The long forlorn 300 block of West Commerce Street, with multiple vacant buildings and surrounded by construction zones, has two shiny new residents.
A giant polished steel head of founding Soviet Premier Vladimir Lenin now sits on a concrete platform in the middle of the block, visible from the street through a paseo corridor between buildings. Atop Lenin’s head is a comparatively tiny figure, a cheeky feminized version of the former communist leader of China, Chairman Mao Zedong, holding a long balancing pole as if walking a tightrope.
The sculpture is titled Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin’s Head, made in 2009 by Beijing artists Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang, together known as the Gao Brothers.
With the help of Centro San Antonio’s Art Everywhere initiative and its chief proponent Andi Rodriguez, the 20-foot-tall sculpture was brought to San Antonio by developer James Lifshutz, a noted art collector and owner of the Blue Star Arts Complex, the South Side Maker space and other properties in the city.
As Centro’s Vice President of Cultural Placemaking, Rodriguez worked to secure permitting, clearances, and infrastructure for the placement of the artwork. Though she and Lifshutz are partners, she said the process was similar to other recent projects including murals and performances in Peacock Alley, another privately-funded public art initiative that brings various interests together to enliven downtown San Antonio.
Rodriguez said Centro has dubbed the West Commerce Street area “La Zona” in honor of its position within the Zona Cultural District. With details forthcoming, in early April Centro will hold an event to formally welcome the sculpture and to acknowledge San Antonio artist Jeff Wheeler, who was instrumental in bringing Miss Mao to the city.
A change in context
Lifshutz had worked since last summer with Houston gallerist Deborah Colton, who represents the Gao Brothers in Texas, to bring the sculpture here long before any hint of a new Russian invasion of Ukraine was in view. Lifshutz said he admires the provocative nature of the Gao Brothers’ art, but political content is not what drew him to the Miss Mao sculpture in the first place.
“It’s monumental and shiny, and I like it,” he said, recalling that he had taken note of the Gao Brothers’ work years ago, never imagining that he would one day have the opportunity to bring a piece here.
He acknowledged that the coincidence of Miss Mao arriving just as the world turns its focus to Russian military aggression casts a new light on the political resonances of the piece.
“There currently seems to be a balancing act going on amid this war of aggression, what China’s stance on it is, what role they play or don’t play,” he said. “Poignantly, there seems to be a new or different meaning than the artists originally had.”
On Feb. 26, two days after the current invasion began, the Gao Brothers made an Instagram post that superimposed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s face over Lenin’s sculptural face.
“From Vladimir Lenin to Vladimir Putin, Russians brought [the] great scourge of communism and war to mankind,” the Gao Brothers wrote in an email to the San Antonio Report. “It is time to give mankind a rest. We stand with Ukraine.”
As residents of communist China, the brothers have had to walk a fine line in their artistic critiques of Mao, a major figure in revolutionary communist history who has alternately been loved, feared, reviled and famously portraitized by American artist Andy Warhol for his world fame. Their father was executed in 1968 during Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution, which inspired mass violence against intellectuals, religion and remnants of China’s pre-revolutionary past.
In the mid-2000s, the Gao Brothers began caricaturing Mao as a female figure, playing on the cultural inversion of being considered the “mother” of modern China.
Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin’s Head was first shown in the 2009 Vancouver Biennale international art exhibition. At the time, organizers noted, the “sculpture can be ‘read’ as a political narrative, as well as a reflection on the current nostalgic attitude toward Mao and the past. The position and scale of the two figures simultaneously questions and ridicules their relative positions in an undeniable communist commentary.”
A publication about the brothers and their work noted that government authorities in Beijing suppressed their artwork and that their “politically dissident artwork has made them blacklisted in China.”
Regarding the work’s arrival in San Antonio, the Gao Brothers, in an email through Colton, said, “We hope that this sculpture we created more than ten years ago will provide a visual context across history and reality for people to think about Putin’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine. It is our pleasure and honor to display our work in the great city of San Antonio, and we hope freedom-loving Texas people will enjoy the sculpture.”
Just brave enough
Colton has represented the Gao Brothers in her Houston gallery since 2007 and said she pressed hard for the sculpture to travel to San Antonio in part because the city is “fresh territory” for a provocative monumental sculpture, where it might stand out more than at other locations where such provocations are more common.
The Miss Mao sculpture has been shown in multiple locations including Kansas City and Los Angeles and has continuously generated controversy, including during its stay in Vancouver, which elicited a public defense of the artwork from organizers of the Biennale.
Colton said she is hopeful that the artwork will be understood in all of its complexity. As with other work by the Gao Brothers that works against injustice and stresses the importance of love and peace, “it’s creating awareness of the times and things that we need to change as a human race,” she said.
The piece is consigned to Lifshutz through December 2023, a stay that Colton said could be extended if the work is not moved to one of several other locations in competition for its presence.
While Miss Mao stands in San Antonio, Colton said, “I’m hoping that the sculpture won’t cause any tension, but that it will create more awareness that some things just aren’t OK.”
While she acknowledged that the artwork will take on a life of its own wherever it goes, she said the Gao Brothers’ provocations are positive. “Their concept truly is about international peace and harmony, and coexisting and respecting each other, and kindness. They’re not really troublemakers. They’re just brave enough that they make statements about things that shouldn’t be.”