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