Red Graffiti Black Magic

What a creative idea of putting together vividly colorful Cultural Revolution memorabilia with black and white scenes of daily life! When Pok Chi Lau showed me some of his prints during his first visit to Shanghai in 2006 with a group of his American students, I was immediately enraptured by the modernity of his diptychs and the energy that emanated from them.

They reminded me right away of Brassaií»s wall graffiti. From the 1930í»s to the 1960í»s Brassai has systematically collected carvings and scribbling he found on the walls of Paris. We can imagine Pok Chi Lau in the same frenzied hunt. Brassai would spend interminable hours in front of inscriptions, lines, holes and figures, waiting for the appropriate light to take the photo. Years later he would return to the same spot to record the effect of time. On Pok Chi Lauí»s red walls, the cursive lines of calligraphy, weathered red paint and partially revealed characters, could invite viewers to a guessing game about the original slogans. But instead they represent a new form of raw art, a fascinating conversation between quasi abstract red graffiti and lyrical daily scenes painted in nostalgic black & white. These haunting images resonate intimately with Brassaií»s themes of love, death, and magic. As much as some of Brassaií»s figures resemble ancient demons or primitive gods, some of Pok Chi Lauí»s icons remind us of a semblance of almighty man-gods terrifying for our collective subconscious. Perhaps one could see the red graffiti as traces of blood trail, yet one could also see the healing power of the auspicious China-Red instead. Lauí»s attempt to conjure the spirits of the past and to cast a new spell on the young generation is indeed a powerful act of black magic. He has this ambition to play with fire, as a voodoo master, a shaman expert in mixing the chiaroscuro of the other world with the Kodachrome of the instant reality. In distorting time and space he also wants to give his own testimonial.

I happened to have known Pok Chi as a gentleman with a genuine heart. When we attended the Lianzhou Photo Festival, he would take his American visitors to the poorest villages around to explain the ridiculous hourly rate of the workers hired by foreign invested factories, and the conditions of those local young boys and girls who would find the earning even more rewarding than simply cultivating their farm land. Now we can better appreciate the maní»s candor in his being shocked upon discovering (the little he learned of) the í░greatí▒ Cultural Revolution.

Yet in the tableaux he adroitly composed into diptychs, one can find all the incantations, conjurations, invocations of the spirits and the souls of the world who has known and is still experiencing war, turmoil and revolution in different parts of the time zones. Therefore beyond the Cultural Revolution, beside the Chinese identity, what these photographic diptychs are telling is a universal story, the history of man in times of upheaval and in times of peace. During the 1960í»s while China was rocked by this unprecedented mass movement of the youth however orchestrated at the top, in the West a wave of spontaneous revolution transformed a whole generation in arts and literature, philosophy and politics. Sexual liberation, racial integration, anti-war movement, womení»s equal rights, environmental protection, spiritual quest; this new age was born accompanied by popular songs and music. While looking at Pok Chií»s Diptychs, I cannot help playing in my head this song by the Byrds,:

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time for every purpose, under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it's not too late!

(Words: adapted from the bible, book of Ecclesiastes
Music: Pete Seeger)

Jean Loh
Shanghai 4th of July 2008

Pokchi Lau - Red Walls
4 color printing
98 pages