An Archaeological Tour of Revolutionary Romanticism and the Metaphor of Camouflage
–My views on Ms. Lei Yan’s latest works
Before the interpretations of the two groups of recent works by Ms. Lei Yan – “Frozen Series” and “Camouflage Cloth-making”, we should know of two relevant background factors. One is that she has been a female soldier in the army for 30 years (1970-2001) and then joined the Kunming contemporary art community “Chuangku” to set up her own studio after retiring from army. Lei Yan has experienced the transformation from the traditional art practices on creation of military subjects into the use of pictures, equipment, videos and other media for the creation of contemporary art works, and each article and event could sufficiently constitute the main raw material for her current creation. Secondly, the retrospection and reflection on the Mao Zedong era (mainly during the last 1950s-1970s) by the Chinese contemporary artists have never ceased. In each period Mao and his era’s symbols and images will be appearing in these artists’ narrative methods, which not only is the historical fact of the” Passion Burning Years” that the artists can not shun away from during the time when belief was absent, but also a kind of inquiry about the future. After knowing about these backgrounds, we can proceed with the interpretations of the latest works by Lei Yan.
“Frozen Series”: An Archaeological Tour of Revolutionary Romanticism
Lei Yan’s “Frozen Series” have frozen some military articles and the typical items of the Mao era, such as sleeve emblems, leader badges, the Little Red Books, the Red Guards shoulder badges, military uniforms, red flags, and female soldiers’ photographs etc., which are photographed and can be seen dimly under the ice. By getting the typical symbols and items of the special years frozen and sealed, the artist is staring at the historical samples from a nebulous distance with a tinge of desolation, and arousing a reflection on that period of time.
As we can see, there are two clues in the “Frozen Series”, one is the “Frozen Reds”, which uses the typical items of Mao era and military articles as the narrating subjects that include sleeve emblems, leader badges, the Little Red Books, the Red Guards badges, military uniforms, red flags etc., they are not merely logos or decorations, but they also carry the spirit of that era. As a person who was filled with ideals and passions regarding the collective values under communism, each had to possess these materials and contents, which represent a miniature of the people’s political life in that period of time, and a miniature of the” Passion Burning Years”. They are also a miniature of Lei Yan’s 30 years of military life. However, since the factors of refraction, distance, and temperature, the items, which are put into the ice body by Lei Yan, display a much unacquainted historical texture and shape. The partial deforming and distortion, blurring and dimness, chilliness and out-of-touch feeling created by the isolation of the ice layer. They seem like keepsakes from a previous existence. The archaeological-like association of ideas inspired by the sealing under ice. All of these have built a sort of sadness for the time of revolutionary passions, and a reminiscence of the disappeared spirit and resplendency.
The other is “Frozen Youth”, whose narrative subjects are female soldiers’ photographs including personal portraits, busts. Some are Lei Yan herself, but most of them are her comrades in the army. These girls of youthful spirit, each with tenderness, some seem a little depressed, some only being lost, and some with a poise that is typical during that period of time with a bag on shoulder or a machine gun in hands, head high and standing erectly with a passionate face under the willows. Among these photographs are several of military groups, and in these the pure eyes are filled with the young girls’ ideals and longings, smiling with tenderness and without the slightest hesitation for the future which is the typical expression of revolutionary romanticism. However, all of these various expressions and spirit states, with the addition of the classic poise, have been frozen into the cold ice layer and forced to drop in temperature, cold as well as out-of-touch, the high enthusiasm and innocent ideals are suddenly disappearing far away in the cold ice, which is just like a group of archaeological samples from the Mao era displayed ifor all to see.
Most of the above mentioned frozen objects, which were collected during Lei Yan’s military career, are well preserved. To most of us, these items and photographs are merely conceptualized image memories of a certain period, but those specific faces and temperature, are more like the family belongings in some box underneath grandmother’s bed, which are kept by mother for her daughter. When these objects and photographs are seen through the frozen ice, they have been endowed with new concepts, which are the memory of the public images and history of a female soldier, her private memory and feelings, and the reminiscence of ultimate issues such as faith to the land, spirits and resplendency.
If political pop art is “using the shock waves made by the western consumption culture in China, and turning the ‘sacred politics’ of the Mao era into a popular and ironic political idea” as suggested by Li Xianting, and with current political pop art walking down a dead end via commercial obsequiousness, then artists, including Lei Yan, are going back to the starting point for art and soul by using a personal and poetic narrate of the Mao era. Let the real impression be explained via personal language instead of following the established groups style, it is a response which surpasses current political pop art.
“Camouflage Cloth-making”: The Metaphors Related to Camouflage
If the “Frozen Series” is the reminiscence and sadness of the long gone Mao era and its spirit and resplendency, then the “Camouflage Cloth-making” is the specific intervention in the current daily situation. Just like before, Lei Yan keeps on using the military goods as subjects, which are very familiar to a person who has 30 years of military service. However, the use of military goods in this series is different from that in the “Frozen Series”. The military goods in the “Frozen Series” belong to the section of borrowing, directly getting the existing goods embedded into ice to make them bring about the changes of concept, context and visual texture, but the “Camouflage Cloth-making” is the conversion and extension of military camouflage uniforms and patterns.
In this series Lei Yan uses camouflage fabric to make some hand-sewn items and scenes, items such as: camera, computer, teapot, vase, cup, tray, telephone, high heels, five-pointed star etc., which are daily mundane items. Setting up the items’ basic outline shape, the sewed items have more plasticity and flexibility. This series of work cross the boundaries between handicraft and sculpture. What is more, the symbolic features owned by the camouflage patterns themselves, give the remodeled daily goods the feeling of being covered by the camouflage with aggression and delusion.
In one group, the metaphor relating to camouflage is more obvious. Lei Yan has sewn with camouflage material into an ordinary family scene: a square table, a bench, a vase, two blurring persons in the picture frame and a crouching dog. The other one is the scene of a dressing table. These two scenes are modeled like reliefs, which simply present any day in our ordinary life without any dramatic moment. Persons, goods and scenes are covered by camouflage, mixing into the background, and therefore they are endowed with the meaning and metaphor of camouflage itself, the edges of people, goods and scenes are disrupted and guided by the camouflage patterns and become indistinguishable, characterless and without personality. So a metaphor related to camouflage, related to women’s identity, family and self-pity, can start. How should women live out their own unique vitality in the trivia of various household affairs? How should women be more visible in society? This is the metaphor and reflection of “Camouflage Cloth-making” by Lei Yan.
As a strong symbol of the military patterns, camouflage has been absorbed into the conceptual art of the female artist, Lei Yan. She would never have had such a profound reflection if she hadn’t had her own deep experience of the military. It is precisely because of this experience that we can see the double metaphors generated from the modeled objects disappearing into the camouflage, in addition to the interference and thawing from external forces. It also points at the internal crisis of the modeled object: a person may be defensive of their own identity, but to some extent they also face the risk of assimilation, of losing their personality and unique vitality. Maybe this is Lei Yan’s thinking in this exhibition. However, as a female artist, Lei Yan has not been assimilated; on the contrary, she has gained the unique vision and creativity. During a conversation with Lei Yan she said: “wherever we are, we should leave a window for our soul, facing the most real place of the heart to talk with your own soul and hold onto the innocence and passion found there.” And with her experience of the years of revolutionary enthusiasm and the attention to other people’s needs during her military career, not only does this become the source material and concept of her art, but it also expands her life experience. She does not rest on the complexities of this material and the hand-sewing but creates a deeper experience.
Written by Luo Fei(TCG Nordica Gallery Curator)
Translated by Liu Weiqiang