Wang Wenhai, the 53-year-old self-proclaimed Yanan Clay Sculpture
King, has three goals. First, he wants to build a 426-foot-tall statue of Mao
Zedong in Yanan, the Chinese Communist Party's historic revolutionary base in
the northwest. Then he wants to make a giant memorial commemorating Mao's
philosophies, with possibly a nod to Karl Marx. Finally, if he has time, he
wants to carve 25,000 tiny statues of Mao to leave along the route of the Long
March, the 6,000-mile trek that members of the fledgling Communist Party made
in the mid-1930s.
"If everyone were like Mao," said Wang, who has been making Mao
sculptures for three decades, "the world would be beautiful."
Of course not everyone thinks so highly of Mao, who led the Communists to
victory in 1949. Even Deng Xiaoping, Mao's most prominent successor, signed
off on a judgment that Mao had made "gross mistakes."
But for Lu Jie, the curator of a huge contemporary art project -- "The
Long March: A Walking Visual Display," shown in Beijing and remote parts of
western China -- letting people make up their own minds is exactly the point.
"We need to open a space to think about art, culture and history," he
said. "Criticism is very important." He said that he spent a lot of his money
to put on the show and also received donations from the Chinese and foreigners.
The artists, including Wang, are contributing their works and time.
Lu said he chose the Long March as a theme because no moment in modern
Chinese history was loaded with more patriotic symbolism. Historically the
facts are simple. In 1934 Mao and his followers fled their rural bases in
southern China as the Nationalist army closed around them. During the next
year they scaled mountains, forded rivers and crossed empty plains to reach
Yanan in Shaanxi province. The journey was so arduous that perhaps only a
tenth of Mao's original force of 100,000 reached the new sanctuary.
Less simple, though, are the layers of propaganda that the government has
heaped on the journey. Hundreds of nationalistic films and documentaries have
been made about the flight, and every year students across the country retrace
parts of the route. "It has become very heroic and romantic," Lu said. "But
people need to find their own interpretations."
Despite a slow cultural opening, Chinese academics are still forbidden to
teach about many historical events and such public testaments are rare.
By bringing contemporary artwork by about 250 artists, some Chinese and
some foreign, including the American artist Judy Chicago, to 20 sites --
mostly backwater towns along the Long March route -- Lu hopes to help that
happen. The tour began last summer in Ruijin, Jiangxi province, where Lu and
several artists engaged villagers in a debate about China's increasingly
capitalist politics and economy.
The project's exhibition had visited a dozen sites before pausing in
September for a series of shows, including one with Wang's statues of Mao in a
tiny Beijing gallery, the 25,000 Cultural Transmission Center. In Zunyi, a
town in Guizhou province where Mao wrestled control of the party from other
aspirants, the Beijing performance artist Wang Chuyu had volunteers read from
the Chinese constitution in front of a monument to revolutionary heroes.
Other pieces examine the relationship between memory and myth. Qin Ga, a
performance artist from Inner Mongolia, is tracking the project's progress
getting a map of its stops tattooed on his back, physically creating a "site
of collective and individual memory," according to the project's Web site, www.longmarchfoundation.org. The work of Wang Wenhai, who was born to poor farmers
in central China, also deals in memory. Despite witnessing scores of neighbors
starve during the widespread famine that followed the government's forced
collectivization of farms in the late 1950s, he became an ardent Mao follower
during the Cultural Revolution. "In 1966 I became a Red Guard," he said. "I
studied Mao. I carried out the revolution."
Wang had a perfectly proletariat background, and in 1970 he was sent to
Yanan to work as a tour guide at a museum celebrating the party. There he met
an artist who taught him sculpture, and he quickly applied the craft to
glorifying Mao. On the back of many of his works he still inscribes the
Cultural Revolution-era phrase "Mao is the red sun in our hearts!" But unlike
most Chinese, many of whom suffered under Mao, Wang did not discard his
fanaticism after Mao died in 1976. "Wang loves Mao," Lu, the curator, said.
"He's totally devoted to his art."
No one who looks at any of the more than 1,300 statues by Wang questions
his devotion, but since he began to collaborate with the Long March project
his works have become increasingly abstract. Mao is traditionally portrayed in
dignified style -- serene, thoughtful, usually with one arm raised in a
gesture of imperial benevolence. But several of Wang's recent works have
stripped away Mao's facial features or show him lying in bourgeois luxury.
"This is so people can imagine their own Mao," he said. "They should think
about what kind of person Mao was."
Lu said he hoped to take works and documentation of his project abroad.
Several pieces will be exhibited in Taipei, Taiwan, in October. For the large
shows, he said, he will take several of Wang's statues.
Wang is happy about that. Partly he wants to share his devotion to Mao,
but he also hopes to find a market for his works, which range in price from a
few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. He said he needed the money to
build the world's biggest Mao statue, to tower over Yanan at 426 feet.
"We should all understand Mao better," he said.