The Reenactment of History and the Appraisal of Reality - An analysis of Wang Tong's Reenactment
by Gu Zheng
In 2006, Wang Tong published an album entitled Mao On The Wall. The images of Mao Zedong included in this collection, displayed in a traditional black-and-white format many years of work. These mottled, indistinct images of Mao Zedong, principally dispersed on the walls of China’s rural areas, stand testament to a unique period in China’s modern history. They have become the historical remains of that unique period. In order to photograph and record the ‘sacred images’ of a period of zealous loyalty and revolutionary fervour verging on madness, Wang Tong painstakingly investigated remaining records, collecting and assembling fragments which had accumulated over many years. This impressive body of work provides a visual documentary record confirming Mao’s impact on the era.

During his era of power, drawings of Mao Zedong acted as a form of political propaganda, as visions designed to encourage leader worship amongst the masses. In contemporary society, these images attained an important role. At one point, Mao Zedong’s image could be seen everywhere. In both public and private places, his image was omnipresent, displaying far and wide his strong political presence. Today, however, with the shifting sands of time, the majority of these ‘sacred images’ have faded away. Despite this gradual disintegration, images of Mao still retain a firm place both within reality and in living memory, supporting our current sense of reality and anchoring us to the past. The function of the images as propaganda has waned; we no longer listen to Mao’s summons and, according to the logic of history, we walk our own paths. Of course, these faint yet stubbornly persistant ‘sacred vestiges’ of ‘sacred images’ also remind us that attempts to peal away the past are futile. History has its tenacious side. Yet Wang Tong’s work, the comprehensive collection of Mao Zedong’s images, provides visual documentation which adds to our memories. Following the completion of this grand-scale photography series, Wang Tong, himself a Chinese National Geography magazine reporter and editor, was silent for some time. Today, his new series, Reenactment, represents a complete break-away from the restraints of traditional documentary photography, embracing photography and performance art in one body of work.

Wang Tong plumbs the depths of deeply-buried memories evoked by the classical images of Mao Zedong. After dressing himself up, he enters into the vastly different revolutionary historical perspective of these original photographs, adopting the recognisable pose of the revolutionary leader and thus, photographing a reenactment. Most importantly, whilst originally these classical photographs were created for political propaganda purposes, they have since attained the status of myth. These photographs demonstrate the tangible result of respect for certain standards. This creation of a mythology of the political image, in the context of a specific historical moment may achieve its motive; to stir up political feeling, however as time passes usually in the context of history, each political mythology will become the target of a reaction, an anti-mythology.

This reenactment of scenes found in historical images, is not an attempt on the part of the artist to recreate the original scene. Were this project purely a return to the past, he could not tolerate the emergence of present-day distractions in his photographs. Under his own steam, it is unlikely that he could create such a cinematic reconstruction. No more is it his purpose to satisfy his own desire for physical transformation through impersonation. So, what is Wang Tong attempting, stirring people up through this provocative performance, through the reenactment of historical scenes? I believe that Wang Tong’s aim is to focus our attention on the dislocation and rupture between the historical and the real, thus encouraging a discussion of the relationship between history and reality.

I believe that Wang Tong’s historical reenactment manifests his own deeply-held principles and rationale. This is not influenced by the importance that the current market attaches to artistic ‘concepts’ or additional factors such as the desire to capitalize on Mao’s contemporary iconicity. Collecting images of Mao over a long period, the historical figure of Mao Zedong has gradually infiltrated the artist’s consciousness, amassing within him, covertly molding his inner-self. It is not impossible that this historical figure has become an indivisable part of Wang Tong’s own personal experience and memory. Perhaps, through the impersonation of Mao Zedong in performance he has found some means to loosen the grip this spectre holds over his own soul. Through an examination of Wang Tong’s previous series, Mao On The Wall and this series, Reenactment, we can see his recurring preoccupations; the conditions under which history exists in our memories, the relationship between our memories and images, the formation of historical memory, the significance of recollecting historical events and other serious issues. Of course, from the perspective of the artist, whether history can be reenacted and imitated is also questionable. Wang Tong’s consideration of the historicity of today, by this specific method, also raises awareness of the importance of human history.

Through Wang Tong’s costumed performance and photography, and the interaction between the body (individual characteristics), space (the historical scene) and history (the invaded image), the past becomes the reference to the present. Through the unification of these three elements and performance repetition, the conceptual focus moves from the history of the ‘other’ to the ‘otherness’ of history. This transformation, directed against the breach between history and reality, is a means through the action and performance of an individual body to produce a sense of continuity between history and reality. This impersonation and performance itself provides a counterpoint to the continuity of history. Wang Tong assembles the ‘historicization of reality’ and ‘realization of history’ in one form thus connecting the past, the present and the future. His impersonation of the figure of Mao Zedong provides a catalyst prompting a chemical reaction between history and reality. With the entrance of his body onto the historical stage, history and reality develop a relationship as well as producing a new interaction and energy. Of course, he must strive through history to reach reality rather than tarrying in the past. Through his photographic reenactment of history, though his return to the historical stage, his footsteps touch on our memories, stimulating our consideration of reality. His reenactment’s key significance lies in its appraisal of contemporary reality rather than simply revisiting the past.

The visual nature of Wang Tong’s reenactment requires experience of the scene. However, as a method actor, he must both enter into the identity of the object of the performance, the figure of Mao, thus recreating the inner-being of this object and reflect his understanding of its uniqueness. The Chinese word ‘Ti’ designating ‘Form’ becomes extremely important. No matter whether it be a form of experience, a manifestation or a realization, Wang Tong must consistently use his own physical form to open up the dialogue between the individual and history. Using his body, he has both investigated and measured the spaces of history and reality. Using his body, he has recreated memories. Using his body, he has thrown into relief (and bridged) the rift between history and reality. Using his body, he opens the dialogue between himself and historical recollection, he examines his own recollections and fuses these with a grand narrative. Through his own flesh, he has come to know the treachery of history and ruthless nature of reality. Despite this, there remain important questions to be addressed. For example, is it possible in this way to satisfy the desire to embrace the past? Is this treatment of our historical inheritance and historical recollection effective? If Mao On The Wall is primarily concerned with the documentation of the fading mythology of Mao Zedong, then the series Reenactment in contrast enacts the story of the demythologization of this icon.

In contemporary art, through reenactment of the ‘other’ in both historic images and documents, (including famous works in art history), there is no shortage of artists opening up the dialogue between the ‘other’ and the past. Amongst these, the Japanese artist, Yasumasa Morimura, is most famous. However, as his performances seem primarily concerned with enacting/ realizing the altering nature of mankind’s desires; a consideration of the method of entry into the character and the closeness of resemblance, for amusement, the energy in the dialogue between reality and history is lacking. Yet, through the repetition of historical scenes, Wang Tong’s impersonation exploration brings into the limelight a vast historical transformation, allowing even greater space for thought and imagination. The significance of Wang Tong’s latest works, lies not in their investigation of status approval and reconstruction but rather in their investigation of the relationship between the individual and history.
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