At the 8th minute of the 8th hour of the 8th day of the 8th month of the 8th year of the new millennium, the Opening Ceremonies of the 29th Olympics of the modern era commenced with great fanfare in the city of
For those of us watching the event with blurred vision—thanks to tears of joy, tears of pride—it may have been easy to miss the latent messages buried deep within the ceremonial event. A superficial reading of the ritual would have us believe that it was introducing the rest of the world to the incredible 5,000 year history of Chinese history—the inventions of paper, calligraphy, gun powder, compasses, and so on, the rich tradition of music and dance, etc—and on the surface this is true. But what is happening below the surface? Are there other narratives that begin to unfold once we peel back this outer skin? I think there are a few themes that begin to emerge once we start to look a little deeper. I plan to discuss them in a few part series on the opening ceremony.i) Mass Ornament – The first theme that I think emerges from a closer look is that of the “mass ornament.” Most everyone who watched the opening ceremony commented on the quantity of people involved in the production. The NY Times stated that “The ceremony was filled with signature Chinese touches like the use of masses of people, working in unison into a grand spectacle centered on traditional Chinese history, music, dance and art.” This use of masses of people to create a grand spectacle can be compared to the tradition of the Mass Games, at once widespread among Communist nations but now only performed regularly in
Sigfried Kracauer’s concept of the Mass Ornament, described in an essay of the same name written in the 1930s, offers the best theoretical framework with which to understand events such as the Mass Games and similar forms of entertainment which emerged in the early 20th Century. The description he gives of the Tiller Girls still seems relevant in a discussion about the Opening Ceremonies and their use of synchronized choreography among masses of people. Kracauer describes the intention of such events when he says:
The training of the units of girls is intended instead to produce an immense number of parallel lines, and the desired effect is to train the greatest number of people in order to create a pattern of unimaginable dimensions. In the end there is the closed ornament, whose life components have been drained of their substance.
These products of American ‘distraction factories’ are no longer individual girls, but indissoluble female units whose movements are mathematical demonstrations…one glance at the screen reveals that the ornament consists of thousands of bodies, sexless bodies…the regularity of their patterns is acclaimed by the masses, who are themselves arranged in row upon ordered row.
According to Kracauer, “the mass ornament is the aesthetic reflex of the rationality aspired to by the prevailing economic system,” which to him meant capitalism, and the effect that Fordist modes of production and consumerist ideologies were having on the public. The lack of rationalization on the part of those in control on the effect that the ultra rationalization of the new assembly line production methods were working together to create the Mass Ornament. Kracauer compares the Mass Games, the Tiller Girls, and the factory when he says that:
The production process runs its course publicly in secret. Everyone goes through the necessary motions at the conveyer belt, performs a partial function without knowing the entirety. Similar to the pattern in the stadium, the organization hovers above the masses as a monstrous figure whose originator withdraws it from the eyes of its bearers, and who himself hardly reflects upon it. It is conceived according to rational principles which the
So what does it mean that
This might not be a long stretch of the imagination. Images from
But at the same time, there is something different at play. The migration of the rural population in
Has this quest for independence been fulfilled in Zhang Yimou’s direction of the opening ceremony, and if so, how? I think that we can witness an emergent independence represented in the ceremony, and I will discuss this in the next part of this series.