Monday, May 4, 2009

Mao Too

Andy Warhol's reproductions of the Chinese leader Mao Zedong comment upon the consolidation of power the original portraits represent. The above picture hangs in The Art Institute of Chicago and clearly shows how Warhol took the iconic image posted around China and added elements. The eye shadow, rouge, and lipstick in this version, as well as various color alterations throughout the series, subvert the intentions of the original portrait to be an ubiquitous and unchanged representation of communist rule. Mao, and in particular the iconic image of the Chinese leader, became the unquestioned symbol of communism, and still are. The repetition of the original in its exact form unifies the image of power, and subsequently the political discourse, by creating a spectacle of the communist leader. Warhol's reproductions parody the original by making a spectacle of his own, shifting elements that point out the construction of the original spectacle while maintaining the essence of the original, the portrait of Mao. The subtle shift posits a new idea about communism functioning as a spectacle in the same way capitalism does. It connects a totalitarian idea to an image, one that needs to be confronted and questioned.

Don DeLillo builds upon this idea in his novel, Mao II. The image of Mao returns again and again alongside those of crowds and followers, people under the sway of the spectacle. I suggest that DeLillo's questioning of the spectacle amounts to another Mao in Warhol's line ... Mao too. Thus, the book attempts in a way to become just another in a line of reproductions that each question the original and add another turn on the totalitarianism of the image in the contemporary world.


Danielle Moyer said...

I am curious...if the original work of art was Warhol's cheerful adaptation, would the symbol of communism be threatened had someone transformed it into a less colorful adaptation (like that of the original)? If the image was reproduced in Warhol fashion by someone other than Andy Warhol, would the reproduction still be accepted? Do you think the Hong Kong Billionaire that purchased the Warhol reproduction (not the one shown in the photo) for 17.4 million would have still been interested if it wasn't reproduced by Warhol? Given the example it is hard to say that the image provoked any type of confrontation or questioning. I think allowing "average Joe" to reproduce the image would have provoked a different reaction and forced many questions. I'm not certain if the spectacle would have been accepted had the Warhol name not been attached.

stillrampant said...

In response to Danielle, a typical Modern Art critique goes something like, "I could do that." Well, yeah, but you didn't. And you couldn't, in fact, because the artistic statement goes further than the actual means used to produce it, and draws power and presence from the artist, or at least the subject. The fact that Andy Warhol used his reputation as well as his talent to de(re?)face the original Mao portrait tells us something, also present in the novel, about the impotence of personal statements, and how they gain scope and power with reputation. It's almost like saying, "I could have enlarged my self portrait on the side of a building, but people wouldn't care unless a celebrity's face were there.

The question inherent in Mao II, the portrait and the novel, is one of tying meanings to images, and artists to art. Divorce them, and both lose meaning. The point is not the image, not the word, but the sequence, the sentence, the thought pattern, the waveform. A piece of art can stand alone and be a giant exclamation point, pining for attention, but it takes an artist to write a sentence, a body of work that provides meaning to the punctuation. Why do we look for meaning in Warhol's painting? Because we know Andy Warhol. Not because there's anything particularly interesting about defacing public imagery. We drive around that all day in LA, but what we don't see by the curb is the artist to explain his work, or provide more and more upon which to form a narrative, a sentence. To me, that was one of the big questions and statements about Bill Gray's life, that he never finished his sentence, or maybe he did?