Feng Mengbo, the father of computer art in China, turns his attention to the diorama.
“Feng mengbo: Museum” is on show at Shanghai’s MadeIn Gallery from 14 May to 2 July 2017. Feng’s “Museum” features a series of miniature scenes depicting the contradictions inherent in a socio-political environment like that of his native China.
Chinese artist Feng Mengbo is known as a pioneer of new media art. It was his association with the burgeoning medium of video gaming, albeit in the form of the 24 paintings entitled Game Over: Long March (1993) that launched his international career. After graduating from Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts and Beijing School of Arts and Crafts, these works were shown at the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993, having been included in exhibitions of new Chinese ‘Pop Art’.
The exhibition “Feng Mengbo: Museum” at Shanghai’s Made In Gallery looks back to the diorama, the illusionistic 3D tableau invented by Louis Daguerre in 1822, preceding his groundbreaking photographic process, the Daguerreotype of 1839. Like Daguerre, Feng is comfortable moving between technologies, finding the most appropriate to deliver an effect with popular appeal. In an interview for Ocula in 2014 Feng Mengbo says:
Technology has made great progress but I don’t see how it changed our lives for the better.
The show reaffirms the museum as a motif in Feng’s work. It last occurred in “My private Museum” (2012), a series of photos of the old Shanghai Natural History Museum. This series focuses on the museum as a site of creativity, recording the inventions of the museum staff, envisioned in the context of the Mao era policies, The Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Feng’s photographs document the thoughtful artistry of the ideologically inflected displays, made at a time when animals were categorised not by species, but according to utility. In this period staff could not travel, either to associate with colleagues in the museum sector or to witness the specimens in their original habitats, so everything was left to their imagination.
The 3D models in Feng’s “Museum” pick up from the same chain of thought, placing diverse models and objects in lovingly fabricated scenes. The ordering principles accord more with Feng’s personal fancy than the need for coherence. The current works are a set of ambiguous displays played out with combinations of motifs derived from popular culture, from sunken treasures to King Kong. A rambling text complements each scenario.
The forms of the display cases look more like the machines in a games arcade than vitrines in a museum. The arrangement, with two symmetrical rows of six consoles, suggests the Christian iconography of the twelve apostles at the last supper, with a real game console, playing Feng’s self-authored playable computer game, Long March Restart (2008), presiding over these disciples. If the functioning game stands for Feng himself, the other works are a court of his interests. He is non-hierarchical: Biblical figures, celebrities and dictators hold equal status with gaming avatars and other characters of history or fiction.
In the far corner of the gallery, a cubicle hides a life size installation of a wash-room. It is viewed through a porthole in the door. This work may reference Marcel Duchamp’s famous tableau Étant Donnés (1946 – 66), similarly only visible through the crack in a door. Duchamp’s view is cropped; the figure of a naked female is too close to be seen in its entirety through the gap. Feng’s room is occupied by two homunculi, too tiny to be seen properly. A naked man looks a lot like kung fu superstar Bruce Lee; he stands in the shower cubicle while a clothed woman perches on the edge of a toilet with an open book. Taking a characteristically ambivalent attitude to the contrast of Transatlantic and Chinese values, the image may connote either baptism or the element of water in feng shui. The room can be understood as a place of cleansing and renewal, or of equilibrium.
Some of the displays must be examined through a refractive lens. This gives an enhanced spatial effect from a single viewpoint. One labeled Erotic Color Prints of the Ming Period for example, shows models of women in erotic contortions in bondage gear. The models are formally laid out in rows against a tiered crimson background. The lens thwarts any attempt at voyeurism, because inspecting more closely throws all but a tiny central point out of focus. The accompanying text similarly swims between offering clarification and embellishing the illusion.
It evokes Robert van Gulik, the colourful Dutch author of the Judge Dee Mysteries and Sexual Life in Ancient China (1961). The detail, at the conclusion of the account claims that this group of mannequins is a secret theatre that he “set with dolls as those in the Japanese Girl’s Day. There each night he directed a mini erotic play, simultaneously he wrote a Yinyue Vegetarian Recipe that had never been discovered before”.
Other models can be inspected more thoroughly, but it does not help interpretation. The information in the accompanying texts is plentiful but without consequence. In one scene Hitler, accompanied by a uniformed stenographer, stands at an easel painting a model who reclines on a chaise longue, the Eiffel Tower visible through the window. In others, a toy plastic bunny presides over a lunar landing or two figures ride on a bike on a dark night; elsewhere a group of cute animals are carousing in an underground police car park. For the latter, the text that hints of a report of animals escaped from a circus, concludes:
Media recommend everyone not to spread or believe rumors, and all kind of public accounts exaggerating the facts and using thrilling titles were all temporarily shut down for rectification.
It is easy to grasp that the tone reflects the strictures of life under a repressive regime, but the imposition of any such strictures is at odds with the whimsical poetry of the scene.
Revolution and culture
Growing up in the period of the Cultural Revolution, Feng acknowledges that his ambition, and indeed every young person’s ambition buying into the fervour of the times, was to be a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army. Rather than going along with the popular Western interpretation of the period as an era of subjugation, Feng represents it as one of imaginative liberation, of multiple alternate realities. The optimism of popular propaganda media seeps into everyday life. The future is suffused with infinite possibilities, because the past is a relaxed fabric of narrative invention, speculation and popular vernacular.
In the catalogue to the 1995 exhibition “Visions of Happiness”, Feng says:
My art is concerned with the commonplace lives of ordinary people. I’m fascinated by the fact that despite all of its travails humankind battles for survival, struggles to maintain its basic dignity, ever hopeful and often humorous.
In Feng’s art, the museum stands not as a repository of fixed knowledge but of flux and inspiration, a place where stories are born and can evolve, and be reflected and multiplied behind glass.
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