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Socialist Pop 

In Sui Jianguo's universe, Michelango and Mao speak the same language

Wednesday, Mar 30 2005
It's not every day that you see a large, red dinosaur on the street. Nevertheless, a massive, bubbly skinned Tyrannosaurus rex now stands in front of the Asian Art Museum, baring its teeth from within a crimson cage. Despite its menacing stance, it's clearly recognizable as an oversized children's toy, and on one recent sunny afternoon it was quickly mobbed by a busload of school kids clambering through the bars to "pet" the dinosaur.

The T-rex is more than just an eye-catching jungle gym: It's a signature piece in an exhibition by contemporary Chinese sculptor Sui Jianguo. It's also an uncharacteristic move for the Asian Art Museum, better known for presenting Asian art as artifact rather than as vibrant, current practice. Perhaps as a self-conscious sign of this departure, a cheeky banner hangs from the museum's neoclassical facade asking, "What is this dinosaur doing here?"

The banner's faux naiveté is intended as a coy enticement, but the question takes on an unintended meaning in light of Sui's work. By inscribing "Made in China" in large letters on the creature's chest, Sui references the cheap, mass-produced toys and other consumer goods that have become a foundation of the booming Chinese export economy. What's more, the dinosaur's cage resembles a shipping crate, turning this giant plaything into an export itself, a symbol of China's growing international might. Indeed, China's emergence as a major player in the global economy is precisely what induces institutions like the Asian Art Museum to take serious notice of present-day artists like Sui, whose work appears to have more in common with contemporary Western art than with the traditional arts of Asia.

Sui's engagement with consumer culture is undoubtedly influenced by a pop art aesthetic dating back to Andy Warhol's famous soup cans, but because the artist trained during the Cultural Revolution, his work is also anchored in the conventions and motifs of socialist realism -- a style exemplified by the happy, red-cheeked peasants depicted in communist propaganda -- even as he transforms or comments on them. Inside the museum, his painted fiberglass replicas of Michelangelo's Bound Slave and Dying Slave sculptures wear Mao suits as they twist and writhe in faithful reproductions of Renaissance agony. At first this juxtaposition -- clothing the hallmarks of Western artistic tradition in emblems of communist conformity -- reads like a cute joke, an irreverent if superficial illustration of culture clash: East meets West, Revolution meets Renaissance. But it also hints at a deeper congruence, reminding us that the look of Cultural Revolution-era propaganda was based not on traditional Chinese art, but on a realistic style derived from Western art. In Sui's universe, Michelangelo and Mao speak the same language.

These deeper aesthetic affinities are especially incisive in light of China's current headlong rush toward capitalism. Sui assesses communism's legacy in a series of sculptures depicting the Mao suit jacket, the characteristic uniform of the Communist Party faithful. The largest piece, Legacy Mantle 1, is monumental and stolidly gray; it might be a fragment of one of the imposing, outdoor Mao sculptures that dot public squares throughout China. But here, the jacket stands alone. Although the belly and sleeves are firmly rounded, suggesting the contours of a body, the coat is headless and hollow. Mao is both eerily present and conspicuously absent. This contradiction extends even further when we learn that the piece is made out of that lightest of metals, aluminum. As with the fiberglass Michelangelos, the work's solidity and heft are an illusion. Legacy Mantle 1 is quietly yet powerfully ambivalent, suggesting that Mao's presence is still profound, even as it is reduced to an empty cipher.

Perhaps because of their impressive size, these large-scale pieces are more powerful than several smaller ones included in the exhibition. In Legacy Mantle 3-10, four pairs of human-size Mao jackets are painted in bright neon colors. Here, Sui subjects the Mao suit to the logic of consumerism, whereby individual identity is constituted through the illusion of choice. It's ironic to offer the Mao suit, a great leveler of class and gender, in an array of juicy fruit colors, but the gesture feels a bit one-dimensional. Although the jackets' hues and super-shiny finish are as alluring as candy, the piece lacks the subtle ambiguity of its larger, monochromatic brethren.

Two other works also feel like afterthoughts, or perhaps sketches. A midsize T-rex identical to the large one outside looks like a concession to collectors; in fact, copies are available for sale in the museum's gift shop. In another piece, Toy Dinosaurs, two brightly painted creatures -- a blue T-rex and a red brontosaurus -- face off across from each other in what could be a restaging of a Godzilla movie. At first the piece seems wholly unremarkable, no more than a hokey arrangement of ready-mades; it is only upon inspecting the wall label that one learns that the animals have been cast in bronze and filled with lead. While the work plays with the contradictions between the light, throwaway look of cheap toys and the gravity and heft of sculpture, the impact is somewhat muted for viewers in a gallery setting who can't actually pick the animals up.

However, Sui redeems himself in the exhibition's centerpiece, Sleeping Mao. In the middle of a large raised platform, a socialist realist figure of Mao reclines, peacefully slumbering beneath a homey blue-and-white-patterned comforter. The snoozing leader is surrounded by a sea of 20,000 plastic toy dinosaurs, arranged by color and species, radiating out to create a swirling, abstract topography. The models are the products of China's economic rise, but their arrangement suggests a roiling, restless unconscious (a monster-filled nightmare?), as well as the proletarian masses both inspired and victimized by Mao's grand social initiatives. The chairman's peasant army has been transformed into a tumultuous flood of toy animals; his dreams of prosperity have been realized, albeit in a form he never envisioned.

Sui combines China's present and past in one richly evocative image. But beyond the work's multiple readings, the overall impression is one of energy. By aligning the legacy of the Cultural Revolution with contemporary developments, Sui creates a paean to his nation's potential and its dreams, both failed and extant. His work suggests that China's current economic and social transformations may not be as disruptive as they seem, but instead reveal an unexpected continuity with the country's communist past.

About The Author

Sharon Mizota


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