Zhou Tiehai has created what seems a fitting tribute to one of Giuliani's more ridiculous actions as Mayor of New York(although certainly not his most destructive, when compared to summarily jailing the homeless or turning a blind eye to police brutalitiy): It was only a shade less than four years ago that New York flew into a frenzy over Rudolph Giuliani's short-lived effort to shut down the Brooklyn Museum of Art for exhibiting Chris Ofili's dung-ornamented painting "The Holy Virgin Mary." Last week dung returned for an encore, ceremonially clumped on a portrait of the former mayor himself that appears in a new show at the Whitney Museum. The Daily News reflexively slapped the picture, by the Shanghai-born artist Zhou Tiehai, on Page 1 ("New Rudy Art Flap"), the local television newscasters duly cluck-clucked . . . and no one cared. Even Mr. Giuliani didn't rise to the bait. "Well, I'm really not an art critic," he said. "If it was an opera, I'd be able to comment on it." Maybe this shows take from this is that being in the right place at the right time (and, to be fair, making a couple admirable moves, like having hate crimes against Arabs tracked) has caused his popularity to so skyrocket that he no longer sees a need to take potshots at free expression. Equally likely, he simply realizes that it's more difficult to take the moral high ground when you, rather than the Holy Virgin Mary are the subject of the offending painting. The irony of Tiehai's work, and the reason that it strikes me as perversely appropriate, is that Tiehai's work uses dung for the purpose of smearing (so to speak) the image of Giuliani, while Ofili, despite Giuliani's accusations that he was smearing the Holy Virgin Mary, was using dung to honor her. As I wrote in a piece in my high school newspaper at the time, The dung in Ofili’s painting, as well as in his other art, is not a sign of disrespect. Rather, it is a sign of reverence. “It's a way,” he explained, “of raising the paintings up from the ground and giving them a feeling that they've come from the earth rather than simply being hung on a wall.” Ofili pointed to the sexual undertones of many traditional artistic depictions of the Virgin Mary as the inspiration for the sexual imagery in his own work. “Mine is just a hip-hop version.” “Ofili,” writes Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanski, “is imagining a Virgin Mary far different, but no less legitimate in devotional terms, from the one that the Roman Catholic Giuliani encountered in his catechetical youth.” Viewed in its proper context, how can “The Holy Virgin Mary” possibly be seen as anything other than what it is – the alternative vision of an observant Catholic, a bold attempt to mesh his Western upbringing with his Nigerian heritage? And so while I would generally consider dung-throwing, literal or figurative, to be a low form of political expression, the cleverness of Tiehai's work is that it reflects back on Giuliani precisely what he falsely projected onto Ofili's work. Giuliani's phantom offense has come back to haunt him. Tiehai offers Giuliani the disrespect that Ofili, an alter boy in his youth, never intended (another former alter boy to haunt the former mayor would be Patrick Dorismond, whose point-blank shooting by an undercover cop Giuliani defended with the bizarre allegation that Dorismond - based on sealed juvenile court records - was no "alter boy"). My high school op-ed on the topic was accompanied by a photo of the painting in question, captioned "The Holy Virgin Mary." At the last minute my editor switched that for a picture of Giuliani because we couldn't find a good non-copyrighted shot of the painting, but he almost forgot to change the caption. Poetic justice?

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