Although I have seen many photographs by MO Yi before, I met him for the first time in person at the Dali International Photography Exhibition this year. There he invited my friends and I to visit his new exhibition Illusionary Memory at the Three Shadows Art Centre.
The exhibition uses images taken from the Cultural Revolution—including photography and poster art—to discuss and explore notions of memory and history. Nearly all of the installations are made of squared industrial tiles. Each of these tiles has been painted with a small Chinese character on a single colour backing. But they can also be divided into three kinds.
Firstly and most dominantly, tiles are glued together to make a flat surface which hangs from the wall. In the newsletter from the Three Shadows Gallery, GU Zheng emphasises that these works present the passivity of history and discusses the relationship between viewers, artworks and history. It is true that viewers are the one who decide how these works should be experienced. When you walk backwards step by step the scenes become mosaic styled images that are adaptations of identifiable Cultural Revolution scenes, such as the smiling LEI Feng, who is still promoted by the Chinese government as the great model for his willingness to help; and MAO Zedong, who is meeting his Red Guard soldiers on Tian’anmen. When you move closer to one of these works, you can identify that the Chinese characters come together to form sentences which reference slogans and talks made during the Cultural Revolution, or new revolutionary style slogans that have been created by contemporary pop culture. In this way the colours of the tiles are less important than the writing, because people cannot recognise the images anymore in a closer distance.I enjoyed playing with these works. For GU Zheng, these images stand as both works of art, but also as representations of what we understand of a specific period (in history). Thus, the power and experience of control would stimulate viewers to consider their own roles in understanding history and memory.
Fig. 1,2,3 Mao Zedong Mets Red Guards on Top of the Tian’anmen
However, something else drew my attention more significantly. Pink, red or yellow fur (or thread) was stuck in between tiles to resemble grass growing up from crevices in the stone floor. They look very soft and mysterious, which make the visual experience vague and ambiguous. This experience is similar to Chinese attitudes to the Cultural Revolution nowadays. People love and hate the event at the same time. But their opinions would not (and do not intend to) stop people benefitting from dealing with the subject. Mao and his red guards have became the popular themes for the now booming Chinese contemporary arts, or are merely served as a cash cows for restaurants. MO Yi—the artist—suggests to us his own understanding, impression and emotion toward the Cultural Revolution in China. This opinion could be applied to other parts of history in a materialised China.
Fig. 4 A View of Illusionary Memory
Furthermore, some red tiles are glued together to form a ballot box, which is placed at the middle of the gallery space. This colour perfectly matches the images on the wall, as the Chinese government has always been called the ‘Red’ regime and the Cultural Revolution has been understood as a ‘Red’ revolution. In many countries, the ballot box is supposed to stand for democratic power. However, this meaning is questionable in China, especially given a time like the Cultural Revolution where there were continuous power struggles between MAO and other leading officials in the Communist party. Votes from the public are limited. Looking through the slot in the ballot box, audiences can see a video inside which shows a hand writing some phrases backward in Chinese, such as the slogan “to rebel is justified”. The way of writing might be the artist’s criticism to the event.
Fig. 5 A View of Illusionary Memory
This ballot box is linked to the images on the wall through neat rows of squared tiles on the floor. The contradiction is obviously between democracy (ballot box) and dictatorship (the products of the Cultural Revolution). Each of the tiles on the floor shows a whole image of posters or photographs that were produced during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. They present the historical records most held and lead viewers to explore reinterpretations by the artist. Therefore, all the installations in the gallery space are related to each other. The relationships and contradictions between the works, allows viewers to step into an independent time and space, which is neither going back to the historic events nor staying in 2013. The tiles on the floor link and form the whole structure of MO Yi’s historical perception.
The decision to use visual materials and texts from the Cultural Revolution might sound cheesy for many people but it is crucial to this exhibition. This extreme event should be familiar to Chinese audiences. However, when we look at these artworks and look back into history, we realise how vague they are.
Fig. 6,7,8 Looking at the Mo Yi’s Works from Different Distances
Mo Yi was born and raised in Tibet. His works became well-known since 1990s in Asia. To know more about Mo Yi, please check out this article by the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/art-and-life-in-china-blur-for-photographer-mo-yi-2017493.html