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Learning from Lei Feng

Updated: Jun 19, 2022

Artist development classes always suggest that besides a resume and a bio an artist should have what is called an “elevator pitch” - a prepared 30 second description of your artistic practice. My pitch (even though no one has ever asked what I do whilst in an elevator) states in part that my work revolves around deconstructing cultural narratives. In China, that narrative has been Lei Feng, hero of the Cultural Revolution.

Lei Feng (1940-1962) posthumously became the poster boy for the Chinese Communist Party when in 1963 Mao declared that all should learn from Comrade Lei Feng. His diary was published, photos of him performing good deeds appeared (complete with harsh stage lighting) and school children sang songs about him. He was the perfect Hero minted for turbulent times. He was an orphan, available for every mother to desire and protect as her own. His cupid's bow lips made every schoolgirl swoon, his work as a mechanic and driving a truck in the People's Liberation Army was the envy of every schoolboy. He had the rare combination of both compassion and political fervor. He extolled the virtues of Mao and the Communist Party and darned his comrade's socks and helped old ladies in the rain. Like all good Heroes, he died young before the cynicism of old age set in – although his death was a bit unusual... He was directing a truck to back up which hit a telephone pole that fell upon his head and killed him.

"I Want To Be a Rustless Screw" (Lei Feng diary entry) Christopher Pelley temporary installation Beijing

One of the earliest images of China I remember was back in the late 60's, early 70's, when China was always referred to as Red China. It was a photo in the local newspaper of a low brick building covered with sheets of paper with large Chinese characters written on them. This was the height of the terror that was the Cultural Revolution and these were public denunciations. Memories of that grainy newspaper image stirred when I ended up in a village outside of Beijing in 2014 seeing buildings of a style reminiscent of the old photo. So began the journey connecting my youthful impressions of Red China with the modern country existing within the not-to-be-mentioned long shadow of the cultural revolution. Lei Feng became the protagonist, the vehicle to unravel what I saw.

The image and message of the good deeds and fealty of Lei Feng has been revived by the Communist Party leadership may times over the intervening half century. The public views the little soldier either negatively as a top down heavy handed production of the propaganda machine or he is embraced in the enduring allure of the hero myth. I appropriated not only his image but also the propaganda tropes and used culturally significant materials to navigate my Chinese experience.

advert for exhibition at 東西projects

In an old building in Shangyuan Village, Beijing I opened 東西projects, a curatorial projects space where I freely referenced the imagery of the Cultural Revolution

東西projects, Shangyuan Village, Beijing

Christopher Pelley "Lei Feng Coal Dust"

Christopher Pelley "Chinese Characteristics #3" oil/canvas, string

Christopher Pelley "Red Star w/ Rice Sparrow" spent fire-cracker papers, rice

As I write this blog post I am in Rome, surrounded by the debris that informed my Catholic youth. Everywhere is the imagery of hands pointing accusingly up to heaven or down to hell. The martyrs, whose lives were snuffed out by the most brutal of means – burnings, beheadings, fed to wild beasts – are portrayed in graphic detail on ceilings and walls at every turn. As a boy I would have much preferred dreaming of a young man, not much older than myself, working on motors and driving trucks than contemplating the psycho-sadistic terrors brought upon the christian faithful. But that, dear reader, is another narrative to be deconstructed.

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