By Paul Gessell
And all this time you thought Mao Zedong, the Great Helmsman of China, died in 1976.
So, what is he doing in Gatineau these days?
The story begins in 2008 when Montreal artist Nathalie Daoust was in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and bumped into Mao, looking very alive. After some inquiring, it turned out Daoust had encountered a man who goes by the name of Zhang and has what the artist calls “an alternate life” pretending, over and over again, to be Mao.
Well, Daoust just had to meet him. And she did. And two years later spent considerable time with the reincarnated Mao and photographed him throughout the city, at times recreating famous portrait shots of the real Mao.
A portfolio of Daoust’s “Mao” photographs runs from Aug. 17 to Oct. 21 at Centre d’exposition Art-Image at the Maison de la culture in Gatineau. The exhibition is called Impersonating Mao.
We see the pretend Mao in various iconic shots, including Tiananmen Square where the portrait of the real Mao is on permanent display. We can’t help wondering just what the heck drives someone like Zhang to spend a good portion of his life pretending to be someone else.
“The term impersonator widely conjures up notions of joviality and entertainment,” says a statement prepared by the gallery. “However, for Zhang the experience is a far deeper one, touching on the ritualistic and spiritual act of a personal homage to a bygone era. Meticulous in his execution of Mao, Zhang’s ‘performance’ is much more craft and far less parody. The undertaking fulfills his desire to flee reality, offering refuge from the struggles of everyday life.”
Now, why don’t we have people like that in Canada? Wouldn’t it be great if we had a dedicated impersonator of Mackenzie King? Or John Diefenbaker? Maybe people would stop calling Ottawa dull.
To help Zhang flee reality and live in the past, Daoust decided to use some rather old-fashioned photographic techniques. She shot the images on a collection of expired Chinese film and processed them on archival fibre paper. The result is that the images have an antique look, captured perhaps in the 1940s or so.
Daoust is one hard-working artist. She once spent several months living in an S&M hotel in Tokyo photographing the women in their bondage gear. She lived for two years in New York’s Carlton Arms Hotel so she could try out each room and commune with the spirits of the artists who decorated the establishment. Check out her website, www.daoustnathalie.com, to learn more.