Exhibition of the Month: Mao’s Golden Mangoes

The China Institute in New York is currently shining a light on the unlikely moment when the humble mango became a symbol of revolutionary zeal.

The story begins in 1968, when an ambassadorial delegation from Pakistan brought Mao Zedong a basket of fresh mangoes, their national fruit. As a symbol of his benevolence during a crucial moment in the establishment of the Cultural Revolution, the revolutionary leader delivered the gift to a group of workers, and China’s mango infatuation was born.

The tropic fruit, then unfamiliar in China, was instantly transformed into a symbol of the leader’s love for his people. Mango mania quickly swept the nation. Wax and plastic duplicates were created and displayed in glass boxes as objects of worship. The image of the bright fruit also started to appear in propaganda paintings and posters, and on ceramics and textiles. Mangoes were displayed prominently at the National Day Parade in 1968 and were even the star of the 1976 film The Song of the Mango.

But the craze disappeared as quickly as it had begun, and within a year China’s fruit fanaticism was over. Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution contains over 80 examples of mango memorabilia which will continue to be showcased at the China Institute until 26 April 2015. The story is also told in more detail in an eponymous book to accompany the exhibition.

Top – Mango reliquary from the Landsberger collection; Bottom – detail from the poster Forging ahead courageously while following the great leader Chairman Mao!, 1969.

Recommended: Cold War Bunkers – East and West

Recently the public got its first glance inside Albania’s most important Cold War era bunker, located just outside the Albanian capital of Tirana. Built 100m below ground between 1972 and 1978, the top secret complex boasts 106 rooms over five storeys. It also features a bedroom with red satin sheets for former communist dictator Enver Hoxha, as the bunker was intended to house the government in the event of a nuclear attack by the West.

Such was Hoxha’s paranoia that over the course of his 40-year rule he built some 700,000 bunkers across Albania. A team of enterprising students is currently planning to convert those along the coastline into a series of “bunker-and-bed” hostels for adventurous tourists.

Bunkers and nuclear shelters abound across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, from Bunker-42 next to Taganskaya metro station in central Moscow to Military Installation D-0 in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Underground bunkers were also built in both halves of Germany, with the Government Bunker (Regierungsbunker) south of Bonn intended to house the West Germany government, while Bunker 17/5001, in a forest north of Berlin, was set to protect the East German government of Erich Honecker.

Chairman Mao built a series of nuclear bunkers, including beneath a mountain in Ruichang in the 1960s. Bunkers under mountains also proved popular in the United States, with a number of massive military complexes built in the 1950s. These include the “underground Pentagon” at the Raven Rock Mountain Complex in Pennsylvania and the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado.

ESPIONART has previously reported on Ottawa’s so-called Diefenbunker. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, nuclear paranoia resulted in bunkers springing up across the United Kingdom, from York Cold War Bunker, now managed by English Heritage, to the secret network of Cold War bunkers underneath Birmingham. Groups such as Subterranea Britannica are dedicated to recording and photographing these locations while across the world they are being reimagined as museums, hotels and restaurants.

So next time you’re looking for a day or evening out with a difference, it’s worth checking where the nearest Cold War bunker is to you. You may be standing directly above it.

Image: Bunker-42 na Taganke, Moscow

Exhibition of the Month: Post Pop: East Meets West

The Saatchi Gallery in London seeks to build on its successful exhibitions of recent Russian and Chinese art – including 2008’s The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art and 2012’s Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art, 1960–80s – with a show that combines the two.

While the title of Post Pop: East Meets West suggests the two sides of the former iron curtain joining in a shared appreciation of Pop Art, the selection of works indicates instead the movement of Pop from east to west, with Russian and Chinese artists taking inspiration from and seeking to improve upon art emanating from the United States and the UK.

Pop Art’s satirical exploitation and subversion of familiar visual references to reveal uncomfortable truths about the world in which we live found a second life in communist regimes. The same techniques were adopted by artists to reveal the banality and absurdity of state propaganda and Socialist Realism, from the Sots Art of Komar & Melamid to the Political Pop of Wang Guangyi.

This focus on Pop Art’s legacy means the movement’s heyday of the 1960s and its most familiar names are absent. Instead the exhibition’s chronology runs from the seventies to the present day. Of the 250 works by 110 artists the UK offering is dominated by the YBAs, although Yinka Shonibare is a welcome deviation from the classic east/west bipolarity; the US works are more conventionally Pop, as Jeff Koons and Keith Haring rub shoulders with Paul McCarthy and Cindy Sherman; the Chinese section is more eclectic, from a marble sculpture by man of the moment Ai Weiwei to a human hair installation by Gu Wenda; while art from the former USSR ranges from the big names of the Nonconformist art movement to contemporary collectives AES+F and Blue Noses.

The exhibition suggests a similar obsession with celebrity and commodification in both east and west, but it neglects to go deeper into the political significance of the art, instead offering something of a curiosity cabinet of Pop’s diverse manifestations.

According to The Telegraph is looks “like a bonkers art-department store“. If you’re in London you can go along and decide for yourself until 23 February 2015.

Images: Top – Leonid Sokov, Two Profiles (Stalin and Marilyn), 1989. Bronze, photographic print; Bottom – Wang Guangyi, Great Criticism: Benelton (大批判), 1992. Oil on canvas © Wang Guangyi, 1992

Youth Mao Zedong Statue

On 1 October 1949 Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Over the next half a century the country witnessed the trauma of the Great Leap Forward and social upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, and gradually progressed to become a superpower.

Although now a technologically-advantaged nation with a booming economy, the visual culture of Mao’s China continues to loom large in the Cold War era statuary and paintings that populate the country. Yet despite these residual artworks, in December 2009 many were surprised by the unveiling of the Youth Mao Zedong Statue on Orange Isle outside the city Changsha.

Standing 32 metres tall and constructed from 8,000 giant granite bricks, the monumental bust depicts Mao in 1925, when at age 32 he composed a poem about Changsha. The flattering portrait shows Mao with a long mane of windswept hair and in a heroic pose typical of socialist realism, looking with confident determination towards the country’s communist future.

The sculpture took 2 years to construct and cost about 35 million US dollars, funded by the local government. Professor Xie Liwen, a member of the creative team from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, recalled his ambition to create a work recognised for its uniqueness and artistry. Favourable comments have compared the statue to the Sphinx of Ancient Egypt, although others have questioned the suitability of its construction in the modern China.

Youth Mao Zedong Statue, Orange Isle, Changsha, Hunan, China, 2007–09.

Painting the Tiananmen Square Massacre

On 4 June the world remembers the Tiananmen Square Massacre, 25 years ago. One Chinese artist with a vivid memory of that day is Chen Guang. In 1989 he was one of the soldiers sent to suppress the pro-democracy student demonstrations and witnessed the violence that left hundreds dead. The trauma of that day continues to have a profound effect on his life.

Chen Guang 1
Later in 1989 Chen left the People’s Liberation Army to train as an oil painter and over the last two decades he has become one of the most controversial performance artists in China. While the link between his often sexually-explicit performances and the Massacre have not been obvious, in 2009 Chen admitted to being haunted by the incident, conceding that “even if a connection is hard to see, everything I do is touched by that experience”.

In 2009 Chen’s work became more openly political, as he returned to photographs he had taken 20 years earlier in Tiananmen Square as inspiration for a series of paintings. When local galleries refused to exhibit the works, Chen put them online. Several hours later they were removed. Undeterred, earlier this month Chen staged a performance to mark the upcoming 25th anniversary, despite the strict laws forbidding public acknowledgement of the June 4 Massacre. As a result the artist was arrested and currently remains in detention, as the Chinese authorities attempt to prevent any public commemorations from taking place next week.

More of Chen’s work, together with a biography and translated interview, is available here.

Image: Chen Guang in Beijing with two of his Tiananmen Square paintings, 2009. Courtesy The New York Times.

Recommended Read: Propaganda: Power and Persuasion

David Welch. Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. London: British Library Publishing, 2013.

mao anyuanAlthough the British Library’s fascinating exploration of Propaganda: Power and Persuasion closed last month in exhibition form, the eponymous catalogue is still available to introduce people to this elusive term which has dominated so much of human experience over the last century.

Authored by David Welch, Professor of Modern History at the University of Kent and Director of the Centre for the Study of War, Propaganda and Society, the book overviews instances of state propaganda from ancient Rome to the present day in a myriad of manifestations. The narrative shows how propaganda and the visual arts have been entwined since the outset, with statues and portraits of ancient rulers being sent out across their empires to strengthen their personality cults and mark their authority.

Examples of films, books, currency, music, newspapers, games and web pages put into context propagandistic images from the Cold War. One of the most striking is the infamous oil painting of Mao Zedong in his youth, supposedly leading revolutionary action at the Anyuan coal mine in 1921. The image is estimated to have been reproduced as more than nine hundred million posters which were distributed across China during the Cultural Revolution.

On sale from British Library Publishing.

Image: Liu Chunhua, Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan, 1967

Andy Warhol and the Cult of Mao

On 1 October 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, with himself as its sole leader. A highly-controversial figure, at turn venerated and castigated, Chairman Mao conspired in his own mythologisation by developing an all-encompassing cult of personality.

In 1972 Andy Warhol produced a series of prints entitled Mao to coincide with US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China. Warhol based his work on an official portrait of Mao, taken from the Chairman’s ‘Little Red Book’ of ideological quotations, which lays claim to being the most reproduced image in history. Warhol’s choice of Mao as a subject was a natural development in his ongoing fascination with celebrity, which had previously led him to depict starlets such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. However, the portrayal of such a divisive character opened the work to heated debate, revealing the complexity of its multiple readings.

The sensitivity about how Warhol’s prints should be interpreted – whether as a parody of Mao’s visual cult or a celebratory comment on the power of images – continues to this day. Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal, the largest exhibition of Warhol’s work to travel to Asia, is currently showing at the CAFA Art Museum in Beijing with the Mao images excluded, apparently following a demand for their removal from the Chinese Ministry of Culture.

warhol mao 2

Andy Warhol, Mao, 1972. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.