Enter the world of Feng Mengbo, a sanctuary where video games of the 80’s and 90’s are fused together and not only highly valued, but given new life and meaning. LONG MARCH: Restart is a video game installation at the PS1 MoMA in New York. It doesn’t take long for one to wonder what this kind of exhibit is doing at PS1. One might think that it would find a better home at a technology museum or the like. We know that design is a large part of the video gaming industry, but how does Feng Mengbo’s LONG MARCH: Restart qualify as art?
To start, the obvious answer would be that Feng Mengbo is an artist, a painter who would depict television screen shots onto canvas. Mengbo would capture screen shots from television and then paint them. He was always interested in technology and technology as art, however, what makes this particular work meaningful is in its content. The game brilliantly takes you, with ease, into the Communist struggle in China in the mid-20th century. With a quick trigger finger you see the differences (and similarities) of Eastern and Western culture. And when you think you’re progressing through the game, you’re really progressing through one of the most monumental periods in modern Chinese history. LONG MARCH: Restart is much more than just a video game, intriguing us with the excitement of a child’s game, it is an entire journey through time.
Mengbo made a name for himself with his digital, political works, like My Private Album, and mainly worked in new media form from CD-roms to video games. What’s so unique about Mengbo is that his art isn’t about creating video games for recreation, he uses them as a communicative tool to tell the history of his nation. Mengbo grew up in the Chinese Revolution, which was also one of the biggest growths in modern Chinese history. And so, he pulls a lot from this when it comes to the content of his work. In the 90’s, Mengbo was a part of the contemporary Chinese art movement of Zhengzhi Popu (Political Pop), a movement highly influenced by Western political culture and Western Pop Art of the 1960’s. Although Feng Mengbo has become well known, his work has never been exhibited in China. While Feng’s work seems more appealing to an adolescent mindset, it is in this setting that one can more comfortably take in the political undertone of the Chinese Revolution in his work.
LONG MARCH: Restart is more than an installation, it’s an entire atmosphere. Walking into the Painting gallery at PS1 was like stepping into a different dimension. The large-scale projections, from floor to ceiling, faced each other and created a long, dark hallway. The life-sized imagery on the screens called you to attention immediately. The music was familiar and nostalgic and once inside the dark room, your eyes focused and instantaneously, one’s inner child was stirred. The awakening was that you had just entered the dream of every 80’s and 90’s wiz kid that ever existed. The bright lights of the screen were mesmerizing and immediate reactions were that of awe. The magnificence of the installation may not have been truly appreciated until one was handed the controller and told that this was more than just a show, it was interactive! You were able to assume the role of the hero, jumping around and killing the villains from games like Aliens, Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter and more, all rolled into one. And despite the fact that you’d probably already seen the PS1’s other lengthy exhibits and been there for nearly 2 hours, you didn’t want to leave. Not anymore. Feng had turned the entire room into a scene from The Wizard only instead of a Nintendo, you got the innovative and exciting technology of the XBOX 360.
Mengbo’s hero is a soldier in the Red Army defeating the evils of the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Long March is a pivotal point in the nation’s history. In 1934 the march began when the Communist Party of China, led by Mao Zedong, had to retreat and evade the Chinese Nationalist Party. Mao Zedong went on to become a revolutionary hero in the evolution of the People’s Republic of China. Althought we’re unclear as to who Mengbo’s hero is, perhaps he resembles Mao and runs around in the manner of a Mario brother sporting the uniform of a CPC soldier. While he has the usual arsenal of weapons any cool 80’s/90’s video game character would have, one of his more effective weapons is the Coca-Cola bomb- one of Mengbo’s representations of Western culture. Every element in Mengbo’s game is representational and there isn’t a more unique way to display this revolutionary point in China’s modern history.
The LONG MARCH: Restart isn’t your typical political work of art and some may not even see it as art. We rarely see a video game with as much depth as this has. It’s often hard to see the artistic qualities in such untraditional work, and very rarely, if ever, will you find a video game worthy of space at the MoMA, but Mengbo has proven that it is possible. He has proven that he can give depth and substance to a child’s game and use it as a platform for personal self-expression, give it a political voice and tell such a deeply important story.