ICM Midterm: Portrait of Mao

UPDATE 22 Feb 2009:
I have written a new concise description of the Portrait of Mao:

The Portrait of Mao is a 42 inch by 42 inch color print on archival paper. The image was generated by a Processing sketch I wrote, which reads pixel color data from an image file and replaces each pixel with a text character with the same color as the original pixel. In the case of the Portrait of Mao, the source image was obtained from a Cultural Revolution-era LP cover of revolutionary songs featuring Chinese leader Mao Zedong and a bright, motley array of proletarian workers, representing different ethnic groups in China. My Processing sketch used this source image and replaced the pixels with the Chinese-language text of The Little Red Book AKA Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, a required text for every Chinese citizen during the Cultural Revolution.

In creating the Portrait, I wished to explore how text and images play a role in political propaganda and how they serve to construct a cult of personality around a paternal and pop-cultural icon. We know that words and images have persuasive and seductive powers, but how, and why? In reappropriating the propagandistic images and text and by depicting the controversial leader in an irreverently kitsch, Pop-Art way (Andy Warhol’s Mao paintings are an obvious point of reference), I sought to deconstruct the aura surrounding such a well-known figure who is still revered by millions in China.

The fusing of words and images also plays on the pictographic and ideographic nature of the graphemes used in the Chinese language. Chinese characters are simultaneously words, images, and symbols. In the Portrait of Mao they become both semantic and graphic building blocks of a text, an image, and an ideology.

Original blog post from 29 Oct 2008:

I presented my ICM midterm project yesterday.  I wanted to explore how text and images play a role in political propaganda and how they serve to construct a cult of personality.

The image above is just a scaled-down version, the real version is a 42 inch x 42 inch poster.  The poster consists of a text mosaic derived from a scan of a Cultural Revolution era LP cover of propaganda songs.  My Processing program reads the color information in the pixels of the source JPG and replaces it with characters from the Chinese version of The Little Red Book.

Here is a close up of the text mosaic, taken from the Technicolor Dream Coat guy on the bottom right.

I hope to one day present the poster in an over-the-top kitsch setting.  I want to frame it with red Christmas lights and build a “shrine” to the Chairman, with flowers and Tsing Dao beer bottles.  I also have another poster in the works featuring the Dear Leader composed out of the Korean-language text of his On the Juche Idea.  Ultimately, I want to create a triptych, but I haven’t decided on a third subject yet.  Uncle Ho?  Or maybe Grandpa Marx?

Here is a snapshot of me presenting the piece to my class.  Photo credit: Catherine White.

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