When Mo Yi moved from the wide plains of Tibet to the industrial northeastern China port city of Tianjin in 1982, he was confronted with an urban condition so alienating that he decided to initiate an art practice dedicated to understanding his feelings toward it. Almost 30 years later, a collection of his ongoing efforts were installed inside the recently inaugurated Red House space in Caochangdi. Three different series were shown, including 11 photographs from 1987’s “My Illusory City,” ten from 1998’s “Dancing Streets” and nine from 2008’s “My Illusory Beijing.”
Many of the works in “My Illusory City: 1987, 1998, 2008” have never been shown before, mostly on account of slow critical acceptance for Mo’s work over the years. The artist comes from an unconventional background: a professional soccer player recruited to the Chinese league from his native Tibet, Mo chose to pick up the camera when he began looking for a new career in his early 30s. His methods are also unconventional: the “My Illusory City” series, for example, was shot via a shutter-release cable, with the camera hung from a cord around his neck as he wandered around the city’s clogged arteries. The resulting black-and-white photographs are visually chaotic: the multiple exposure technique often results in negatives overlapping in a single frame, shattering perspectival continuity. On the occasions when the images are visually distinct, subjects are anonymous and unaware; when they are not, multiple sources of light and horizon splice street, vehicle and pedestrian into a single field.
“Dancing Streets,” shot ten years later in Tianjin, shifts Mo’s gaze to about one foot off the ground. Using the same shutter-release cable technique, the artist set up his camera on a walking stick, again photographing the city’s busiest intersections. People move by in flashes of light and motion, on foot or on the bicycles that dominate the city. “My Illusory Beijing” focuses on the destruction of the old city for the construction of Olympic Beijing, a juggernaut of short-term megadevelopment and civic space for the 2008 Beijing Olympic games. Where the first two series focus on fragments of light and action, “My Illusory Beijing” takes its subjects whole, even if they are obscured by shadow: the photographs depict buildings and urban spaces as ominous, shadowy behemoths whose scale fundamentally obscures and destabilizes the individual. For example, the silhouette of a pedestrian pausing in front of Mao’s mausoleum in Tiananmen Square is enveloped by the dark mass of the monument. The exhibition’s final room synthesized the show’s works by installing them mural-sized on the walls, hung from clothing hangers, and displayed over empty antique standard-issue danwei (“work unit”) bed frames lined with sheets of glass, juxtaposing comfort and a sense of dangerous fragility.
In all the works, a sense of physical and emotional malaise remains constant. The artist’s confrontation with contemporary Chinese cities is marked by his own alienation and bewilderment. And if moving from Tibet to Tianjin were not enough of a sea change, Mo was also forced to figure out his own place as an autodidact in the burgeoning Chinese art world, without established networks and connections, perpetuating his status as an outsider. He resisted fully inserting himself into Beijing’s art community until spring of 2010, when he finally felt the confluence of photographers and resources in Caochangdi were significant enough to justify moving into the area.
Describing the “My Illusory City” series, Mo compares the sensation of shooting photographs with the shutter-release cord in his hands rather than a viewfinder at his eye as an act comparable to firing a machine gun. His methods are both an outlet for private frustration and a formal means of distilling the emotional essence of his confrontations with these new civic spaces. For the past three decades, Mo has pursued their documentation with singular focus, and he will surely continue. Meanwhile, the hyperactive development of urban China continues, bringing with it the traumas of destruction and the loss of familiar social spaces. This loss, not the accelerating development that causes it, is the essence of Chinese modernity—chaotic and anonymous, dream-like in its quiet horror.