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How long can you chat with a Chinese person before you mention Mao Zedong? Viewing ‘The Chinese Photobook’ exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery in London I managed less than 15 seconds; that wasn't totally my fault since I'd been asked by a Chinese cultural official to take her photograph in front of a collection of images of the Helmsman himself, a corner of this exhibition that could quickly become a shrine. For Mao and his legacy are everywhere in this colourful and provocative collection of photographic works gathered together by photographer, collector and satirist Martin Parr, and the Dutch art collective WassinkLundgren. And many questions hang in the air as you wander through the small space given to this vast subject matter: is this an exhibition of the history of photography in China or of the development of its propaganda? Or, moreover, is it a visual history of China itself?
The exhibition, like the accompanying book, just published, adopts an historical perspective and is divided into six sections, each covering a significant period in China's tumultuous 20th century, followed by its dramatic entry into the 21st. Parr's photobooks begin with colonial collections from occupying French forces who lifted the siege of Peking in 1900, including striking aerial photos of Chinese cities alongside glossy, magazine-like volumes displaying the Chinese as a strange exotic race for Western curiosity, often as objects of desire for the male gaze. Photography itself becomes more sophisticated, shifting from amateur hobby to mass media.
With the end of empire in 1911 comes a period of political and social turmoil as regional despots fight for control of their patch of the fledgling republic. Opposing the anarchy, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek ultimately splits the united front with the new Chinese Communist Party, and his Kuomintang enjoy a brief period of power brought to a brutal close by the Japanese invasion in 1937, civil war, and the eventual return of the Communists under Mao in 1949. The dashing Chiang himself, resplendent in his military garb, accompanied by the glamorous Mei-ling, one of the infamous Soong sisters, pose for the camera like modern Western rulers, here juxtaposed with the photographic evidence of his flirtation with Mussolini’s fascists and his dream of the 'extermination of the communist party'.
The Sino-Japanese War marks a special period of its own from 1931–47, as the rising-sun Empire to the East colonized Manchuria, renaming it Manchukuo, and establishing a puppet regime under the disgraced former Manchu emperor Pu Yi. Both sides employed photography for their own political ends: the Japanese displaying its military might and its struggle for order, while the Chinese highlight the brutality of the invaders with images that are as shocking today as they undoubtedly were 80 years ago. Visual media as weapon of war is something familiar to us in an image-soaked modern world but to the Chinese in the first half of the last century this medium was essential to educating and enlightening the largely illiterate and rural population. Propaganda does its job effectively even in black and white with the occasional splash of red for dramatic effect, and with the advent of colour photography Mao’s New China was ready to exploit this technique for political purposes as never before.
State control of popular media meant using photography to bring more people into the political arena, to make them aware of the successes of communism and to guarantee their acceptance by all. The State is everything and the individual simply does not exist. The images, despite their overtly political motivation, remain bright, clear and disturbingly persuasive; women are no longer the focus of the curious foreigner but national heroes in factories, laboratories and farms. Everywhere is sunny and clean, everyone healthy and happy: what could possibly go wrong?
Of course Mao’s Great Leap Forward soon became the Great Famine killing millions. Blame and subsequent purges were abundant but the final straw in the Chairman's own failures came with the ill-conceived Cultural Revolution and its clumsy attempt to wipe away the old and leave nothing but a blank sheet onto which a new socialism could be written. Photography ironically played its part here too. While ordinary Chinese destroyed their own family photos in case they held evidence of their rightist or reactionary pasts, Mao stands bold and proud in touched-up, idealized images of a strong and masterful leader. The quasi-religious quality of these pictures is unsettling and their stage management all too obvious as Mao works, swims, plays ping pong and chats with workers. But the most striking of all are those images of Mao’s right-hand man, the doomed Lin Biao. Standing alongside the Chairman his image as been either wholly removed, a white ghost remaining or, more distressingly, crudely defaced.
Within a few years of Lin's flight from China and his coincidental death came that of Mao himself in 1976. China did not change overnight, although the Cultural Revolution ended and suitable scapegoats were found. Deng Xiao-ping opened China up, economically at least, but the naive hopes of the youth of Beijing and politicians in the West were crushed in the military crackdown on the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. The photobook The Truth about the Beijing Turmoil, here for you to handle, gives the 'official' version of the events that we witnessed through Western media. Student protestors are presented as agitators, criminals and hired trouble makers. The ensuing violence is presented as an attack upon the State as evidenced through atrocities committed upon the army, seen here with photographic ‘proof’!
The exhibition culminates in a celebration of non-state-controlled photography as its propaganda role shifts to personal use and to art. Surprisingly, this is the dullest part of the exhibition. The colour, the drama, the glory and the tragedy of China's past is neutralized by the globalized postmodern. I found myself drawn back to the glorious revolution and even the proud yet rather comic-book China Traffic Police of Deng's era. As I left the exhibition by the staircase I was seen off by a huge blown-up and emotive image of young, joyous female Red Guards in a 1970s group 'selfie'. China's history and that of the photograph in China are and remain inseparable, as my encounter with that cultural official demonstrated through her eagerness to be snapped with her nation's hero and my willingness to capture that moment for her. This exhibition is a must for anyone who wants to witness the power of photography in Chinese history, whether for better or for worse.