Singapore’s The Arts House holds solo exhibition of work by Li Zhensheng during SIPF 2016.

Running until 29 October 2016 during the Singapore International Photography Festival (SIPF) 2016, the exhibition of photographs by Chinese photojournalist Li Zhensheng reveals a too-often censored period of China’s history.

Li Zhensheng, 'People commemorated the one-year anniversary of Mao’s swim in the Yangtze river by holding the portrait of Mao Zedong in Songhua River', 1967. © Li Zhensheng, SIPF 2016.

Li Zhensheng, ‘People Commemorated the One-Year Anniversary of Mao’s Swim in the Yangtze River by Holding the Portrait of Mao Zedong in Songhua River’, 1967. © Li Zhensheng, SIPF 2016.

With a death toll potentially reaching into the millions over the course of a decade, China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) stands apart as one of the most convulsive upheavals of the 20th century. Despite its far-reaching effects on China and the world, pockets of that period remain opaque, lost behind layers of censorship, or the simple loss of records typical of chaotic times. Thanks to the efforts of photojournalist Li Zhensheng, who lived through and documented the Cultural Revolution, some of these hidden facets are now on view at The Arts House, in the exhibition “Witness: The Archive of Cultural Revolution” until 29 October 2016.

In his official capacity as a photographer for the Heilongjiang Daily – as well as his decision to wear a red armband designating him a “red colour news soldier” – Li obtained unprecedented access to many events which characterised the period of the Cultural Revolution. This surety of access comes across, in some small part, in the perspectives from which his photographs are taken – right in the thick of the action, in some cases, as well as from commanding, elevated perspectives, with no sense of illicit furtiveness. The level of access he was granted also allowed him to document not just the public face of the revolution, all smiles and cheerful unity, but also the revolution’s darker side.

Li Zhensheng. © Li Zhensheng. Image courtesy Li Zhensheng.

Li Zhensheng. © Li Zhensheng. Image courtesy Li Zhensheng.

The location of the exhibition, The Arts House, once housed Singapore’s Parliament. It was therefore adapted to host art shows, but has conserved its original layout. There is a clear tension between the needs of the exhibition and the building’s layout, coming across in the cramped confines of the exhibition’s ‘antechamber’, odd side corridors which branch out from it, and curiously placed side-entrances in the gallery’s glass façade. Still, despite these limitations, the curators have worked towards making the space adapt to Li’s photographs, perhaps even allowing the contorted design of the building to contribute to the contrasting visual narratives of the Cultural Revolution.

Li Zhensheng, Self-portrait, 17 July 1967. © Li Zhensheng. Image courtesy Li Zhensheng.

Li Zhensheng, ‘Self-portrait’, 17 July 1967. © Li Zhensheng. Image courtesy Li Zhensheng.

The confined space of the exhibition’s antechamber serves to introduce the figure of the photographer himself, partly through wall text, and through photos. In what turns out to be a recurring motif, the black-and-white images are mounted on red partitions, and the images relating to Li himself are often light-hearted and candid, depicting Li and his family, as well as a photograph of the “red colour news soldier” armband, which is so intimately entwined with the exhibition as a whole.

The other images in this section of the exhibition depict the public, palatable face of the Cultural Revolution. There is an upbeat, celebratory liveliness to these images, which range from a crowd of soldiers laughing at a dancing child, to exhibitions of the humble determination of so-called ‘model citizens’, as well as ordinary citizenry cheerfully setting out to campaign against the ideals of the old China that the People’s Republic had supplanted.

Li Zhensheng, Hundreds of thousands gather in front of the North Plaza Hotel carrying homemade portraits of Mao in a show of loyalty and support. Harbin 21 June 1968. © Li Zhensheng. Image courtesy Li Zhensheng.

Li Zhensheng, ‘Hundreds of Thousands Gather in Front of the North Plaza Hotel Carrying Homemade Portraits of Mao in a Show of Loyalty
and Support’, Harbin 21 June 1968. © Li Zhensheng. Image courtesy Li Zhensheng.

This last image foreshadows many of the exhibition’s later photographs, as does the somewhat Pythonesque scenario detailed in an image of happy newlyweds putting up portraits of Chairman Mao in their bedroom. The couple in question were later criticised for having sex before his eyes, and in their defense, the couple claimed to always have put the lights out beforehand. Also setting the tone for the exhibition are some bits of text found in otherwise-unused side-corridors branching off from the antechamber – including a piece of calligraphy, and its translation into English:

“Let history tell the future through Li Zhensheng’s photographs of the Cultural Revolution.”

Li Zhensheng, Swimmers prepare to plunge into the Songhua River to commemorate the second anniversary of Mao's swim in the Yangtze River. 16 July 1968. © Li Zhensheng. Image courtesy Li Zhensheng.

Li Zhensheng, ‘Swimmers Prepare to Plunge into the Songhua River to Commemorate the Second Anniversary of Mao’s Swim in the Yangtze River’, 16 July 1968. © Li Zhensheng. Image courtesy Li Zhensheng.

Unlike the antechamber, in which images surround the viewer from the four corners of the room, the main room of the gallery sees Li’s photographs mounted on parallel rows of partitions – if one enters by the antechamber, these partitions are perpendicular to the line of entry. Combined with their varying heights and staggered arrangement, these partitions are suggestive of fortifications of some kind – structures which impede and obstruct, at the least. However, the adversarial character of this layout does not significantly detract from the images, and may instead intensify the experience of seeing them.

The arrangement of the partition also seems to invoke, albeit in a rather heavy-handed way, the two faces of the Cultural Revolution: its public face, distributed through China’s official media channels, and its hidden face, replete with violence and excess. The images facing the antechamber, for the most part, embody the former, while the images facing away, the latter – with the exception of the final wall of images, which face only outward.

Li Zhensheng, An official group photo session of the “educated youth” at Yinlonghe farm, 1976. © Li Zhensheng, SIPF 2016.

Li Zhensheng, ‘An Official Group Photo Session of the “Educated Youth” at Yinlonghe Farm’, 1976. © Li Zhensheng, SIPF 2016.

Depicted in the public-facing images are scenes largely similar in tone to those in the antechamber, though perhaps not nearly as willfully optimistic. In these photographs, workers and Red Guards alike can be seen manufacturing and distributing the crucial infrastructure of propaganda, the educated youth join the peasants in the countryside to embark on large-scale agricultural earthworks, and so on. Some standouts in this category include a ‘model soldier’ with pins and badges all over his uniform, and a shot of one of the strangest episodes of the Cultural Revolution: a parade celebrating the presentation of two waxed mangoes to the Heilongjiang party headquarters – a microcosm of the curious cult of the mango, which took hold after Mao gifted some of the fruit to workers who had stormed and seized Qinghua University.

Li Zhensheng, The peasants from Acheng county admires the mass-produced Mao portrait, 1968. © Li Zhensheng. Image courtesy Li Zhensheng.

Li Zhensheng, ‘The Peasants from Acheng County Admires the Mass-produced Mao Portrait’, 1968. © Li Zhensheng. Image courtesy Li Zhensheng.

A common theme holds on the reverse face of these partitions: thunderous denunciation. In one photograph we might see a peasant, cowed and beaten, surrounded by Red Guards; in the next, his repossessed home, turned into a local museum of the reactionary, bourgeois lifestyle of the denounced peasant, as part of the ‘Four Elements’ the Cultural Revolution was charged with purging: landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries and other bad elements.

Li Zhensheng, Public shaming by the Red Guards in front of the masses, 1966. © Li Zhensheng, SIPF 2016.

Li Zhensheng, ‘Public Shaming by the Red Guards in Front of the Masses’, 1966. © Li Zhensheng, SIPF 2016.

Here are the images of hard labour; of people humiliated with dunce caps, paraded through the city with signs about their necks detailing their ‘crimes’. The scale of the fervour involved can be inferred from the fact that even the secretaries of the Heilongjiang Provincial Party Committee suffered the same fate. The final series of images deal largely with the Cultural Revolution’s attacks on religion – perhaps the curators felt that such a theme would resonate strongly in majority-theist Singapore. With scriptures burned, and temples and churches toppled, there’s a strong sense of the Cultural Revolution as a break, or scar of sorts, deleting vast swathes of culture at a stroke. The scatological humour of the revolutionaries is also on display, with a photograph of Buddhist monks forced to display a sign stating:

To hell with Buddhist scriptures. They are full of dog farts.

© Li Zhensheng, 'A scene of the Red Guards ransacking Jile Temple',1966. SIPF 2016. Image courtesy the artist and SIPF.

© Li Zhensheng, ‘A Scene of the Red Guards Ransacking Jile Temple’, 1966. SIPF 2016. Image courtesy the artist and SIPF.

Unusually, despite their mention in other publications about Li Zhensheng’s work, there are no executions to be seen. Still, the size of Li’s archive has been estimated at approximately 20,000 images, and only a minuscule fraction of these could be exhibited in the gallery of The Arts House – though doubts may still linger about the curatorial selection process and censorship.

Bruce Quek


Related Topics: Chinese artists, photography, historical art, identity art, cultural revolution, festivals, museum shows, events in Singapore

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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