I was visiting Beijing to study in September 1985. Buried in the surge of the city’s enormous pedestrian crowds, inevitably walking shoulder to shoulder, I felt that I had been thrust inside a single organism buzzing with countless emotions.
The instant I saw Mo Yi’s solo exhibition “Caged Beast: Three decades” at the MEM Gallery in Ebisu twenty-seven years later, everything I felt back then suddenly came flooding back.
“The bustle and anxiety of society—its dynamism, its passion and resistance. I think it’s all in there. Images leave traces of a powerful qíngxù. This image is the truth. In an instant, I remembered all of the experiences and sensations that that city gave me in the eighties. Twenty years later, I was moved again by my own work.” (Mo Yi, 2005)
Qíngxù is a Chinese word for an emotion faltered by inner pressure of apprehension. China had started plunging into a market economy and the Tiananmen Square incident was just four years away. Everyone knew that something was happening. It was the unease of being at the mercy of great tectonic shifts.
The blurred landmark you see in the center of the photo on the right is St. Joseph Cathedral in Tianjin. It’s a subject to which Mo Yi is quite attached, appearing in eleven out of the forty works in his My Illusory City: China 1987 collection. The dignified Romanesque Revival form stands as a symbol of the religious culture of the time, and it can also be considered a symbol of the history of colonialism, and of Tianjin’s modern-day culture. It was for this reason that when Wang Duanyang photographed the red guards hoisting their communist flag from the roof of the cathedral in 1966, he had to depict both the buildings and the crowds scrupulously in order to express the joy of conquering an old world order.
In Mo Yi’s work, however, we lose the contours of both the architecture and the crowds. There, they are nothing but floating traces in the air. Multiple exposures at different times and positions even include the movement of the photographer’s view. This chaotic destabilization of everything allows the living energy of the crowd to gush out. It was Mo Yan, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, who in his 1987 work Red Sorghum Clan brought the timeless energy of the crowd organism to life through multiple time exposures in a single sentence. Mo Yi seems to capture that same essence.
Mo Yi has searched for new expressions as times have changed, and his activities can be divided into three periods. Meanwhile, certain things continue to spring forth from him unchanged. Elements like shadowy crowd images, or bedding or window designs that retain traces of human activity. He assembles these elements into a collage, showing energy stemming from the processes of motion and growth itself.
The process by which Mo Yi rediscovered himself in 2005 is described in his own words above, and this rediscovery has gradually spread across the world. He received the Gold Prize in Chinese Photography at the Pingyao International Photography Festival in 2008, and in 2015 he received the Gold “Power of the People” Award at the opening exhibition for the Beijing Minsheng Art Museum. That same year, he was given the Documentary Photography award by the Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation for Documentary Photography & Film at the Rencontres d’Arles, a French international photography festival which has been held for nearly half a century and is often called the Cannes of the photography world.