MUCH CONTROVERSY has been raised lately over the legacy of the Long March. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao: The Unknown Story has generated debate about what was generally regarded as the Communist army's triumphant journey against the elements and the Nationalists. They describe it as 'the most enduring myth in modern Chinese history, and one of the biggest myths of the 20th century'. Mark Harris, a British artist, critic, curator and professor at the University of Cincinnati is trying to come up with an alternative interpretation of the Long March and Mao Zedong. With an eye to examining Mao's legacy, Harris has developed a project based on the poetry he wrote from 1934-36. Harris says Mao's poetry is significant because it represents the kind of ruler-artist that doesn't exist in the west. Mao was a calligrapher, poet and politician - and 'this is an effort to pay homage to that', Harris says. 'I like his political writings and his poems, and it makes sense to use poems.' To bring seven of Mao's poems to life, Harris has asked 20 Beijing musicians, from rappers to rockers and buskers, to interpret the works spontaneously on film. He plans to combine this footage with live performances for exhibitions on the mainland and overseas. This isn't Harris' first project involving musicians. In 2003, he co-curated Streets of London, a video installation and live performance in which street musicians were asked to interpret the song Streets of London, as well as perform any other song about the British capital. The Beijing project is similar, he says. 'The problem with Streets of London was that we asked people to play a crappy song that most people don't like - which is more interesting than asking them to play a song they like a lot. In Beijing, people have issues [with the material]. He has left a large spot in people's consciousnesses. Mao is like the Great Wall.' Harris says his Beijing project had to involve music because it's so prevalent in the capital. 'I realised that there are communities that sustain themselves, whether it's local rock music or musicians in the park. The understanding is that the communities have utopian projects. [They're not] performing for solely economic reasons,' he says. 'That they're making music constitutes the wish for change, and is evidence that things are changing.' Harris views his project as an unusual way of getting to Mao's legacy. Many of his past works have examined the imagery of intoxication and its role as a form of utopian representation, in opposition to the strategies of the avant garde. Mao's poetry from the Long March fits in with this background, he says. 'The poems engage with an experience of natural phenomenon.' Harris' first project involving China was Chinese Ideology (2002), which was a list of 'isms', or ideological categories taken from the mass media of pre-Cultural Revolution China and translated into English. 'Repetitive, absurd, frightening and pointless - it's an image of a regime trying to deal with unrest and isolation through obsessive classification,' Harris says of the piece. The work attracted the attention of a Beijing gallery. 'That project interested us,' says David Tung, international director of the Long March Space. 'I think the key part of Mark's work is that, on the surface, it's quite humorous, even slightly ludicrous, but underneath there lies a deeper question of history, and the discrepancies that occur in the process of translation - cultural, linguistic or otherwise.' With help from the British Arts Council, the gallery arranged for Harris to become its artist-in-residence in mid-May. 'The main thing about the [Long March] route is that it's a structural and geographic metaphor,' says Tung. 'We help artists build connections with local communities and cultures.' The centre has helped Harris make contact with Beijing's musical community. Harris is the latest in a series of overseas artists to work at the Long March Space. 'Every time someone comes to China, they have a perception of what it will be like,' says Tung. 'They realise things are much more dynamic and fluid. China itself is a very creative driving force.' Harris hadn't initially planned on using Mao's poetry. He'd intended to go to the countryside and record folk music. But he says his desire to delve deeper into music - and Mao - changed all that. Tung says Harris' work examines the ruptures between tradition and modernity. 'He's investigating Maoism and the culture of Maoism, and imaginations of Mao from both inside and outside. He's an outsider looking in. Musicians are supposedly looking at it from the inside. There are interesting negotiations going on about representing their feelings and conveying them to the outside.' Harris says his project has been more difficult than he expected. He's often met with 'incredulous blankness', which suggests that Mao may be off-limits to many of the musicians he's approached. 'Some have said, 'What right do you have coming here and getting us to do this?',' says Harris. 'I realised the extraordinary status of Mao, and my own ignorance of it. I'm trying to get educated in the face of the one-dimensional understanding of Mao in the west.' Mao's poetry is also relatively unknown in China, he says. People know it exists, and they've heard some of the poetry in songs their parents might sing to them. 'Choirs know The Long March and there's a score for Snow,' Harris says. The project's results have been varied, but Harris is optimistic that it will continue to evolve and not depend on his temporary presence in China. He says it's hard to tell whether he'll be able to draw any conclusions about Mao, at least until after the audience has seen the work. But he says one of his aims is to try to change the view of Mao in the west.