A visitor peers at a replica of Venus de Milo made of panda excrement at Henan… (Barbara Demick, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Zhengzhou, China — To some discerning eyes, the statue is a satire of classical aesthetics that judge beauty by Western standards. To others, the use of natural, recyclable materials shows the artist's commitment to the environment.
And then there was this observation, posted on the artist's blog.
"Disgusting, disgusting, disgusting!!!"
The artwork in question is a copy of the classical Greek statue Venus de Milo, made out of raw material supplied by China's most beloved mammals.
In other words, panda excrement.
Lest anybody badmouth it as just another piece of, well, excrement, it should be noted that a retired Swiss diplomat who is one of the leading collectors of modern Chinese art paid $50,000 for the 2-foot-tall statue by Zhu Cheng, a sculptor from Chengdu, home to China's main panda breeding reserve.
In a country where the image of the panda is nearly as sacrosanct as that of Mao Tse-tung, not to mention one where artistic expression can land you in prison, it takes some courage to play around with the animal's excrement.
But unlike other artists who have used the panda as a prism through which to look at Chinese society, Zhu denies that he implied any political motive or social criticism.
He said his inspiration came from the stark contrast between the preciousness of the panda (literally priceless, in that China does not permit the animal to be sold and only lends them to zoos) and the prodigious amount of waste they produce. (An adult panda defecates about 40 times per day, producing nearly 45 pounds of waste.)
"Venus is a beautiful figure," Zhu said. "But by creating the statue out of excrement, we set up an internal conflict between beauty and waste that makes for a magical work of art."
He made the sculpture with the help of a dozen elementary school pupils in a Chengdu youth center who weren't afraid to get their hands dirty for the sake of art. They're now considering something more ambitious — a life-size panda poo rendition of Michelangelo's David.
The most difficult part was obtaining the raw material. Although the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, with 83 pandas, had no shortage of panda dung, the management was initially suspicious of Zhu's request.
"Now, why do you need this?" Zhu recalled the management asking him repeatedly.
Once convinced that Zhu was legitimate, the reserve allowed his team of students to collect buckets of fresh droppings. Each one was about the size of a goose egg, with sticks of partially digested bamboo poking out. To make it the proper consistency for sculpting, it was mixed with plaster and glue.
"The kids didn't wear gloves. Neither did I," Zhu said.
Because the pandas eat a mostly vegetarian diet, Zhu said, their droppings did not have a distasteful odor. "I was surprised. It smelled more like tea."
The Venus de Milo was shown with other panda excrement creations by Zhu and his volunteers at a Chengdu art gallery before moving last month to the Henan Provincial Art Museum in Zhengzhou as part of a larger exhibition exploring the theme of human interactions with pandas. The Henan show was curated by Zhao Bandi, a flamboyant Beijing-based artist who calls himself the Panda Man. He is perhaps best known for an unsuccessful campaign in 2008 to boycott the film "Kung Fu Panda," on the grounds that Hollywood was exploiting China's national treasure.
He also gained some notoriety for a controversial fashion show in which models, dressed entirely in black and white like pandas, portrayed some of the less desirable elements of Chinese society, such as corrupt officials and prostitutes.
"I like to use the panda as a device to explore what China is really like," said Zhao, who was dressed in his emblematic panda colors: black-and-white-striped pants, a black turtleneck and a black wool cap pulled low over intensely knit eyebrows.
Sitting on a folding chair in the exhibit hall at the Henan museum, he clutched a stuffed panda on his lap.
All the artwork in the show was for sale, with proceeds earmarked to build a nursing home. The point was to exploit the cuteness of the most pampered mammal in China to help some of the nation's most neglected inhabitants — the elderly.
"The attention lavished on the panda is much better than what old people receive in China," Zhao said.
Among the works on display were a series of photographs of naked schoolboys with black grease paint under their eyes, like pandas, splashing in the Yellow River, and a panda sculpture made of discarded appliances — the head was an old television, the body a washing machine, and stereo speakers formed the big black ears. The assemblage was put together by a 12-year-old boy whose father is a garbage collector.
In the show, only the Venus de Milo does not depict a panda. Visitors don't realize how it fits in until they pause to read the explanation. Reactions run the gamut — amusement, appreciation, bewilderment and disgust.
"I think it's very creative, the way the artist is using such environmentally friendly material," said Li Chunyang, a hospital worker from Zhengzhou who had taken a day off to bring her 5-year-old daughter, Xiangxiang.
The girl was less impressed. "Yuck. I'm scared," she said, refusing to approach the display case too closely.
Even Zhao had mixed feelings: "I think it is a good piece from an artistic point of view, but personally I wouldn't collect it. I wouldn't want poop in my home, even poop from a panda."