Accordion to Mao: The heroic and democratic era of the poster in Australia 1975 - 1985.

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Accordion to Mao: The heroic and democratic era of the poster in Australia 1975 - 1985.


Stephen, Ann.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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‘Accordion to Mao’: The heroic and democratic era of the poster in Australia 1975–1985
byAnn Stephen

The rather grandiose subtitle of this paper whilst it reflects the rhetoric of the times is a little misleading, as this is a modest attempt to translate several conversations I had with Michael Callaghan and Paul Worstead about making posters in the 1970s.

At this time in Australia a broad grouping of artists and activists turned to poster making. The stereotype of this movement has that unkind figure of politics, with its back firmly turned away from the art world, dragging printmaking screaming onto the street. Of course the situation was a lot more complex and interesting and the sources of inspiration were diverse: from the billboards and prints of Mao’s China, to the agit prop of the Ateliar Populair of Paris 68 to Andy Warhol’s New York factory. All these were raided with little respect for cultural difference, a concept that back in the 70s did not seem so significant as it does today. Subsequent commentaries have sought to explain the politics and practices and personalities of poster groups. Yet there has been little attention to the visual wit or local specificity of much of the work, or the sources that were raided in the struggle to construct and speak to a public.

I want to sketch a different way of looking at this, now slightly out of style, movement. I believe that in the decade of its most active life (roughly 1975–1985) it engaged one of the broadest groupings of visual artists, and changed the terms and boundaries for the visual arts here. Can you imagine the work of artists as diverse as Geoff Gibson, Maria Kozic, Juan Davila, Peter Tully, Tracey Moffat (none of whom were 1970s poster makers) without the redefinition of public space and mass culture that 1970s poster work proposed?

But first an anecdote that clarifies my position to the practice and introduces the cult figure of Mao, whose presence looms large in this talk, but more of him later. It was one of the last times that the art worlds of the various metropolitan centres of Australia took themselves to Mildura for Easter for the Sculpturescape. It may have been the dazzling blue air and red soil of the Malley country or just the experience of being dislocated from the habits of city living, but going a long way to a remote city that had been overtaken by art was a jolt to the consciousness. I had stumbled up from Melbourne, in the first year of teaching art students, bringing a head full of unlikely combinations of public art from Artforum earthworks to Diego Rievera’s Mexican murals. This was the year that Mildura’s crossings were occupied by Tim Johnson, that Kevin Mortenson ran a butchers shop in the main street and Margie Bell and Bonita Ely planted a garden on the banks of the Murray. Somewhere in the back blocks of that town I remember a midnight encounter. It was in one of those anonymous modern brick and steel beam factory sites where a group of young artists had set themselves up and were each manufacturing page multiples for a book. I was later to learn this was an ongoing series begun the previous year, ironically titled Life Modelling and Casting News, alluding to their recent release from the traditions of art school sculpture. Some were using children’s printing stamps, others silkscreens while someone was literally tearing the fly page out of a pile of books and inserting it as his contribution. I approached a little closer. The torn books were the Thoughts of Mao Tse Tung and the page being removed was the black and white portrait of the Chairman himself. It was like encountering an antipodean cell of Andy Warhol’s Factory with a cast of starlets with Marie McMahon playing Ultra Violet, Paul alias Morrissey Worstead, and Michael Callaghan, the one tearing out the Mao. This play with notions of mass production, was not something that I had encountered in Melbourne, where the avant garde was more serious and did not much engage in collaborative acts and rarely used forms of mass reproduction. Moreover, that particular midnight scene in Mildura would have probably slipped out of memory, but for the shock of seeing the wilful desecration of a book, particularly that book. I had come from a scene in Melbourne, where the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966 was celebrated for giving workers and peasants the encouragement to train as artists, and much was made of the revival of the folk traditions like the Hsuin peasant paintings and the revival of woodblock prints. It was not until the following year, 1976, when Mao died and his widow Chiang Ching and the rest of the Gang of Four were arrested, that the Cultural Revolution began to come unstuck as an image of socialist cultural utopia. As Sang Ye, whose astonishing collection of Mao cult material so-called 'Cultural Relics and Cultural Garbage' (which were displayed at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney in 1992), has said of this period ‘on boxing day 1966 Mao Zeodong turned 73. The 9.5 million square kilometres of China’s Good Earth became an enormous church resounding with hosannas “Long Live Chairman Mao! Eternal Life to Chairman Mao!” The Red Guards vowed “to make the sunlight of Mao Zedong thought illuminate every corner of the world and to liberate all mankind”. ...This was year one of the Cultural Revolution. The decade that followed is now officially dubbed the ‘ten years of turmoil’. Now everyone knows that the Red Sun of China never did light up the world. It rose in the East and eventually set in the East.’

But to return to the West. In 1973 Michael Callaghan, one of the gang of three, ordered from the New York dealer Castelli one of the limited edition silkscreen prints by Warhol of the Chairman’s head. Part of the attraction of such an image lay in that unholy alliance of Mao and Andy, the cult face of communism transformed into a rare but eminently saleable commodity, by the king of New York pop and drag culture. Andy’s Mao was wild, witty and lurid in contrast to the drab uniformity of its model, although its larger than life scale and anti-naturalism had an unlikely correspondence with those qualities in the mass reproduced imagery of the Mao cult first.

As we approach Mao’s centenary year in 1993 and with Asia rising high on Australia’s agenda it seems appropriate to take a closer look at some representations of Mao’s life in Australia. Mao in fact came to inhabit quite a familiar place in our culture after he was recognised by the Whitlam government in 1972. In spite of his comment to Richard Nixon ‘I don’t want to go to Australia. Whenever I look at its position on the map I feel lonely’. A view that seems to stand the domino theory on its head! Some Australian artists used the cults of Andy and Mao in order to represent to local audiences a relation to mass media/art world. I’m only sorry and its not surprising that this is an almost entirely male arena albeit one in which male heroes are assailed, and masculine values questioned.

To begin with an early Earthworks poster by Colin Little, a legendary figure who I never met. This poster from 1974 was, like many others, a dance poster made for the inner city streets of Sydney addressing the politically engaged, those who celebrated May Day. I remember at the time some of my more seriously minded art world comrades were critical of the Sydney mob in that all the best work seemed to be done off the back of dance posters. But in retrospect they were using a very popular street form to exercise their wit and politics and art. Little’s poster revels in the rhetoric of the political — flags, fists and uniforms — on some long march through a wildly improbably landscape, more outer Mongolia than inner Sydney. It plays loose with the heroic proletariat, grafting onto it, with anarchist abandonment, comic book characters in the style of street graffiti. Little’s was a parody of socialist realism. The elegant blend from blue to yellow, which was his trademark, and set a style for much subsequent work, suggests associations with the surreal bohemian world of the Yellow House hallucinations, and a shared interest in the flattened vertical space of eastern art.

Paul Worstead, editor of that weird and wonderful long running epic, Life Modeling and Casting News was living in the heady world of feminist postermaking of inner city Sydney in the mid-1970s when he made one of his few political posters, a tongue-in-cheek homage not to Mao but to the other hero/villain of socialist Asia, Ho Chi Ming, entitled A Warning to all Green Grocers in 1975. It was in fact designed as a pair with a similarly pastoral portrait of his granny in her garden. At the time he sold them as a set for a dollar on the basis that you stuck one up at your local green grocer, the poster eschews cult worship in favour of a larrikin irreverence to the hero, positioning the old sage in his tomato patch, with the text “Even though a war was waging this did not prevent Ho from showing the visitor his kitchen garden where he was in the habit of spending time among the tomatoes. He used to tend the morning glories, his cabbages, his pumpkin, his sweat potatoes..”

The following year Paul gave Neville Wran, the local lad from Balmain and newly elected labour leader the Andy/Mao treatment, in a five part series based on a large scale face portrait entitled, in high suburban parody Cooking Fish and Chips in Paradise. The dullest and most banal form of mass media photojournalism, the official party head shot, was transformed into an exotic animal. Using the same scale as Warhol, in fact carefully mimicking the look of Michael’s print of Andy’s Mao, he endowed the leader with a lurid bogeying up and dressing down that gave the leering all too familiar politician the come-on the charisma of a used car salesman.

One of the other partners of Life Modeling and Casting, Michael Callaghan, when exiled from the heartland to Griffith University in 1979 sought to further extend and problematise the Mao effect in a racy poster that asked “What Now Mr Mao?”. Taking the dance poster as the point of departure he invited the audience to join the madness of the “Ideological sidestep Imperial”. The occasion was the Coca Cola diplomacy that Nixon had launched with Mao and the source of the image was a newspaper photograph of red guards raising the red cans. The style is blue and yellow faced Warhol but with the political edge of punk.

When Redback relocated to Wollongong, Michael exploited the ‘Mao/Andy’ effect when commissioned to produce a conference poster examining the legacy of the late Rex Connor, a local lad and long-term member for Illawarra and Resources Minister under Whitlam. Again the subject was based on that unforgiving source, the politician’s photo, yet its boring uniformity is undercut by the spectacular and unceremonious colour dealt to the unlikely figure in the suit. For a Wollongong audience, which included Connor’s family and party supporters, this was a daring act for he had been very much a traditional labour man. As Michael recalls “It was a bit of a risk ... it could have been taken the wrong way, but the family loved it”.

To end with a swan song/swim song to the hero cult from down under, Ian Robertson’s Accordion to Mao series after which I named this talk, which has our former hero emerging from his epic swim in a bathrobe, with that familiar gesture transformed into throwing/catching fish while he ponders “Snapper or Red Herring?”

And another Robertson Mao A Political Accordion Snapper has our hero delicately disembowelling the instrument as he shares a thought with us. Surrounded by the dazzling printed patterns of modern city living, with the long march receding into the background as a picturesque landscape.

The sustaining caricature of the posters of the 1970s has been their rejection of aesthetics and art. Such a misconception tends to be expressed in terms of a medium based dichotomy — the fine art concerns of litho and etching as against the propaganda uses of silkscreen. In fact some of the most interesting posters were engaged with a range of mass media and art styles.

Future analysis needs to integrate this work into all that was going on in the seventies, in order to understand how they reverberate through the culture. For this is one of the places where the postmodern journey began, when, almost without knowing, certain artists were drawing attention to the local, and to the kind of ruptures that we are on the receiving end of now.

© Ann Stephen, 1992.
Paper presented at The Second Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1992