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China National Day: The Flower Detail

Before concluding that the mass public is mesmerized by political spectacles, it might help to note that photojournalism includes a fair share of backstage shots.  And some can be taken in broad daylight.

This image verges on the visual joke–just think of how you might caption it using the word “butt” or “ass” or otherwise going down that path.  Jokes aren’t serious, by definition, but some very good photographers have not been above them, with Elliott Erwitt being the master of the genre.  Erwitt’s example suggests that the photo above isn’t merely a joke, but something related to that: not quite a parody, but mildly comedic comment on a more conventional form.

But what is it that is being cut down to size?  I think at least two stock images lie behind this photo.  One is the image of goosestepping troops that symbolizes authoritarian regimes.  (I’ve posted here and here on how these images are faring in the 21st century.)  In the photo above, the conventional boots, arced legs, pointed toes, and uniformed entrainment are all present, but firmly planted on the ground and immobile instead of striding forward as disciplined menace-in-motion.  And instead of seeing right arms swinging in unison while the left hold weapons (“arms”) upright, we see only legs and asses.  Worse yet, instead of all heads cocked in the same tense direction, all eyes on the great leader at the reviewing stand, these guys are headless.  Decapitated obedient bodies still symbolize the mass man and mechanized slavery of anti-communist demonology, but the image now is a long way from threatening.  After all, we’re looking at the flower detail.

National Day provides plenty of more impressive images of troops marching in formation, heavy military equipment on display, and all the features once found in the Western press after every May Day.  Those concerned about global security would rightly point out that the troops and weapons on display are real and receiving more funding every year, and that the event was held at Tiananmen Square, and perhaps any bemusement should be tempered accordingly.  But militarization is a global problem in another sense as well, as it sucks up ever more resources despite the fact that war has becoming ever more unnecessary and stupid.  Thus, spectators East and West need to be reminded that it’s one thing to enjoy the show and another to buy the whole package, and that those images of goosestepping troops help sell the package on both sides of the street.

So it is that the political spectacle itself may be another object of commentary in the photograph above.  Instead of seeing only the staged performance, we are taken backstage to be reminded that it is just a show.  Instead of seeing a display of power, we are reminded that the performance depends on ordinary people who are vulnerable in spite of their uniforms.  It will still be a good show, but now we can keep it in perspective instead of seeing a National Security Threat in every parade and Escalation in every salute.

And just to gild the lily, I’ll put up one more photograph from the same role.  This one seems the more direct parody, and a more direct put-down, but let’s wait a moment on that.

Now the goose step is revealed.  Are you terrified?  Of course not.  The stride is limited by the soldier’s load, but more than that, they are carrying flowers, gigantic bouquets of flowers.  On a carpet, no less.  OK, Defense Department, can you match that?  Do you have the latest intelligence on garlands?  Are you prepared to fight a two garden war?

This is another version of a backstage shot in a public space: the photo positions the viewer as if in the wings while watching the actors march out onto the stage.  The double vision of seeing them both backstage and on stage creates a slightly comical, skeptical frame for the event.  And once again the joke turns serious.  The better political vision in this image comes precisely from how the soldiers appear ridiculous.  Would that all soldiers were so: that is, that all the troops were doing nothing but competitive displays for peaceful onlookers.  Not great material for the video games, but one of the keys to the 21st century is figuring out how to turn military expenditures, and cultures, toward less lethal forms of service.  So is is that marching in parades, at least if you are in the flower detail, might be an important military exercise after all.

Photographs by Andy Wong/Associated Press.


China: Marching into the Twentieth Century

Like the recent Olympics, the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China has supplied spectacular images of brightly colored, state-sponsored performance art on a grand scale.  Many of the photographs are of military troops marching on parade.


Something seems to be lost in translation, however, as what we see here is a far cry from the amateurism and informality of a typical Fourth of July parade in the U.S.  A better comparison would be with an Army drill team–if the U.S. Army drill teams had 10,000 troops.

These massive formations of perfectly entrained, tightly choreographed, visually striking troops embody design principles seen throughout Chinese public arts–again, think of the many displays of common movement at the Olympics.  Given the work that goes into it, the performers must take great pride in what they do, and from comments at photo blogs it seems that Chinese spectators around the world really like what they see.

But what do you see if you are not Chinese?  I confess to being somewhat baffled by these images, not least because I can’t help but see them as the latest iteration of the Victory Day parades in Moscow during the Soviet era.  That is, I have the ideological reaction that I was supposed to have when being shown these images in the U.S. press at the time: I see the totalitarian state revealing itself all too clearly in its supposed show of force.  Where the Soviets or the Chinese want us to see massed might, we see the state using enforced conformity to crush freedom and individual expression.

LIFE, Time, and other media outlets loved to shoot the Victory Day/May Day parades, and no wonder.


Today, it looks shabby, perhaps even comical, but at the time it was seen as the work of a state using all its resources to mold Mass Man. The USSR is gone, but the Cold War interpretive framework is maintained by shots of marching troops in North Korea and elsewhere.  (Russia continues the tradition as well, but coverage now is more varied.)  And if that isn’t enough, there still are movies of goose-stepping Nazis, which probably is where the visual convention started.

But are the Chinese formations living monuments to conformity?  Is the authoritarian reality behind Chinese capitalism being revealed–worse, is it being made appealing through their production of the visual spectacle?


I think the answer probably is, in a word, “no.”  Public art does not have one style, different nations share some conventions but also draw on unique cultural traditions, and in any case times change.  The ideological categories of the cold war are not completely out of date, but they are about as good as cars from the same era.  Rather than hazard a reading, I’d rather ask others what they see, whether they like the images, and  why.  Even so, I can’t shake my basic reaction and think that, for all the progress that China is making economically, they still are experiencing something like culture lag when it comes to fashioning civic performances to articulate their version of modern development.

Of course, one of the characteristics of the new China is that they can set their own fashions, thank you very much.

Photographs by Joe Chan/Reuters, Howard Sochurek/Life, Sipa Press/Rex Features.


Politics and Society in the Twentieth Century

If it seems too soon to really be in the 21st century, just take a look backwards.

This photograph of North Korean troops on parade appeared on the front page of the New York Times earlier this week, but it’s really an example of time travel. North Korea is one of the last countries in the world that is trapped in the past century. A rigidly totalitarian state, command economy, and extreme isolation combine to keep the people miserable. For once, a stock photograph seems the appropriate documentary report.

The photo is nothing if not conventional. You can look through it to generations of Soviet May Day parades and before that the German Wehrmacht goose-stepping through Europe. Indeed, this is the most typical image of the totalitarian state: militaristic, uniformed, regimented, everyone marching in lock-step formation. Machine-like regimentation concentrates power in the state while making individuals interchangeable and expendable.

Curiously, on the same day (Wednesday, September 10) the Times featured a very different story on the same front page. I don’t have the exact photo that was used in the paper edition, but this is a variant from the online slide show:

It’s Fashion Week in New York, and the show by Marc Jacobs was featured in part because he “used the early 20th century as the inspiration for his latest collection.” Compared to the photo of the North Korean soldiers, this scene would seem to be from another planet. But look again: Although each model is arrayed differently, they are marching in formation, the actual individuals are interchangeable parts in a production controlled completely by others, and the entire display has little bearing on what ordinary people actually do. The riot of color serves the same purpose as the drab uniforms of the soldiers: individuals are woven into a culture defined by a single orientation.  In one we see the massed power and collective discipline of the state, in the other the richness of the market; both are ideological displays.

The two images have something else in common: complete gender segregation. This bifurcation carries another: politics in one place, society in another. The first image reduces modern politics to the nation-state’s monopoly on violence. The second image reduces modern society to conspicuous consumption in a private sphere having no visible politics at all. Thus, both photos reproduce one of the stock assumptions of modern political thought: that politics and society are essentially separate spheres, each having its own autonomy and each disrupted by any intrusion from the other realm.

In the 21st century this fiction is becoming increasingly dated. From suicide bombers to Blackwater mercenaries, creationists to environmentalists, free trade to slow food, third world modernization to global warming, it is clear that society and politics are complexly interwoven. Of course, there still is need for distinctions that protect both individual and common interests. (I want to maintain the relative autonomy of church and state, for example.) That said, this is a time for moving beyond the old binaries. They are so twentieth century. More to the point, such stock images and conventional assumptions get in the way of creating a better world.

Photographs by Kyodo News via Associated Press and Richard Temine/New York Times.

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