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Chinese Artists Retouch Mao's Image

THERE is no shortage of Mao and communist images in "Mao Goes Pop: China Post-1989." But no longer is Mao the revered icon. It's a clown-faced Mao smiling beatifically, Mao with daisies, a pastel-colored Mao. And on the floor glows a red "carpet," made from 1 million red-tipped matches upended.

The exhibition of 100 works by 29 Chinese artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art here provides a startling glimpse into the artistic heart of China since the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

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"This shows the roller-coaster ride that China has been on since Tiananmen Square as the country politically, culturally, socially keeps shifting gears," says Nicholas Jose, curatorial advisor for the exhibit.

Dr. Jose says that China today "seems to have gone into overdrive with these paradoxes of socialist capitalism: a centralized market economy, a Communist Party that is presiding over rock videos and soft-core porn merchandise, and the reconfiguring of the major revolutionary icon of them all, Chairman Mao."

Good art, Mao decreed, had to be realist; it had to be "red, bright, and shining" portrayals of the heroism of workers and peasants.

The same officially accepted themes are found in the contemporary Sydney exhibition, but the paintings, screenprints, mixed- media works, sculptures, videos, and installations offer a new twist. Following the lead of American Andy Warhol and others, these artists give their national icon the Pop Art treatment. But they aren't just doing Chinese versions of Campbell's soup cans.

"Americans took common, ordinary objects and made them into gods," says curator of the exhibit, Li Xianting, through an interpreter. "The Chinese have taken the image of the god, Mao, and made it into a popular ordinary item. American Pop is a direct reflection of an extremely contemporary theme. Chinese Pop triggers cultural memories and mixes up past cultural icons together with contemporary commercial products."

Mr. Li has worked for two years with Johnson Chang, a Hong Kong art dealer, to assemble some of the works for an exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Festival. This show has grown out of that.

Many of the faces in the paintings express resignation. But there is a surprising amount of humor.

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"Art before Tiananmen Square was serious and idealistic," Jose says. "After Tiananmen Square ... artists turned to black humor and satire as a way of expressing their cynicism. They turned back to some of the styles of the cultural revolution - peasant art, poster art, propaganda art, bright colors - but used them in new ways to satirize this new consumer society."

One painting in the show, "Taking a Picture in Front of Tiananmen Square," is a takeoff of a well-known propaganda poster of workers and peasants. It uses what is otherwise an acceptable official painting of revolutionary workers in appropriate yellows and reds, and then adds company logos for Nikon or Band-Aid. The older figures have been airbrushed out, and the "new Chinese" - Yuppies in running shoes - are smiling in front of them.

This flouting of Communist ideology is astounding, given what's happened in China over the last 20 years. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, artists were sent to toil in the country. In the '80s, the political grip on the art community loosened. And in 1985, a new wave of artists emerged, influenced by Dada, Pop Art, and Surrealism. The authorities turned a blind eye, and even allowed some artists to exhibit in private homes.

Li, leading scholar of 20th-century Chinese art, and publisher of Fine Art in China magazine, has fallen in and out of favor with the establishment as the political winds have changed.

But a few months before the Tiananmen Square massacre, two artists, Tang Song and Xiao Lu, tested official tolerance by firing a pistol into their work, "Dialogue," at the China Art Gallery. They were promptly arrested, which was also part of their work. They eventually made their way to Hong Kong and then Sydney. The two made the incendiary "carpet" of matches for this exhibition.

After Tiananman Square, contemporary art fell victim to ideological attack. Li's magazine was banned. Today, four years after the massacre, the work of these artists cannot be exhibited in China.

Xu Bing, who at an early age was both an artist and a curator, says he and his art students made a copy of the Statue of Liberty that was later destroyed.

"Before Tiananmen everyone said my art was actually a model of Chinese modernism; it was the kind of art that engaged in a dialogue with Western Modernism."

But after Tiananmen, the same influential people that had supported his work now criticized it, saying it represented all the ideological problems of modern art.

Mr. Xu, along with six of the 29 artists, found a more congenial climate in the United States, Europe, and Australia. And their art has taken on international, not Chinese, themes.

"After Tiananmen, the political and cultural trends in China were not really suitable for the development of my art," says Xu, now affiliated with the University of South Dakota.

"China doesn't need art like mine at the moment; it doesn't need new ideas in art. What everybody's concentrating on is the economy and getting rich. Ideological and political concerns have faded out," Xu says.

His installation, "Brailliterate," consists of 10 black wooden tables with Braille books on them entitled, "The New World Translation of the Holy Scripture." A red light glares on each book. The braille book inside the cover is not the Bible. "In my work, I'm dealing with the question of misreading," he says. "It's about cultural trickery or deception."

GU WENDA, who now lives in New York, focuses on personal, not political issues. His waist-length hair makes a statement about his attachment to his country. "This half," he says, holding the last foot of hair, "grew in China, this half," grabbing a handful higher up, "in the US. It's all the same hair. Capitalism and socialism, the same."

He's now gathering hair cuttings from salons and barbers in four New York City neighborhoods: black, Hispanic, Asian, and white. He will mix it up to make bricks for a wall entitled "Legend of Manhattan."

* "Mao Goes Pop" runs through August 15 and will go on to Melbourne. Some of the artists' work will be shown at the Venice Biennale, which opens mid-June. Other works are touring Europe in a show, "China Avant Garde." Museums in California, Honolulu, and New York City have expressed interest in the exhibit.

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