As Susan Sontag observed, “the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads”. Pure Satire by Maleonn at the 2902 Gallery in Singapore encapsulates this visual aesthetic, creating an open set of performative statements within a symbol-laden, dreamlike universe that amalgamates historical and contemporary trends, wherein protagonists are children with runaway imaginations at heart. In the intense, nostalgic amber-toned hues of Maleonn’s photographic universe, androgynous figures dress like superman and ridiculous tomato-heads clad in traditional Chinese costumes of bygone eras chide us for our laughter.
At the crux of Pure Satire is Maleonn’s championing of the ridiculous. The hallmark of childhood – the unfettered imagination that is oft inclined to wander off into magical spheres – is captured on print by digital colourising and careful staging to depict an untouchable realm surrounded by elements of the physical world that are both familiar and unfamiliar. Maleonn’s world of the child-like mind bears some similarity to the landscape we know, but is ultimately upheld with laws that reject normality: men nonchalantly carry a giant peach out of the door and postmen ride through brick walls to deliver their letters.
Images of China’s modern generation are presented (sometimes comically) as an archetype in fables, remodelled as twenty-first century moral anecdotes that highlight numerous human foibles. In The King of the Ridiculous (2010) series, a figure dressed in a sumptuous Chinese Operatic costume poses with pretentious fervour against well-known architectural backdrops lamenting– just the speaker of Ecclesiastes did with aplomb – the absurdity of life and art. The Little Flagman (2008) series features a solitary figure clad in military uniform caught in a plethora of movements: dancing in a cage to mourning fully holding flags lost in a desolate landscape.
While juxtaposing the bourgeoning cultural freedom accompanying China’s frenetic capitalism with the apparent erosion of historical – or even mythological – grounding in modern Chinese society however, Maleonn deflects his judgement by unleashing the mental workings of an inner child. Created with a carnivalistic sense of chaos, the photographic triptych Journey to the West (2008) is a beautifully coloured mess of traditional and Western images, perhaps obliquely suggesting China’s increasing identification with Western influences and not-too-subtle shift in sensibilities while simultaneously drawing a parallel with its namesake: a seventeenth-century epic Ming text chronicling a perilous journey to India for spiritual enlightenment. But unlike Lewis Carroll’s Alice who peers (and eventually enters) through a looking glass into an alternative world, we as viewers – perhaps typified by the human face peeking in the left corner – visually consume but can’t quite hope to enter.
Born in 1972, Maleonn resides and works in Shanghai. After graduating from the Fine Arts College of Shanghai University in 1995, he went on to become a director of short films including television advertisements. Pure Satire will be on show at the 2902 Gallery until 7 May 2011.