Born in Beijing (China), 1966Lives & works in (China)
Introduction to Phantom Tales
Born in 1966, Beijing-based artist Feng Mengbo came of age during the height of the Cultural Revolution, a time when cultural politics dictated by Chairman Mao promoted an artistic policy based on a social realism infused with heroic romanticism. Spanning a range of media from painting to cd-roms, Mengbo's work addresses subject matter as intensely personal as My Private Album, a cd-rom documenting several generations of his family, as well as work that verges on social/political critiques, exemplified in the cd-rom installation Taking Mount Doom by Strategy, which melded themes of violence, power and heroicism from the popular video game Doom with the revolutionary opera, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. Much of Mengbo's work since the early 90s has been variously influenced by the style, content, or cultural implications of video games, which greatly interested him as an adolescent.
For Phantom Tales, his first work based soley on the web, he goes further back in his personal history to stories and modes of entertainment from his childhood. Each of these three animations is based on a book. Stylistically the images in these books are reminiscent of the social realism of German artist Käthe Kollwitz, but whereas her work denounced the atrocities of war and served as a critique of official policy, the illustrations generated during the Cultural Revolution often glorified strife in the name of liberation and were orchestrated very much by those usurping authority.
Mengbo's first two animations are based on picture books published in 1972 and 1969 respectively, widely popular stories full of violent imagery. One Silver Dollar recounts a tragic family tale from the period prior to 1949 of a People's Liberation Army soldier whose family members were killed either by the National Army for refusing to join or by a rapacious landlord for blood money, symbolized by the iconic image of a coin dripping with blood. Using cinematic techniques, such as panning, zooming, and establishing shots, it transforms the static illustrations from a storybook into a dynamic animation. At times Mengbo seems to present the story quite literally the way he sees it, with the same jumps and focuses made by his eyes. While narrative may be difficult to follow for someone unfamiliar with this classic story, the images, complemented by the animation, convey emotion even if the narrative is somewhat abstracted. A plaintive 1959 recording entitled "Listening to My Mother's Talking About The Past" underscores the emotive effects.
The Bloody History of The Three Stones documents the terrible condition of workers' lives in Tianjin City in the 1940s. Presented in a style analogous to the manual slide shows of Mengbo's youth, it alternates images of drawings, photos, and exhibits resembling courtroom evidence relentlessly from right to left, left to right. "The International," the anthem of the Communist movement, is conjured from what sounds like a scratchy LP overlaid with the squeeks of a slide tray being pulled back and forth.
The third animation, The Technology of Slide Shows draws from a book of that title published in 1982 which documented methods developed by the People's Liberation Army for creating animation effects with slide projections, which, in the absence of television and films, provided a major source of entertainment during Mengbo's youth. The Technology of Slide Shows offers a strange and compelling combination of animation techniques fusing imagery of flowers, the military, landscapes, illustrations of drawing methods, abstract color shapes, and projection instructions, amongst others, with a soundtrack entitled "Fish and Water." According to Mengbo, this refrain serves as a commonplace analogy of the relationship between Chinese people and the army since the 1940's. Somewhat ironically, in this animation devoid of a narrative, the content overpowers the techniques being illustrated, whereas, by contrast, in his previous two animations the presentation mode overrides the narrative, rendering it secondary: interpretative modes trump didactic goals.
In one email exchanged early during the formulation of his plans for this project, Mengbo proposed to look at the images from these stories in detail, to think about why, as children, his generation was repeatedly exposed to terrible stories, and to question what the violence meant to them then. Mengbo asserts that he is not interested in political critique, but, because popular culture in China prior to the 80s was always about political life, in examining cultural history political content occurs inevitably by default not design. By transforming the stories into something new and distributing them via a novel medium, with nearly ubiquitous outreach, he provokes a larger audience into pondering such questions, both in relation to China's Cultural Revolution and to our local mythologies of liberation and war. In 1997 Mengbo wrote a statement that seems especially appropriate for Phantom Tales, as this work enters the ever-expanding cultural domain of the world wide web: "Perhaps in the future all of our memories will speak to each other, gradually forming an opaque mass, at once both chaotic and inclusive."