CHINA from Mao to Modernity
When I was creating my project Modern History, I was influenced by Bruno Barbey’s portfolio, entitled China: From Mao to Modernity, which provided a good reference starting point for my research on modern Chinese history.
I was looking for Western interpretation about Chinese majority and this portfolio brought me to Bruno Barbey. Barbey is a French photographer at The Magnum Photos. During his visit to China with President Pompidou in the 1970s, he took many valuable photos of the Mao era. After this diplomacy visiting he went back to China many times during the past 40 years and recorded important historical changes. His work focuses on daily life of ordinary people. He takes a “non-intervesionist approach” to shot the social living status and objectively provide a true appearance of an era.
Reflecting on Barbey’s work, allowed me to integrate a number of his elements into my project. For example, Barbey mentioned:” The crowd is a major theme in my photography. I think people can best reveal the spirit of a country.” This inspired me to pay attention to the changes of the modern Chinese lifestyle, and to discover the change of national spirit--from absolute collectivism to individualism.
His composition often uses the contrast between large scenes and small figures, such as works riding bikes in front of a politician’s sculpture, and a farmer resting under a large political poster. This contrast describes the relationship between individuals and political times. In his portrait photography, the capture of facial expressions of people allows me to see the essence of society through the 20th century.
In my project I have tried to focus on the individual like Barbey, instead of looking at the macro-historical changes described in literature. Therefore, I borrowed from genealogy to study the changes from my great-grandfather to my generation. The huge differences from the material world to spiritual world is similar to Barbey’s photos that move from monotonous gray to rich colours. However, I have found that the political environment of society has not changed much despite ongoing political regulation. There seems to be a tension between the two.
The Crowd: A study of the popular mind
When I was creating the project The Tower of Babel I was influenced by a book，entitled The Crowd：A Study of the popular mind , which analyzes the cause of the group violence, panic, racism, ect. It provides some theories about The Hong Kong protests and the Covid-19 global pandemic
In The Crowd：A Study of the popular mind, first published in 1895, Le Bon refers to those individuals in crowds who are dominated by 'collective psychology'. He analyzes the crowd from a psychological perspective. He claims that once an individual is integrated into the group, his personality will be obliterated. The group thought will occupy an absolutely dominant position, and at the same time, the group's behavior will also demonstrate rejection, extremes, emotions, and low IQ, etc., which have a destructive impact on society.
Le Bon argues that after an individual joins a group, they will show different psychological and behavioral performances than when the individual is alone. He further claims that the crowd often behaves more irrationally than the individual. When different individuals gather in groups, the prevailing psychology amongst these individuals is that the law will not be used against the crowd. So, when in a crowd, individuals will behave in ways that they would never do when not part of a group. Le Bon believes that the crowd does not lead to wisdom, but stupidity. I would argue that in many cases, the formation of groups reduces individual wisdom and this can be seen when the behavior of crowds becomes violent.
I think that group behavior is susceptible to suggestion and influence. Slogans and propaganda are powerful drivers of group behavior. The power, also, of visual images to form ways of understanding and thinking cannot be underestimated. The impact of slogans and images on the group will determine behaviors. Sometimes, there is an interesting phenomenon that the more obscure the slogan, the greater the influence, and the greater the incitement of popular sentiment
Le Bon’s theories can be used to explain many violent incidents in China: the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, and the recent violence in Hong Kong.
I think Gustave Le Bon's theory still works in the Internet era and incidents of cyber-violence. The rumor mongering that social media are responsible for can lead to violence and destruction. Therefore, I believe that how to think independently is the first problem that Chinese people need to solve.
Le Bon, G. (2002). The Crowd：A Study of the popular mind Mineola, N.Y. : Dover Publications,
Blade Runner and Syd Mead
When I created the work Virus City, I referred to some elements from the film Blade Runner and its industrial designer Syd Mead. He designed an incredible dystopian world,
This classical science- fiction film has epoch-making significance. It has an avant-garde perspective and the way of thinking that integrates religion, philosophy, human nature, etc. It expresses the thinking about science, human nature, life, death, and nature. Its dark style and futuristic design have had a huge impact on subsequent science fiction films and games.
Unlike some ordinary science fiction films--grand epic scenes, super-intelligent equipment, convenient lifestyles, omnipotent superheroes, the Blade Runner almost never appeared in a utopian sense. The film seems to have been raining all night and shows low-light illumination, strong contrast of neon lights, and the wet dirty streets. Human beings only live in the dark, damp, and crowded bottom of the city. These dystopian elements form an unbreathable atmosphere.
In people ’s imagination, the future city should be beautiful and orderly, but what the film shows is very different from that fantasy. It describes a concept of dystopia and the nihilistic aesthetic features, through this carefully designed lens languages and unique expressions. The director conveyed the lingering fear of the future to the audience.
I was attracted by the hue and atmosphere of the whole movie. I tried to shape the dystopian atmosphere with grey buildings, weird light, and agitated mechanical sound. Syd Mead's design of transportation such as spaceships, buildings, and costumes have highly influenced my project's design.
Richard Serra's work inspired me to think about the ways of seeing 'Public art.'
His work provides the public with a brand new way of seeing, which inspires audiences to think. He mentioned that “seeing is thinking, to think is to see. " He believes that artists can change the audience’s way of seeing, they may change the audience’s way of thinking, such as immersive exhibitions, Marcel Duchamp's work, etc. Therefore, it is not necessary that everyone loves or accepts artists’ work. In fact, even if the work failed in the end, but artists also had a chance to change people's way of thinking, than the artwork does not fail. This is very important.
Serra uses basic elements of sculpture: line, surface, volume, weight, and space to lead audiences to react differently when they are walking through his work. They might be moved, attracted, protected, threatened, or feel a certain strength by these large-scaled iron walls. In other words, his work explores the relationship between the place of artistic work and the audience.
Wandering in his work, I realized that he wants to bring a serious and depressing atmosphere to his audience. I tried to bring this atmosphere into my work, including Modern History and Virus City. Based on Richard Serra's work, I use software to enhance this atmosphere with sound and high contrast light. Moreover, challenging the audience's way of seeing is also one of the points that I learned. So I tried to add some skills to the work, the audience can get rid of physical limitations in the VR world--flying and pushing huge objects is available in my virtual public art projects. This kind of seeing and participation methods cannot be achieved in ordinary public art.
Cao Fei, an artist who has recently finished her solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Her works have inspired me for a long time because she has a similar growing environment with me-- in a rapidly changing China and we are full of doubts about this rapidly changing era.
Cao Fei's works mainly discuss the absurdity of contemporary China. In her work Who's Utopia, she recorded some lamp factory workers who have a stressful life but dream big. When a female worker was dancing, a tiny single bed behind her showed a sharp contrast between the two. The background music Where do you belong and My future is not a dream showed an unbreakable class differentiation. There, "Utopia" seems to represent those dreams that cannot be realized in reality.
Cao Fei is a bystander in Chinese society, the way she is thinking about Chinese society and political issues are very unique. She does not critique authorities as violently as Ai Weiwei did, but she uses witty methods to gently introduce her thinking to her audience.
In her work RMB City, she created an absurd Chinese city based on virtual games. In this virtual space, it combines large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, which it became a symbol of China's urbanization expansion. She systematically placed a ridiculous character in this city and pushed the viewer into something beyond reality.
I referred to her work when I was creating my project Virus City, but my intension is different from her concept. My city is more for the audience's experience, rather than integrating stories.