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Truth, Interrogation, and Dislocation: Chinese Contemporary Photography and “Red” Images

 Wang Huangsheng 
(Ph.D., Professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts)

The intellectual resources utilized in the creation of Chinese contemporary art and photography, as well as the intrinsic motivations for the production of these images, often stem from the history, culture, traditions, and realities of China. The reasons for the construction of these intellectual resources and image production mechanisms, as well as their innate elements, are extremely complex. Artists wonder how to treat, extend, appropriate, contemplate, or mock red history, the Cultural Revolution, and their visual images through their own viewpoints and expressive methods, in order to consider, express, and respond to this time in history. When we cannot touch history itself, images become excellent tools for us to interpret and reflect on history. 

Therefore, the signifier and signified of these red (or revolutionary) images are immensely complex but also very open. Generally speaking, when we discuss red images, we very quickly think of the Cultural Revolution, because the case could be made that red images were perfected during that time. With its frenzied mental state and raging societal diseases, the Cultural Revolution echoed global revolutionary fever and the creation, promotion, and dissemination of these images reached an insane peak. Thus, we are sensitive about the Cultural Revolution in myriad ways, encompassing politics, closely guarded secrets, suffering, taboos, idealistic passions, years of struggles, families, individuals, and intellectual, rational thought. These images contain many complex memories and emotions, including numerous injuries or memories of pain, and so many sins, so much hate, and so much regret that people want to escape but cannot. When these kinds of Cultural Revolution images become the ultimate representatives of red images, our discussions become more complex and full of painful reflection. 

However, we must emphasize that red images cannot be equated to images from the Cultural Revolution. The production of red images can be traced back to the Yan’an period or even earlier. The reasons for and process of the generation of these images were very complex, incorporating issues of politics, time, culture, class, revolution, and internationalism, while also including folk culture, the masses, and their customs. The bright, direct, and accessible pictorial traits of Chinese folk art were often the easiest and most direct sources for red images. The primary sociological and aesthetic traits of red images can be summarized as images and forms that had deep political or politically-related tones expressed in popular, mass modes that made them easier to disseminate. The images were usually bright, positive, cartoon-like, and frank. 

As we interpret the relationship of Chinese contemporary art and photography to red images, we cannot stop at the connections to their production or their emotional and conceptual extensions. We must examine their focal points, and the space they provide for appropriation and reflection. We must re-think, re-understand, and re-express red images as history and history as a subject of interpretation.

Therefore, when interpreting the relationship between red images and Chinese contemporary art, and especially contemporary photography, we can develop our analysis along several lines:

First, red images as artifacts are often considered a “decisive moment” in history; they are the records that make up history and they are historical images for contemporary artists to re-interpret. Shao Fei, the most important photojournalist of the revolutionary areas, and Weng Naiqiang, a reporter for large color pictorial magazines, conscientiously recorded various historic moments. Due to their particular temporal and political backgrounds, as well as their specific jobs and emotional states, they had an artistic sensitivity to the moment and a mastery of their cameras. In their work, the moment is set as history, and history is transformed into an eternal visual image. Zhang Dali, Mo Yi, Wang Qingsong, and Cai Dongdong, who grew up after the Cultural Revolution, have distinct and extraordinary sensitivity to interpretations of history and the ability to recreate history; they attempt to dive into the depths of history and the human heart, recreating a “second history” or a “second site.” Zhang Dali’s Second History is a project that lies between that of an artist and a sociologist. As an artist, he has an artistic sensitivity and intuition, as well as the ability to creatively interpret images and visual materials. With these seemingly familiar pictures from society, he creatively yet sensitively interrogates issues and reveals images, interestingly drawing us into history interpreted by art. As a quasi-sociologist, his incisive, persistent, and rigorous methods reflect a spirit of rational inquiry into history and society, and his survey work with images and documents provide a material foundation for thought and inquiry related to human nature and history. In Cai Dongdong’s work, including his photographic installations, there is a return to the site of history, or a glimpse of the secrets of history, delivered with a sense of humor. This humor might be a way for one generation to understand and interpret another. He has recently collected photographs to make into new work; these pictures are personal photographs and ID photos from that period, and the pictures often have text on the back, including dates, locations, friendly messages, and document seals. This information on that period and the silent power of the images themselves are serious and emotional echoes of history. Mo Yi uses a pair of “red” eyes to observe the world, and through his lens, an ordinary red sheet could be misinterpreted as a flag, and a mottled red wall and the people leaning against it seem to draw us into those red years; even their expressions draw us into that time. Wang Qingsong is a unique alternative, often playing the role of someone present at that moment in history; this historical presence is unconsciously transformed into another historical site. The ubiquitous big character posters are transformed into omnipresent advertisements, and the people amongst them become insignificant and helpless. 

 We are often fascinated by a historic moment, but we actually find it hard to figure out if the “first history” is the truth, or if the “second history” is more accurate. Perhaps we are creating new historical sites through art. 

Second, red images are also a way of recounting history, a symbol of collectivism, and often, the historical sites or past methods that the camera faces are in themselves representative of this collectivism, such as large halls, propaganda boards, and group photographs. Of course, contemporary artists’ cameras, ideas, and emotions are linked to the contemplation and examination of history. In Mu Chen and Shao Yinong’s series Assembly Halls, Chinese assembly halls were the products of a collectivist period. Once places for purifying and reforming the soul, they became gathering places of Chinese political and spiritual life. When significant changes take place, people’s ideas, spirits, political ideals, and lives become increasingly diverse and increasingly materialistic, which means that assembly halls have become relics of history. Mu Chen and Shao Yinong spent many years visiting Yan’an, Ruijin, and other places sacred to the revolution and they delved into China’s countryside and factories in the hopes of re-interpreting sites of history through these assembly halls and questioning various anxieties and problems of the spirit, rationality, and emotion in the past and the present. He Chongyue first made a significant impact with his Family Planning series. Those penetrating and visually-impactful propaganda boards were undoubtedly the most effective way of disseminating red images, and the political ideals and policy guidance communicated by those boards led, dominated, and even regulated the thoughts, lives, and behaviors of several generations. Today, family planning is a relic of history, and the aftereffects have become unspeakably more complicated. He Chongyue has extended this series into End, which focuses on the real issues that remain in the Chinese countryside. He utilizes the methods of group photographs, which also figuratively narrate the relationship between collectivist consciousness and reality. Zhuang Hui is another contemporary artist utilizing the methods of group photography, blending together performance, organization, expression, and metaphor. Beginning in 1996, he made a series of large-scale group pictures; every time he organizes several hundred workers, farmers, medical professionals, PLA soldiers, or students. He uses traditional methods and a rotating panoramic camera to take group photographs, and the figure of the artist himself always appears on the right side of the picture.

Collective, authoritative spaces often have special symbolic meaning, and these spaces might even become more sacred and mysterious, which is why we cannot approach the spaces at the center of authoritarian power. Even so, Qu Yan unearths and records these “spaces of power” in everyday life, vividly recording these special symbols that persist across time and space; rich and interesting details add the imprint of the times to these “spaces of power.”

Third, red images are not simply grand historical narratives; they are not simply collective expression and collective memory. They are the development and change of time and present circumstance. They often become the personal and emotional traces of those who lived and grew up among them. These memories and spheres create a significant space for contemporary art. In particular, when the personal and temporal meet with the historical and collective, this narrative method and structure has a profound inflection point. Cao Kai’s Summer of ’69 places a personal experience of growing up against the larger background of the Chinese revolution and world hysteria; the movement, upheaval, craziness, passion, unease, cheers, rock music, streaming tears, sounds of tank treads, the explosive jungle heat, and the exciting speeches around the world became the lullabies for infants of Cao Kai’s generation. Wang Ningde would rather wander forever in his childhood years and circumstances; it is unclear if the dreams of soldiers, young pioneers, and families are a yearning for tranquility or an indifferent state of mind. In the interior worlds of people of this generation, there is an unavoidable sense of escape and rejection roiling in the background. Song Yongping has directly yet soulfully presented in visual terms his relationship with his parents and his processes and methods of coming to re-engage with his parents in a dignified way, which makes it unbearable for us to watch the end of the experiences and bodies of our parents. Feng Mengbo, called the “King of Computer Games,” uses interactive, participatory, and almost game-like methods to present and interpret My Private Album, in which personal histories and public histories overlap. Working with these overlapping histories in a game is actually a new way of engaging with these histories. Also through a photo album, Hai Bo’s pictures are solemn and even heavy; images of time, friendship, events, and family are all present, and the artist is a bystander, but also one who personally experienced these events. History, time, the individual, and society cannot be interpreted in a linear fashion. 

Fourth, the interrogation of history itself or the sustained questioning, mocking unearthing, and eliminating of historical questions attempt to express the artists’ doubts about time, life, history, and memory. Wang Youshen’s Washing series, from his early reflections on the historical memories of the 1960 mine collapse in Datong to his more recent washing series that invites public participation. The gradual dissipation and emptiness of memory questions the specificity of human forgetfulness. This “washing” is humanity’s consciously acceleration of the erasure of fading history; doesn’t the fading and disappearance of images have greater implications for historical “truth” and “permanence?” He Chongyue uses static and refined images to question the traces of revolutionary imagination in the course of history; these traces of history and revolution have been quietly imprinted on the memories of several generations, and in the flow of history, this has become a fragment that is frequently ignored even if familiar. In Shao Yinong and Mu Chen’s Red Guard Cemeteries, the gloomy, damp, moldy, and indifferent reality presents a merciless contrast with the ideals, passions, impulses, and fervor of past times; the past and the present are always impermanent and ruthless. 

Zhang Kechun’s Man Swimming the Yellow River Holding Mao’s Portrait engages with history and the deeply-embedded images and events of Mao swimming the Yangtze River. With changing times and places, the revolution in thought, the unprecedented shifts in society, his images still present a brand of historical feelings and prospects. In Zhang Kechun’s series of work, historical traces and present methods always quietly and kindly coexist, but you always feel that there was a mistake somewhere. This sense of dislocation is the most interesting description of the relationship between Chinese contemporary photography, the Cultural Revolution, and red images.

 May 28, 2017
Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, China