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.

Response to Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

This is a response to Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction for Comm Lab @ ITP.

I had to brush up on my Marxist fundamentals, which I haven’t really engaged in depth since my undergrad political science classes, to understand some of the historical/political references that Benjamin was making.  This sent me on an hours-long quest looking up articles and reading articles online related to the issues Benjamin brings up.  I find the essay prophetic, as if Benjamin can somehow look into the future and see Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia and even more obviously propagandistic films like The Eternal Jew.

Benjamin writes: “For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.”  And he continues, “Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice — politics.”  I don’t think politics can be viewed as something separate from ritual.  Politics and religion have always been linked.  Also, in political narratives that legitimize power, there are invocations of “cult value” or “instruments of magic,” be it a “founding myth” of a state or nation, or in the idolization of certain historical founder figures.  To me, they are two sides of the same coin.

“This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.  Communism responds by politicizing art.”

These are the last two lines of the essay.  Maybe I’m not understanding nuance here, but aren’t these the same thing?  Both Fascism and Communism are mixing the art with politics or politics with art.  I believe that art and politics have always been bedfellows and that the role of artists is to comment upon and engage with their societies and times.  Sure, politicians and others can use art as a means of persuasion or propaganda, but others can similarly use art as a means of resistance against coercion and hegemony.  The innovation of mechanical reproduction, or in our times, digital distribution and network communication make art an even more powerful and even more dangerous two-edged sword and tool for oppression and for liberation.

I don’t necessarily agree that there is a decline of the aura in art, but instead, I think that the ritual value and the aura of art have changed.  There is still a ritualistic quality to going to see a movie at the cinema as an “event” or happening.  Or the ritual fetishistic quality of unwrapping an album or CD recording and playing it for the first time.  In fact, even with MP3s replacing CDs and movies available to download on demand, there is still an aura attached to the real thing.  Audiophiles and DJs still appreciate the qualities of vinyl or CDs over MP3s.  Even with the ubiquitousness of music through the popularization of iPods and other MP3 players, live music shows are still an event, a spectacle, something with an aura that has ritual value.  In fact, the relative banality of ubiquitous mechanically/digitally reproduced music probably makes us appreciate live shows even more.  Probably the same goes with movies.  Sure, I can BitTorrent a movie and watch it on my laptop to avoid paying money to see it in a theater (but of course I wouldn’t because that would be unethical and even illegal), but there is still a lingering aura in seeing it in a theater, for the immersive experience and for the ritual social value of experiencing it with friends or a date.