The Deadpan Collective

Bao Kun Art Critic/ Curator

The Chinese term yóuxíng (游行) has multiple meanings. In a modern understanding of the word, it is ‘to march in procession under a common banner’, while in more flexible usages, it also means ‘to walk aimlessly’ or ‘to display an offender through the streets as a form of shaming punishment’. The English word parade is perhaps the best equivalence.

Parade, a series of images created by Almond Chu, a Hong Kong photographer/artist, reveals Chu’s extensive meditations on this particular social activity. It is a body of conceptual photographic works that combines the use of digital technology and photographic materials. Parade works within a strong consistent framework that pushes its concept to the extreme. It is consistent not only in the visual style, but also in the content. Throughout, Chu has opted for the language of deadpan aesthetics, creating an aloof atmosphere through which to set out his own interpretation and understanding of both history and the present.

What is the artist trying to tell us? What is his work referring to? In his own introduction to the works, Chu mentions the English novelist George Orwell and his literary masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell has an important position in the world of twentieth-century literature, being described by V.S. Pritchett as ‘the wintry conscience of a generation’.[1] His novels belong to the genre of political allegory, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four being exemplars of this tradition. The main reason for Orwell’s works garnering such high public praise is the way they expose how totalitarianism, founded under the socialist banner of fairness and justice, and amid the modern pursuit of progressive ideology, undermines the history and culture of individual freedom.

The formation of totalitarianism as a political ideology has long-established historical roots, even dating back to the thinking of Plato, Hegel and Marx. This process of ideological trend arose from the decent desires of society’s thinkers. The hope was to achieve an equal society; or to realise ‘utopia’, an ideal society conceived since Plato; or later to organise a communist society sought by Marxists. These visions have been part of the continual ideological drive in the historical development of totalitarianism. In modern global politics, they have led to the strengthening of collectivist political consciousness in the form of political parties or nation states. Further processes result in the emergence of a party state where a one-party mass political system, led by a singular dictator-leader, exercises complete control over state apparatuses, including the police, military, communications, economy and education sectors. In such a country, dissenting voices often suffer under the systematic suppression of liberty and freedom of thought. The ultimate consequence is a police state where people live in constant fear.

What Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four is one such society. The novel was completed in 1948, and the scenes like those depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four did happen in the world, both before and after its publication. From the Great Purge in the Soviet Union, to the Holocaust in Hitler’s Nazi regime, both prior to the writing of the book, to the control, persecution and suppression of freedom of thought and liberty perpetrated by various so-called socialist countries after World War II, brutal chapters unfolded in the history of human civilisation. Among them, the Nazi genocide of the Jews and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge massacres are ‘textbook’ examples of the totalitarian slogans of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

(Part 1, Chapter 1, p.9) [2]

While the literary form allows Orwell freedom in arranging and structuring his content, it is not easy to express the same sense of historical complexity in a photographic image. Leaving aside the comparatively simpler option of realistic narrative portrayal adopted in drama films (and there are many excellent drama films, such as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List), when artists of static visual forms try to conceptualise their views on macro-historical phenomena, they need to process the corresponding visualised history into symbolic abstraction. A good example is to find the archetypal scene of social activity taking place in a totalitarian society, to seek out the most common facial expression seen under totalitarian control, to look for a typical body language in such a system, and finally to extract and refine all these emblematic characteristics into clearly conceptualised symbols. In Parade, Chu sets up the social background of a modern city environment where contemporary architecture becomes the main marker of time and space. His Parade is in progress, in the present tense, and it is a ‘happening parade’. This temporal implication naturally connects viewers to a corresponding understanding of the specific history implied in the photographic images.

The setting in Parade is in fact more specific. It is Hong Kong, the city where the artist lives, and a city that witnesses a greater number of parades than any other contemporary Asian city. Hong Kong is going through a modern transition. The city’s early stage, hundred-and-more-year transformation of its physical space was completed in the last century. It was a transition from primitive coastal fishing inlet to Asia’s most dazzling city of modern architecture. But the rise of an awareness of cultural autonomy only began after 1997 when the British colonial government withdrew. People of Hong Kong, caught between the political legacy of the British and the state system of China, have been going through a difficult adaptation process. On the one hand, the majority of Hong Kong citizens are looking for a democratic social system. On the other, the government of China is still in an exploratory process in planning its road map, thus struggling to deal with the different systems of Hong Kong. In this awkward situation, the defense of their own rights is undoubtedly paramount to the people of Hong Kong. Subsequently, protesting has become a more frequent social phenomenon, and even an important part of cultural life. Beyond all this is the civic awakening in Hong Kong. Protest marches are a product of modern history, a necessary means to achieve political negotiation. Chu’s Parade does not necessarily portray the actual demonstrations in Hong Kong, nor does it refer simplistically to political reality. The photographer transcends reality in his works, enriching his Parade with multiple layers of meaning.

In Parade, stereotypical faces and uniform actions merge into rivers, parading in the city. These elements echo the processions of totalitarian societies in history. The Nazi stormtrooper marched exactly in such militarised fashion. Similarly, North Korea, the bizarre case of real-world totalitarianism, often parades in the same way. This type of parade is often accompanied by nationalistic political propaganda slogans, emphasizing the importance of the collective while suppressing individualism. Violence is the inevitable consequence of such political demands. In Chu’s Parade, a glimpse of the red palace wall in the background, together with the uniform deadpan faces pulls viewers back into history. It is apparent that Almond Chu does not endorse extreme collectivism or totalitarianism. He is precisely using such a social landscape to make visible the dangers lurking behind these undesirable forces. His oeuvre is full of palpable tension: under the vast sky, a deadpan crowd, be they standing or marching. ‘The crowd’ becomes a symbol, juxtaposed against a background of urban architectural markers that possess clear historical and geographical significance, which points ironically towards the necessity of vigilance against totalitarianism.

[1] This epithet was also used in the title of a biography of George Orwell (Jeffrey Meyers, Orwell: the Wintry Conscience of a Generation, 2000, London: W W Norton & Co)

[2] Edition: 1983, Middlesex: Penguin Books