Mao Revolution in Shantou – Art in the Provinces



Red Dreams, 2007, Zheng Yunghua, Shantou University, China    

Here’s a refreshing piece of art – one made far away from the center, in the small city of Shantou in the south of China. Look closely, the artist has put the iconic Mao cap on everyone who’s anyone in world politics – and commerce. From Lincoln to Churchill, Che Guevara to Yasser Arafat… and our beloved Colonel Sanders. *

Zheng Yunghua thus states, of his Red Dreams:

We need to find a way to understand how we see a past revolution. The visual image could be a basis for this process. For example, during the Cultural Revolution, even though it was not a glorious period, the images had a strong native Chinese character. There was naivety for sure, but also a passion lacking in today’s youth.

From today’s perspective, it is not necessary to put a perfect conclusion, good or bad to a past event. We can only use our visual sense to distill certain relevant elements. Revolutions happen at all times, not just limited to those ten years of the Cultural Revolution.

My design is to utilize past revolutionary images as elements in a branding experiment for mass promotion. (This is only an experiment, without commercial goal)

Recently, there has been some press about the use of Mao images in art in China, when Andy Warhol’s iconic Mao portraits were to be excluded from the Shanghai and Beijing stops of the exhibition, Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal.  This despite the fact that contemporary Chinese artists use Mao’s image frequently, like Zhu Wei, Yu Houhan,  and the Gao Brothers,  just to cite a few. Mao has been portrayed as women or chubby babies, as Warholian Marilyn, even in a kneeling bronze with a penitent bow. Most are caricatures or cartoons, ironic or cynical, in the mode of political pop. In other words, they are illustrations or demonstrations, either of a view or a sentiment.

This makes Zheng’s Red Dreams special. It is an experiment, with open possibilities, and may lead to surprising results. Intriguingly, he did not specify what this branding exercise would be promoting – that’s left to the imagination of the viewer.

I find too the idea and visual presentation whimsical and delightful – shopping bags with McDonald’s Golden Arches for handles, Mao caps on all these men, that Warholian repetition…, and the eye-catching red.  But there’s the undercurrent of seriousness about how we should see past revolutions or events. It not only puts the Cultural Revolution in perspective but also places it squarely in the middle of this new consumer culture. It also asks a question and suggests a way to find the answer.

New and unique ideas could indeed come from the periphery, far from the centers of power and fashion. **

*    This image is taken from the Works Collection of 2007 Graduate catalog, Cheung Kong School of Art and Design, Shantou University, Guangdong, China. This is the first graduating class of the school, founded 2003.

**   See my previous post on this subject, Guangzhou Opera House – A Look Inside, questioning art making in Guangdong province.

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