Shotgun Reviews

Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution at the China Institute

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Adam Monohon reviews Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution at the China Institute in New York City.

“Double Happiness” tray with design of mango, 1969; industrial enamel; 31 cm in diameter. Courtesy of the Artist and the China Institute.

“Double Happiness” tray with design of mango, 1969; industrial enamel; 31 cm in diameter. Courtesy of the Artist and the China Institute.

Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution, the title of the current exhibition at the China Institute, is catchier than any lead I could invent. The show focuses on a fleeting trend in Maoist visual culture that arose from a gift of mangoes presented to Mao by the Pakistani government. Mao regifted the fruit to workers, who, having experienced famine just years before, saw the offering as a sacrifice on Mao’s behalf and proof that Mao put his people before himself. As a result, the fruit of exceptional rarity in China was quickly spun as a symbol of Mao’s benevolence toward workers. With mango-themed ephemera abounding, the exhibition illustrates the various ways in which images of the gift were worked into every branch of visual art.

A wall of dated pot-metal buttons greets viewers in one gallery. Despite bearing an uncanny resemblance to a flea-market display at first glance, with closer inspection, the wall successfully demonstrates the ubiquity of the mangoes after their introduction to visual culture in 1968. Each button on the wall incorporates the mangoes Mao fashioned into a potent political symbol, whether occupying the button’s face nearly entirely or serving as a decorative edge.

A number of glass vitrines are the highlight of the show. Each vitrine encases a waxen replica of an original Pakistani mango as if it were a precious religious relic. Dedicatory inscriptions stenciled in crude text adorn the front of many of the vitrines; the indelicate, bright red text stands in stark contrast to the sensuous, golden forms of the waxen mango simulacra within. The vitrines themselves are, for the most part, crudely fashioned assemblages of lead glass walls held together with thin metal strips. One vitrine, carefully decorated with elegant designs along its base and edges, mixes traditional Chinese design with a rough-edged industrial product one would expect from Maoist China.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, broad red textiles covered in loud floral designs incorporate the fruit alongside flowers, or lumped together in a bowl at the center of a quilt cover from 1968. Among several enamel trays and basins marked with the fruit is one tray of particular interest. Laid atop a red-on-red rendering of the Chinese symbol “Double Happiness” is a plump, golden mango depicted on top of a small white tray. Paired with a traditional Chinese symbol, the fruit, newly symbolic of Mao’s benevolence, brings attention to the tension between old and new characteristics of the era.

The exhibition, like its title, is at once engaging and perplexing. It is simultaneously an insightful glimpse into a little-understood period and a manic assemblage of objects­­ whose inherent quirkiness may distract from serious discussion of the Cultural Revolution more than they encourage it.

Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution is on view at the China Institute in New York City through April 26, 2015.

Adam Monohon is a senior in the History of Art and Design program at Pratt Institute. He is especially interested in the history of photography, as well as in contemporary Asian art; he is particularly interested in contemporary Chinese photography.

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