Friday, March 22, 2013

I did it Moa Wei Wei; Julie’s love less ceramic platter?

Mao Zedong, bust at the National Museum of China.
Beijing. Photographs by the blogger.

HONG KONG, 9 Sept. 1976, Mao Tse-tung, who began as an obscure peasant, died one of history's great revolutionary figures. Born at a time when China was wracked by civil strife, beset with terrible poverty and encroached on by more advanced foreign powers, he lived to fulfill his boyhood dream of restoring it to its traditional place as a great nation. In Chinese terms, he ranked with Chin Shih-huang, the first Emperor, who unified China in 221 B.C., and was the man Chairman Mao most liked to compare himself to.

Moa Zedong's Mausoleum in Beijing.
Photographs by the blogger.
With incredible perseverance and consummately conceived strategy, he harnessed the forces of agrarian discontent and nationalism to turn a tiny band of peasants into an army of millions, which he led to victory throughout China in 1949 after 20 years of fighting.

Along the way the army fought battles as big as Stalingrad and suffered through a heroic march as long as Alexander's. Then, after establishing the Chinese People's Republic, Mao launched a series of sweeping, sometimes convulsive campaigns to transform a semi feudal, largely illiterate and predominantly agricultural country encompassing almost four million square miles and a fifth of the world's population into a modern, industrialized socialist state. By the time of his death China had manufactured its own nuclear bombs and guided missiles and had become a major oil producer.(Cited at, On this day, an obituary to Mao Tse-Tung; Father of the Chinese Revolution, published September 10, 1976. The New York Times)
I did it Mao Wei Wei, Ceramic Platter by Julie Lovelace.
Dinner for 101, held at the Lady Anne Banqueting Hall,
at the castle of Good Hope.
There is more to the situation than meets the eye; in response to the Chinese visitor’s outcry to Julie Lovelace‘s ceramic platter titled, I did it Moa Wei Wei (image above), depicting Mao Zedong crying blood, referencing the work of Ai Weiwei. The work formed part of a temporary exhibition titled, Dinner for 101, held in the Lady Anne Banqueting Hall at the Castle of Good Hope earlier this year. The Chinese tourists visiting the temporary exhibition demanded that the work be removed from the display, as it was disrespectful to Mao Zedong, father of the Chinese revolution as expounded in the obituary above. What follows is a sequence of quotes that possibly provide greater insight into the artist’s intent and a context for the reaction of the Chinese tourists as described in the media response by the Isiko Museum (at the end of this post).

Although records indicate that Mao Zedong was brought to tears on numerous occasions, it was almost always to underscore his humanity.
Mao was easily upset by tears, often lapsing into tears himself. Upon seeing a sick girl, tears welled up into his eyes and he commanded his physician to nurse her back to health, even using the small and rare supply of antibiotics. His care for the good of the people went so far as to create "canteens" that attempted to provide food to the starving peasant people. Although these projects failed it proves that Mao was not insane with power, but humane and caring about the people he fought for. Cited at Who is Mao Zedong? Man or God?
Yinqiao Quan in his book titled, Mao Zedong? Man not God? states history does not view leaders kindly, only recording victories and defeats from the ultimate victor's standpoint. The events recorded in Mao Zedong: Man, Not God would never be considered by history to be important events. His thoughts and feelings would be irrelevant from an objective point of view. But on the other hand the recollections of Yinqiao are very believable. Mao becomes real for the reader, more human than history. He becomes a George Washington type of leader figure. His selflessness and dedication to the people of the nation borderline that of a saint. Very few could have done what Mao has done with so much reserve and respect. His nature is extremely commendable.
As a final note, Mao Zedong was an interesting human being, very important to the history of China. It is sad to say that not all great leaders are portrayed in this way, exploring their humanity and what they attempted to accomplish. Mao Zedong was a great man deserving great respect which he received from his people and his fellow revolutionaries. Mao Zedong was truly just a man and not a god. (Yinqiao Quan, Who is Mao Zedong? Man or God, published in 1992) 

However there is always two sides to a coin, even more so when your head literally appears on the currency of the largest nation in the world and soon to be most powerful global economy. In sharp contrast to him shedding a tear, he was quoted as saying in one of his most quoted speeches.
"Every Communist must grasp the truth: 'Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.' Our principle is that the party commands the gun, and the gun will never be allowed to command the party. But it is also true that with guns at our disposal we can really build up the party organization." (Cited at, On this day, an obituary to Mao Tse-Tung; Father of the Chinese Revolution, published September 10, 1976. The New York Times)

In addition, Mao came to have doubts about China's youth; as he told Mr. Malraux in August 1965, "This youth is showing dangerous tendencies." These fears are much more prevalent today amongst China’s leaders, seen in the context of the power of social media in particular Weibo.

"Humanity, left to its own, does not necessarily re-establish capitalism, but it does re-establish inequality," he said. "The forces tending toward the creation of new classes are powerful. Revolution and children have to be trained if they are to be properly brought up," he added. "Youth must be put to the test." (Cited at, On this day, an obituary to Mao Tse-Tung; Father of the Chinese Revolution, published September 10, 1976. The New York Times)

As China continues to emerge as a global economic power, much of its art is concerned with the alignment of that power with a concommitment social progress. In the words of Ai Weiwei (image on the left), ‘art, creative freedom and innovation have yet to make a significant appearance in real, practical terms, either within China or on its behalf. He goes further, questioning their very existence; “Even though China today has become such a power”- a miracle after so many years of struggle, as he readily admits – “in terms of creativity, or cultural values, there’s no clear definition of what China today represents. We cant see how its contributes to the world, to the global situation, to new technology, or enriches ordinary people’s daily life by offering meaningful ideas”. (Ai Weiwei, cicle of animals, 2011)

To depict the leader with bleeding eyes, synonymous with images of piety; stigmata and sainthood is probably considered ‘sacrilege and inhuman’ from a Chinese perspective, knowing his disdain for religion – equal to poison. Was it the artist Julie Lowelace’s ceramic expressive intent to capitalize on Ai Weiwei’s international ‘success’ (incarceration in China), especially his use of the ceramic readymade, to draw attention to her own creative endeavour, what ever that may be?
Ai Weiwei’ himself depicted the leader in a less flattering way, his paintings dated 1986 titled Mao behind bars (posted images), was arguably the first of many of his activist art statements (social, political and cultural criticism) that no doubt contributed to his incarceration in 2011. However the Chinese’s visitors’ reaction to Lovelace ‘s “irreverent” portrayal of their leader must no doubt be seen in the context of British imperialism – a century of national humiliation explained below.

However, the past is never dead. It’s not even past. William Faulkner’s often –quoted dictum is hardly common parlance in contemporary China, but it might as well be. In recent years, a vivid sense of outrage over injustices of history –certain injustices in particular-had fueled vehement expressions of nationalism by the Chinese government and many of its citizens. These attitudes should be seen in the context of a number of issues and significant historic events. As China continues its ascent as a world power and its self-identity undergoes sustained transformation, the drive to rectify past iniquities gains a parallel strength and intensity. Much of the fervour centers on a time known in China as the “century of national humiliation. “ Spanning approximately 1840-1945, this era saw Chinese suffer repeated defeat and domination by other nations, beginning with the first Opium War (1839-42). It was during this war that looting occurred that underscores the Chinese sentiment referred to above.

An artists impression of the Palace of the Calm Sea,
 with the Zodiac animals on either side of the fountain.
The destruction of the Yuanming Yuan, the Garden of Perfect Brightness, and the removal of the now infamous bronze heads was the result of a ‘dressing’ China required to ensure order was maintained (Ai Weiwei, circle of animals, 2011 page 16).

The destruction of the palace of the Calm Sea.
Photographed in 1870 -1927.
‘…the British Empire’s catalogue of “crimes, follies and misfortunes ‘ committed, overlooked and swallowed in the name of empire building was well documented. And though some considered that “ We as a nation are little better than brigands, murderers and poisoners in our dealings at this moment with half the population of the globe” those in favour of empire building were firm in their conviction that “half -civilized Governments such as those of China, Portugal, Spanish America, require a dressing every eight or ten years to keep them in order‘ (Ai Weiwei, circle of animals, 2011 page 67).
What is left of Palace of the Calm Sea today, with the hills
of the west in the background. 
 Behind the arrogance intoned here lay a moral-Christian-rationale that was felt by the peoples living under those “half-civilized governments as a righteous superiority.
“ He who has money, lives long; he who has power, can do no wrong; he who has might establishes right,”  with the profits of burgeoning international trade in their pockets, and with the authority of military strength thereto enforce their adventuring bravado, the British established a might that persuaded them wholly of the ‘rightness’ of their cause, and, as example above, the requisite dressings were duly meted out. “(Ai Weiwei, circle of animals, 2011 page 67).
Ai Weiwei's Circle of animals, exhibited at the Sao Paulo Biennale. 
Original Bronze Rat, 
actioned as part
 of the Estate
 of Yves Saint Laurent.
In an interesting twist of history, the looted 12 Zodiac heads, refashioned by Aiweiwei in his public art work Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, assumed a symbolic burden far beyond their original modest function (image above). Over the past two decades, they have been transformed into a metonymic shorthand for the cultural achievements of the mid-Qing era, the losses suffered in 1860, and the humiliation that followed. (Ai Weiwei, circle of animals, 2011 page 67)
Ai Wewei's smaller bronze with gold
 patina version of the
 circle of animals 

Their monetary value on the international art market has soared, and despite their hybrid aesthetics, they have become touchstones of a fervent and at times contentious nationalism.

Auction of the original bronze Rat.
Estate of Yves Saint Laurent.
The injustices of the British involvement in China is no more evident than in the book I am reading titled, Dragon Lady, The life and legend of the last empress of China, written by Sterling Seagrave.
Dragon Lady gives the most vivid and accurate portrait to date of the much-maligned last empress. It also is a riveting chronicle of China’s terminal encounter with the West an astute look at the conquerors’ need to create a monster where they could not find one. His biography of the Dowager Empress Tzu His is both timely reassessment of the myth and an unsparing account of the imperialism from which it arose. 
The reaction of the Chinese tourists needs to be seen in the context of globalization and in particular the creolization of cultures. Artistic expression and freedom of speech is now more than ever threatened in the face of nationalism, fundamentalism and extremism, fuelled by all forms of new media. Are we as artists insensitive and irresponsible – especially when enraged viewers resort to violence? Are we implicated by virtue of our creative expression – a recourse of violence? The controversial painting of Zuma by Brett Murray, exhibited at the Goodman Gallery last year and the local reaction, a case in point. 

Iziko’s website media response to the situation. As cited at South African Pottery History – posted 10:36 am March 22.

Dinner for 101 was a temporary exhibition held in the Lady Anne Banqueting Hall at the Castle of Good Hope. It comprised functional and conceptual ceramic table wares and centre pieces, and was on show from 26 February until 17 March 2013. It has been presented by Iziko Social History Collections as the second installation of its kind held at the Castle, the first being 101 Place Settings shown last year in February.

This year some 70 ceramic artists submitted work for display on the long table in the Lady Anne Banqueting Hall. The table which provides seating for 101 guests and is used on special occasions for formal dinners and banquets, was transformed by Dinner for 101 with a showing of a rich array of contemporary table wares, all handmade by local ceramic artists. The installation provided an interesting reflection on the scope and diversity of wares created for the table by South African ceramic artists, mostly from the Western Cape region, but also from areas further afield such as Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

This year's table provided works which raised interesting comments, for example a work by John Newdigate of a ship in the shape of a sauce boat, painted in cobalt with the figures of slaves packed closely in the hold, and supported on a stand comprising putti. The work delivers social commentary on the transport of slaves who for some 200 years formed the agricultural labour force on many Cape farms, in particular wine farms. Putti are regularly found as motifs on the gables of Cape Dutch homesteads, such as the Anton Anreith sculpted pediment on the Cloete Cellar at Groot Constantia. Newdigate places the frolicking activities of these child-like figures in stark contrast to the inhumane treatment of slaves en route to a destination of forced labour.

Another work on the table drew particular interest, namely a platter by Julie Lovelace titled 'I did it Mao Wei Wei'. Lovelace came across this plate depicting a portrait of Mao Zedong (first chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China from 1945 to 1976), and decided to do an intervention. She painted blood red tears running from the eyes of Mao, also making a reference to Mao and dissident contemporary visual artist Ai Wei Wei in the title that she added. Just after opening this work was strongly critised by a group of young visiting tourists from China. They insisted on the removal of the piece as they found it was disrespectful to Mao Zedong. The plate was temporarily moved onto a side table in the Banqueting Hall while Iziko made a final decision. It was promptly decided to return the plate to the main setting on the clear understanding that Iziko welcomes lively debate and discussions on important social issues and commentary affecting our shared humanity.

On Saturday 9 March, a walkabout of the Dinner for 101 installation was followed with a talk by Judy Bryant on Helsinki, World Design Capital 2012, which was well-attended by an enthusiastic group of ceramic artists and members of the public interested in ceramics. Nearly 6 000 people visited the Castle during the short exhibition period of Dinner for 101. It is hoped that the quality and originality of South Africa’s ceramic works impressed each and every visitor who visited the famous Banqueting Hall.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderfull post Eugene. Really got me thinking. One is so quick to judge the actions of the "other" from one's own reference point.
The conqueror always writes or rewrites history as the various European empires including the Ottoman, Roman, Greek and Egyptians did over many centuries of empirical rule. All these great empires used massed murder and slavery as a means to bennefit their huge wealth. The great castles of Europe, the pyramids,the pantheon and the colloseum are today considered to be wonderfull works of art. The bodycount during their construction almost forgotten.