Wang Tong is most well-known for his series ‘Mao on the Wall’, which documents the images of Chairman Mao that were stenciled on the walls in peasant villages all over China during the Cultural Revolution. He also has created a series of photographs, titled ‘Re-enactment’, that follow an imaginary journey taken by Chairman Mao if he were alive today. In an interview with Sina, he tells about his photograph ‘Re-enactment’ and Mao.
Translated by Shanghaiist’s Isabel Quan
Q: From “Mao on the Wall” to “Re-enactment”, why is Mao such a present image in your work?
A: I was born in 1967, the second year of the Cultural Revolution, and I spent my childhood years in the Mao era. My inspiration for “Mao on the Wall” came from childhood memories. Even up to the 90s, Mao’s images were always displayed on the walls, and that’s why I started to photograph similar photos. I shot “Mao on the Wall” for nine years, until 2003. The environment from my childhood compared to now has shown an earthshaking change…It made me think, “What would Mao’s impression be if he were still alive today?” I wanted to express these ideas by dressing myself up as Mao and going to places that he had been when he was alive.
Q: The style of your works seem lost and vacant, did you do this on purpose?
A: I did not set any particular emotions for the set on purpose, and my purpose isn’t just about simply restoring the old pictures. I’m not trying to evaluate these times through my photographs. I acknowledged these years weren’t a perfect time of my life, but it does make me feel satisfied. I don’t think contemporary culture has the ability to fully understand and evaluate their current situations and environments.
Q: In Mao era, it was all about politics, but the backgrounds in your pictures are mostly about ordinary workers’ settings.
A: Right. I could have pick backgrounds from anywhere, but I specifically chose these. For example, the background of “At Yanan” is “Mao” standing on a street, but the old one is Mao standing on a riverbed. These changes are exactly what I want to express.
Q: A majority of the younger generation has already distanced themselves from these collective memories and emotions, what do you think Mao’s significance is to modern China?
A: I don’t want to force any certain groups of people to check out my work, I shot this gallery because I have emotion to express: my perspectives and views towards this world, this country and the changes of the times. Mao’s influence on the young generation has decayed, but his significance to this country won’t ever die. Modern China is created by people in that era, I just want to emphasize that history should be respected by the nation and my works are all coming from my personal, authentic emotions and ideas.
By Isabel Quan