Park Avenue Gets a Mao
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The final piece of the Asia Society’s exhibition “Art and China’s Revolution” was installed over the weekend: a 10-foot-tall sculpture of a Mao jacket, by the artist Sui Jianguo, which will stand on a median in the middle of Park Avenue at 70th Street until mid-November.
The sculpture, called “Mao Suit,” is made of corroded steel and weighs 5-and-a-half tons. It is part of a series of Mao jackets — shown without the head or hands of their famous wearer — that the artist, who is in his 50s, began in the late 1990s and has made in a variety of materials, from steel to resin to colored plastic, the Asia Society’s museum director, Melissa Chiu, said.
When Mr. Sui first exhibited the sculptures at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where he teaches, they were controversial, Ms. Chiu explained.
People “saw it as being somewhat critical of Mao’s policies, because it has a very wide bottom, so it suggests that Mao was quite plump,” Ms. Chiu said. “The reading was that [the sculpture] suggested that Mao was prosperous and bourgeois.”
As the series progressed, the controversy died down, Ms. Chiu said. She herself sees “Mao Suit” as a complex representation of Mao, neither wholly positive nor sharply negative.
“Mao is considered the father of modern China,” she said. “Yes, his policies exacted suffering among his people: There is a common saying about Mao being ‘70% right and 30% wrong.'” But for people who lived through the revolution, she added, Mao “was an inescapable part of their lives.”
That Mr. Sui chose not to include Mao’s head and hands “suggests an absence,” Ms. Chiu said. “So perhaps the sculpture is part critical, part just an acknowledgment of their experience.”
“Mao Suit” is on loan from the artist. It was sent by boat to New York, in a 20-foot container, the associate director of communications for the Asia Society, Elaine Merguerian, said. The Asia Society worked with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to find an appropriate spot for the sculpture, and then with the Department of Transportation to make sure that the weight was properly distributed, since the median is above the no. 6 subway line.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever done something on Park Avenue,” Ms. Chiu said. “It gives us an opportunity to extend the exhibition.”