Liao Yibai: "Top Secret Hamburger"
I learned about the Chinese artist Liao Yibai by reading a New York Times article reprinted in yesterday's International Herald Tribune as I was riding Seoul Subway Line 6 and headed for Bonghwasan Station . . . not that my geographical whereabouting makes any difference to what I was reading, but it does give my report that anecdotal feeling, that raw sort of graininess so quintessentially bloggy.
Anyway, I'd never heard of Liao Yibai, but he has a fascinating life that began in a most unusual way:
"I was born, unfortunately, in a top-secret missile factory during the Cold War."You can read online about this life of Liao in Dan Levin's article, "The Fantasies of a Cold War Child," available on The New York Times website for May 7, 2009. Levin writes of Liao growing up in a factory that came to inspire his modern art in a manner rather different than Warhol's or Cosmo's factory inspired artists:
The son of a prized cruise-missile engineer, Mr. Liao grew up playing with machine guns, surrounded by speakers blaring Cultural Revolution propaganda by day and air raid drills by night. Almost as frequent were the accidents that sent shards of tools and weaponry exploding into the sky.Even the "Top Secret Hamburger" shown above derived from Mr. Liao's childhood experience in the factory:
"They looked like beautiful fireworks,” he said. “Except our fireworks killed people."
In kindergarten Mr. Liao began learning the ways of the wicked Imperialists, including the notion that American and Taiwanese children had no food or clothes. He learned one English word a day, but when his teachers taught the word "hamburger," they were unable to explain its meaning, only that it symbolized America's "decadent and evil nature."Reading that anecdote, I had to laugh out loud (disturbing my fellow passengers, undoubtedly, but they had opted to sit next to a foreigner, so what could they expect?). This symbol of America's "decadent and evil nature" was apparently a McDonald's hamburger, which is indeed -- as everyone knows -- the symbol of American consumerism, capitalism, industrialism, imperialism, colonialism, anti-environmentalism, and . . . um, "dead-end-jobism." In fact, it's more than a symbol! It's a synecdoche! Every McDonald's hamburger is a propaganda piece from America, and every McDonald's outlet is a little bit of American territory. Like an embassy or a consulate. That's why any anti-American demonstration worth its salt will have mustered up its spirits to march into a McDonald's franchise and trash the place, taking care to pick up a few decadent hamburgers as evidence on the way out. Maybe some fries, too.
When a classmate's father made a trip to the United States, the children begged him to bring back a sample of the mysterious dish. Upon his return, the scientist called the youngsters into his home and, after closing the curtains, pulled out from his suitcase an envelope emblazoned with the words "top secret." Inside was a hamburger.
"It looked like an alien," Mr. Liao recalled, adding that the rotten burger "tasted disgusting, so we believed our teacher that capitalism was horrible."
As for Mr. Liao, his artworks are as hot as McDonald's hamburgers these days, "with collectors snapping up sculptures based merely on conversations and photos," so perhaps the popularity of his "Top Secret Hamburger" implies the 'decadence' of American capitalism playfully expressed through the 'decadence' of modern art.