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Past Lives IN "Ethnography, Photojournalism and Propaganda: 1934-1975"

A FotoFest exhibition displays a palpable sense of history "Western China,1934–1939""The Northern Front, The Anti-Japanese War, 1937–1946""The Cultural Revolution, 1965–1975"

Twenty years after Sha Fei, the Communist Party's control of its image was much more sophisticated. Anyone who has read an account of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution will experience cognitive dissonance in looking at these images. Everyone looks so joyous and idealistic in these photos. Mao's Little Red Book is everywhere. It is held aloft in mass rallies of thousands, and even enthusiastic foreigners march through Chinese streets with copies of it. Young women hold their books as they perform a "dance of loyalty" for an assembled crowd. Red Guards strike comically dramatic lunge poses and raise their books into the air. You can't escape it — people read aloud from it to train passengers, a group of small children study it, and families read it before dinner, surrounded by posters of Mao. The sheer ubiquitousness of the book is frightening.

You see the effects of his programs. Smiling college students are sent to be reeducated by poor farmers (I'm thinking they stopped smiling pretty quickly). Manual labor was a tool of redemption. In one photo, a massive dam is dug by hundreds of people using hand shovels, and in another (ridiculously staged) photograph, a couple dozen people are poised to attack enormous boulders with tiny hammers to build another dam. In these images, you almost believe that their zeal will make anything possible.

One image is especially ominous: A 1966 photograph records one small manifestation of the "Break the Four Olds Movement" — Old Custom, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. People are shown gathered around a bonfire, where, according to the caption for the photograph, "traditional objects" are burned. Just imagine the devastating impact of the Cultural Revolution agenda in a country with 5,000 years of culture.

You can't escape Mao's Little Red Book in the Cultural Revolution series.
Weng Naiqiang, courtesy 798 Photo Gallery, Beijing
You can't escape Mao's Little Red Book in the Cultural Revolution series.

Details

"FotoFest 2008 — The Twelfth International Biennial of Photography and Photo-Related Work," March 7 — April 20
"Western China, 1934–1939"
"The Northern Front, The Anti-Japanese War, 1937–1946"

"One Allen Center, 500 Dallas, 713-223-5522

"The Cultural Revolution, 1965–1975"
Two Allen Center, 1200 Smith, 713-223-5522

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What these exhibitions do better than any history book is create a tangible sense of loss. Next week, we'll look at photography after the Cultural Revolution in this space.

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