By Anna Gustafson
Video game controller in hand, Beijing artist Feng Mengbo was in full concentration mode at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City last week as he navigated the world he created, where Chinese Red Army soldiers throw cans of Coca-Cola at Mario Bros. characters and elude giant, writhing space creatures.
A completely silent Mengbo walked up and down the long, narrow room in PS1 where his art installation, “Long March: Restart,” is being exhibited to play the game, which borrows imagery from other games such as “Super Mario Bros.” and “Street Fighter II,” as well as scenes from Communist China.
A surreal melange of pictures of hundreds of Chinese soldiers marching in unison and spaceships shaped like Coke cans flash onto the walls during the game, which is loosely inspired by a historical event now known as the Long March. The Red Army of the Chinese Community Party escaped the Chinese Nationalist Party army, which had seemed to be well on its way to annihilating the Red Army, by walking an estimated 8,000 miles in the course of a little more than a year in 1934.
“I have been into video games since the 1980s, and I always wanted to make one with the Long March being the background,” Mengbo said after completing the game that PS1 visitors are invited to play when they come to the exhibit, which opened Sunday and will run through April 4. “I always really liked the story of the Long March, it was something that always struck me.”
Mengbo, who teaches art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, noted the game is more about the potency of images than making any political statement. It is, he said, about the power of images that will remain with you — that of the Chinese soldiers walking thousands of miles in what could be the dramatic and daunting terrain of western China, or something like the game’s hero, the Red Army soldier, lodging a soda can at Mario or a massive space monster whose green arms snake great lengths from its body.
“When I first played a video game, I was 18 and no longer a kid,” Mengbo said. “But I had this mentality of a child with me, so I always liked to play. I learned a lot about different degrees of playfulness, and I wondered why certain video games we can play all the time and others we can pack up and say, ‘Oh, that’s not interesting.’ I learned what kinds of things, images, can get people’s attention.”
For Liu Landing, a fellow Beijing artist who attended the opening Sunday, Mengbo’s images certainly caught her attention.
“It’s this completely unique idea,” said Landing. “He uses the Cultural Revolution as a background and combines all these different images. He’s the only one in China doing stuff like this.”
Rashida Craddock, a visual artist and art blogger from Manhattan, said the installation made her, for the first time, consider video games as a form of art.
“I was an avid video game player as a child and then I became a painter, but I never thought about how both are creations,” Craddock said. “It can make people think about art in our daily lives. Art to me is about creation, and this exhibit makes me think of all the art that exists every single day.”
MoMA PS1 has been affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan since 2000, but recently changed its name from “P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center.” For more information on this and other exhibits at PS1, visit ps1.org.
Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4574.