The Game between Memory and Amnesia

      Carl Sagan, an American known as “the world’s greatest science writer”, made a very interesting interpretation of men’s memory in his influential book Mysterious Universe. He said that human brain develops because that the gene cannot save all the information needed for men’s survival. And then, the complexity of our living environment forces people to acquire more information than the brain can store, therefore, people have invented, which in fact is what we call “collective memory”.

      In the book, Carl said that in-vitro information storage mainly refers to books. Therefore, according to him, books can be regarded as the most active and most systematic means of collective memory. By writing down what human memory has been through, creation and destruction, failure and success, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, and binding them together, man selectively keep the traces of their history. However, besides writing, we cannot ignore that the items left, such as containers, clothes, architectures, and art, are also parts of our memory. Most people possess a sense of protection for collective memory of mankind, because memory is the only evidence of the existence of human history. But what is hard to understand is that there are some people who are full of prejudice and hatred to memory. For personal or social motivations, they set fire to memory carriers—namely books, architectures and art, totally destroying them to cause human collective amnesia. The Emperor Qin in two thousand years ago, the grass-root hero Xiang Yu in late Qin dynasty, The Eight-Power Allied Forces, and Hitler of World War II, these are the dictators who like to set fire. They erased a lot of precious memory records, but their violent acts against humanity cannot escape from our memories. Otherwise how could we know their notorious misdeeds?

      In addition, the nature also involves in this process, using its timeless weapon to extinct memory records. Through years, everything becomes blurred, rotten and eventually disappears. What’s more interesting is that history seems to understand the emotional psychology of human beings, so it makes amnesia the best medicine for men getting rid of pain. However, this kind of original intention made by the nature is contrary to men’s wishes and their need for memory. Therefore, human beings have invented all kinds of memory carriers to fight against the nature’s intention. And we can also conclude that memory and amnesia, well-matched in strength, have never give up a close contest.

      Therefore, a more important memory carrier was invented in the late 19th century. This is photography, which is widely used at present. Today, no matter where you are, as long as there are people gathering together, there is photography. It can be said that people who attend parties and opening ceremonies, or who love traveling will no longer hold a pen, but probably carry cameras with them. Today, photography has almost replaced all other tools, becoming the best choice for memory recording. Its importance is self-evident. Today, no matter where a public event occurs, it will be followed by photography. Photography will record all the evidence, restoring in men’s collective memory, because we are so dependent on it. Photography, an art form which is both traditional and pioneering, has occupied a very significant position in contemporary arts.

      Fu Wenjun is an artist who insists on presenting his artistic ideas through the camera lens. As one of the functions of art, memorizing is a perennial theme in his works: the abandoned industrial equipment, the ancient town that has been submerged by the wave of modernization, the faces inscribed by the trace of life…Fu Wenjun emphasizes not only the representational memories of the traditional sense, but also the imprints of time—a step employed by the natural power to demolish memories. Fu Wenjun’s works seem to be a kind of deliria of contending with the de-memorizing in a natural world. Based on his/her judging criteria of esthetic and cultural values, a sensitive viewer will reflect upon the de-memorized within the memorized in light of the imprints appeared in Fu’s photographs.

      As a visual argument of the game between memorizing and de-memorizing, Fu Wenjun’s two newly-released serial works which are to be exhibited in Beijing Today Art Museum—Twelve Chinese Zodiacs and Gardens of Nations are the cultural interpretation of memorizing and de-memorizing. The background of the first series is the ruins in the OldSummerPalace, a place that is familiar to Chinese people; some portable computer displaying the heads of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals are distinctively placed in the foreground. Actually, these bizarre animal heads have no sublime esthetic values; rather, they are extremely ugly, and can even be counted as failures in modeling. However, these nondescript bronze sculptures are endowed with enormous value as cultural heritages through the historical fate they have symbolized; they thus possessed a considerably high commercial value. The entanglement betweenChina’s past humiliations and pains and today’s economic success makes those bronze animal heads from theOldSummerPalacethe focus of auction house and the media. Fu Wenjun utilizes the national cognitive effect produced by the highly-dense accumulation of media, and convents it into photography. The co-produced images of the computer screen, the 12 zodiac animal heads and the ruins of the Old Summer Palace indicate the unreal and the real, failure and success, commerce and mass communication, and so on and so forth. “Helpless and chaotic”, Fu Wenjun uncovers the cultural spirit of both delight and sadness, a unique mentality of Chinese people when they face their reality and history.

      Fu Wenjun will never underestimate the serviceability of computer, the great fruit of modernization. He treats it as a stable sign in the image, and fixes it, making it the logical clue in his artistic system.Gardens of Nations and Twelve Chinese Zodiacs share the above mentioned clue: architectures as background, computers as props, and the images in the computer. The difference of the two is that the former has replaced the latter’s background to a large extent:Gardens of Nations replaces the ruins of the Old Summer Palace inTwelve Chinese Zodiacs into the pavilions of U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Austria, U.S.A., Russia, and Japan in the 2010 Shanghai Expo; while the images in the computer have been replaced by the ruins of the Old Summer Palace. As is known to all, the presence of the ruins of theOldSummerPalaceat this moment makes the historical faces of the eight countries in theChineseExpoGardenreappear. Those countries had formed an ally, and had launched a war against the Manchu Empire in 1900. As victors of that war, they had once again burnt down theOldSummerPalaceafter the Anglo-French fire in 1860, and had committed more inhumane atrocities in it. Therefore, theOldSummerPalaceis more than just a historical relic and a war-related wound in the Chinese nation, it is also a spiritual scar which is never to be healed up in the Chinese people’s minds. While in the Chinese memories, the Eight-Power are exactly the most notorious arch-criminals who have brought this wound to us.

      More than a century later, after the invention of photography as a memory tool, computers have become popularized all over the world. Computers, along with the following network technology, have eventually become the most convenient, most effective, most durable and most comprehensive way of memory recording in human society, from ancient times until the present. Computer and the network technology are one of the highest achievements in human’s race against the nature or his conquer of the nature. Shortly after an image or a text is put on the network, the information will be transferred, downloaded or collected, making it a permanent presence. It would be too late to attempt to delete.

      From its first participation in the World Expo until today,Chinahas experienced tremendous changes. In 1904, Chinese government officially accepted to participate in the Expo. The mysterious oriental country’s arrival caused uproar in the West, whose great curiosity toChinaseems to have brought honor and satisfaction to the Qing Dynasty. But then shame followed. The organizers of the Chinese pavillioins designed a set of clay sculptures: street prostitutions, murderers, opium smokers, ragged beggars, women with bound feet. They appeared in the Expo, juxtaposed with high-tech products by Westerners.China’s most brutal, ugliest faces were shown to the world, making outsiders laughing at us with contempt. The Chinese felt shameful on that, regarding it as a national humiliation. However, centuries ofChina’s suffering seemed to make a casual rhetorical question: isn’tChina’s national humiliation more than that? What’s the matter even ifChinais humiliated?

      The national humiliation is hard to be erased. However, we can imagine that if there was not a hundred years of vicissitude, no disillusionment of modernity, no ablution of revolution, and no rise of economy, how could it be possible forChinato become the host country of 2010 Expo? Fu Wenjun’s works are precisely born in such a complex background and context. In his notebook, he writes: “Various countries have set up their own pavilions at theExpoGardenone after the other. I was shocked by a kind of soundless whisper when I saw the sharp contrast between the prosperous scene of construction and the desolate ruins of the Old Summer Palace…I thought about 2010, a historic moment in time”.

      From Fu Wenjun’s works, we need to realize that today we should not wash away our centuries’ humiliation with a fiery temper. We need to remain calm, we need to achieve further success, and we need to show tolerance in international relationships. But we also need to remember that only the winner is entitled to show tolerance. The loser’s tolerance is nothing but cowardice. After years, facing the rising of former victims, the former perpetrators can show nothing but a gentle smile of amnesia.

      Therefore, we always say that the contemporary art is the art endowed with the sense of questioning, and is a visual symbol bearing meanings. While at this very moment, Fu Wenjun’s photography becomes a conscious utilization of such symbols to signify the confidence and bewilderment, success and reflection, and self-complacence and self-contemptuous thatChinais encountered with in this millenary opportunity; it is also an intentional provocation of the game between memorizing and de-memorizing.


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  • Update:2016-03-03 14:13:03
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