Lei Lei's “Romance in Lushan Cinema“ Exhibition at Rencontres d’Arles, July-September 2019 Conversation between Lei Lei and curators Berenice Angremy & Victoria Jonathan

Lei Lei

Lei Lei

Following his winning the 2018 Jimei x Arles Discovery Award with his installation “Weekend” (curated by Dong Bingfeng), Lei Lei was offered an exhibition at the 2019 edition of Rencontres d’Arles (France), for which he created a new work: “Romance in Lushan Cinema”.

The project originates with an old photograph of the artist at Lushan Mountain in 1988. There’s nothing of the scenery of Lushan in the photograph, taken in a photo studio. Three-year-old Lei Lei and his mother are sitting in a car made of cut-out wood board in a recreated Chinese traditional landscape. In the distance are green mountains, buildings, pine trees and mist. In the bottom right-hand corner of the photograph are the words ‘Travel in Lushan, 1988’.

Using black and white photos collected from secondhand markets, postcards, propaganda images from the Mao era, found footage from the film “Romance on Lushan Mountain” (the first film expressing love after the Cultural Revolution, made in 1980), random finds from Internet, Lei Lei creates a video collage mixing individual and collective memory. While reproducing a family memory of Lushan Mountain in 1988, the artist brings up other meanings of the site: a prominent tourist attraction (UNESCO World Heritage Site), a place of historical significance made famous by Mao Zedong, the setting of a romantic blockbuster watched by 400 million Chinese and played daily in a Lushan cinema named after the movie. Lei Lei rebuilds in Arles the Lushan cinema to project his own montage. He invites us to enter a space of personal memory, an animated fiction made of diverse photographic materials, to watch images from our own dreams.

The artist not only displays nostalgia, but also the quest for truth regarding history, family and personal identity. It is also a reflection on the image and the status of the author: Which is more significant nowadays, photograph or archive image? Which is more important, the picture or the process of image production, the fact that an image is viewed or the context in which it is viewed?

Original photograph depicting artist Lei Lei and his mother in a photo studio reproducing Lushan Mountain’s scenery © Lei Lei, “Romance in Lushan Cinema”

Original photograph depicting artist Lei Lei and his mother in a photo studio reproducing Lushan Mountain’s scenery © Lei Lei, “Romance in Lushan Cinema”

Berenice Angremy & Victoria Jonathan: The origin of the project is a photo of you and your mother driving a car in a photo studio recreating the scenery of Lushan Mountain. Why did you start from this photo to set out creating your work?

Lei Lei: I recalled the short film “Ulysses” by Agnes Varda (1982) that formed from a single photo of a man, a child, and a goat. I remember the background was a beach. Varda forms a story of the man and child in the photo, and uses the goat as a symbol to create a myth. The film also spoke on the photo-shooting styles of the time and the social circumstances of the entire country. I actually want to apply this same logic in the methodological approaches of the personal photo of me and my mom to discuss not only my personal memory, but also the memory of my mother’s generation. My hometown near Lushan has its own historical background, so these photos may serve as the collective memories of a generation in the midst of social movements.

What materials did you use in “Romance in Lushan Cinema” and how did you combine them?

I used three types of material in the video. The first component was the movie “Romance on Lushan Mountain”, released in China in 1980 [the first romance film made after the Cultural Revolution, seen by 400 million audience members in China and screened continuously in a movie theater located on top of Lushan Mountain ever since]. I used snips and pieces from the film to make the video collage. 

The second component was gathered materials from second-hand markets in China that I purchased. The third component was private, older black and white photos of my own family.

I tried to combine public memory with my private memories into a new movie. In addition, the soundtrack of my work also comes from the film “Romance in Lushan”. My friend Soulspeak and I did some physical processing and were able to extract some background noise from the recording. So, the entire project is a collage of ready-made products that have been re-created and re-purposed.

How do you think the audience will relate to your work? Does it cater to Chinese individuals born in the 1980s and 1990s? Nowadays young people are unfamiliar with history, it might be too early of a time in history for them.

I don’t think I will have such a limit on the body of my audience. I like to leave as much space as possible in between the images, allowing the audience room for imagination. For example, my feature film “Breathless Animals” (2019, 68’) has been shown in Berlin [where it was selected in the Forum section at the Berlin Film Festival] and New York [at the Lincoln Center] — places of different cultural backgrounds. But not to say that I am trying to commercialize or capitalize on Chinese exoticism, but I am really trying to just focus on the universal concept of image and memory. 

The relationship between private history and collective history is actually quite open, everyone has the capacity to enjoy it. I think that even if some young people are not interested in history or interested in oral history, they can still enjoy the romantic style of pictures in the movie, which is also an elemental feature of the work. 

Lushan Mountain is a place of great historical and political significance. One of the most renowned mountains in China, a resort for Western missionaries in the 19th century, it witnessed a battle between communist and republican forces during the Long March in 1935, served as a summer retreat for Chiang Kai-Shek (the leader of the Republic of China) and Mao Zedong convened three large conferences of senior party officials in 1959, 1961 and 1970 there which were critical of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. Do you think the audience is familiar with the history of Lushan?

I think it’s possible that the majority of the audience is not familiar with Lushan Mountain. But, there is a poem about perspective that is inscribed in the mountain: “I cannot distinguish the true face of the mountain, because I am only situated in the center of the mountain.” So, you do not need to actually have been to the mountain to “understand” the perspective of the scenery, for perspective will always be limited no matter where you are. When we are discussing these images and memories, we are actually already at the mountain face. (laugh)

Old postcard showing a black and white photo by Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife) of the Fairy Cave in Lushan Mountain, followed by Mao Zedong's poem  The Fairy Cave :  "Amid the growing shades of dusk stand sturdy pines,  Riotous cloud sweep past, swift and tranquil.  Nature has excelled herself in the Fairy Cave,  On perilous peaks dwells beauty in her infinite variety"

Old postcard showing a black and white photo by Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife) of the Fairy Cave in Lushan Mountain, followed by Mao Zedong's poem The Fairy Cave:

"Amid the growing shades of dusk stand sturdy pines,

Riotous cloud sweep past, swift and tranquil.

Nature has excelled herself in the Fairy Cave,

On perilous peaks dwells beauty in her infinite variety"

How did you process these different visual materials and edit them into the video? 

The process involved a lot of physical objects, it was very physically involved. I took screenshots from the movie, printed them and then scanned them, turning it into a kind of stop motion animation. I edited some old photos into the stop motion to create a montage clip. Actually for me, this job was really centered around the still image and the moving image, establishing a relationship between the two. Although the final output is an electronic file, it was very much physical and involved a lot of hand-made production during the work process.

You’ve been an artist for over ten years. Your works from 10 years ago are quite different from your works now. You created illustrations and animations that were both colorful and playful and earned you a reputation early on, winning international awards and collaborating with famous brands. Can you give us a little introduction to the course of revolution?

I think from the works from 10 years ago, I liked using animation as a platform to digest my young hormones, young energy, my youth culture, all very emblematic of subculture. I could make music along with it, it was very cool. But now, I think that very simple visual effects or very visual sound effects —whether they are extremely simple or not— lack the ability to express complex emotions, so I would say my work now embodies a bit more complexity. 

Let me try to give a metaphor for the situation, if I were to liken the work from 10 years to a can of Coca Cola, I would have to think of the work now like a can of Cola chicken wing. (laughs) You could say it’s become more complicated… the audience will have different levels of experiential effects. I think what’s most important for me right now is not to simply create these two-dimensional videos, but to instead construct a space where the audience can use their own personal and private memories to fill in and color that space. This is what is most interesting, is to give people the space for dialogue and exchange. 

Lei Lei, “Romance in Lushan Cinema” (13’), extract

That’s right. Your work for Arles isn’t just a film, it’s also an installation. Why did you decide to make it like that?

Firstly, the inspiration surrounding the cinema originates from my hometown Lushan. There is actually a cinema at the very top of the mountain. For many years, this theater has repeatedly, without intermission, screened the movie “Romance on Lushan Mountain”. It is constantly looping for an audience to enjoy at any time; they could watch it any day, so therefore it’s really like an installation, it is an exhibition. For me, this cinema is a metaphor for memory to act as a physical container. I believe that if I bring my hometown’s cinema to Arles, and put the cinematic memories on view as an exhibition in a foreign country, it will really act as a “memory container”. That was my goal in doing this type of exhibition. 

Ticket for the Romance in Lushan Cinema, built on top of the mountain, where the movie “Romance on Lushan Mountain” has been shown daily since 1980 (earning a Guinness World Record for the Longest First-Run of a Film in One Cinema)

Ticket for the Romance in Lushan Cinema, built on top of the mountain, where the movie “Romance on Lushan Mountain” has been shown daily since 1980 (earning a Guinness World Record for the Longest First-Run of a Film in One Cinema)

Additionally, when preparing for the exhibition I had in mind a quote from Bazin in “What is Cinema” (1975) : « The meaning is not in the image, it is in the shadow of the image projected by montage onto the field of consciousness of the spectator. » If the cinema, as many artists say, it actually just a black box, then I’m just cutting a hole in the wall. Now, how the shadow from the black box is interpreted is in the power of the audience. In Arles, I want this type of experience for the audience. From the installation I only provide the shadow, then it is up to the audience to use their own cultural memories and their own recollections to imagine what I want to convey and what I want to express. 

Last year when you won the Jimei x Arles Discovery Award there were some criticisms that you’re not a real photographer. What is your relationship with photography? You don’t use a camera, but your work deals with photography and the image. What’s your view on this? 

Actually, the curator of my Jimei x Arles show, Dong Bingfeng, wrote in the introduction for the exhibit at the time that « Today’s issues with photography have officially given way to issues with the image. » The problem of photography lies within the fact that photography as a genre has completely given way to the image, and the photographer has completely given way to the image. 

My recent works rarely create new images, I mainly use ready-made images. Our current world has the internet, AI, explosion of information, and consequent image flooding. I think that the images we have are already enough. If all the billions of people in the world are creating new images, what, then, is the value of the artist? Consequently I believe that the role of the artist is not to just show an image, but instead is to discuss the production process and methodology of the image… which is more interesting anyway. 

My work is not just shooting or producing new “works” for everyone to see, but instead is transforming, diverting, and constantly changing the relationship between images. Metaphorically speaking, the audience encounters the exhibition field like a “magic cube”. They need to play with the magic cube themselves to complete their own story. Whether in Xiamen or Arles, I am orchestrating such a game with the audience. 

You seem to be very influenced by French New Wave cinema. Two of your works’ titles, “Weekend” (2019, 7’) and “Breathless Animals” (2019, 13’) directly refer to Godard’s movies “Weekend” (1967, 105’) and “Breathless” (1960, 90’). You mentioned earlier Agnes Varda. Can you discuss further French new wave movies and how they inspire you? 

I derived a lot of inspiration from Varda, who just passed away. At the California College of the Arts I teach experimental film, experimental animation, and exhibits, and within my course I show French New Wave movies to the students. Most importantly, Bazin’s book discusses the working methods and titles of over 400 other New Wave directors. 

I still do a lot of animation work. The root of the English word “animated’ is “to give”, to give an object or a character life. So, animation retains a relationship with life and soul. In fact, for me, whether it is photography or film, behind it all is a soul. The audience can imagine the soul behind the story through these shadows, these ghosts. 

We talked about the visual technical aspects, but let’s also discuss your methods of sound production because of how important it is to your film. How did you work with sound producers and musicians, along with the recordings from your childhood? The family you grew up with is so unique; they’ve kept so many photos, so many recordings, it really is special. 

Yes, I see what you mean. On one hand, I am very fortunate that my parents had recorded so many images and sounds. 

But on the other hand, so many sounds are still missing. There is missing pictures, missing sounds, missing voices… So you can see in my “Weekend” and “Breathless Animals,” or in “Romance in Lushan Cinema”, I’ve tried to create images with “nothing” in them. Actually when I record, my methodology follows your logic — because I have lost so much of the sound, I try to look and think about what the missing parts could be. 

You are really looking for that “ghost.”

Yes, I really am looking for it. There very well may be ghosts from the 80s and the 70s. Whether in “Weekend” or in “Breathless Animals” I always use the original tape. I want to make use of that empty space into a physical sound. These “empty” sounds are more important and much more emotionally textured than sound could be.

Lei Lei, “Romance in Lushan Cinema” (13’), extract

“Weekend”, “Breathless Animals” and “Romance in Lushan Cinema” all deal with the same topic of memory and all take source in your childhood. But the artistic methods differ. “Breathless Animals” uses a more traditional approach, it is closer to a documentary. “Weekend” (first shown in Jimei x Arles) and “Romance in Lushan Cinema” (created for Rencontres d’Arles) are short films, more experimental, they are video collages. Why did you use these different approaches to the same topic, sometimes even using the same materials? 

I think it’s because of the differences between media and venues. There is a sense of ceremony in a cinema, the audience buys tickets and chooses seats to view a film. There is a timeline, a beginning and an end, so I wanted a time-based sense of story telling. But the context is that of an exhibition, the audience is more focused on the experience of space rather than on the timeline. The difference in concepts becomes the work of the artists, so it’s dependent on the media. But there I can make a similar point, like with using the same material as you pointed out. On the other hand, for both exhibition and cinema settings, I used the idea of “shadow” I just mentioned. The concept of the shadow allows me to not have to tell the history so directly.

I don’t want to exact such supremacy in saying “this is what is real, you don’t know, I am the authority of perspective”. I have given the rights to the audience. In the film “Breathless Animals”, I used the oral history of my mother. In fact, you find that I have removed the majority of the crucial descriptions of historical background to leave a lot of space for imagination. Same with “Romance in Lushan Cinema” in Arles, I did not actually describe where Lushan is and how high the altitude is. It just gives everyone space. Everyone can imagine that the story that lies beneath the beautiful scenery is a personal story, but it’s still a collective story. I think that whether it’s in the cinema or in an exhibition, my approach still deals with these same concepts. 

Lei Lei on Breathless Animals, Memories, and Maoist China Art of the Real 2019 at Film at Lincoln Center. In Lei Lei’s first feature, the director’s mother speaks in voiceover about her parents, the trials and tribulations of her youth, Maoist China, and violent dreams of animals fueled by late nights in front of the television. Accompanying these recollections, which drift across the soundtrack, are anonymous still and moving images, found footage, and repurposed photographs, occasionally made to skip, stutter, or slow through analog animation techniques. As memories weave through material evidence of the past, ruptures emerge in the film’s construction, calling upon the mind’s eye to fill in the gaps of history.

“Breathless Animals” also seems to be very much about physical objects and daily life. It sort of shows spaces and material changes occurring in Chinese society in the 70s and 80s. Why did you choose this method and this time period to exhibit? What are some of the feelings encapsulated within this era? 

To be honest, I hope “Breathless Animals” can be a bit more abstract or open. If I just fixate on my mother’s oral history and her emotions, I feel that a bit too narrow and limiting. I often find myself asking why the audience is so interested in someone’s “private memories”… There are so many people in this world. I could be interested in a French man’s memories, or the memories of a Portuguese woman, so why on earth are people interested in one Chinese artist’s memories? 

I think the most important thing about a work is its openness, so that way everyone can participate and engage with its core. The images discuss clocks, they discuss furniture, things that all people will experience in their life. Despite the fact that I am talking about China in the 1970s and 1980s, I in fact tried to re-create that space to create a new space. This is so that everyone can enter it, and participate in that discussion, not just listen to a middle-aged woman talk about her own memory. 

Something very interesting happened after the screening in Berlin… an old man who had found a liking to the screening came over to me and said, “your furniture is very similar to our German furniture. You also also used this type of furniture…” Older people aren’t solely interested in a middle-aged woman’s memories… it was the furniture that reminded him of the feelings and experiences in Germany’s historical movements. It’s the members of these societal movements that will be influenced and moved. When in fact, at the end of the day, to discuss memory is to discuss personal feelings, and personal feelings are something everyone possesses… 

Edited by Victoria Jonathan 

Translation from Mandarin to English: Paige Strockis

Special thanks: Sam Stourdzé, RongRong, Dong Bingfeng, Amélie Samson, Tang Lingzi.

Lei Lei, “Romance in Lushan Cinema”exhibition at Rencontres d’Arles, 1 July-22 September 2019 More info