Visualizing Cultures Controversy and Beyond

In October 2014, I visited an exhibition entitled “War and Propaganda 14/18” at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MKG). Shocked by the elaborated details of the depictions of both visual and textural, I was feeling a little bit of terrified when seeing some of the images of Germany in posters and postcards produced in Britain, France and the U.S.

belgian-propaganda-poster

Fight-now-or-wait-for-this

Upon first seeing pictures on Visualizing Cultures, I was immediately reminded of the images at “War and Propaganda 14/18”. For me, the brutality of the German and Japanese soldiers demonstrated in these images was almost disturbing of a parallel amount. Yet there was a bit more of this feeling of me about the Japanese paintings. The reason for that, I would like to call “national sensitivity”. Simply put, it is something triggered by seeing the image when one’s own people being slaughtered — a reinforcing process for the erection of an individual’s nationhood.

However, the national sensitivity of mine did not cause me strong rejection of this online presentation. For as far as we know, given the fact that the Chinese have been trying every means to show the world the cruelty and ruthlessness of the Japanese during the war, these images, made by Japanese themselves, providing exactly how barbarous and inhuman the Japanese were. Through further browsing the website and reading the texts, I realized it was less upsetting how the images of the Chinese were butchered (although they were), but more disturbing because of the texts written by the professors, which contain words like “exhilarating beauty”, ” a beautiful, heroic, modern war” and etc. This use of language might play with the fire of beautifying or even glorifying the war. According to Wong, this misleading usage of language is the main reason for Chinese students’ protest.

Image and literary text function primarily in a inter-complimentary way. Decoding image and decoding text are controlled by different areas in the brain. Image interpretation is essential for human survival and is derived from our ancestor; while language, especially literary creation came into being much later comparing to the ability of image comprehension, for to immediately percept images is one of essential animal instincts. Therefore, it is reasonable to deduct that image stimuli receives faster and stronger feedback from human brain than literary text. Images provide something that cannot be documented by words. Certain extent of emptiness that leaves out certain details stimulates imagination, further creates much complex emotional and perceptional effects on readers. On the other hand, literary texts that accompany the images serve to direct the readers to a certain understanding perspective, which generates certain emotion or rational thinking, as expected by the exhibitor (the professors, in this case), resulting in fulfilling the exhibiting purposes. Therefore, the “misunderstanding” of the Chinese students in this controversy seems to be caused by the lack of proper instruction of viewing the provided by the professors. What about the “brainwashed” Chinese students who were misunderstood by Chronicle, for whom it is rather merely an “understanding” without “mis-“? Were these students being overly national sensitive? Why on earth would they being so “narrow minded” and “overreacting”? How would the Taiwanese react to these images? How about Hong Kong people? Accept it or not, they are to some extent related to the people who were depicted as “weak”, “humiliated”, and “killed” in these paintings. How much does an individual’s nationality/nationhood matter here?

The Falling Man – a photograph taken by the veteran photographer Richard Drew on the worst day – recorded a man falling from the north tower of World Trade Center, with his hands at sides, his legs bent, facing forwards. This photograph caused a huge furor right after its appearance. Readers were outraged and asserting the image for being “distressing”. It is so controversial since it represents a series of trauma: a theme of trauma (9/11 terrorist attacks), a national and an individual trauma. it gives the reader “a punch in the stomach”, causes them filled with severe psychological discomfort.

thefallingman

But The Falling Man is not the first photograph that “punched in the stomach” of readers so hard that caused huge public debate and discomfort. On February 1, 1968, during the opening stages of the Tet Offensive, Vietnam War, photographer Eddie Adams took his most famous photograph — a Vietcong prisoner, Nguyễn Văn Lém, was being executed by police chief General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan.

RETRANSMISSION TO RESIZE FILE--FILE--South Vietnamese National Police Chief Brig Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a Viet Cong prisoner with a single pistol shot in the head in Saigon Feb. 1, 1968. Nguyen died Wednesday, July 15, 1998  at his home in Burke, a suburb of Washington, D.C., after a battle with cancer, said his daughter, Nguyen Anh. He was 67. This photo of Nguyen aiming a pistol point-blank at the grimacing prisoner's head became a memorable image of the Vietnam War. The photograph, by Eddie Adams, won a Pulitzer prize for The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
RETRANSMISSION TO RESIZE FILE–FILE–South Vietnamese National Police Chief Brig Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a Viet Cong prisoner with a single pistol shot in the head in Saigon Feb. 1, 1968. Nguyen died Wednesday, July 15, 1998 at his home in Burke, a suburb of Washington, D.C., after a battle with cancer, said his daughter, Nguyen Anh. He was 67. This photo of Nguyen aiming a pistol point-blank at the grimacing prisoner’s head became a memorable image of the Vietnam War. The photograph, by Eddie Adams, won a Pulitzer prize for The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)

This photograph shares some effects to the audience as “the Falling Man” does. Each of them records the very last moment of a person’s life. Both of them were at the very moment of their death. In fact, even the bullet exiting Lém’s head was revealed in this photograph if one takes a closer look. But unlike the public’s reaction of great anger to The Falling Man, American public’s reactions to Adams’ photograph of war execution were much less fierce and without much resentment. In Adams’ photograph, the Americans are the spectators of this trauma while the Falling Man makes the American people the receivers of this trauma, for they see the person falling down as a possible self, or a possible/real person in their own lives. In this way, it is understandable that a immense rejection of the Falling Man was received from the American public.

The example of different reactions of American public to The Falling Man and Adams photograph of execution sheds light on the role of “national belonging” in responding to a certain historical visual representation. It can certainly justify the emotional reaction of some Chinese students to the paintings and the way that the paintings were displayed on a website. Accordingly, the scholars, who failed to understand this universal nature of human, are standing on an absolutely uneven ground, despite how righteous and just they claim to be.

So was the response of the protest a result of PRC’s excessive patriotic education and brainwashing? Unlikely. The national sensitivity of a person depends on his individual nationhood, which is built up in a complex way, which varies from nation to nation. The Sino-Japanese war is not the past only for the Chinese, certainly not only for mainland Chinese people; it is also the past for the Japanese. Invisibly but more importantly, it is the past for all the non-Chinese and non-Japanese, who imagine they do not “take a side”, but they did for a century .

The main difference between the war propaganda at MKG exhibition and the woodblock paintings on Visualizing Cultures is that, the German’s brutality was depicted by their foe, while the Japanese’s slaughtering actions, despite the “heroic poses”, were illustrated by themselves. Any human would naturally be disgusted by ferocious scenes. How would today’s Japanese react if they see these paintings? Given the equal human nature, I’m certain they would feel disturbed to see them today. As for the Germans, when I and my German friend walking through the “War and Propaganda 14/18” exhibition, he was not only as shocked as I was by the brutality of the war, (although the poster/postcard nature of these images means the use of high-exaggeration, animalization, and fantasizing) but kept filling me in with more historical details that he learnt in school about how brutal the war was for both sides.

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