Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Learning from Lei Feng

Lei Feng (1940-1962) was a soldier in the Peoples Liberation Army, who, post-mortem, was singled out and promoted as a role model by no less than Mao Zedong himself.  His near mythic acts of selflessness (he darned his comrades' socks!  he sewed quilts for others!  he hauled heavy loads of manure!) earned him a feast day on the Chinese calendar.   March 5 is now known as Learn From Lei Feng Day.  The 5 months I was in Beijing, I learned that just about every one has a strong feeling about Lei Feng.  He is seen as either the uncomplaining young man who helped old ladies cross the street, or as a propaganda tool minted for the darkest times of recent Chinese history - the Cultural Revolution.  His cult has been revived in part to combat the excessive selfishness that has emerged with the get rich at any cost mentality.  Like any myth or legend, I believe he falls somewhere in between.

And like any myth or legend, there is an accumulation of imagery that is available to explore.  Inexplicably there are photos of Lei Feng worthy of a Hollywood studio.  High wattage light drenching the scene with hard cast shadows replaced earlier, humbler depictions of his actions.  But it is his cherubic face with his eyes gazing straight out that I zeroed in on.

The China of Lei Feng has changed beyond recognition; the analog has been superseded by the digital.  Thrift is ignored as consumerism is encouraged.  In the village of Shangyuan, about 30km  north of Beijing, I installed a hand painted lo-rez image of Lei Feng.  Each 'pixel' is a 4cm x 4cm square of painted paper. Confusing up close, Lei Feng is only seen from a distance.

Christopher Pelley,  Lei Feng From a Distance   2014

Everything is made in China and in quantities beyond comprehension, feeding the world's appetite for cheap goods and the domestic consumption of 1.4 billion people.  Who mends  a pair of socks today? This lo-rez image of Lei Feng was made from over 600 pairs.

Christopher Pelley,  He Darned His Comrades' Socks   2014
The propaganda department during the years of the Cultural Revolution wove the narrative of this fine young soldier's devotion to the welfare of others with his devotion to the words of Mao.  It was these years that saw the Great Leap Forward result in the deaths of millions of peasants as their farm implements were melted to satisfy iron production quotas set by the central government.  I began painting the image of Lei Feng on shovels.  When asked by a visiting guest if these works were political, I could only reply that all works and all decisions are in some way political.....

Christopher Pelley,  Shoveling Dung  2014

Every good hero dies at the end of the story.  Lei Feng was killed at age 22 when, while directing a fellow soldier backing up a truck, a telephone pole was struck and fell on our comrade. 

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