Why does this guy dress like China’s famous leader?

by Gregory Beatty



The back-story for this exhibition is certainly intriguing. In 2008, Montreal photographer Nathalie Daoust visited China. While in Beijing, she encountered a man posing as the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong in historic Tiananmen Square. Daoust subsequently returned to Beijing in 2010 and did an extended photo shoot with the Mao impersonator at various locations in the city.

The result is this 26-image exhibition that’s on at the Art Gallery of Regina until Jan. 24.

Throughout her professional career, Daoust has gravitated toward similar projects. Following several years spent studying photography in Montreal in the mid-1990s, her first solo exhibition in 1999 explored the artfully decorated rooms of the Carlton Arms Hotel in New York. She’s also done photographic essays on a Brazilian brothel and an S&M “love hotel” in Tokyo (visit www.daoustnathalie.com to see sample images).

Daoust’s focus as a photographer in the latter two projects was on relatively personal issues like gender, femininity and sexuality. Here, the scope of her inquiry is much broader. Mao, after all, was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.

Born into privilege as the son of a wealthy farmer in 1893, Mao nonetheless gravitated toward revolutionary politics as a young man. China, at the time, was just emerging from a feudal state ruled by a divine emperor. As an ardent Marxist-Leninist, Mao joined the fledging Chinese Communist Party in the mid-1920s and quickly rose in the ranks, ultimately serving as a Red Army commander in a civil war against nationalist forces under General Chiang Kai-shek.

During WWII the factions united with the Allies to drive the occupying Japanese out of China. Once the war ended, though, the civil war resumed, and by 1949 Mao had lead the Red Army to victory and proclaimed the People’s Republic of China.

Mao led China until his death in 1976. During that time, he helped unify and modernize the largely rural country, laying the groundwork for the emerging superpower that China is today — albeit with much sacrifice and suffering by the Chinese people.

During his time in power, a huge cult of personality arose around Mao. Its impact was even felt in the West, especially during the counterculture ’60s, when things like the tunic and cap that Mao usually wore in public, and his little red book of political sayings, became fashionable.

After his death, a power struggle broke out, with the Gang of Four — which included Mao’s widow — eventually being overthrown by right-wing reformers led by Deng Xioping.

But despite that upheaval, Mao remained a respected figure, celebrated as the founding father of modern China.

Even in Daoust’s photographs, which were taken 34 years after Mao’s death, his legacy can still be seen — most prominently in a large portrait of Mao that overlooks Tiananmen Square at the entrance to the Forbidden City. In one photograph, Daoust depicts her unnamed subject, who truly does bear a striking resemblance to Mao, in front of the monument. Others situate him in other prominent locations in Beijing. In some, the man is obviously posing for Daoust. In others, it’s like Daoust is functioning as a photojournalist documenting a public appearance by Mao.

Outside of one image though, in which a passerby in the background is shown glancing quizzically toward them, Daoust’s Mao exists in isolation. No loyal colleagues surround him, no adoring crowds hang on his every word, as surely would have happened when Mao was alive. Read in a socio-political context, Daoust’s photographs become a telling metaphor for China’s shift from communism to state-run capitalism in the decades since Mao’s death.

Other photographs in the exhibition show Daoust’s Mao in private and domestic settings. No textual information about the man is provided in the show, so we can only speculate on what prompted him to adopt the persona of Mao, and what his life is otherwise like. The only constant is that in private, as in public, Daoust depicts the man in isolation. Does he have a spouse? Children? Friends? We don’t know.

With both the formal portraits, and the works that function more as photojournalism, there’s a strong sense of documentary but it’s subverted by several techniques Daoust uses to degrade her images. The surface intent seems to be to give them an historical aura. But the blurred edges and splotches where the image is faded through over-exposure also serve as a perceptive comment on how history and identity are constructed. Memory, desire, fantasy, belief — they all play a role in who we are and how we relate to the broader world.

The cult of personality that surrounded Mao when he was alive was fed by a socialist realist strategy that blurred the boundary between art, news and propaganda. But even in the more liberal West, cults of personality are not uncommon. Usually they’re tied to celebrities, like the legion of Elvis impersonators that are out there. Although, actually, I believe the preferred term in that case is “tribute artist”. And that’s a sentiment that definitely comes across in Daoust’s photographs.

Is her subject a deluded ideologue? Is he simply a romantic pining for a bygone age? Is he something else entirely? Regardless, he brings a visceral sense of grace and artistry to his portrayal of Mao.

And the end result is a strangely moving and thought-provoking exhibition.