Review

From New York: Feng Mengbo

By Matthew Harrison Tedford January 23, 2011

Feng Mengbo at MoMA PS1 demands that viewers participate in the work’s unraveling. The Long March: Restart (2008), the installation coterminous with the eponymous exhibition, is a video game. The exhibition marks the first time Chinese Feng’s sixteen-bit video game has been shown in the United States. The medium forces an engagement with the work, or a reliance on other viewers’ engagement, in order to appreciate or even experience it. When no one else is in the gallery, or no one else is willing to play, the existence of the work depends entirely on one’s own ability to play the game.

Named after the 1930s Red Army retreats from the Kuomintang, the game stars a Mario-like protagonist clad in blue fatigues and a blue cap emblazoned with a red star. Following an introduction of alternating propaganda film stills overlaid with a Chairman Mao speech, the game begins with a heroic figure waiting idly in front of a giant red star with the Great Wall behind him in the distance. These initial scenes offer an ostensibly straightforward ideological frame for the game. Taking hold of the wireless remote control, one can send the soldier on his two-dimensional journey. The game’s aesthetic draws heavily on predecessors such as Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter II and, in fact, the game includes their characters as combatants in The Long March.

Once on his way, the tongzhi (Communist Party member) is led through a barrage of different worlds. The game is projected onto a screen approximately ten-by-forty feet, but as the character reaches the end of the screen, he reappears in a new world projected on an equal size screen on the other side of the pitch-black gallery. The mirror screen displays a real-time close-up of the character’s position on the main screen. This alternation impels viewers to constantly shift their attention from screen to screen, vivifying their reception of the work and demanding their attention even if they’re not the player. The different worlds are a potpourri of innocuously quintessential video game scenes and politically charged mise-en-scènes. The swamps and snow-capped mountains could be from any Super Nintendo game, but it is the atypical that characterizes the schizoid ideological leitmotif of Feng’s game.

The Long March: Restart, 2008; installation view, video game. Courtesy of the Artist and MoMA PS1, Long Island City, New York. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

The Long March: Restart, 2008; installation view, video game. Courtesy of the Artist and MoMA PS1, Long Island City, New York. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

Though imagery evocative of Communist propaganda abounds, it is difficult, if impossible, to pin down any conspicuous political message. Worlds such as an American space station, where the character must defeat both American astronauts and aliens, initially suggest anti-Americanism. But this is obscured by that fact that the only weapons at the character’s disposal are the Coca-Cola cans he throws at his enemies throughout the game. The use of one of America’s most iconic products to destroy one of its most iconic professions is startling, but is not necessarily anti-American—the Red Army soldier is only triumphant with the aid of an American cultural and capitalist cornerstone. Further, given the history of infamously taut Sino-Japanese relations, Feng’s employment of patently Japanese video game aesthetics provokes further questions—why would such Chinese agitprop be delivered via a medium popularized by a once-existential enemy?

One of The Long March’s worlds even pits the Red Army hero against a platoon of goose-stepping Soviet foot soldiers and tanks in front of the Kremlin. Given the Cold War’s Sino-Soviet split, this is an unsurprising battle; yet earlier in the game, Soviet spacecraft victoriously lift off after the tongzhi completes a galactic level, signifying a reciprocity between the two communist powers, if only vaguely ideological. The penultimate world of the game is a battle against Godzilla in the streets outside Beijing’s Forbidden City. After defeating this transnational terror, the character appears directly in front of the palace; here, under the approving eye of a Mao poster, he fights E. Honda, Blanka, Chun-Li, and other Street Fighter II characters. Such ambiguities imply a world that is more realistic than the world of political propaganda and rhetoric; Americophilia and Nipponophilia are balanced by neocolonialism and the horrors of history. This play of signs is characteristic of China’s post-1989 political pop-art movement, of which Feng is a visible player.

In a real world with ever-increasing American and Chinese cultural, political, and economic proximity, it may be necessary for Americans to experience a Chinese culture that is more nuanced and multifaceted than the rhetoric of the Cold War or naive nationalism allow. Feng’s use of an inherently participatory popular culture medium invites viewers into this complicated dialogue without being didactic or even explicit; nonetheless, the viewer gets a glimpse of a modern China bereft of patently simplistic reductions.

 

 

Feng Mengbo is on view at MoMA PS1, in Queens, New York, through April 4, 2011.

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