Cruel Modernity: the Allegories of Lily and Honglei’s Shadow Play / Serena Jara
A smoggy window view looks outwards towards a bustling cityscape, where traffic, skyscrapers, and pedestrians disappear into the industrialized atmosphere. An inverted figure materializes from the haze, suspended midair. Free falling through dense smog, the body appears poised to crash on top of the urban sprawl, frozen in its ominous descent. Gray tones envelop the dystopian scene as well as the weightless industrial worker, who appears rendered in hand drawn lines, cut out and collaged into photographic space. Her final moments assume hauntingly mythological characteristics, telling one story of the suicides afflicting many migrant workers who build China’s expanding skylines.
Lily and Honglei’s installation for Jamaica Flux, entitled, “Shadow Play: Tales of Urbanization of China” and exhibited on site at the Jamaica Center of Arts and Learning, studies the many layers of China’s expansion into modernity. Employing darkly dystopian allegories that reflect individualized struggles, the narrative of a village family displaced by mass land grabbing takes on the forms of virtual and augmented realities. The overarching storyline is comprised of both research and thirty years of lived experience. Presented in four chapters, the tale details the murder of the village chief at the hands of demolition crews, his son’s subsequent abduction, and his wife’s journey into the city to search for her lost child. Featuring a synthesis between traditional Chinese shadow play puppetry and advanced three dimensional rendering technologies, the project becomes an immersive fable told through equal parts symbolism and bleak reflections of reality.
As the mother emerges from the subterranean city beneath Beijing, home to many rural migrant workers who build the expanding urban skyline above ground, she witnesses some of the most strikingly dark imagery visible in “Shadow Play.” Images of falling workers hover over her anonymously like ghosts, dangling from wires and steel beam ledges. Speaking at the 2015 Creative Capital Artist’s Retreat, Honglei explains that the visuals of descending migrant bodies “specifically reflects on the worker suicide cases at Foxconn factory, the electronics manufacturer behind popular products like iPads and iPhones.” Despite their spirit-like, evaporating qualities, one cannot separate the disappearing figures from the “modernity” achieved by rapid urbanization of China. Lily and Honglei effectively bridge disconnect from both sides of one story into potent allegorical tensions, fitting vast complexity into small shadow puppet characters inhabiting a phone or tablet’s screen. Their imagery causes audiences to question the advancement of culture, embedded directly into the technologies which enable such costly “progressions” to occur continuously.