Tommaso Bonaventura
If I were Mao
24th may 2014
to 27th june 2014



‘Everything that lives strives for freedom / Oppressed by wilderness / I ask the expanses of fields / Who rules fate?’

Mao Zedong

 

Asymetria Gallery presents two projects by the Italian photographer Tommaso Bonaventura: Real Woman Photoshop (digital photography, 2008) and If I Were Mao (analog photography, 2009), the result of several years’ work in China, a project that won the first prize at Sony World Photography Awards 2009 in Portrait category.

In the city of Shenzhen, where Foxconn, the world’s largest factory, is located, opposite the plant’s entrance, Bonaventura discovered a photographic studio where for several weeks, alongside the studio’s lady owner, he took pictures of young workers. Each customer was able to choose a Photoshop background to suit their portrait. When Bonaventura compared the pictures taken by the Chinese studio owner and by himself, he decided to buy the former: they were so perfect as photomontages that he wanted to ‘hide’ with his photographs among them. In 2009, when watching TV in a hotel room in Beijing, he took note of actors specialising in the role of Mao Zedong. He soon contacted them to take their portraits. During the sessions, he noticed that the Mao ‘doubles’ wore such perfect masks that he could no longer understand whether he was photographing specific individuals, each with their own name and surname, or copies of the ‘father of the nation’, Mao himself. At this point, he felt, he had touched upon the myth of modern China. The notion of ‘style’ has a completely different meaning in Chinese culture than in Europe. For the Chinese, according to Bonaventura, the notion of the ‘original’ does not make sense, so there is nothing wrong in copying artworks or imitating major brands: they are equivalent. In China, a country where people are to cooperate with machines in a sort of flawless, perfectly repetitive apparatus, the Benjaminian vision of a world without originality or authorship is becoming real.

Bonaventura recalls an anecdote from the country of copy. He once met local friends in a street in Beijing and, looking at a new pavement, they said: ‘That’s old Beijing!’ ‘How do you mean? It looks new. When was it built?’ Two years ago, they replied, still insisting that it was old. This made him realise that ‘old’ did not denote time here, just style.

Another time, at an exhibition in Belgrade of the Mao impersonator portraits, a Chinese embassy official asked him whether the people in the photographs, the look-alikes, were real. The question, asked by a Chinese man, about what is real, in conjunction with Tommaso Bonaventura’s photographs of Mao impersonators and young workers from Shenzhen, becomes our question today at Asymetria Gallery. It can be a question about ourselves. About what is real in us. For example, what would happen if I were different?

We can ask questions about our own identity through Tommaso Bonaventura’s Chinese photographs.

In the exhibition in the Asymmetric space of the Museum of Private Imagination, his works will be accompanied by visual commentary arranged by Jakub Śwircz with historical Polish portrait-studio photos.

Both the two series by Bonaventura and the historical portraits from the Asymetria Gallery collection are representations in the sense in which actors enter the stage to perform their roles. In this perspective, the photographic studio becomes the site of a specific transformation, effected with the help of attributes: costume and background. The camera completes the set-up, recording the momentary transformation. The resulting images blend the model with the selected background, presenting them from their best – themselves chosen – side. Examining August Sander’s photograph of three dressed-up rural boys, John Berger discerned in it a falsity of disguise. The boys’ bodies seem unaccustomed to wearing clothes usually reserved for the ruling class. According to Berger, Sander exposed poor performance, a role-recasting rehearsal, while highlighting the domination of the capitalist class. It was the latter’s image or, as Bonaventura would say, ‘style’ that was copied, imitated and represented as supreme. What occurred in front of Sander’s camera, therefore, was a repression, negation, of oneself on behalf of a socially imposed form. This is also evident in Bonaventura’s Real Woman Photoshop, where workers transport themselves into a self-selected, seemingly individualised space of aspirations and dreams. The same striving, though in different connotations, is present in the historical studio portraits.

Sander’s picture is thus also a representation, its stage being a gravel road rather than the wooden planks of a photo studio or digitally rendered backgrounds. In each case, however, the created role, the performance presented, has its limit. It can be the clumsiness of the body, over-expressive acting, or the inconspicuous line running behind the depicted subjects, as in black-and-white archival photographs. This line, very telling, is a visible rupture in the recorded illusion. By its means, that which was so insistently integrated – the unity of time, place and action – comes unstuck.

15.05.2014 17:06:47


Tommaso Bonaventura - photographer since 1992, his work The paths of faith, Gribaudo editions, 2005 won the first prize at World Press Photo 2005, category Arts and Entertainment. His series “If I Were Mao” shot in China in 2009 wins the first prize at Sony World Photography Awards, portraits category. Since 2011 works at the project Corpi di Reato. A Visual Archaeology of the mafia phenomena in present-day Italy which in 2012 wins the Amilcare Ponchielli award.

16.05.2014 17:33:48

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Tommaso Bonaventura
If I were Mao
2008
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Tommaso Bonaventura
If I were Mao
2008
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Tommaso Bonaventura
Real Woman Photoshop
2008
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