The Conqueror questions the myths and beliefs associated with three films made about Genghis Khan between 1956 and 2007. The exhibition spans both gallery spaces and features a single-channel video, sculpture, drawings, and a suite of letterpress prints. These works engage the iconic imagery of these films, manipulating media ready-mades to further undermine their historical narratives.
Anchoring the exhibition is the portrait of John Wayne as Genghis Khan, as played in the 1956 film “The Conqueror”. This film presents portions of the murky history of Genghis Khan and fits them into a typical Hollywood narrative. Mao, in turn, fictionalizes these mythologized narratives of Genghis Khan, which are themselves based on a semi-fictionalized history. By re-appropriating elements from this film, Mao at once pays homage to its role in the reproduction of the myth of Genghis Khan but also deflates the film’s authority as a masculinist history.
The main gallery features a suite of letterpress prints, made in collaboration with 10 Grand Press, where the prime colors of the printing process- Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black-are rolled onto photopolymer plates and run through a high-pressure press in a wet-paper printing process. In these prints, Mao assigns each film’s three main, archetypical characters—Genghis Khan (Temujin), his best friend Jamukha, and his wife Borte– a geometric representation of the first three numbers in the Fibonnaci sequence, 3, 5, and 8. The Fibonacci sequence is the basis of the Golden Mean, and by extension, Western aesthetics. By layering portions of this numerical system onto the three characters in the three films, Mao filters the chaotic history of Genghis Khan through a scrim of European geometric rationalization. Genghis Khan 1162-1227 and Leonardo Pisano (Fibonacci) 1170-1250 share roughly parallel life spans in linear history. The High Middle Ages in Europe saw the introduction of the Hindu-Arabic numerals by Fibonacci during the rise of ethnocentrism. During the same period, young Temujin was named Genghis Khan and set about to violently and efficiently conquer and unify Asia and its western reaches. Mao conflates these two events to emphasize the relatively inward tightening of European culture and the outward reaching force of the Mongol empire.
A selection of geometric studies are presented in tandem with the letterpress prints. The works are drawn only with a compass and a straightedge, taped off, and rubbed with compressed charcoal. Mao works with regular polygons, exploring these patterns as they reproduce, tighten in to shapes, and explode. These prime shapes are broadly used as symbols for tribal affiliations, ranging from the occult sigil to the national emblem.
Further disassembling the three movies, Mao de-centers the heroic narrative and restages the landscape in a digital video and two sculptures.
The video The Conqueror, 2015 lifts its title from the original source movie, and is the namesake of the exhibition. In contrast to the prints, which concentrate on the characters, Mao cuts directly to the scenes featuring the fictional landscape, slowing the edit down to an ominously glacial pace that emphasizes the setting. Mao’s video is informed by the fact that these toxic landscapes were shot on location in Utah near an atomic testing site. As a result, all three leads and many in the cast and crew later contracted cancer. The video ends right on the threshold of the clash between two battling armies. By aestheticizing the build up to the violence rather than the violence itself, Mao reassigns importance. These armies, this warfare, this landscape, this manufacture are anonymous stand-ins, questioning the authenticity of the representation of historical events.
The sculpture Empire is a sculptural refraction of the video. Three triangular glass plates are digitally printed with film stills. Each plate is in the shape of the “Golden Triangle”, a shape that reproduces graphically in a logarithmic spiral and is related to the Golden Mean. As with the prints, Mao layers moments on a mathematically graphic and aesthetic rigor, in this case referencing the temporal nature of cinematic topography.
I Desire the Strength of 9 Tigers is a large steel floor piece, comprised of two shapes connected by chain. The elements are dodecahedron-based cages, electro-plated in copper. Copper is a chemical element , highly conductive energetic properties. Here, Mao takes a cue from natural occurrences in form and materials, and expands the sculpture’s references by placing a potentially generative object in context of the destructive force of the Mongol Empire.