induce sympathy from the inland audience for the downtrodden ethnic Tibetan serf. However, jarring moments of silenced and stilled tableau, as well as the obsessive concentration on Tibetan naked skin brings the audience members back towards the cinematic surface and guide them to consume the ethnic Tibetan bodies as objects. Instructions on how exactly to view representational images also play a major role in the supplemental materials surrounding all three projects, but most blatantly within the visual and textual materials for Wrath of the Serfs. While the materiality of the sculptural installation, Wrath of the Serfs, renders it immobile, reproduced exhibition photographs allow the three-dimensional figures to be manipulated as one-dimensional figures.Repeatedly, the lure of the representational surface attempts to supersede individual marks, styles, and techniques so that a standardized set of iconographic markers can be arrived upon for minimum ambiguity and maximum legibility. The illusion of representational authenticity is achieved through a collapsing of ethnic Tibetan people with disfigurement. Concentration on past traumas not only justifies the PRC presence in Central Tibet, but also insinuates a one- dimensionality to the definition of ethnic Tibetans forever locking them into the role of helpless people in need of rescue. Such authenticated representations, in a circular move, help to authenticate the art workers’ own socialist transformation. The rhetoric of shenru shenghuo (‘plunging into the thick of life), laodong (manual labor), and jiehe (combining with others) provide a framework through which artists could authenticate and articulate their allegiance to the collective. Within such rhetorical devices the process of collective image-making encouraged the sublimation of individual marks. Moreover, collective works and the recording of the audience’s reaction to them creates a ritual framework through which individual actors bodied forth or performed the idealized socialist vision of the collective.