Art & New Cultural Journeys

Historical Materialism

New Materialism in an extraordinary exhibition by Li Songsong at the MamBo

Bologna is a city with a strong history of left wing politics and collective organisation where revolutions around the world, including the Maoist period in China, have been celebrated politically and culturally.

It is particularly fitting then that the Mambo in Bologna is currently hosting an exhibition of works by the contemporary Chinese artist Li Songsong, ‘Historical Materialism’ in which he revisits the collective memories of the Chinese people and reinvents them through the prisms of individual emotion, a post modern appreciation of the power of the image and a contemporary engagement with the materiality of works of art.

This exhibition in not a review or a revisionist reworking of  the  20th century history of China; indeed, visitors to the exhibition who are not familiar with this history might feel the need for more background information to help them appreciate the exhibition better. But this is not a barrier to the enjoyment of this diverse and dynamic body of work and an introduction to an Eastern artistic sensibility which is not commonly exposed or understood in the West.

What first strikes the viewer entering the generous spaces of the Mambo galleries, a transformation of a public bakery established to feed the population of Bologna during the First World War, is the scale of many of the works on display which were created on multiple canvasses and installed in various configurations, including sculptural arrangements in which the surfaces, including wood and metal, overlap or project from the gallery walls. These arrangements, combined with the tactile plasticity of  rich layers of thick oils, subvert the memory of the flattened, two dimensional surfaces of the social realist images referred to in Li Songsong’s works. A question facing the viewer in front of several of these multi layered works is where the surface actually lies; is this a representation, a memory, a feeling or even a dream - of ‘Shangri La’ perhaps?  Three portraits, of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, float in the artwork and on the wall as if each of them were infused into their individual Turin Shroud. Other works, such as ‘Cold Banquet’, which originates from a formal photograph of a Communist Party Congress, appear to be  carved from the black and white pigment. Because of our familiarity with this type of official photo, we perceive the original image whilst we see only the materiality of the paint.  The artist’s use of different styles, realism, impressionism and abstraction in the same artwork, provokes the viewer to question the source of what we think we know about life in China in the 20th century and how it was experienced by people and the artist, at the time and since.

The final work in the exhibition, which also gives the show its name, is ‘Historical Materialism’. This consists of nine equally sized canvases formed into a square. The scene it depicts is of the aftermath of a massacre or disaster of some kind, with the shapes of many  bodies lying on the ground etched in outline into the surface of the paint against a pastel colour palette. Each body is accompanied by a stencilled number, a device that appears elsewhere in the artist’s work. In the foreground one figure faces us directly holding towards us a  placard on which is written the number 1; an individual, dematerialised in terms of personality or distinctive features, emerges to claim a unique place in the representation of a collective past.

This exhibition has been hosted in the Mambo from May 22th until August 30th 2015, after which it moves to the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden Baden, a partner in the organisation of this event.

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