An Archaeological Tour of Revolutionary Romanticism and the Metaphor of Camouflage
— My views on Ms. Lei Yan’s latest works
text: Luo Fei
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 was a female soldier in the army for 30 years (1970-2001); after retiring from the army, she joined the Kunming contemporary art community “Chuangku” to set up her own studio. Lei Yan has experienced a transformation from the traditional art practices of creation of military art subjects to the use of pictures, equipment, video and other mediums for the creation of contemporary art works; each article and event could sufficiently constitute the main raw material for her current artwork. Secondly, the retrospection and reflection on the Mao Zedong era (from the 1950s-1970s) by Chinese contemporary artists has never ceased. In each period, Mao and his era’s symbols and images appeared in these artists’ narrating methods, which not only is the historical fact of the” Passion Burning Years” that the artists cannot be avoided when the faith got lost, but also a kind of inquiry about the future. After knowing about this background, we can better understand the interpretations of the latest works by Lei Yan.
“Frozen Series”: An Archaeological Tour of Revolutionary Romanticism
In Lei Yan’s “Frozen Series,” the artist has literally frozen some typical military articles and items of the Mao era, such as sleeve emblems, leader badges, Little Red Books, Red Guards shoulder badges, military uniforms, red flags, and female soldiers’ photographs. These items have been photographed and can be seen dimly under the ice. By freezing the typical symbols and items of those special years, the artist is staring at the historical samples from a nebulous distance with a tinge of desolation, and arousing people’s retrospection and reflection on that period of time.
As we can see, there are two main ideas in the “Frozen Series.” One is the “Frozen Reds,” which uses military articles and items typical of the Mao era as the narrating subjects (I would delete that list because you just spelled it out in the previous paragraph). These items are not only merely logos or decorations, but also the faith of that era. As someone who was filled with ideals and passions collective honors as his/her own values under the belief in communism, he/she had to possess these materials and contents, which represent a miniature of the people’s political life in that period of time, a miniature of the “Passion Burning Years”, and also a miniature of Lei Yan’s 30 years of military life. However, because of the factors of refraction, distance, and temperature, the items, which were frozen in ice by Lei Yan, display a learner of historical texture and shape. The partial deformation and distortion, blurring and dimness, chilliness and isolation caused by the ice layer, the seeming keepsakes from preexistence, and the archaeological-like association of ideas inspired by the sealing under ice, all have built a sort of longing for the time of revolutionary passions, and a reminiscence of the vanished spirits and resplendency.
The other is “Frozen Youth,” whose narrating subjects are photographs of female soldiers including personal portraits and busts. Some are of Lei Yan herself, but most of them are her comrades-in-arms. These tender girls of youthful spirit exude different emotions, from depression to loneliness. Some stand in a pose that was typical during that period of time, with a bag on shoulder or a machine gun in hand, head held high and standing erect; their faces show a passion of soldier. Among these photographs are several of military groups, showing pure eyes filled with the young girls’ ideals and longings, smiles with tenderness and without the slightest hesitation for the future. This was the typical expression of revolutionary romanticism. However, all of these various expressions and spirit states, with the addition of the classic pose, have been frozen into the cold ice and forced to drop temperature down, cold as well as out-of-reach, the high enthusiasm and innocent ideals are suddenly disappearing far away in the cold ice, which contains the memories of Mao era.
Most of the above-mentioned frozen objects, which were collected during Lei Yan’s military career, were well kept by her. To most of us, these items and photographs are merely conceptualized images, memories of a certain period, but those specific faces and that temperature are more like family belongings in some box underneath grandmother’s bed, which are kept by a mother for her daughter. When these objects and photographs are displayed in this way, frozen in ice, they have been endowed with new conceptions: the memory of the public images, the history belonging to a female soldier from 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 Mao era into a popular and ironic political idea”(Li Xianting), and current political pop art is walking downward to its 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 feeling to narrate the Mao era: let the real impression be explained via personal language instead of following the established group’s style; it is a response to and surpassing of political pop art.
“Camouflage Cloth-making”: The Metaphors Related to Camouflage
If the “Frozen Series” is the reminiscence and sadness of the bygone Mao era and its spirits and resplendency, then “Camouflage Cloth-making” is the specific intervention to the current daily situation. Just like before, Lei Yan uses military goods as subjects, which are very familiar to a person who had a 30 year military career. However, the use of military goods in this series is different from the use in the “Frozen Series.” The military goods in the “Frozen Series” belong to the section of borrowing, directly embedding the goods into ice to bring out the changes of conception, context and visual texture, but “Camouflage Cloth-making” is the conversion and extension of military camouflage uniforms and patterns.
In this series, Lei Yan uses camouflage fabric to make hand-sewn items and scenes such as cameras, computers, teapots, vases, cups, trays, telephones, high heels, five-pointed stars and so on, reflecting daily materials at hand. Setting up the items’ basic models by using the more outlines, the sewn items have more plasticity and some flexibility. Considering of the procedures of hand-sewing and modeling, this series of works has features of both handicrafts and sculpture. What is more, the symbolic features owned by the camouflage patterns themselves, make the remodeled daily goods look more like attached by the camouflage with the features of aggression and delusion.
In one group of camouflage scenes, the metaphor related to the camouflage concept is more obvious. In the camouflage cloth, Lei Yan has sewn 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. Another one is the scene of a dressing table. These two scenes are modeled like reliefs, which merely present any day in our ordinary life without any dramatic moment. Persons, goods and scenes are attached to the camouflage; the persons, goods and scenes that are modeled have completely mixed into the camouflage, and therefore they are endowed with the meaning and metaphor of camouflage itself. The edge lines of all persons, goods and scenes are interfered, thawed and guided by camouflage patterns and become undistinguishable, characterless, without personality and liberty of speech… so a metaphor related to camouflage, related to women’s identity and family and self-pity, is begun. How should women live on their own unique vitality out of the trivial and various household affairs? How should women be more open from their bedrooms into the society? And this is the metaphor and reflection of “Camouflage Cloth-making” made by Lei Yan.
As a strong symbol of the military patterns, camouflage has been absorbed into the conception art materials by the female artist. Lei Yan would never had have such a profound reflection of concept if she hadn’t had her own deep experience in her military career. It is precisely because of this experience that we have seen the double metaphors generated from the modeled objects disappearing into the camouflage environment. In addition to the interfering and thawing from external forces, it also points at the internal crisis of the modeled object: a person, bestowed with the camouflage meaning, while she (he) has the delusive and defensive edges, in some extent she (he) also faces the risk of dissimilation, of being prone to lose her/his personality and unique vitality. Maybe that is Lei Yan’s pondering of the military status and the behaviors of human camouflage. However, as a female artist, Lei Yan has not been thawed by the power of dissimilation; on the contrary, she has gained a unique vision and creativity from these. During a talking with Lei Yan she said: “wherever we are, we should leave a window for our soul, facing the most real place of heart to talk with your own soul and hold on the innocence and passion under there.” And her experience during the years of revolutionary enthusiasm and the attention to the people around during her military career, not only becomes the source of material and concept for art creation, but also expands her life experience; she does not rest on the complex of these material and hand-sewing, but creates a more abstruse world in the art experience.
Luo Fei, 2007