Reactor

Feng Mengbo’s Video Game Epic “Long March”

by Kyle Chayka on December 31, 2010

Feng Mengbo, “Long March: Restart” (2008) (image from ps1.org)

Ever wanted to be a Chinese red soldier that shoots fireballs instead of spouting slogans, and battles aliens instead of Nationalists? I know, me too. Finally, we all have a chance to play out our CCP fantasies with Feng Mengbo’s epic, historicizing video game “Long March: Restart” (2008), now on view at PS1.

Feng’s video game isn’t just fun and games in Red China, though. Every country has its own national legends, larger-than-life stories that form the core of a nation’s identity. For the US, there’s Washington crossing the Delaware, the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In China, there’s the Long March, the punishing flight of the Communist Red Army from the nationalist KMT government that left few survivors. Those who did survive went on to become the enduring powers of the Communist government, including Mao Zedong. Recasting the central story of China’s CCP, Feng Mengbo turns the Long March into an interactive video game that anyone can play.

A screencap from Feng Mengbo's “Long March: Restart” (2008) (image from ps1.org)

Feng Mengbo’s “Long March” is a platforming game-cum-shoot ‘em up that turns the story of the fleeing Communist party into something instantly recognizable by anyone familiar with a Nintendo. The artist transforms history into a platform game that’s a little like Mega Man crossed with Super Mario, with some Sega aesthetics thrown in for good measure. The player’s avatar, an instantly-regcognizable blue-suited soldier figure pixelated from propaganda films, jumps through worlds crushing enemies including ghosts, demons and deities all under the control

Feng’s presentation of the Long March is far from documentary or didactic. I mean, duh, there are space aliens and fireball monsters, and unless we are all severely mistaken, those weren’t part of the original March. The artist tweaks the Long March into a tale no less epic, but more contemporary. The medium is part of the message: Feng’s video game visual language hits a huge nostalgia nerve for the side-scrollers of the 80s and taps into the collective visual history of a generation too young to relate directly to the Long March, but that’s not the end of the story. Feng’s protagonist shoots coca-cola cans at his enemies against a surreal mash-up backdrop of everything from American flags to Communist big-character slogans, all while appropriating the textures and patterns of retro 2D video games.

An installation shot of Feng Mengbo's “Long March: Restart” at PS1 (image from ps1.org)

The game thus becomes a presentation as well as a critique of history, mixing up layers of politics from the 1950s as well as today. The Coke cans are clear emblems of Western influence, but video games aren’t the most Western of media; the greatest works are Japanese, and Feng takes care to engage with the artistic history of video games as much as he does with political history. It all makes for a very complex conceptual object. The very best part? This is a complex art object you can actually play. I can’t wait to get to PS1. Stay tuned for a hands-on review of the piece, which represents a landmark in the exhibition of video game art.

In the meantime, here’s a video of Feng playing the game to get you all salivating:

Feng Mengbo’s “Long March: Restart” is on view at PS1 in Long Island City through April 4, 2011

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