“If your grandmother made artwork, it would look like mine,” says Mei Xian Qiu with a smirk, sitting across from me in a noisy coffee shop in Hollywood. The Los Angeles-based artist’s work is specific to a sense of displacement shared by immigrant families, regardless of geography and history, and my Spanish-speaking abuela moved between the Ukraine, Israel, Venezuela, and the United States in her lifetime. Mei was born in Pekalangon, Indonesia. As part of a third-generation Chinese minority family, she and her parents faced discrimination by President Suharto’s anti-communist regime before emigrating to the United States. They hopped back and forth between the two countries throughout Mei’s childhood, where she says that the constant upheaval was disorienting.
Mei learned about her heritage through its varied depictions — first from Suharto’s fiercely anti-Chinese propaganda, then in the US, and eventually in China itself. Her Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom pictures deconstructs these aestheticized notions of identity by weaving a wide range of symbols and ideologies into her own propagandistic imagery. Mei says that no matter where her conceptual photography project is shown, she always manages to meet an immigrant who finds her work to be analogous to their own experience.
On the morning of our interview, presidential advisor and executive chairman of alt-right publication Breitbart Steve Bannon resigned from his post. Such mainstreaming of a fringe figure like Bannon is indicative of a greater phenomenon in contemporary American politics — a nationalist fear that the United States is being economically and militarily surpassed by competing geopolitical powers that include China. In her surrealist series, Mei stretches this fear to its fullest conceptual extent by portraying a Maoist takeover of the United States. Throughout the images, Chinese actors are dressed in the iconic Zhongshan tunic suit, overlooking American landmarks like the Hollywood sign or the Grand Canyon. But rather than being a nightmare, Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom is a vibrant queer utopia. The title of the series derives from Chairman Mao Zedong’s 1956 speech, ‘On the Correct Handling of the Contradictions Among the People,’ commencing a short-lived artistic and intellectual renaissance in the country. Mei’s work captures this sense of fleeting idealism, while depicting the United States’ increasingly globalized reality. Her art irreverently blends Maoist iconography of Little Red Books and propaganda pins with canonical Western art references to Renaissance painting and stained glassed windows, underscoring the artist’s desire to confuse and unpack the conception of a solidified cultural identity.
In November 2016, Mei installed a mural rendering of her image ‘Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom 8990’ in the parking lot of West Hollywood Park. Now extended to the end of this year, the photograph of a white American soldier and a Chinese man wearing a green military uniform are embracing one another, both leaning in for a kiss in front of a saturated, pink forest. The work has a playful duality, presenting these models as both personifications of clashing ideologies and as two lovers simply enjoying a romantic setting. When seen in a public and functional space like a parking lot, ‘Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom 8990’ has the gravitas of actual propaganda, giving physicality to Mei’s unique, culturally-fluid understanding of history.
In addition to expanding her Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom series into including her family’s experience in Indonesia, Mei is currently working on a video and photo project titled ‘Pilgrimage; Die Ehemalige Verehrten Objekte’ in Germany. Three years ago, a German family gave the artist four generations of artifacts, asking her to help them absolve themselves of the sins of their military ancestors from various wars, including World War II. The objects consist of prayer books, military medals, crucifixes, and hymnals. Mei plans to film and photograph a group of spiritual leaders — ranging from a Tibetan holy man and Anglican bishop to a Native American shaman and a Rabbi — perform purifying rituals on the objects. Though set in an entirely different geographic location than her previous work, ‘Pilgrimage’ shares a similar ethos of grappling with history through repurposing and reclaiming its symbols.
** The title of your photo series ‘Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom’ is a Western misinterpretation of a quote from Chairman Mao Zedong’s 1956 speech “Let a Hundred Flowers Blossom, Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend.” Mao took the title of that speech from classic Chinese poetry. Your photographs have this multilayered quality, piling identities and ideologies onto one another. Was this the reasoning behind the title of your work?
Mei Xian Qiu: My work tends to be multilayered, so that is one of the reasons for it. There’s a dystopia that’s created in this country [US]. The idealism behind ‘Let A Thousands Flower Bloom’ is a utopia. So the work shows people’s inner utopia happening within an outer dystopia.
** What is this dystopia in your work?
MXQ: The dystopia is the reality of the Hundred Flowers movement. There’s a danger of this period that’s implied in the work. As a Chinese person growing up in Indonesia, in a period when being Chinese was illegal, my access to a Chinese cultural identity was pretty limited. There was quite a lot of oppression against the Chinese. I had to seek out what Chinese meant and a lot of that came from what other people perceived being Chinese meant. That’s why I use signifiers [to Maoism] within my work because those signifiers are what the general population in Indonesia understood as “Chineseness.” When I came to the U.S, I tried to understand what being Chinese meant. I lived in the East Coast and also then visited China to get a real sense of what Chinese identity meant. In China, they are actually right now going through their own identity crisis. They are trying to throw away what they believe is against this notion of modernity and progress. They kind of believe in their own stereotypes of being Chinese. So, it becomes this fantasy of what that cultural identity is about. In my work I had to create my own cultural world.
** Mao Zedong’s 1956 speech commenced a brief artistic renaissance in the People’s Republic in which people felt safe to express themselves. But this period was short-lived. In 1957, Mao started cracking down on dissenters. This reversal foreshadowed the Cultural Revolution ten years later. Your work features people freely engaging in queer relationships. Are queer relationships meant to signify this fleeting, utopian freedom?
MXQ: Yes. This is something that’s still unacceptable in a country [China] where I think there are proportionally more LGBTQ folks than other countries. I wanted to focus on things and issues that are still problematic in terms of Chinese artists being able to express themselves. I’ve been told that I am not allowed to show my work in China because there’s a 50 per cent chance of it being shut down. There have been curators that have wanted to bring my work in China but they didn’t want to risk that happening. When I think of the Hundred Flowers movement I think of a freedom of expression and how that freedom didn’t actually happen because Mao changed his mind. He couldn’t handle the criticism. There were people who wanted to believe in this idea but they must have known that it was fatalistic. They were willing to commit themselves to this utopian idea, whether or not the reality was going to bear out for long term. I don’t think they knew. My work deals with living for this beautiful idea. An eternal moment where [creatives] were living for society and culture.
** Is the future of your project going to be set in the United States?
MXQ: The future of my project is going to incorporate my experiences growing up in Indonesia. One of the reasons I have been dealing with this subject is because my parents went through this great cultural upheaval there where a lot of Chinese people were killed. The way that Suharto’s government was able to get support of the masses was through a propaganda campaign involving a series of false news stories. These false news stories were disseminated widely. These completely fabricated stories involved very wacky, sexual transgressions that Indonesian generals were molested by the communists. They actually hired actors and filmed these false news stories. It’s odd that we now live in a reality where false news is so common but this is something that I grew up with. These stories were so ingrained, so permeated, that even when I talk to my parents now, it’s hard for them not to believe it.
** Can you tell me more about these false news stories?
MXQ: It was propaganda that Chinese people were evil communists who molested and killed Indonesian generals, that the former president allowed the communists to have a say in his parliament. Therefore, he was connected to [the Chinese communist plot] so he shouldn’t be president. It didn’t make sense! It was an emotional reaction. It spread from village to village, town to town. They would create these waves of protests of dissent. They would hire people to start riots.
** It’s interesting that you brought up these fake news stories in which actors were hired to stage ‘real’ events because the models in ‘Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom’ seem to have this self-aware quality of knowing they are in a studio.
MXQ: The uniforms in my photographs come from a Beijing photo studio where tourists wear these uniforms and are photographed in these very staged settings that look like propaganda imagery. Afterwards, they take them home as cultural souvenirs. My work purposefully has that kind of staged artificiality to it. This goes back to the question of what is this cultural identity of ‘being Chinese?’ And my own history where propaganda was used [to define it.]
**You have previously stated that your photographs are about people’s relationship with the ‘fantastical notion of culture.’ Can you elaborate on that?
MXQ: I think most individuals believe that there’s an impermeable sense of self, when in actuality that sense of self is constantly shifting. This also applies to your sense of cultural identity. People are starting to get defined from this information stream that they get and that is constantly shifting. This notion of signifiers and iconography is really important for me because those symbols’ meanings start to change as well. When I do images, I want certain aspects to have that feeling of it being significant and iconic — of something that’s been there before, even when it hasn’t. When a piece feels like it has always existed, I know it’s right.
** So you want your work to have an ahistorical quality?
MXQ: A quality to it that when people look at the piece, they feel like it’s something familiar; that it already belongs in society, even though it hasn’t. You need to have something familiar in the work for people to access it.
** Your work reminds me of the post-Maoist era in which artists were doing pop art, absurdist, and surrealist renderings of Mao Zedong, a man whose image was ubiquitous during the Cultural Revolution. You similarly draw upon images that are very familiar to create something absurd.
MXQ: Yes, but I don’t use images of Mao! You go to an art fair these days and there’s always a section of people doing Mao in different ways.
** So, it’s been done, basically.
MXQ: Yes! But that is interesting because that image of Mao has become something beyond his place in history. He’s influencing people in a different way.
MXQ: I feel like, with all my work, people who have had displacement in their own life, people who are immigrants, or who have moved from one place to another that was significantly different, they immediately know what it’s about without me explaining anything.
** When it’s in the United States, I feel as if your work plays into this nationalist fear of Chinese invasion. People in Germany or Italy don’t necessarily have this fear.
MXQ: Exactly. They are interested in my work in a very different way. This curator told me that my work was ‘so American.’ When people try to categorize it as ‘Chinese,’ I feel like it’s not, it’s very much American.**