Down here you can find an interview with the master Zhang Hongtu, realized via email last October. I was writing my final thesis on the fortune of Mao icon in the world, so, what better way to communicate directly with the creator of Material Mao?
He is the best known author of satirical images of Mao. Hailing from a Muslim family, he was excluded from partecipating in the Red Guards. His boyhood was strongly influenced by Maoism, expecially during the Cultural Revolution. When he left China to move to USA, he realized that just a few stroke of brush could turn the American icon Wiliam Penn (Quaker Oats' logo) into the Chairman Mao. The work, known as Long Live Chairman Mao (1987), marked the beginning of a long artistic career focused on Mao. Material Mao Series, which started a few years later, is composed by cut-out silhouettes of Mao, moving from positive and negative images, presence and absence, religious and profane, and most important of all, Mao emerging by non-Mao shaped spaces.
In some interview you said that Mao had become one of the most important element of everyday life. His icon was everywhere: in houses, schools, cars. This great circulation of Mao image, what kind of impression has made on you? In which way has that image also influenced your life and artistic style?
During the Cultural Revolution, Mao, Lin Biao, Jiang Qing and suchlike, has built the cult of Mao. Ignorance and deep-rooted servility of common people let those images wildly overwhelm life. I believed in Mao, but Cultural Revolution made me experience the way in which Mao could use the devotion of people as a political tool, putting an end to culture, destroying minds. I began to suspect of him, to disapprove his actions. At the same time I understood that image-devotion could make people foolish. Such awareness let me change idea and open my mind. I don’t think to be linked to a certain style. As an artist, I believe that the free expression could make yourself a better person.
"I believe in the power of the image, but I don't believe in the authority of the image. If you stare at a red shape for a long time, when you turn away, your retina will hold the image but you will see a green version of the same shape. In the same way, when I lived in China, I saw the positive image of Mao so many times that my mind now holds a negative image of Mao. In my art I am transferring this psychological feeling to a physical object."
Why did you decide to move to USA in the end? This choice must have revolutionized your life, I guess. How?
Even though from 1979 Deng Xiaoping has launched “Reform and Opening” policy, the dictatorial role of CCP had never changed. That time, we had less cars, pollution wasn’t terrible, but political atmosphere was smothering me. I couldn’t do my art freely. America attracted me so much, but the point wasn’t to move to USA, the point was to leave China. When I definitively migrated, my feeling was: as a man and as an artist, I was simply reborn.
Mao is a protagonist of your art. Is it a choice or it comes naturally instead?
At the very beginning it was natural, then turned into a personal choice.
In 1972 Warhol realized “Mao”, known all around the world. Mao icon became a symbol, as well as Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. When did you find out about it for the first time? What was your first feeling? A lot of western artists painted Mao, what is your idea about it?
大约是1982年夏天，在纽约的Metropolitan Museum 第一次见到 Andy Warhol的毛泽东作品。感觉很新奇，因为 Warhol 没有像中国画家那样用画圣像的方法表现毛。是的，Salvador Dali, Sigmar Polke 等西方艺术家在作品中也都用过毛的肖像。毛对于这些艺术家，像对于 Warhol 一样，毛等同于Marilyn Monroe，等同于 Campbell’s Soup can, 只不过是另一个 popular image。他们的作品对于毛没有质疑，没有批判，他们的毛和中国的政治，中国的社会没有关系，这些作品不可能触动中国人的神经。
Approximately on summer 1982, at Metropolitan Museum of New York, I saw Warhol’s Mao for the very first time. The first impression was a new and strange thing. Warhol, differently from Chinese artists, didn’t paint Mao as a holy icon.
Yes, I know a lot of artists such as Salvador Dalí, Sigmar Polke and others used his portrait. But for these artists, Mao, as well as Marilyn Monroe or the Campbell’s Soup, were all considered simply popular images. Their works actually didn’t refer to Mao, didn’t disapprove him. These Mao were not related to Chinese politics and society, so they couldn’t move the feelings of Chinese people at all. As a dictator, as an icon worshipped by millions of people, Mao has to be criticized and overthrown, otherwise, China won’t have a future, won’t never become a democratic nation, Chinese people will never have rights. I wish the whole population will criticize Mao. Those artists who care about society, could not only make arrangements with police, they have to challenge the Chinese social system and clarify the role of Mao in the devastation of culture and human nature.
Material Mao Series left me a deep impression, let me think about Chinese ancient beliefs. The Mao shaped empty spaces are linked to religions, aren’t them?
Yes, they are linked to Yin and Yang’s theory. The Islamic rejection of images also influenced me.
Material Mao Series use a lot of material. I think it means that Mao is everywhere.
Essentially is that way.
Do your works bring certain messages and meanings?
是的，我的作品都有一定的意思, 也有寓意。我希望我的作品是 “空洞无物” 的反面。我想中国政府也懂得我的作品的意思，这就是为什么今天我的作品仍然不准在中国展览。
Yes, my works have a specific meaning. I hope they are quite the opposite of “substanceless”. I hope the Chinese government too may understand this sense, that is exactly why my works still cannot be exhibited in China.
You may also be interested in: Museum Of My Art Only - www.momao.com, official website of Zhang Hongtu.
Thanks to Zhang Hongtu.