Mao’s New Tailor: Sui JianguoBy Lynn Zhang
Every artist waits for that moment of inspiration, that moment when after years of toiling with ideas and concepts, the creative juices produce something profound and lasting. For Sui Jianguo, that moment came in the summer of 1996, when he visited Sun Yat Sen’s birthplace in southern Guangdong Province and discovered the history and significance of the disappearing Mao suit.
A year later, while on a fellowship in Australia, a scholarly discussion finally led to the creation of a small sculpture of a Mao suit – just the outlines or frame of the suit, no Mao enclosed. And suddenly, a new symbol was born out of an old one. The headless, hollow, full-metal jacket Mao suit morphed into a series of monumental sculptures that solidified Sui Jianguo’s position as one of China’s pre-eminent contemporary artists. Now, Sui’s hulking, modernistic sculptures and installations are recognized around the world. And his Mao suits – in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes – are symbols of Mao’s empty promises, as well as the disappearance of Mao and Maoism during China’s obsessive long running race to capitalism.
The enormous bronze Mao suits are now planted on the grounds of Beijing’s thriving Dashanzi arts district, also known as 798, and have been acquired by some of China’s leading collectors of contemporary art, including the former Swiss ambassador to China, Uli Sigg. The art critic Bernhard Fibicher once wrote: “The Mao jacket possesses a dual function. It appears as an empty shell, a hollow promise, but also as a souvenir – on the one hand in the literal sense from the French for “aid to the memory,” and on the other a little fetish-like keepsake that a tourist can take him with him or her. As such they can be reproduced at will and thus contribute to their own banalization.”
But Sui Jianguo is known for much more than Mao suits. Gallery directors and curators say that for the past two decades he has created a series of powerful works, from the giant plastic toy dinosaurs (widely considered a symbol of China’s new export oriented dominance) to his “Made in China” installation, as well as his decade long series of explosive, deconstructed, reconstructed and hammered and chained rock sculptures. In many ways, Sui Jianguo is part of a generation of artists who came of age during the Cultural Revolution and are now busy reinterpreting the nation’s cultural symbols. Wang Guangyi calls himself a factory worker and churns out his own brand of Cultural Revolution pieces; Zhang Xiaogang re-imagines family photographs, accented by smears or colored blotches; and countless other artists place themselves against the background of Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall or, like Hong Lei, redesign classical paintings.
Nearly every major artist in China, it seems, is plumbing the depths for a way to express themself by rethinking the nation’s rich cultural heritage. And Sui, a distinguished professor of sculpture at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, is very much a part of that tradition.
ui Jianguo’s artistic journey began in 1956 in northeastern Shandong Province, where he was born, the son of factory workers. At the age of 10, the Cultural Revolution broke out and schools were closed and his ambition of becoming a scientist languished. Then, in 1972, Sui went to work in a fiber plant. ”At the age of 16, I went to work in a factory,” Sui says in an interview in his Beijing studio, sitting near some of his sculpture pieces, including Mao suits, red dinosaurs and his familiar panda sculptures. “Chairman Mao wanted us to become totally new people.” Art, however, came literally by accident. At the age of 18, Sui says he broke his arm in the factory and began thinking about what he calls his “spiritual life.” What would he do with his life? He asked his father to study art at night, because he liked working with his hands. Then he started studying painting. And when Mao died in 1976, Sui remembers completing his first painting, a traditional landscape portrait.
But he also became a painter of factory propaganda posters. And this would later influence his work on Mao, who he says was then the central figure in his life. He thought deeply about his relationship with Mao – who was a kind of unquestioned spiritual leader. But after Mao’s death, Sui says he enrolled in college, studying eventually in the an Art Institute in Jinan and the Shandong Academy of Art, which he said allowed him the freedom to come up with his own ideas. And in the early 1980s, when the Chinese leader Hu Yaobang encouraged young people to explore the world, and go out and get some experience, and so he traveled to Sichuan with another young artists, exploring nature and the world outside of northeast China. That trip, in some ways, led to his decision to move to Beijing and attend the country’s top art school: the Central Academy of Fine Arts, as a Master’s degree student. Contemporary or avant-garde art was just beginning to bubble up with the “Stars” movement and Xu Bing’s revolutionary works. By the time he enrolled in Beijing, Sui says he had become interested in sculpture. ”I think I had some talent with my hands,” he says. “When I worked in the factory they said, ‘This kid had talent or skill in using his hands.’ ”
He was in Beijing, however, at end of the 1980s, when the city’s art scene got caught up in the turbulence of the times. Indeed, the school’s students were helping create art pieces for the pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square, including the Styrofoam “Goddess of Freedom” statue.
And while Sui Jianguo, who graduated in 1989 with a Master’s of Fine Arts, was there at the time, he doesn’t say much of those times, except that young people like him were impatient. During the time, his works were strong, visual representations of human heads – howling, deformed, almost exploding with emotion – and yet somehow carrying features that looked haunted. He told Wu Hung, the distinguished art critic at the University of Chicago, that his works were not just radical, they were violent. “My pursuit for a radical art style during that period became increasingly violent,” he said. “I had a plan of making 30 to 40 such heads, installing them on sticks as tall as real people and arranging them into a military formation. But that was around the time of the June Fourth Movement; this plan could not be realized [because of the possible political implications].” Hardly anyone has seen those early works by Sui Jianguo, because in the 1990s, after he graduated from the Central Academy, he moved away from realistic portraits and began creating naturalistic sculpture works composed of real rocks or boulders.
After 1989, he said, he began looking for new directions – avoiding anything overtly political. And he turned to rocks, which are “silent,” he says. ”Everyone was looking around,” he says, “and I turned to rocks.”
His choice of rocks was quite by accident, and partly because his first teaching assignment when he was appointed to the school’s faculty after graduation was to lead a group of students to carve stone in a mountain area. “Once I began to carve stone I instantly felt the endurance and reserve strength of this material,” he told Professor Wu, who quotes him in his book, “Transience,” [University of Chicago Press 2004.] “This was exactly the kind of feeling I was looking for at that moment.” Sui says he experimented with stones for nearly a decade, winning acclaim for his stone sculptures, which involved hunting for the perfect boulders, spending his time in nature, and then doing strange things to rocks – like splitting them, welding them, jamming them with nails and chains, placing nets made of steel rods around them and also sawing them into pieces. Some of these works appeared in international exhibitions, including “New Art from China: post-89.” ”Stones take a lot of energy,” he says. “I found round stones, I put a net around it, or I broke the stones, put stitches in them… I would say I just wanted to show the connection between man and nature – how they interact or collide.”
Sui also experimented with installations of wood, rubber and nails, trying to create different patterns out of unusual objects. And he did this while teaching at the Central Academy in Beijing, where he continues to teach today. He even won a United Nations Artistic Fellowship in 1995, which allowed him to spend three months studying in New Delhi. For a time, he collaborated with other artists, forming an artistic collective with Yu Fan and Zhan Wang, called the “Three Men United Studio”. Then in 1996, he visited Sun Yat Sen’s hometown and picked up a brochure on the meaning of the Mao suit, which originated with Sun Yat Sen as the Zhongshan suit, and was originally designed by Sun. But he didn’t create a Mao suit sculpture until he went to Australia as a visiting scholar. During a discussion with some other scholars there, Sui says someone said they could not understand the Chinese people.
And Sui says he responded with a joke about how Chinese wear the same clothes, eat the same things, but are very different inside – and you can’t always see that.
“I said, ‘They wear western clothes now, but inside they all have their own inner Mao suit.’ ” Right after that, he recalls creating his first small Mao suit, which he placed it in a box, as if it was some temple icon. The look was very much similar to his huge statues of today – a hollow Mao suit, no head, no figure inside. ”I wanted to emphasize the clothes, not Mao,” Sui says.And so when he returned to China, he rethought the form. And he came up with the idea of the large Mao suit in the realism style – but larger than life, like Mao. ”At first I used some wrinkles, to emphasize the clothes,” he says. “But later, I felt the more plain the better.” Soon, Mao was huge – 2.4 meters tall, in aluminum and bronze – and his suit was pressed and flat, and wrinkleless. “Mao is not just a creative idea， it’s a turning point,” he says. “I came back to the academic style. For a long time I couldn’t find a way to use the academic style to show contemporary art. So through this suit I found a way.”
Sui also says that making Mao sculptures was deeply personal because it helped resolve his relationship from Mao, which began as a young boy, when he was transfixed in the age of Mao worship, when Mao was virtually a God at home. “I lived in Mao’s time and he gave me a lot of influence,” he says. “But this kind of thinking is not fit for now. I always wondered why things were different and no one ever gave me a good answer. But in 2003, I made a sculpture of “ Sleeping Mao” and I realized Mao is not a god because god doesn’t sleep. Now I should stop thinking about Mao and take care of my own life.” And while representations of Mao are still delicate matters in China, Sui has managed to create Mao suits and avoid trouble with the Chinese authorities – dozens of them, mostly for foreign exhibitions. By 1999, he was selling the Mao suit sculptures, which today can cost as much as $100,000. The most expensive may be the three giant, rust colored Mao suits that are standing near the entrance to his studio complex.
And while Mao is popular again – at 2.4 meters tall — Sui is also well known for his huge fiberglass toy dinosaurs. He made them after visiting Shenzhen – and sensing the opening up, the vision for westerners of a scary China, the maker of toys and dreams.
He also produced another symbol of the times, the “Made in China” sign. China has failed to produce its own brands during this economic boom time. So there is no Sony, Toyota, IBM, Motorola or Mercedes Benz in China. But in many ways, there is a brand known around the world: “Made in China.” And Sui Jianguo’s works have capitalized on these very symbols of the times.But when Sui talks about the Mao suits, he seems more reflective, because after years of working with rocks and rubber, he returned to the central figure of his youth. ”I started doing the Mao suits in ’97,” he says. “And I felt I had solved the problem I had with Chairman Mao. Before I felt he gave me so much influence; he changed my life. But then I felt he’s a person too; he’s not a god.” But when Sui takes you into the home that sits behind his studio, there is Mao personified, on a table near the door — three Mao suits – hollow, empty, but meaningful in their newly transformed state. And Professor Sui stands by them – and smiles for the new Mao he’s discovered and come to terms with.