Mu Chen & Shao Yinong
Assembly halls - Mi-Serie
September, 1 - October, 9, 2012
The photo series created between 2002 and 2004 by the married artist duo Mu Chen and Shao Yinong shows former assembly halls that were used for propaganda events during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Through this project, the halls documented in their present-day state¬—always frontal and empty of people—become witnesses to the history of the social change in China and evokes subjective as well as collective memories of a bleak era of contemporary Chinese history.
Until 1976 the spaces that make up the Assembly Halls series were central locations of the Cultural Revolution movement at which propaganda, indoctrination, denunciation, humiliation, and “self-critique” were practiced. A number of the pictured assembly halls are reconstructed to their appearance during the revolution or testify to the past through relics like political wall hangings and slogans that still remain. Other halls have long ago been converted to modern restaurants, theaters, cafés, bars, classrooms, or temples. Lastly, vacant, left to rot, or completely ruined halls are also pictured in the photo series, where barely a trace of their historical use can be perceived.
The Assembly Halls series was created as part of the Long March Project initiated by Chinese artist and curator Lu Jie in 2002, of which Mu Chen and Shao Yinong along with many national and international cultural workers were participants. Searching for the historical connections in art and culture, and accordingly for the social function of art, especially of Chinese avant-garde art, exhibitions and other events took place at selected points along the legendary march route that prompted discussion about art, culture, and history from local, national, and international perspectives. The painter Shao Yinong and the photojournalist Mu Chen have worked together since the turn of the century. Assembly Halls is their most well known project, which was considered the most outstanding work from China at the 2004 Shanghai Biennale.
During the realization of Assembly Halls Mu Chen and Shao Yinong began work on the Mi series. This series by the artist duo documents their interventions to different buildings to create a visual culture of memory.
During the Cultural Revolution the windows of buildings were reinforced with strips of tape affixed in an X-shape in order to protect people from flying shards of glass that might result from the allegedly imminent bomb attacks by the capitalists. This propaganda measure resulted in the character X, which means “mi” (rice), appearing over and over on windows. Considering the poor food supply this inadvertently and provocatively evoked thoughts of political demonstration. The Mi series highlights not the readable history of architectural fragments, but rather reenacts the architectonic intervention by means of material passed on from the time of the Cultural Revolution. As an installation Mu Chen and Shao Yinong furnished the windows of historic buildings with white strips of tape and captured the images in sober exterior shots. This performative artistic work strategy presents itself therefore as a reconstruction of political and ideological events.
The political events that were experienced by the artists as children as a surreal, poetic alienation from reality are made understandable for younger generations through this artistic reprocessing.
At the end of 1965 Mao Zedong established the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution with his followers from the leadership of China’s Communist Party with the aim to consolidate his waning powers again and to curb the imminent bureaucratic solidification of the party and the state apparatus. The radical campaign against the “bourgeois revisionists” —for which the infamous Red Guard, predominantly composed of youths and students, originated—was directed especially against officials and intellectuals; millions were disposed from their positions, humiliated, and tortured, and hundreds of thousands were murdered.
As part of the systematic destruction of the "four olds" (the old ideas, cultures, customs, and habits) many cultural monuments were destroyed. The increasingly out of control movement found a tentative endpoint in 1969 with the defeat of the Red Guard by the army. But still many of their characteristics persisted until Mao's death in 1976. Only then did the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party finally distance itself from the Cultural Revolution, which had left behind a largely destroyed and traumatized social class and which was later seen as an error by the CCP.
The painter Shao Yinong, born 1961 in Xining, Qinghai Province, studied at Qinghai Normal University. Mu Chen, born 1970 in Dandong, Liaoning Province, studied photojournalism at the People’s University of China. The husband and wife pair has worked together since 2000. Assembly Halls follows Family Register (2000) and Childhood Memento (2001) as their third work together; it was a part of the Long March Project (2002) and was exhibited in solo shows at Michael Goedhuis Gallery in New York (2004) and at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery in Hong Kong (2005). Their more recent work includes a series of tapestries of bank notes exhibited at the Singapore Biennale. Shao Yinong and Mu Chen live and work in Beijing.
Photography: © Mu Chen, Shao Yinong