They lie in state in plexiglass coffins–life-size sculptures of Russia’s Lenin, North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, China’s Mao Zedong, and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, four very dead communist revolutionaries, most of them regarded as among the worst dictators of the 20th century. On one side, a fifth leader who made it into the 21st century, Fidel Castro, is shown in a hospital bed. The installation, called The Summit, has pride of place at the fifth edition of Art Basel Hong Kong and is impossible to miss as visitors enter because it has fueled a selfie-taking commotion. The installation by Chinese conceptual artist Shen Shaomin represents “an imaginary encounter between the five,” he says. Shen hasn’t updated the Castro portion to reflect the Cuban leader’s death last year, saying it’s “too soon.”
The work, to the dispassionate, non-selfie-taking observer, might seem like an epitaph to communism. But Shen–who has long been fascinated by death and corpses, and who has vowed to make a sculpture out of his own skeleton–says that the work is “a critique to capitalism and the financial crisis.” It’s not clear that visitors to the art fair are receiving it that way, or thinking about politics at all when they encounter it.
Shown for the first time in Hong Kong (part of the installation, which Shen began in 2009, was previously exhibited in Singapore and Sidney), it elicited a puzzling reaction on the fair’s first day of VIP viewing on Tuesday, as collectors and gallery owners crowded the reproductions of embalmed corpses. Sara Blonstein, a collector from London, laughingly said that Castro was “a great man,” and posed as if in prayer next to him. Art Basel opens to the public Thursday.
Emmanuel Goetschel, an art collector from Basel in Switzerland, obsessively took photos of the Mao “corpse,” and said, “I went to China many years ago, when he was alive. People were very careful with his image… this would have been unthinkable.” Neither of them, though, would consider purchasing the works for their collections.
Local visitors seem more troubled by the installation. Hong Kong, a former British colony that this year will mark the 20th anniversary of its return to the sovereignty of communist China, is perhaps an odd place to see the life-size reproductions.
Prudence Ma, a curator, said that “as soon as you see it, you know it’s a mainland artist. The size, the shock value, you know it’s a work that mostly wants to catch the attention.” She too took pictures, but no selfies, and walked away visibly not amused. Brian Wong, an educator, snapped away at the installation and said that “the five corpses symbolize the end of an era… maybe… I feel shocked that these should be here, though.”
But then, the opening of Art Basel is a social event where art meets fashion, politics, champagne and frothiness, and shock value still has currency.