The Poetry of Yellowed Postcards ( de )

Weltkunst Contemporary, 2008-09

Dreams of cotton candy and invigorating arrows from the Tang dynasty. The stagings recorded in the photographs of Shanghai artist Ma Liang (b. 1972), who goes by the nom de plume of Maleonn, are taking us into a realm between times.

Is a photo still a photo when it has been overpainted with Indian ink? And: what tale is being told in the seven-part series Chinese Story? On a wooden pier in a picturesque lake scenery, there is a male figure standing, enshrouded in transparent plastic foil and armed with a bow, the image of a second one being superimposed. The phantasmagoric appearance has been hit in the back by numerous arrows though it seems unharmed. In streaks and smears, ink trickles over the black-and-white scene. “Everyone in China knows the story of the commander who, with darkness approaching, sends out boats manned by mock warriors in order to get the enemies to spend their arrows on them”, the artist explains. “And those arrows would later be used against that very enemy.” However, that would only be one of the narratives around this proud dream-like figure who in other sequences reappears with traditional Chinese hand puppets or in a forest of bamboos. The strong appeal of these images, which have been reprocessed several times both on the computer and by hand, is at work long before any explanation has been given.

Chinese Stage Esthetics and the Cinema of Theo Angelopoulos

Soon after the first cameras were available in the unofficial Chinese art scene at the end of the 1970s, artists made use of this medium to document their performances. In this way, they were putting on show their desire for freedom and individual creative space, often with quite drastic means of self-dramatization. There was not much room for ambiguities or even an atmosphere of poetry in this context. Instead those movies and photos show things like artists eating soap until they vomit, hanging about in public toilets buzzing with flies, or placing themselves on blocks of ice so as to provoke their own death from freezing.

For Maleonn, the Cultural Revolution and the heavy repressions that his older colleagues were faced with belong to the past. In 2004, he quit being a commercial filmmaker and turned to the liberal arts. It is this background which explains his sensitivity for staging and presentation. He is unmistakably influenced by Chinese tradition, but also by Western ideals, as the artist himself acknowledges. However, these are not the popular stars of the movie and art world but rather the dilapidated ambience that you find in the works of Czech nude photographer Jan Saudek, the lonesome heroes of Greek cinema director Theo Angelopoulos, or by the nightmarish panopticum of midgets, hermaphrodites and freaks that New York photographer Joel Peter Witkin conjures up in his works.

Maleonn’s protagonists are captured in quite distinct poses that they take up in settings orchestrated to the smallest detail. The symbol-laden face painting, the emotive gestures and the sumptuous costumes he uses in his works are clearly inspired by Chinese stage plays and the Beijing opera. “My father was a director at a theater in Shanghai”, he says, “and my mother was an actress. I grew up in this artificial world.”

In his first picture story, My Circus (2004), Maleonn places garishly made-up and disguised characters into gloomy backyards. By manual recoloration the photographs take on the yellowed, washed-out tone of old postcards. In Days on the Cotton Candy (2006) girls in baroque frills and Western-style teased hairdos amuse themselves in bathrooms, all wound up and exalted into unadulterated kitsch. Candyfloss gushes out of a vacuum cleaner in amorphous clouds, sometimes shaping itself to be the male playmate of those femmes fatales who are virtually brimming with cockiness. “In the China of my childhood, cotton candy was one of those fantasies that would sometimes even come true”, the artist remembers. “A spoonful of sugar was enough to create happiness. The affluence of today can hardly compete with the intensity of that little pleasure.” Days on the Cotton Candy are characterized by both melancholia and affluenza hysterics.

Also the most recent photo stories from 2008 distinguish themselves by a general atmosphere that is both bizarre and full of nostalgia. With touching ingenuousness the title heroes of Little Flagman and Postman hang on to their idealism even in situations that offer little consolation and in sceneries shaped by decay. Thus even behind the bars of the cage that restricts his freedom the commander with the clownish makeup waves the green and not the red flag. And a sentimental letter carrier works his way through the scenario of a nameless crumbling city.

Incantations with an Ironic Twist

On his website Maleonn gives each series of pictures a preface of a few lines. Sometimes these are poems of the Chinese classics, sometimes observations of his own. “To my favorite poet Beidao” (1) is the concluding dedication of eight melancholic lines that look back on childhood promises and how one strives to remain true to them even in adult age. The corresponding twelve photographs of “Unforgivable Children” (2005) show young men wearing white masks in a storm of blank white papers and in scenes of child’s play, surrounded by buildings in ruins or standing in a heart shape of white paint on a concrete pathway. Maleonn’s reverence for the internationally renowned poet Bei Dao is also reflected in the preface to “Chinese Story”. Just as Bei Dao’s metaphor-laden language often eludes easy interpretation, Maleonn’s comments are quite challenging to the readers as well. In rather cryptic words we read,

Our plastic laminated Chinese identity card,
And all our borrowed impotent power. (2)

With a hardly less ironic undertone, Maleonn turns his attention to the Olympic Games of Athens 2004. Filmmaker Zhang Yimou, well known in the West as well, at least since his motion picture Hero, had contributed a performance for the closing ceremony. Taking into account the spectacular though somewhat showy period dramas that Zhang Yimou had made in the previous years, it is easy to draw the connection to the tragic hero of Chinese Story. Thus in Maleonn’s photo series the commander and his troops appropriate the enemies’ arrows to put them to rout. But while this is a tactical ploy and ultimately an act of self-protection, Maleonn denounces the internalized outside perspective on one’s own culture, which he perceives in a number of his artistic colleagues, as a debasement of Chinese tradition for the mere sake of entertainment, and therefore as the first step towards a loss of identity. Another critical side remark attacks those artists who—pandering to the Western audience—are presenting only the dark sides of Chinese culture. Instead of a modernizing perspective on national tradition, including a coming to terms with some rather traumatic chapters in China’s history, he sees a grandstanding self-exotification which is nothing but cliché and claptrap.

In the last lines of the commentary to Chinese Story, Maleonn addresses the ancestral spirits with elegiac pathos, requesting their support in resisting to the contemporary seductions.

“But I'm begging you, my once great and romantic motherland
To give me the endless power of dissent and transgression.”

For the Western reader this ironically twisted patriotism may sound somewhat strange. In China, however, it is not at all that rare for intellectuals or artists to be invoking the heyday of the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.) or even quoting some lines of poetry from that time to criticize present-day conditions. While in Chinese Story, the plastic wrapping of the protagonist visualized a state of self-estrangement and the failure to experience nature in a more symbiotic manner, in Second-hand Tang Poem (2007) already the title chosen by Maleonn indicates the loss of authenticity in today’s China.

History—which is perceived as a continuum of three to five thousand years by the Chinese—offers points of reference to the individual even today. For China’s artists and intellectuals the Tang era is a particularly important period to be quoted, as during that time the empire was characterized by the very high esteem it placed upon art and poetry and also kept up an active exchange in culture, religion and science with other continents. Maleonn emphasizes the rupture that contemporary China has made with the strong points of national consciousness by assigning a “second-hand character” to his country and identifying the present with “this plastic age”.

Maleonn knows he is in good company in China’s art world. For ever since the international success of contemporary Chinese art, the creative scene has been clearly divided into two groups. While some take their artistic bearings from nothing but the frantic shopping frenzy of the West—and, increasingly, also the East—others are using the freedom and creative license of art to promote a way of living in their home country which takes a firm stand on China’s rapidly changing society. Looking back forward, as it were, they are insisting on the immense potential of their culture that threatens to sink into oblivion in the current deliriousness with progress and development, but it is with similar urgency that they also demand international dialogue. The list of Maleonn’s solo and group exhibitions both in China and abroad reads like a success story—and one that implies success apart from the mainstream.

1 Bei Dao (the pseudonym of Zhao Zhenkai), born in Beijing in 1949, poet and storyteller. After the bloody repression of the Tiananmen Square protests of June 1989, Bei Dao did not return to China from a journey to Europe for fear of reprisals. He lives in exile in the USA even today.

2 Maleonn’s annotation to Chinese Story says:

Our plastic laminated Chinese identity card, And all our borrowed impotent power.

--I swear by my plastic laminated Chinese identity card, which is given by this plastic age: all my works are as original as the 8 minutes on the Olympics Night directed by Zhang Yimou, as innocent as the 12 female band, and as profound and great as all those artists who are famous for expressing the misery and numbness of the Chinese nation.

But I'm begging you, my once great and romantic motherland

To give me the endless power of dissent and transgression.

Website of the artist Maleonn

First published: Weltkunst

Translation: Werner Richter