Chinese Artists Retouch Mao's Image

Article excerpt

THERE is no shortage of Mao and communist images in "Mao Goes Pop: China Post-1989." But no longer is Mao the revered icon. It's a clown-faced Mao smiling beatifically, Mao with daisies, a pastel-colored Mao. And on the floor glows a red "carpet," made from 1 million red-tipped matches upended.

The exhibition of 100 works by 29 Chinese artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art here provides a startling glimpse into the artistic heart of China since the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

"This shows the roller-coaster ride that China has been on since Tiananmen Square as the country politically, culturally, socially keeps shifting gears," says Nicholas Jose, curatorial advisor for the exhibit.

Dr. Jose says that China today "seems to have gone into overdrive with these paradoxes of socialist capitalism: a centralized market economy, a Communist Party that is presiding over rock videos and soft-core porn merchandise, and the reconfiguring of the major revolutionary icon of them all, Chairman Mao."

Good art, Mao decreed, had to be realist; it had to be "red, bright, and shining" portrayals of the heroism of workers and peasants.

The same officially accepted themes are found in the contemporary Sydney exhibition, but the paintings, screenprints, mixed- media works, sculptures, videos, and installations offer a new twist. Following the lead of American Andy Warhol and others, these artists give their national icon the Pop Art treatment. But they aren't just doing Chinese versions of Campbell's soup cans.

"Americans took common, ordinary objects and made them into gods," says curator of the exhibit, Li Xianting, through an interpreter. "The Chinese have taken the image of the god, Mao, and made it into a popular ordinary item. American Pop is a direct reflection of an extremely contemporary theme. Chinese Pop triggers cultural memories and mixes up past cultural icons together with contemporary commercial products."

Mr. Li has worked for two years with Johnson Chang, a Hong Kong art dealer, to assemble some of the works for an exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Festival. This show has grown out of that.

Many of the faces in the paintings express resignation. But there is a surprising amount of humor.

"Art before Tiananmen Square was serious and idealistic," Jose says. "After Tiananmen Square ... artists turned to black humor and satire as a way of expressing their cynicism. They turned back to some of the styles of the cultural revolution - peasant art, poster art, propaganda art, bright colors - but used them in new ways to satirize this new consumer society."

One painting in the show, "Taking a Picture in Front of Tiananmen Square," is a takeoff of a well-known propaganda poster of workers and peasants. It uses what is otherwise an acceptable official painting of revolutionary workers in appropriate yellows and reds, and then adds company logos for Nikon or Band-Aid. The older figures have been airbrushed out, and the "new Chinese" - Yuppies in running shoes - are smiling in front of them.

This flouting of Communist ideology is astounding, given what's happened in China over the last 20 years. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, artists were sent to toil in the country. In the '80s, the political grip on the art community loosened. …