A few days after the opening of “Re-Visioning History,” police walked in to the OV Gallery in Shanghai, confiscated the catalogues, and shut down the show. In the words of director Rebecca Catching, the show interrogates China’s habit of “both fetishizing history and obliterating it at the same time.” At the crux of this show is Zhang Dali’s archival project, A Second History.
Using his painter’s eye, Zhang scoured relics of Chinese political and popular history for photographs that had been altered. The hard part came next. Dali spent six years in archives throughout the Peoples Republic, looking for the original prints. When he found them, he displayed the two next to each other with no explanatory text.
In the days before Photoshop, these changes were incredibly time consuming to make. Using paint and tiny brushes, artists would spend a week just to alter one photograph. While it is no surprise that this happened in China, it is important to note that every country is guilty of this type of behavior. Rodchenko did this, as well as Matthew Brady.
The rationalizations for such alterations are myriad, both political and aesthetic. Soviet Cadres are removed just as quickly as unsightly children are. The show is not merely about the effects of propaganda, it is about how we collectively decide how to manage the present in order to create a satisfactory past.
Some of these photographs have been altered in such a minor and arbitrary manner that one cannot understand the original reason, or even if one existed. The photo editors thought that these photographs would always exist in tandem with the stories they illustrated. But the stories evaporated as the decades passed, eventually leaving decontextualized images that strike at the transience of life.
A fitting example is that of Lei Feng. The poster boy of 1960s propaganda appears several times throughout A Second History. One of the most bizarre images features him standing at attention, medals gleaning, staring into the distance. In the original photograph, his white shirt peaks out from under his jacket. The sleeve was removed in the edited version. Dali thinks that this occurred because the sleeve was dirty, which is unacceptable for a symbol of nationalist strength. An alternate reading is that the sleeve smacks of a bourgeois business suit. It is a moot point. At this point the lack of explanation for the change is a significant part of what matters to us as viewers of these juxtapositions.
The authors of these photographs exchanged veracity for idealization. The same thing occurs on the streets of Shanghai, which are swathed in photographs of the perfect city. What is striking is that the photographs are never of Shanghai, but of a romanticized ideal city. These photographs point to absence, to the impossibility of perfection.
(Top two images courtesy of OV Gallery and the artist; lowest image courtesy of Hunter Braithwaite)