Although Mao Tongqiang’s solo exhibition at the Ai Weiwei-directed China Art Archives and Warehouse is titled ‘I Have a Dream’, it’s not really about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech. Rather, Mao invokes the speech to imply the lack of everything it has come to stand for: freedom, equality, civil rights, fraternal love and universal humanism.
After writing his own translation of King’s speech in Chinese, Mao sought out Li Fanwen, a scholar of the Western Xia dynasty (1038–1227 AD) and one of only a handful of people able to read and write Tangut, an extinct Tibeto-Burman language spoken then. Li translated the Chinese version into Tangut, with he and Mao puzzling together over how to render terms like ‘cheque’ or ‘funds’ (in King’s famous statement, ‘America has given the Negro people a bad cheque, a cheque which has come back marked “insufficient funds”’), concepts that may not have existed at the time. He then asked a professional calligrapher, Dong Tiantan, to write out the speech in an elegant script. Using Dong’s calligraphy as a model, the speech was carved onto the surface of 385 black stone tablets, and distributed over the floor of the China Art Archives and Warehouse.
Why Tangut? Mao was born in Yinchuan, a prefecture-level city in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, where he continues to work today. During the Western Xia dynasty, Yinchuan served as the empire’s capital, then known as Xingchuan. Yinchuan’s former glories have today become a selling point for the area’s tourism industry, and signage in the city for everything from bus stops to toilets includes Tangut versions, even though the ancient language is only understood by a handful of people in the world – by Mao’s estimate, fewer than ten.
To Mao, the Tangut he sees around him is an empty signifier: its presence accepted but unexamined. His installation similarly severs the relationship between the signifier and the signified, asking if an object can still possess its subject if the subject is made illegible. Does the essence of King’s speech emanate from the stone stelae, even if its form is unintelligible? It’s absurd, even, that someone interested in the message of King’s speech would translate it into a dead language, and in that sense the work is darkly satirical – the black stelae as tombstones, the foreign script as an elegy to ideals that have long gone missing or were never truly present.
But in some ways Mao is simply working within the system as it exists. Curator Feng Boyi comes as close as possible to fingering the Chinese state as the culprit when he writes in the show’s catalogue essay of ‘this pathological society’, in which ‘the meaning of our lives in pursuit of equality and justice has been hollowed out by autocracy’. If Mao uses King’s speech as a stand-in, ‘seeking the “dream” of the values and meaning of human rights in an unsatisfactory environment’, then that makes his installation only the flawed product of a flawed system.
I Have a Dream (2011) is not the first work by Mao to embody the failures of idealism. In 2005, the artist began collecting what he described as discarded agricultural ‘tools’, antiquated by the changing needs of society. He ended up with a room full of 30,000 sickles and hammers – the symbols of the emblem of the Community party. Long after its heyday had passed, Mao had heard the party’s rallying cry – ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ – and brought together its workers’ tools, although the workers themselves had long proved more difficult to organize. ‘Tools’ (2005–08) is a testament to the ideology’s futilities.
Ultimately, there are some things that cannot be translated. Mao knows this, and although his English to Chinese to Tangut to stone translation of King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is a hopeless means of communicating the civil-rights leader’s message, the act is an ambitious re-signification of that dream. In Washington, D.C., a newly unveiled memorial to King works through the same legacy, with surprisingly similar points of reference: the memorial’s controversial artist is Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, who cut his aesthetic teeth sculpting agitprop for the state.