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Chinese photographers confront Cultural Revolution in Berlin

An exhibition in Berlin's Museum for Photography opens new perspectives on 50 years of Chinese images, focusing on the "10 years of chaos" from 1966-76. How do contemporary photographers deal with this inherited imagery?

"Working on History" is the title chosen by the curators of an exhibition on contemporary Chinese photography that is currently on display at the Berlin Museum for Photography. The show deals with the history of that "red era" - the so-called "10 years of chaos" during the Cultural Revolution. Sixteen artists grappled with the revolution's photography and images.

"Their work reflects the very special forms of expression from that time - critical, ironic or humorous," Wang Huangsheng, one of the curators, said about the selection of the included works. "These artists are all very different. Some are very serious, others display humor. Wang Qingsong, for example, is very ironic. Others grapple with the type of thinking that was prevalent during that time."

Read more: How China is still impacted by its Cultural Revolution

Read more: China's Cultural Revolution and Germany

Wang Huangsheng is the director of the Art Museum at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. He has a very personal connection to the exhibition's topic in addition to the artistic and art history aspects.

"The Cultural Revolution was an epoch of great misery, for my family too. The exhibition reflects these problems; it confronts them." Wang Huangsheng also pointed out that though the exhibition fits within the political and historic context of China's past 50 years, its primary purpose is not one of political discourse.

Poster of Mao Zedong in a bathrobe after swimming across the Yangtze River, 1966 (private collection)

Mao Zedong in a bathrobe in 1966 after swimming across the Yangzte River; the poem he wrote about his swim is printed beneath the photo

Ludger Derenthal, the head of the photography collection at the Berlin Art Library, shares this view, stating that the historic perspective leads to a better understanding of contemporary Chinese photography.

Public staging, private photos

One artist who contributed significantly to this historic perspective is the photo artist Cai Dongdong. He collected some half a million photographs taken from 1949 to 1979, and a good portion of them originated during the Cultural Revolution. People throughout China helped him put the material together, and some of the images can be seen in Berlin. They show people in private moments. Yet the individuals' poses mimic political staging typical at the time.

Images, printed news photos and news bulletin boards all played an enormous role during the Cultural Revolution in achieving the revolutionary goals. Press photos were sent out to all corners of China, where they served as models for giant posters and even paintings. Their aesthetic continues to influence the general perception of the Cultural Revolution to this day.

Weng Naiqaing, the former photography department head at the People of China magazine, determined which images would serve well to mobilize the masses. Propagandistic staging made Communist party Chairman Mao Zedong the central icon.

Read more: Mao's legacy in Xi Jinping's China

Images transformed

The images of that era established the reference frame for today's photographers and artists and their work. They place historic group photos, private photography and press records into today's context, or, like Feng Mengbon, tell private stories in a new way.

Cai Dongdong confronts photographic inheritance from critical standpoints, such as in his "Shooting Practice." Wang Qingsong uses ironic reinterpretation, while Song Yongping reflects both soberly and with unending sorrow on the transience of life. Song depicts his parents in a triptych portrait that shows them before, during and after the Culture Revolution as part of a series.

Excerpt from 450 Cultural Revolutions by Mo Yi (DW/S. Peschel)

In "450 Cultural Revolutions," Mo Yi compiled and partially painted over hundreds of images from the revolution

Other artists document the legacy of the Cultural Revolution in its contradicting paradox of painful memory and faded excitement. Cao Kai's video work points out that the summer of 1969 didn't excite just the youth masses in China.

Cultural Revolution still taboo

All the contemporary images in the Berlin exhibition have already been displayed in China, even if there are no plans as of yet to show them in this current compilation.

The process of working through the Cultural Revolution is taking place in China without a doubt, but it is limited to academic and artists circles. The topic remains taboo in broader society.

Three artists were present at the exhibition's opening: Cai Dongdong, Wang Qingsong and Zhang Kechun. None of the three have ever been able to speak with their parents about the 10 years from 1966 to 1976. For the older generation, the memories were too painful.

The exhibition "Working in History: Contemporary Chinese Photography and the Cultural Revolution" runs through January 7 at the Museum for Photography in Berlin. 

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