HONG KONG — The corpse of Mao Zedong, the chairman and founder of the People’s Republic of China who transformed the country into a communist nation, lies in state at the most peculiar of places: Art Basel Hong Kong, which runs at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre through March 25. Encased in a glass coffin, Mao’s body represents a number of things — the special administrative region’s connection to China, communist ideology and the flawed realities that came with it. The bodies of four other late communist leaders — Soviet Union chairman Vladimir Lenin, North Korean prime minister Kim II Sung, Vietnamese prime minister and president Ho Chi Minh and Cuban president Fidel Castro — surround Mao in an installation entitled “Summit” by Chinese artist Shen Shaomin.
“The project ‘Summit’ takes as its starting point a hypothetical summit meeting of five Communist leaders, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, and Fidel Castro,” Shen told Hyperallergic. “The five figures are the most significant communist leaders in history. They represent a system of thought and a particular value system. Although they have now all passed away, their influence is still present.”
Aside from Castro, who lies in a bed because the work was made before his death last year, all of the leaders are enclosed in glass coffins, giving fairgoers the opportunity to peer at their bodies, question their historical significance, and of course, per current fair tradition, take selfies with them. The posthumous meeting of the world’s most powerful communist revolutionaries, which Shen created in 2009 as the world economy was collapsing, brings up a number of questions: How do their socialist ideals relate to today’s global capitalism? While communism, in theory, sounds like a solution to poverty, why has it so often succumbed to capitalism or devolved into authoritarianism? Rendered mute and immobile in Shen’s work, these men’s inability to speak represents the failures of communism and the equality for which it stands, highlighting persistent class disparities throughout the world.
“This is a work that actually speaks to the fact that we’re existing in a moment where history is repeating itself in so many ways,” Alexie Glass-Kantor, the curator of the fair’s Encounters sector, which displays large-scale installations, told Hyperallegric. “It’s a really important time to have a work that speaks in a really critical way to how we think through authority, through the relationship of church and state, and the role of ideology in public life.”
Glass-Kantor deliberately sited Shen’s piece next to a work based on one of former British leader Margaret Thatcher’s most iconic accessories, transforming it into a political statement. “There’s a really important conversation that’s happening between both of these works for me,” said Kantor-Glass.
In 1985, the British prime minister was photographed walking alongside Ronald Reagan and his dog Lucky, clutching her rectangular, black Asprey handbag. For 30 years, that handbag was a vehicle for state documents, an accessory during meetings with leaders like Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, and a symbol of the Iron Lady’s power. Thatcher’s economic policies would go on to boost economies, open up global trade, and increase the power and presence of multinational companies, developments came with rising unemployment, lower wages, weakened labor unions, and snowballing environmental destruction in Britain and places far away, like the city of Marikina in the Philippines. The municipality, which makes up part of Metro Manila, was once a thriving manufacturing hub in the global leather industry, but it fell victim to the easing of worldwide trade restrictions and has been in decline since the early 1990s.
Next to “Summit,” 180 replicas of Thatcher’s handbag sit across six rectangles of white cloth in an installation titled “Not a Shield, but a Weapon” by the Filipino, London-based artist Pio Abad. He commissioned leatherworkers in Marikina to create the bags as a form of social commentary that investigates the effects of global capitalism in post-colonial countries. The work also draws a connection between Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, and the Philippines; many Filipinos head to Hong Kong, a former British colony, to be domestic workers because they can’t make a living wage in their own country. Here, they make up the region’s largest ethnic minority.
“I’ve long been interested in using domestic objects to tell complex political histories, and I wanted to use the handbag to tell a micro-history of neoliberalism, linking Margaret Thatcher with Marikina, a small town in the Philippines, known for its production of leatherwear — shoes and purses.” Abad said. “Showing the piece in Hong Kong at this particular moment adds another layer, as the city is where Filipino labor and the remnants of the British Empire co-exist.”
For Glass-Kantor, “The bags, laid out like luxury counterfeit goods on the streets of a city, speak to the fact that they remind me of corpses, they remind me of coffins, they remind me of something lying in state equally to these former communist leaders that we see over here.”
Kantor-Glass highlighted the need for both artists and curators to use their voice to speak up against the injustices in the world. “We have a responsibility to speak laterally and openly,” she said, “and to let people make up their own minds about their own position on these things.”
Art Basel Hong Kong continues at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (1 Harbour Road, Hong Kong, China) through March 25.