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CRUEL MODERNITY: THE ALLEGORIES OF LILY AND HONGLEI’S SHADOW PLAY

SERENA JARA (for Jamaica Flux 2016 Catalog)

Serena Jara, essay on Shadow Play by Lily & Honglei
Image by ©Lily & Honglei Art Studio

A smoggy window view looks outwards towards a bustling cityscape, where traffic, skyscrapers, and pedestrians disappear into the industrialized atmosphere. An inverted figure materializes from the haze, suspended midair. Free falling through dense smog, the body appears poised to crash on top of the urban sprawl, frozen in its ominous descent. Gray tones envelop the dystopian scene as well as the weightless industrial worker, who appears rendered in hand drawn lines, cut out and collaged into photographic space. Her final moments assume hauntingly mythological characteristics, telling one story of the suicides afflicting many migrant workers who build China’s expanding skylines.

Lily and Honglei’s installation for Jamaica Flux, entitled, “Shadow Play: Tales of Urbanization of China” and exhibited on site at the Jamaica Center of Arts and Learning, studies the many layers of China’s expansion into modernity. Employing darkly dystopian allegories that reflect individualized struggles, the narrative of a village family displaced by mass land grabbing takes on the forms of virtual and augmented realities. The overarching storyline is comprised of both research and thirty years of lived experience. Presented in four chapters, the tale details the murder of the village chief at the hands of demolition crews, his son’s subsequent abduction, and his wife’s journey into the city to search for her lost child. Featuring a synthesis between traditional Chinese shadow play puppetry and advanced three dimensional rendering technologies, the project becomes an immersive fable told through equal parts symbolism and bleak reflections of reality.

As the mother emerges from the subterranean city beneath Beijing, home to many rural migrant workers who build the expanding urban skyline above ground, she witnesses some of the most strikingly dark imagery visible in “Shadow Play.” Images of falling workers hover over her anonymously like ghosts, dangling from wires and steel beam ledges. Speaking at the 2015 Creative Capital Artist’s Retreat, Honglei explains that the visuals of descending migrant bodies “specifically reflects on the worker suicide cases at Foxconn factory, the electronics manufacturer behind popular products like iPads and iPhones.” Despite their spirit-like, evaporating qualities, one cannot separate the disappearing figures from the “modernity” achieved by rapid urbanization of China. Lily and Honglei effectively bridge disconnect from both sides of one story into potent allegorical tensions, fitting vast complexity into small shadow puppet characters inhabiting a phone or tablet’s screen. Their imagery causes audiences to question the advancement of culture, embedded directly into the technologies which enable such costly “progressions” to occur continuously.

 

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SHADOW PLAY

Dr. Shoshan Brosh-Vaitz and Shir Meller-Yamaguchi

(for Lily & Honglei's solo exhibition at Wilfrid Israel Museum of Asian Arts and Studies)

Editing by He Li

Shir Yamaguchi, Lily & Honglei, Essay, Chinese Shadow Play
Image by ©Lily & Honglei Art Studio

Chinese shadow puppet theater probably began in the 6th century during the Tang dynasty as a means of disseminating religious and historical narratives, often with highlighting the value of justice and morality. Over the years, the design of the dyed leather shadow puppets became increasingly complex; delicate cutting and coloring as well as an impressive repertoire of characters and set decorations came to be developed. Due to the dramatic ideological, technological, and cultural change that took place in China during the 20th century, this art form has waned in popularity and almost become a thing of the past. The medium has been preserved primarily through the work of collectors such as Richard Hardiman, whose collection is presented in the exhibition.

Folk art, however, is deeply rooted in cultural consciousness and has the power to revive itself when it becomes relevant to its time again. In Shadow Play by New York-based Chinese art collective Lily and Honglei, the shadow puppets reappear in a new guise within a seemingly naïve set. Originally created on a virtual reality platform, the work was adapted for screening as a slideshow presentation for the exhibition. Using the magical imagery of the traditional shadow puppets, the artists present critical commentary on the social ills shadowing over China.

Shadow Play reflects on the radical transformations experienced by China over the past thirty years through a tragic story of a rural family. The story embodies a deplorable trend that has been taking place all over China: villages and rural neighborhoods are being razed, and people who object to it are being murdered by interested parties. Children are being abducted while migrant workers are being relocated from small villages to filthy, overcrowded underground dwellings in large cities, all the while pollution abounds and public security breaks down. Basic values such as life, freedom, and dignity are being trampled in broad daylight. Lily and Honglei sketch this grim reality as a surrealistic narrative, in which mesmerizing beauty and horror are placed side by side. Green sunlight and an enchanted moonlight of yellowish-red color become obfuscated by the shadowy predicaments of reality.

Scenes from the traditional shadow puppet theater are presented alongside scenes from its contemporary counterpart to offer a perspective on the age-old conflict between man’s base, demonic portions-which are manifest in greed, violence and exploitation--and the beautiful, exalted facets of human existence, which dwells in harmony, cooperation, altruism, and dedication.

 

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SHADOW PLAY, TALES OF URBANIZATION

ALEJANDRO SALGADO (for Jamaica Flux 2016)

Lily & Honglei, Chinese shadow puppetry, urbanization, Asian Art

Immigrated from Beijing and based in Flushing, NY, the artist collective, Lily & Honglei, are interested in exploring current social and environmental issues through the lens of Chinese cultural identity and heritage. The outcome is work of the 21st century digital technology, which integrates Chinese traditional art elements along with a critical assessment of industrialized modern China within a global context.

Shadow Play, Tales of Urbanization, is a multimedia project that visualizes the metamorphosis of urbanizing China. This country, which has been mainly agrarian for millennia, is going through significant transformations of its society, culture, and environment through an unprecedented process of urbanization. In 2013, the newly inaugurated national leadership unveiled the plan of transforming 70% of the country into a city-oriented lifestyle before 2030.

Through interdisciplinary fieldwork, Lily & Honglei collect information for the production of this multimedia project in which traditional art forms and new technologies intertwine. With the objective of presenting the process of urbanization to a worldwide audience, Lily & Honglei display this work in three diverse media: video installations (physical space), virtual reality (cyberspace) and augmented reality (on smartphones and tablets).

The work, divided into four chapters, reflects issues such as violence against rural families by real estate developers, transformation of the landscape, kidnapping for adoption, immigration, hopelessness, and environmental degradation for the sake of fast economic growth. This massive urbanization process is illuminated from different perspectives of time with an outlook toward the future through digital technologies, a retrospective into the past through the reinterpretation of the remarkable imagery of the Chinese shadow play, and a reflection of the present through the immersive fieldwork in modern China.

 

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