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Arts & Culture

Art, history and controversy come to a head in downtown San Antonio

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Bri Kirkham
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“Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin’s Head”

Last weekend, a 20-foot-tall steel sculpture quietly appeared downtown, only a block from Market Square. It’s far from traditional, and it has a long history of controversy. But who it depicts — and the time during which it was erected here — has ignited new firestorms of emotion.

Its title pretty much describes what you'll see: “Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin’s Head,” is exactly what’s going on. A small, feminized figure of Mao Tse Tung balances with a long pole on Vladimir Lenin’s massive head.

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Jack Morgan
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“Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin’s Head”

Real estate investor James Lifshutz said happenstance played a role in the piece coming here.

“I had heard that the artists were looking for a home for the piece, and at the time, it was in Vancouver,” he said.

It won’t be here permanently, though it may be in San Antonio for several years.

“It's on consignment by the artists. So the piece is still owned by the Gao brothers,” Lifshutz said.

The two Gao brothers were born in mainland China, and after learning traditional Chinese arts, in college they began moving towards edgier contemporary art.

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Jack Morgan
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“Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin’s Head”

“They were kind of in the avant-garde of Chinese contemporary art,” he said. “I first became aware of them not quite 20 years ago.”

Lifshutz’s interest in art goes way back — he first developed the Blue Star Arts Complex in the mid 80s.

Centro San Antonio’s Andi Rodriguez likes the sculpture, too. She combines artists’ and subjects’ names, calling it the “Gao Mao.”

“Our role in securing the ‘Gao Mao’ was really about helping use our resources to make installation of this art possible,” she said.

Its installation between Commerce and Houston streets places it in the historic district, so permitting with the Office of Historic Preservation was one of Centro’s roles. Rodriguez said that particular block has largely been abandoned, and needs love.

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Jack Morgan
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“Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin’s Head”

“This block is…it's been unloved for quite some time,” she said. “This is like a big gaping hole.”

Well-placed public art lends beauty and interest in areas that are in need and can attract people.

“It was a perfect match for the three hundred block of commerce, which we are now calling La Zona,” Rodriguez said.

Given that the two figures in the sculpture are leaders of Russian and Chinese communism, many on social media and talk radio have railed against the sculpture, especially in light of the Russian war in Ukraine. Critics have called it a really poor choice and said its placement as a sculpture right now was awful timing.

Lifshutz finds that disheartening.

“Disheartening? Yes, it does not make me happy,” he said. “But I think it's an opportunity for a conversation and an opportunity to educate.”

Supporters have countered with reminders that the piece is historical satire — a mocking of Lenin and Mao — and a criticism of communism.

Rodriguez said peoples’ different responses are at the very core of art: your reaction to it is yours and yours alone.

“We could be standing next to each other and come out away with a completely different interpretation or experience,” Rodriguez said. “But that's what makes it so magical.”

Lifshutz said that even if you don’t know that the Gao brothers are making fun of the two historic figures, the art’s wonderfully executed.

“The level of craft that went into it and its large size and the stainless steel that it's made of is…it's striking,” he said.

They both are quick to add that while this is public art, it’s on private property and Lifshutz notes how many tax dollars went into it.

“Just about zero,” he said.

Currently, the construction on Commerce Street limits how close passersby can see the artwork. But the parking lot for Penner’s Clothing store offers a clear view of the piece.

It also suggests how it may fit into the larger complex of plazas, restaurants, walkways and San Pedro Creek Culture Park itself — all still under construction.

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Jack Morgan
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“Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin’s Head”
Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Arts & Culture News Desk including The Guillermo Nicolas & Jim Foster Art Fund, Patricia Pratchett, and the V.H. McNutt Memorial Foundation.