'Departure from Reality III: The Tender Truth'
In the works of Maleonn and Jiang Pengyi, whimsical realms are born out of a total manipulation of settings, elements and characters by the creators and the use of digital technology. The magical worlds are in no way an escape from reality—they are fantastic manifestations of the artists’ experience and emotions in real life.
The photographic voyage between reality and fantasy has its echoes in Magic Realism. In Magic Realism, the artist’s creation goes beyond simple transcendence from reality through fictiveness: it is an exploration of the mysterious relationships between humans, and between humans and their surroundings1. Contrary to Realism and its documentation, or Surrealism and its departure from life, Magic Realism encapsulates the mystique of the rea2. In the West, Magic Realism emerged in the 1930’s and spread from Europe to Latin America where it became a prominent literary genre. In Chinese history and culture, the fantastical has long been at the heart of many Chinese mythologies and classical literary texts, most notably Journey to the West and Strange Tales of Liaozhai.
In the exhibition title ‘The Tender Truth’, the word ‘truth’ refers to the body of things, events and facts3, which points to an objective description of the real world. ‘Tender’ denotes something that marks, responds to or expresses the softer emotions4, meaning a deeply subjective and resonant depiction. The title ‘The Tender Truth’ is a succinct reference to the visual expression and spirits of Ma and Jiang as expressed in their compositions. This curatorial statement will focus on three main themes in their works to trace the shifting castle between reality and magic.
In this exhibition, both artists have their respective series on the theme of ‘past’, and their longing is conveyed through staged settings.
In ‘Second-hand Tang Poems’, Ma responds to the heritage of classical Chinese culture through contemporary photography. The black-and-white images carry popular motifs in traditional Chinese art such as mountains, flowers, birds and pavilions, while the Tang poems featured are often reminiscences of the past. Ma has noted a lack of continuance of traditional Chinese culture at present time, while his works resound with yearning for the classical past. The elements of compositions, like animal specimen and plants, all allude to transience of life and sadness over what is irretrievably lost.
The series also highlights the gap between reality and artistic expression in traditional Chinese culture and art. ‘Second-hand Tang Poems No. 5’ features artificial scenery, including lotus on the lake, a makeshift mountain and a pavilion under man-made cloud, which are common motifs in traditional Chinese painting and poetry. Under the artist’s manipulation, the subject of the photograph is a dead chicken in chain with a lotus flower attached to its body. The atmosphere turns bizarre, intricate and heavy; the clash hints at the distance between traditional Chinese culture and reality, as vividly portrayed in the image.
In the ‘The Private Goods Belonged to Somebody’ series, Jiang retrieves abandoned household items and revives their existence in a staged setting so to ignite memories of bygone days. ‘A Maze Recovered by Memory’ refers to the game in Jiang’s childhood, as items of nostalgia like a broken birdcage, toy aeroplane and wool strings seemingly pose a new opening to our memories. Yet the arrangements of a torn child’s shoe and a dead plant embody a sense of loss, giving contrasting hints to the image’s meaning.
Such contrast stands out in ‘Phoenix Carved on a Hairpin’ in the same series. ‘Phoenix Carved on a Hairpin’ is a title in classical Chinese poetry, which notes the relationship between Jiang’s image and traditional Chinese culture. The elements of composition, like the Chinese fan and floral-patterned vases, are deliberately arranged to recall their presence in traditional Chinese painting rather than in real life. This does not only shed light on the poetic imagination in Chinese painting5, but also brings an ironic twist to the photograph: the fan and vases are similar to those Jiang had at home in his childhood, yet they are intentionally destroyed or burnt in the artwork. The artist’s nihilism rings in such explosive expression, in the destruction of Jiang’s early memories of traditional Chinese culture.
Jiang left his hometown in his teens and experienced profound cultural shock in the city. As Jiang once worked as a professional photographer of cityscape, skyscrapers make an essential subject in his work. In his early work ‘All Back to Dust’, massive real-life buildings turn into miniatures and are placed among junk, brushed aside like forgotten beings. Through his expression, Jiang sets out to override the rapid urbanization in the city and to unmask its illusory nature.
In his latest series ‘Unregistered City’, Jiang continues his use of the cityscape—high-rise buildings, streets and cars—as symbols of urbanization. In the same vein as his previous subjects, the symbols are reduced to miniature-sized with digital imaging and placed at an abandoned site. Unlike ‘All Back to Dust’, the fragile cityscape in ‘Unregistered City’ appears vibrant and happening, as if it is reliving its former life in seclusion.
‘Luminant’ presents another focal point. Against the darken cityscape, a skyscraper stands glowing in an absurd brightness created by overexposure. The contrast communicates the sense of alienation felt by Jiang amid the city. The overexposure also instils a feeling of drama, of departure from reality into the picture, which urges the viewers to contemplate the city’s over-development.
Ma’s works show continuous and evolving themes; each series marks an important stage in his life. From his earliest series to his recent ones, such as ‘My Circus’, ‘Book of Taboo’ and ‘Postman’, Ma has used the cityscape of and life in Shanghai as his subjects. The exploration of his hometown mirrors the artist’s reflection on his own identity.
Departing from the cityscape in his earliest works, Ma’s artistic journey comes to a major turning point in ‘Portrait of Mephisto’—staged photography, for which he seeks out old-fashioned photography studio and set-ups in China. It marks the artist’s triumphant return to photography, a realm where he has total control of space and matters. Ma has complete freedom in expressing his ‘real’ world with magical touches, which brings together the artist’s subjectivity and the creative space in photography.
Both artists search for subject matters in real life that can be manipulated and transformed to recreate their mindscape. From a child’s doll and household items, to skyscrapers or icons of traditional Chinese art, both Ma and Jiang portray their inner, imaginary scenery for viewers to discover the artists’ subjective reality.
In the world of Jiang human figures take on a minute, almost untraceable presence, and viewers can only spot them upon a closer look at the images. Under Jiang’s manipulation, humans are placed in man-made sites of destruction, where all surroundings are fragile and transient, like an echo on the sense of crisis within the artist.
As aforementioned, Ma’s works show continuity in both themes and expression—they form a retrospective on his life’s journey. In his creation, Ma adopts masks and models of his head as his personas, which metamorphose into characters such as the postman or the circus clown. In Ma’s grip the cast, props and special effects make for whimsical, fun-filled scenes that reveal the artist’s inner child and his sense of humour. Ma’s works resonate with an intense subjectivism: using reality as his starting point, Ma voyages into fantastic concepts and expression, so to inspire the audience from various perspectives.
The staged drama hints at Ma’s inner conflicts as well. In ‘My Circus’ and ‘Book of Taboo’, the clowns, animals and props seem to promise entertainment at the first glance. Yet they are deliberately arranged to create an ominous effect: the agents of fun can easily turn into instruments of violence. In ‘My Circus’, a girl wears a smirky smile while she has a knife stabbed into her heart. The relationship between man and woman resembles an entertaining and dangerous game, full of conflicts and risk to ponder.
Ma likes to employ words and poems as foreword to his works. The words are entry point to the artist’s interiority and to the silent imagery in his photographs. In his recent series ‘What Love Is’, the opening line depicts the many splendours of love6, followed by images of transience like butterflies, flowers and sparks. In ‘What Love Is No.3’, the male character blindfolds the woman with his hands, next to the astounding union of a bleeding heart, a skeleton and a clock. The composition carries the artist’s interpretation of love, and it delivers messages of grief to the audience. The entire series is set on a theatre stage, as if love is nothing but a staged play. The eeriness takes a surprising turn in ‘What Love Is No.5’: a pair of human hands reach out from the background to a blindfolded poppet on stage, as if to snatch her away from the search of love and to pull her back into reality.
Through the themes of Emotions/Past, Subjects/Space and Self/Life, the two artists decipher their dreamlike mindscape and portray their real-life experience in their images. They do not derail from reality, but capture the intriguing tension between fantasy and the real world. In today’s society where absurdity is the norm, the inner, magical realms in these artists’ works carry deeper truth than what we find in our surroundings.
‘A Departure From Reality – A Trilogy of Contemporary Photography’ is an attempt to explore the uniqueness of contemporary photography and to introduce it to the audience. The six featured artists have distinctive sensibilities and expressions, while showing their diverse interior landscapes in their works. Between photography, reality and subjectivity there are infinite possibilities: in these artists’ works, we see the visions, prospects and tremendous potential of photography as an art form.