The title of Keiko Fukazawa’s exhibition at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, California, puts a new spin on the label “made in China,” presenting a vividly ironic and comic view of the social, political, and historical ideologies that have shaped China’s identity. It also underscores the conflict between the forces of socioeconomic reform and conservatism, the odd contrast between the continuing Mao Zedong personality cult and current consumerism. Made in a time of vast inequality in China and around the world, the work in this exhibition may also be read as a satirical critique of both a nation and a world captivated by mass-produced objects and luxury goods.
The objects in “Made in China” resulted from a unique residency Fukazawa has been awarded three times—the program at the Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen, an ancient city known as the “Porcelain Capital” of China. The Pottery Workshop is an international center focused on the development of ceramics—it also awards residencies to international artists. For a small fee, the residency provides room, board, and a studio space. Via staff translators, residency artists are able to connect with craftspeople highly trained in traditional ceramic techniques tied to the use of porcelain. These artisans include painters, mold makers, flower makers, and other associated craftspeople.
The largest objects in the exhibition relate to the cult of Mao. Fukazawa has been amazed at the proliferation of images of Mao still omnipresent in China 40 years after his death—regardless of the discrediting of his policies by subsequent regimes and the extraordinary punishments and repressions that took place during his ruling decades. All of the Mao pieces employed pre-existing production molds and use Jingdezhen’s world-famous porcelain, which has enormous symbolic significance for the Chinese. The modification, manipulation, and alterations she made to the molds transform their original meaning in ways that slyly comment on Chinese consumerism and the way past histories remain embedded in their culture. Her use of gold lusters has a double function, parodying its use as an indicator of value and embodying a critique in which objects resembling commercial products satirize the market’s transformation of artworks into desirable commodities.
The factories at Jingdezhen have never stopped commercial manufacture of mold-made portrait figures of Mao—many of which are life-sized. Fukazawa has used many of the molds in a series that reference Mao’s Hundred Flowers Movement, a campaign remembered by the phrase “let a hundred blossoms bloom.” This campaign led to imprisonment and death for hundreds of dissidents. All of Fukazawa’s portraits of Mao make use of parts of these casts in combination with porcelain flowers—buds, leaves, stems, and blossoms. These blooms fall from his hands or cover his face and torso in a variety of ways. She has strategically used gold lusters to emphasize his semi-mystical and commercialized status.
Politician’s Hands, one of the most metaphysical installations in the show, consists of 11 disembodied, truncated right arms cast from the same mold; originally these arms were used to portray Mao’s arm raised in salute. Fukazawa modified the upper parts of the right arms to change its angle at the wall. The hands have been similarly modified. The arms are attached to a vermillion wall—red being synonymous with communism. The white porcelain arms are mounted at even intervals, presented with the palms up and with several different hand gestures. Several arms are entirely gold, all are holding or dropping petals and flowers to the red floor beneath them; some flowers appear to have been shattered to porcelain bits, others remain whole. The gestures are reminiscent of religious iconography including that of Confucianism.
In Gone With the Wind, an all-white porcelain portrait bust, the smiling Mao is wearing an army jacket; the crown of his head and his sleeve bear flower petals. The figure presents Mao from the waist up, his forcefully raised arm grasping a bouquet of porcelain roses; his other hand bearing an army hat on which reposes a white rose with a blood-red stripe; broken porcelain flowers are sprinkled around his waist. Because of its presentation on a high pedestal that brings him to eye level, the figure is slightly confrontational.
For other pieces Fukazawa used decals available in any Jingdezhen decal shop that reproduce photographs of Mao from youth to old age. She has used these portraits on a number of identical objects that have social meaning and also reference the continuing cult of personality surrounding Mao. The multiplication of these objects also becomes a comical reflection on commodity fetishism. She has used these decals in the bowls of a set of large soup spoons, and on a series of thermos forms. Mao’s Mangos #2, a row of 11 white porcelain mangoes, represents an episode that took place in 1968 when Mao, known as the Great Helmsman, was given a crate of mangos. Mao decided to use the exotic fruit, unknown in China, to make a political statement. He sent the case to a group of workers who then sent one mango to each of Beijing’s most important factories. Symbolizing Mao’s love for the workers, the mangoes took on the status of holy relics.
Fukazawa’s clever work blurs the border between fine art and kitsch. Her pointedly humorous, materially opulent sculptures evoke Nietzsche’s statement; “Possibly, if nothing else from our day warrants any future, it is precisely our laughter that has future.” Her outsourcing of imagery is more than parody, it’s dead-pan comedic and a serious form of cultural examination.
Born and raised in Japan, Fukazawa studied at Musashino Art University in Tokyo and Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. She is currently an associate professor and head of the ceramic department at Pasadena City College. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, California; the National Museum of History in Taipei, Taiwan; and the Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wisconsin. Fukazawa is the recipient of a 2016 COLA Individual Artist Fellowship from the Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles. She was also the 2015 recipient of the Asian Cultural Council Artist in Residency grant in New York City. Images of her work can be seen in Jan and Susan Peterson’s well-known book, The Craft and Art of Clay.
the author Kay Whitney is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.