JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Archive of Modern Conflict Books (here) and Editorial RM (here). Softcover with plastic dust jacket, 306 pages, with 78 color images. There are no essays, aside from the redacted original texts. (Spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: If there is a single physical item that can be most closely identified with Communist China, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tsetung, or the Little Red Book as many refer to it, is almost certainly that iconic object. Made up of a selection of essays and quotations from the 1960s leader, it is a ubiquitous cultural and political symbol, freighted with a weighty set of historical and emotional baggage from the failures of the Cultural Revolution. In the not so recent past, any form of subversive activity around this effectively sacred book, whether artistic in intent or not, would likely have been received without any trace of humor.
That Cristina de Middel would choose the highly charged Little Red Book as a framework for her own photographic experience of modern China says something about how times have changed, and about her growing confidence as an artist. Coming on the heels of the astonishing (and well deserved) success of her self published book The Afronauts (the gallery show of this body of work reviewed here), this effort leaves fantastical quasi-documentary fiction behind and returns to intimate, detail driven street photography, but does so in a clever context that offers de Middel seemingly endless metaphorical possibilities, turning an ordinary travelogue into a nuanced visual discussion of the joys and contradictions to be found in contemporary China.
Structurally, her photobook is a faithful replica of the original Little Red Book – hand-held size, immediately recognizable red vinyl cover, thin pages, filled with earnest exhortations and Marxist-Leninist doctrine. What’s different is that the text on each and every page has been almost entirely redacted, as though whited out with correction fluid, leaving just a handful of edited words and phrases. De Middel’s photographs have been inserted as separated double sided pages and bound into the text, with the images sequenced to match the now modified texts. The result is a photobook experience that is alternately playful and incisive, a rich satire that mixes absurd comedy with an undercurrent of scathing realism.
The book aptly begins with a play on words, toying with the word “party” and its double meaning as a celebration and a political entity. A joyful photograph of a girl in a flowered dress, smiling and dancing, is flanked by a serious message (“if there is to be revolution, there must be a party”), setting the stage for a series of smart juxtapositions, edits, and verbal manipulations. A tower of oranges wrapped in tape is labeled “oppression”, while a miming pair of ballerinas reminds us that “enemies without guns struggle”.
De Middel’s humor edges toward darker caricature with a man floating face down flanked by “bodies, in exuberant vigor show their courage” and a massive patriotic head perfectly interrupted by a lamppost captioned with “one man, with ideas will be invincible”. As the slogans continue, she touches on a variety of China’s current challenges: corruption (an image of a pile of fake money paired with “You can’t solve a problem?”), pollution (a picture of a woman wearing a face mask and scarf together with “we are not afraid of germs”), and the male/female imbalance created by the one child policy (an image of I NEED GIRL sprayed on a wall matched with “Men must pay for sex”). Visual ironies pile up, her tone shifting back and forth between light and joking to harsher and more archly satirical – an image of smoke rising from the back of a man’s head put together with “We should always use our brains” is a funny interlude between the despondency of a carnival ride ( “over and over again in an endless spiral”) and the violence of a Mao statue with its head bashed in (“We are good at destroying”).
The strength of this book lies in the ingenuity and imagination used to pare back the obtuse language of the Little Red Book into censored catch phrases that could be interpreted visually in multiple ways. While there are a few standouts among de Middel’s intimate photographs, their vitality mostly comes from her contextual quick-wittedness – it’s the slyness she applied during the edit process that gives the entire book experience so much cunning push and pull. It’s a photobook full of smile-inducing double meanings and ironic twists, with just enough indirect body blows to deliver some surprising bite. Altering the Little Red Book was a project fraught with risks, but de Middel has pulled it off with verve and intelligence.
Collector’s POV: Cristina de Middel is represented in New York by Dillon Gallery (here). De Middel’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.