by Colin Chinnery
translated by Gu Ling
Feng Mengbo solo exhibition
SGA | Shanghai Gallery of Art (3rd Floor, No.3, the Bund, Shanghai 200002, China). September 4 to October 28, 2012
For those who know Feng Mengbo’s work, the experience of being confronted with this show comes almost as a shock. Although Feng understandably shuns the epithet of “new media artist,” his work has since 1994 predominantly, or rather, obsessively used the computer and its creative potential as both tool and muse. “My Private Museum,” on the other hand, is entirely a photography show, and one that has a lot of personal devotion attached to it.
The museum that is Feng Mengbo’s object of devotion is the Shanghai Natural History Museum. Feng spent two years meticulously documenting every corner of the museum, every display case and corridor, going as far as obtaining special permission to document its dusty, abandoned backrooms. The result is a strange crossbreed between documentary, poem, and eulogy. It is a documentary because of the methodical and straightforward way each photograph has been taken. It’s apparent that he didn’t want artistic ideas to come in-between the viewer and the museum. It’s a poem because the museum itself, after years or even decades of neglect, has attained a poetic quality at the expense of its educational function. Like the romantic visions behind 19th-century European ruin paintings, decay conveys a certain poignancy; but here the decay is not a romantic fiction but reality, and the dignity of the images survives through lack of any sentimentality, and hence poignancy turns towards poetic vision that is indifferent to reality or fiction. Finally, it’s a eulogy because the images convey the loss of innocence and purity; sentimental words perhaps, but important to emphasize when they relate to the past few decades of political change.
One of the most potent aspects of this exhibition is the way Feng Mengbo has revealed or concealed the artist’s hand. The documentary-styled photos reveal a world that is familiar to those who grew up in China, but one that has become alienated through time. The dilapidation only forms a second layer of time, the first layer being the socialist era aesthetics of the original museum. These works attempt to keep the dignity of that era, when China represented a mixture of brutal political purges by the government with earnest political yearnings of the people. The care and attention given to each taxidermy specimen and each display case shines through the dust to reveal a professional honesty in stark contrast with our perception of those times. Yet the ideological nature of the displays is conveyed through a system categorizing animals in terms of their benefit or harm to human society. Innocence notwithstanding, those were the days when class war could be declared on sparrows.*
* The Great Sparrow campaign during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962). Sparrows were identified as one of the Four Pests (rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows) that were harmful to people. Sparrows were targeted because they ate grain and were killed almost to the point of extinction before leaders realized they also ate crop-eating insects. The lack of sparrows allowed locusts to thrive, decimating crops and contributing to the Great Chinese Famine.
These photos hone in on the aesthetics of the era as conveyed by the work of the museum’s idealistic and conscientious staff. Yet the artist’s aesthetic decisions play a large part in many other photographs. While the documentary-styled photos pay no attention to the reflections in the glass cabinets, Feng’s more aesthetically considered photos deliberately utilize these reflections to create effects specific to the museum’s environment. This device is used to great effect in his black-and-white photographs where the reflections cause almost hallucinogenic images such as “Panda No. 1″ (2012), in which taxidermy pandas and bamboo are intermingled with the reflections of museum windows and other display cases to create a seemingly multi-exposed yet coherent image. This mixture of documentary and aesthetic serves to engage the viewer with the museum on different levels. If this show was made from either a purely documentary or aesthetic perspective, it would serve to identify only with the museum or the artist. Instead, Feng Mengbo wants viewers to identity with the museum and the artist. In other words, the artist wants to be identified with the museum. This reveals a personal connection with Shanghai Natural History Museum beyond that of professional or aesthetic interest, and this is the motive behind the show’s rather confessional title, “My Private Museum.”
Although the medium used by Feng Mengbo is a departure from his former computer-based work, the personal nature of this show is a long-delayed continuation of a series of early works titled My Private Album that traced the past three generations of Feng’s family. Starting with a set of engravings in the late 1980s, it was followed in 1991–92 with an installation using handmade paper and netting, and finally culminating in 1996 with an interactive CD-ROM work that combined digitized old photographs of his family mixed in with memorabilia from the socialist era. The latter work launched his career on the international stage. By then, his passion had switched from personal narratives to the potential of digital technology, and he hasn’t looked back since. That is, until this show. The Shanghai Natural History Museum seems to have rekindled in Feng the need to trace his past, in this case the experience of visiting museums as a child. It is perhaps ironic in Feng Mengbo’s case that newer museums do not function for him because of their more technological approach to public education — by replacing stuffed animals with interactive screens. This museum has received no facelift, no development, and Feng seems to have seen the innocence of his own childhood in those cabinets, having waited 30 years to be rediscovered. However, Feng just couldn’t resist including a technological twist to the show, so he created a set of lenticular prints that create a three dimensional effect for viewers. This old-fashioned 3D technology once used on everything from postcards to pencil cases that wowed kids in the 1980s might even be one of Feng’s earliest sources of inspiration for his later love for technical creativeness. The playfully nostalgic nature of these 3D works not only connect the show with Feng’s more geeky side, they add an element of humour to an otherwise straight-laced show, not allowing it to take itself too seriously. After all, for an artist that invented the dance-pad version of Quake (“a_Q,” 2002), he can only keep a straight face for so long.