Imaginary Enemy at Mike Weiss, exhibits the recent sculptural work of Chinese artist Liao Yibai. The works are laboriously executed in hand-hammered stainless steel and blend imagery gleaned from traditional Chinese myth with Yibai’s perceived manifestation of the cultural icons that define the United States. Yibai’s premise seeks to replace cultural preconceptions with actual experience and humor. This is the artist’s first exhibition in New York. Astonishingly, all of the work, many realized in editions of three, was completed in 2009.
Central to Yibai's dialogue is his biography, having been reared, during the Cold War, on a secret bomb and chemical weapons manufacturing site, isolated from the world at large. Yibai developed his iconography of the United States from the Maoist propaganda consistently fed him defined it as an evil and competitive adversary.
The fulmination of this ideology is revealed in Chairman Mao's Map, a vast relief map of the United States that identifies geographic landmarks with specific emblems, including Mickey Mouse, the Empire State Building, rocket ships, an ear of corn and a football. Adjacent to and gazing on the map is the constant reminder, the ever-present contour and shadow of Chairman Mao. Other states such as New York, California and Texas, were deemed so significant in the artist’s conscious as to merit their own maps, each with their own emblems. Throughout the exhibition, Yibai’s lexicon of imagined emblems are revealed to include satellites, aircraft carriers and cheeseburgers.
Chinese myth is recalled and illustrated by a turtle carrying loud speakers on his back. In Propaganda Machine, the turtle, symbolic of longevity, patience and ultimately China itself, recalls a truck that repetitively drove through the weapons compound broadcasting Communist Party propaganda.
Indeed, China itself, does not escape Yibai’s witty inspection. An oversized recreation of a rubber stamp, Party Stamp, designates the ability of this simple marking device, and the necessity of its “Top Secret “ designation, to smuggle a cheeseburger, another Maoist symbol of American capitalist evil, into China.
While Yibai uses humor to communicate the ironic, cultural misconceptions that underscored his youth, a U.S. citizen might be more circumspect. What seems most important, and somewhat chilling, is the fact almost every other culture on earth, including those of Europe, the Mideast, South America and the rest of Asia, have developed the same icons as symbols of American society. They have done so without aid of the isolation in indoctrination of Yibai’s childhood. The American audience might be more mindful of the quality rather than quantity of our exports.