Under western eyes
13 November 2007
I recently bought a photo-litho print by Yang Longhai. It is a portrait of Mao taken from the Chinese 100RMB note which is a dark pink colour. Mao's portrait appears on all denominations of Ren Min Bi notes, the "people"s currency". Yang's image is the reverse of that on the face of the note: the portrait visible on the reverse when the note is held up against the light. It is called Red Mao.
Somtimes Longhai also called it Pink Mao. The discrepancy was irrelevant to me and, in any event, was probably a linguistic mistake on Longhai's part. Why will become apparent presently. What attracted me was the contrast of the red or pink Mao of the Long March and the Cultural Revolution with his depiction on the face of the high-denomination note. This is the currency of the rising capitalist economy of the twenty-first century. And Mao stares out from it placidly. Surely, I thought, the reference was, if not ironic, at least wry. I was apparently wrong, at least as far as Chairman Mao is concerned. His symbolic embodiment of China is less constricted provided that the symbolic role is limited.
Initially I thought Pink or Red Mao was too generic a name for the work, too easily confused with Warhol, who was the first to raise the kitsch personality cult to art. I suggested to Yang that a possibly better title would be Yi Bai Mao (One hundred Mao). Granted this was arrogant of me. Artists have enough difficulty as it is with interlopers interfering with their work. Nevertheless the suggestion was made in good faith, with genuine affection for the artist and sympathy for his work. For one thing, my title would resonate with other "mao" words, of which, because Chinese is tonal, there are many phonetic variants, although their Hanzi written forms are quite distinct. Yang was unimpressed. He stressed that the title was "Red Mao". Thomas Charveriat, who was present, reminded Yang that previously the work was called "Pink Mao" (again, I now suspect this was a language discrepancy). When I persisted Yang said in frustration "You call it what you want". I quickly accepted Red Mao. Thomas later told me that Yang probably disliked Yi Bai Mao because it was disrespectful to the former leader. I was taken aback that the association of Mao with the currency could be seen as disrespectful, not least because his face appears on every single note regardless of denomination. Only later did I privately concede that I had made the same mistake as many other western art lovers - I was looking at chinese art through western eyes.
This is fine in itself but one should not assume that one's interpretation of a scene accords with that of its chinese creator or Chinese audience. As was explained to me by my language teacher, one could refer to a Red Mao (revolution, army, blood) but not to a Mao of a different colour, certainly not yellow (imperial China) or white (death, evil, e.g. characters with a white face in the Beijing Opera). Red is also the traditional colour of wedding dresses and Hong Bao (Red Letters at Chinese New Year, which usually have money in them, as in A red letter day).
So regardless of Yang's own stated or private intention, the imagery of Mao will resonate with our present conceptions of Mao (Long March, Warhol, Little Red Book) and also of currency (exchange, capitalism, materialism, consumerism, wealth, China's (export driven) booming economy). And we will interpret it accordingly.
But even in the West, symbolic or transliterative confusion is common. Take the German film, Goodbye Lenin, which takes a tragi-comic view of the stresses in German society following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It was full of in-jokes for East German audiences. So a jogger passes-by in the background of one scene but only the East Germans grasped that he was wearing a tracksuit associated with sporting teams attached to the Stasi, the secret police, clothing which would not have been commonly warn in public except at an official sporting event. Another example is Magritte's famous Ceci n'est pas une Pipe (This is not a pipe). The surrealist joke is that of course the image is not a real pipe but only a picture of a pipe. In francophone countries there is a further joke. In french, Ceci n'est pas une Pipe is a euphemism for fellatio. Put that in your Mao and smoke it.
13 November 2007