By Ben Olivo | @rbolivo | Heron editor
Although you can’t walk up to it—yet—downtown’s latest public art installation has been assembled and can be viewed from a distance. And, boy, has it caused a stir.
“Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin’s Head” is a stainless steel sculpture by brothers Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang of Beijing, China, who are known for their works satirizing Communism. It was assembled two weeks ago in a plaza-like area behind the Kline building, which faces the 300 block of West Commerce Street, and behind the Alameda Theater complex, home to Texas Public Radio, which faces West Houston. It’s also a stone’s throw from the segment of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park currently under construction.
It depicts a baby Mao Zedong, aka Chairman Mao, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, using a balancing pole to stand atop a giant mirrored head of Vladimir Lenin, the Russian revolutionary who founded the Russian Communist Party.
It was recently acquired on consignment by downtown developer James Lifshutz, who owns the Kline building. He brought it here with the help of Centro San Antonio, which, since 2020, has made it part of its mission to place more public art downtown. The piece is temporary.
Upon posting pictures of the sculpture on the Heron’s sister Instagram account @downtownsanantonio, the piece has drawn blistering criticism from those who, despite behind told its intent is to be satirical, see it as a glorification of Leninism. At the end of the day, it’s a giant head of the father of Russian Communism on Texas soil, they say.
On the same Instagram post, the piece has also garnered more than 800 likes.
Here’s Lifshutz in his own words:
“The artists are gentle people, humanists,” Lifshutz said in an interview last week. “They represent peace and coexistence, and the intention of their piece was not to honor or glorify Lenin or Mao. And it’s not my intention, either. I’m implicit in this conversation. I’m not trying to glorify authoritarians, particularly Communists.
“I’m a capitalist, through and through. You can quote me on that.”
In the fall, Lifshutz caught wind that the caretakers of the piece, the Deborah Colton Gallery in Houston, were looking for a place to temporarily put it on view. The piece is owned by the Gao Brothers, who first debuted it in Richmond, British Columbia, for the Vancouver Biennale 2009-2011 exhibition. “It’s on view through different consigners, principally the Deborah Colton Gallery … through them to me in San Antonio,” Lifshutz said. “So it’s a piece that is owned by the artists, that’s on view here in San Antonio.”
He said the acquisition of “Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin’s Head” was in the works months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“It’s a different world than it was 15 years ago,” Lifshutz said. “It’s a different world than it was two months ago.”
On the Downtown San Antonio Instagram account, the criticism has been fierce.
“Even if it’s satire, why??” wrote @ljher.
“What’s the satire? Either way, not a good idea to put statues of communists in Texas!” wrote @luistrev8.
“While our whole country is taking down statues of Confederate soldiers, we’re hailing the installation of this? Lenin NEVER stood for human rights,” wrote @edehramjian, whose comment received 32 likes of its own.
To the Civil War monument argument, Lifshutz said:
“To me, Civil War monuments were sometimes a monument to a person. Robert E. Lee. Jefferson Davis. But most of all they were monuments to the Confederacy and the Confederate cause. That’s not what this is. This is art. And, as such, it’s intended to start a conversation, to interpret it, not to just see it and have a gut reaction to it.”
When asked for his interpretation, Lifshutz said:
“I interpret the piece in an entirely different way, not as an endorsement or glorification of authoritarians, but quite the opposite. Maybe it’s Xi Jinping balancing on Putin’s head … it’s clear to me that the style is one of … mocking and kind of cartoonish rather than respectfully honoring them and their regimes.”
Krystal Jones, interim executive director of the city’s Department of Arts & Culture, said the sculpture rests on land owned by Lifshutz, “and is not affiliated with the City of San Antonio.”
The city, however, did play a role.
According to Shanon Shea Miller, the city’s historic preservation officer, the Gao Brothers’ sculpture required review because of the concrete foundation that had to be laid behind the Kline building, which is a local landmark.
“Art doesn’t always rise to the level to require approval, but we reviewed this because of the need for a foundation, which makes it more permanent,” Miller said in an email. “The review is really about physical impacts to the property. Because it’s in a courtyard and doesn’t really impact the building directly, we can approve administratively.”
The other option would have been to forward the request for appropriateness to the Historic and Design Review Commission.
When asked whether OHP officials, when approving such requests in-house, look at the art itself, Miller said, “We never review content of art.”
The city’s certificate of appropriateness approves the Gao Brothers piece for two years.
Construction engulfs this stretch of West Commerce and West Houston, between the creek and Santa Rosa Avenue, which the city envisions as a cultural destination dubbed “Zona Cultural” once all of the infrastructure projects and developments are completed.
For his part, Lifshutz has renovated the Kline building into a shell, about 14,000 square feet of space, that’s ready for build-out by multiple tenants, he said, one of which could be a restaurant.
“It just adds visual interest and adds stickiness for pedestrians who are walking past or for whom that will be a destination,” Lifshutz told the Heron about the building in 2020.
This stretch of West Commerce connects Main Plaza and City Hall with Market Square. Across from the Kline, Weston Urban is planning to convert the former Continental Hotel building into housing with retail on the ground floor.
[ Related: Weston Urban’s 15-story apartment mid-rise behind Continental Hotel gets initial approval | July 22, 2021 ]
From West Commerce, one can look through the Kline property, through a breezeway, and see the Gao Brothers sculpture peering at them.
It’s the latest of a plethora of more public art that’s due to inhabit downtown this year.
Since April 2020, when Centro San Antonio launched its Art Everywhere initiative with Kathy Sosa’s piece, “Keep Calm and Macaron,” on the side of the building that’s home to the La Boulangerie French restaurant, the program has placed 24 public artworks in downtown.
A Fletcher Benton sculpture is slated for San Pedro Creek where the University of Texas at San Antonio is building its School of Data Science and National Security Collaboration Center on Dolorosa.
Andi Rodriguez, Centro’s vice president of cultural placemaking, is also talking with Weston Urban and developer David Adelman about placing art on some of their properties.
“The more art we have, that we’re surrounded by, it cultivates an appetite and a need for it,” Rodriguez said. “For us at Centro, our mission and purpose is to use art to help create some vibrancy.”
Rodriguez’s goal for this year was to install 10 more pieces; she said Centro will reach that goal by May.
“When you have public art outside, it’s welcoming, it’s something where, regardless who you are, you have a chance to engage with it and decide for yourself what you like, and what it means to you,” Rodriguez said. “And that connects you to the greater community.”
Visit @downtownsanantonio for more photos of the Gao Brothers sculpture.
Heron Editor Ben Olivo has been writing about downtown San Antonio since 2008, first for mySA.com, then for the San Antonio Express-News. He co-founded the Heron in 2018, and can be reached at 210-421-3932 | firstname.lastname@example.org | @rbolivo on Twitter