The Gao Brothers, a pair of Beijing artists, are no strangers to controversy. The duo have made a habit of repurposing some of history’s most notorious figures, taking them out of context and placing them in situations that seem almost tailor-made to stir up debate. Their latest piece “Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin’s Head” has created a bit of an uproar in Richmond ,British Columbia, where it has been placed at the intersection of Elmbridge and Alderbridge Way, one of the neighborhood’s busier thoroughfares.
The sculpture, a giant stainless steel bust of Lenin with the small, feminized figure of Mao performing a balancing act atop his head has been brought to British Columbia as part of the Vancouver Biennale, a two-year exhibition of sculpture in public places that began in July 2009. Since its installation, the sculpture has provoked fervored reactions. Generally speaking, most of the offense is being taken at, what some viewers believe is a glorification of two mass murderers. Seeing the images of two individuals responsible for such unspeakable atrocities being given a treatment generally reserved for respected world leaders has been disturbing to some citizens. The local community paper has been inundated with letters calling for the removal of the sculpture, referring to the work as “a public disgrace disguised as ‘art’”, and expressing concern that the work will embarrass Canada at the winter games scheduled to begin next month in Vancouver. Others support the work of art and insist that viewers give it a chance, take a closer look and consider what it could mean.
The Biennale spokespeople initially refrained from participating in the discussion, feeling that the conversations and reactions that the art engendered were significant and should continue. Eventually though, they did issue a statement on behalf of the artists letting the community know that the intention of the piece was never to shock or offend, but instead was a plea from the artists to ask all viewers to reflect on the suffering and misery caused by communism. Miriam Blume, The Biennale’s Director of Communications mentioned that public art is something that is relatively new to Canada, and that it is not a surprise that initial responses to the sculpture were negative. “Public art is challenging, and a city like Vancouver and quite possibly a country like Canada is fairly new to public art. We have to go beyond understanding art as just something that’s aesthetically pleasing or not. Art is much more than pretty. Art is a mode of communication.”
Detractors of “Miss Mao…” who believe that the brothers are pro-communist should be aware that the artist’s own father was killed during The Cultural Revolution and that the two brothers consistently rail against communism in their work. In fact, in Beijing and in the art world at large, the Gao brothers have something of a reputation in their consistent use of images of communism’s most notorious figures. Mao however, is their specialty, and much of their work includes vitriolic visual references to the Chinese leader.
Richmond’s mayor Malcolm Brodie released a statement encouraging viewers from all walks of life to examine the sculpture, engage with it and discuss their feelings about the piece. Although he did not go so far as to offer suggestions on how the work should be interpreted he did remind the community that one of the goals of public art is to provoke discussion. Possibly in response to some critics who voiced disapproval about the decision to allow the Gao brothers the use of Canadian soil to protest their own country, the mayor went on to say that perhaps the subject matter in the sculpture would give rise to reflection about the freedoms that all Canadians enjoy, free from censorship or repression.