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“Trained in Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Arts and Crafts, Zhang Hongtu moved to America in 1982, and has been consistently using his art to make political comments. “Material Mao” is a large group of negative images of Mao Zedong that he created between 1991 and 1995. Using various materials ranging from brick, corn, fur and metal, to paper soaked in soy sauce, he made large and small frames to outline Mao’s famous silhouette. Another means he used to “empty” Mao — to remove ideology from an idol — is to satirize and commercialize the great leader simultaneously. The “Mao Dresses” he collaborated with Hong Kong designer Vivienne Tam on are now worn by fashionable Hong Kong females, partly due to their promotion by some of the most glamorous international super models. His experience as an artist-in-residence at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in 1996 must have further linked him to the island. His newest work, a series of four T-shirt designs, reflects his view of Hong Kong at this critical moment.

The title scene of the series, called “Hong Kong 1997”, intends to transform visual cliches into irony. Omnipresent in official propaganda and popular culture, the two images in the picture — the familiar silhouette of the Great Wall outside Beijing and the famous skyline of Hong Kong — are symbols and “trademarks” of the two places. When these two images are juxtaposed in a single composition, however, their independent definitions are contested and enhanced by their inter-relationship. Significantly, although even the most insensitive Hong Konger would never forget his powerful neighbor, one rarely sees the closeness of Chine and Hong Kong in such alarming clarity as in this picture. It seems that the Great Wall suddenly appeared at Hong Kong’s door, casting a giant shadow over the island city. By painting the Wall red the artist defines it as nationalist monument as well as a communist symbol; he also exaggerates the Wall’s height and volume to allude to China’s immensity and prowess. Compared to this great monolith, the intricate glass buildings below it, though startling manifestations of modern technology, only create the impression of a phantom town, fragile and disembodied. The picture disturbs us with a sense of urgency: to place the Great Wall on the Hong Kong border implies dislocation and pressure. It seems that the distance between Beijing (where the Wall is actually located) and Hong Kong has already been drastically reduced; yet the Wall continues to advance and will soon bury the transparent skyscrapers underneath it.

If the first design implies a temporal movement in a spatial juxtaposition, the second design reverses this order by proving “time” with an emblematic image — a frontal ox head (the Chinese symbol for 1997) — which also defines the pictures’s overall composition. The focus of pictorialization thus shifts from place to time, a new focus highlighted by the picture’s title. On the other hand, “The Year of the Ox” depicted here still refers to Hong Kong, a place in the process of changing hands. Painting the national flags of China and Britain side by side over the ox head invokes several readings. The flags indicate the confrontation and negotiation between the two “sovereign states” over Hong Kong, allude to Hong Kong’s change of ownership this year, and also suggest the invisibility of Hong Kong behind either a colonial mask or a nationalist veil. Although the British flag is shrinking and the Chinese flag is swelling, these are all on the surface, while the ox stares at us behind this surface with an unchanging expression.

An ox head is also in the third design; but this is a different ox, with overtly female features and a self-conscious femininity (“Welcome!”). The animal is harmless and actually cute: its horns are short and round; its hair is curly and seem permed; its red muzzle seems to be wearing lipstick; its soft eyes exude tenderness; its expression is half curious and half flirtatious. Although neither a British nor a Chinese flag blurs the image,w hat this face represents is perhaps one of Hong Kong’s own masks. This interpretation is supported by the ox’s hybrid body — a female torso in a westernized qipao dress. The body movement, hand gesture, and especially the well-tailored dress all identify this torso as belonging to a historical stereotype — a society lady in a pre-revolutionary Chinese metropolis such as Shanghai — whose images filled contemporary advertisements and fashion magazines. The red flag she holds in her hand further points to a historical event and explains the picture’s title, “Welcome!” when Communist soldiers entered Shanghai in 1949 after defeating Kuomintang troops, they were greeted by glamorous bourgeois women on the streets.

This picture does not simply link Hong Kong in 1997 and Shanghai in 1949 through some superficial similarities (e.g. Both being commercial and western style cosmopolitan centers). Rather, it evokes a historical experience that those Shanghai ladies would not have known in 1949: regardless of their initial enthusiasm towards the new regime, they would have to spend the next thirty years repenting their bourgeois class background and lifestyle. Of course, time has changed and the flag in Zhang’s picture registers 1997; but the woman in the picture is still dressed in blue — the color for Capitalism in each of the four designs to contrast with the Communist red. This contrast is given the most graphic form in the fourth and last design (Transition/Translation), which is also the artist’s most direct and poignant comment on Hong Kong’s political transition. Here, the word Hong Kong is colored blue while Xiang Gang — the written form for Hong Kong according to China’s northern “Standard Pronunciation” (putonghua) — is red. Will Hong Kong remain the city’s proper name after June 30th? Or will Hong Kong be renamed Xiang Gang like Peking (now Beijing) and Canton (now Guangzhou) were? These questions, implied in the alternative groupings of the two names in Zhang’s design, should not be taken or answered literally. Rather, they imply a larger question which lies at the heart of the Hong Kong affair: What is the meaning of this whole business? If “one country, two systems” is Hong Kong’s future, will the place undergo a real historical transformation or merely a superficial shift in political affiliation? Are colonialism and nationalism just alternative labels in this case? Can the two names Hong Kong and Xiang Gang coexist inside the People’s Republic of China? — Can Hong Kong as a place be separated from Beijing’s comprehension of it?

Zhang Hongtu’s pictures offer questions, not answers. These questions have been asked numerous times. The repetition has neither brought people closer to a conclusion nor made the questions less serious; what one can do to intensify the questioning is keep people listening. Perhaps this is the meaning of Zhang’s pictures. Perhaps what he wants is simply to repeat, but to repeat with a difference. After all, these are T-shirt designs intended to be infinitely “repeated” on Hong Kong’s streets throughout the Year of the Ox.”

– Afterward “Hong Kong 1997” — T-shirt Designs by Zhang Hongtu by Wu Hung, Public Culture, University of Chicago, 1997,9: 417-425

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