Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The OC Part 1: Mass Ornament

Opening Ceremony of the 29th Olympics in Beijing
Part 1 of ...
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 Beijing. Described as the ‘coming out’ party of the Chinese nation it has been lauded as the greatest opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.

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.

Images from the Opening Ceremony demonstrating the Mass Ornament
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 North Korea. Images from the Mass Games in North Korea reveal the basic raison d’etre of the form: “the subordination of the individual desires for the needs of the collective.” A 2003 documentary called State of Mind, made by the BBC, claim that the “mass Games are North Korea’s Socialist Realist extravaganza and a perfect example of the state’s ideology.”
Images from N. Korea's Mass Games

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 Taylor system only takes to its final conclusion. The hands in the factory correspond to the legs of the Tiller Girls.

So what does it mean that China would use this imagery of the mass ornament in its opening ceremony? Unbeknownst to even the designers and creative directors of the event (because Zhang Yimou is well known for his use of similarly choreographed crowds in his films and theatrical productions as well), China seems to be telling the world that “Hey, we have billions of people. And we know how to choreograph and control them.” That was the understanding that my friends and I all had of the event. Maybe it’s just a ‘gentle reminder’ to the world about China’s greatest resource; an advertisement for its people.

Burtynksy's photographs of factories in China

This might not be a long stretch of the imagination. Images from China’s factories reveal a strong similarity between the factory floor and the stadium: the aestheticization of the masses. Edward Burtinsky’s photographs of factories in southern China, made famous through the documentary “Manufactured Landscapes” demonstrate likeness in color, form, and suppression of the individual. In this age of China’s rapid industrialization this imagery seems to fit right in.

But at the same time, there is something different at play. The migration of the rural population in China is well known and all that do it are looking for a better life. Burtynsky, on his website, describes the transformation of China’s population from rural, agricultural workers to factory workers: “Working the assembly lines, China’s youthful peasant population is quickly abandoning traditional extended-family village life, leaving the monotony of agricultural work and subsistence income behind for a chance at independence.” At the same time you have one of the most rapid periods of urbanization occurring, the emergence of independent wealth in China, and a desire for freedom of expression.

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.


Gaston said...

The moment I saw the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics 2008, I immediately thought of Kracauer's 'mass ornament', it all its implications. Then I thought that China looked like a 'machine', but as a French speaking person, I rejected the idea. A machine, is not 'ma Chine' (my China). Gaston Roberge

the architect said...

I thought the same. The implications are frightening - complete sublimation of the individual. If this was the perfect fruition of a marriage of the Spectacle and Mass Ornament and our western media outlets which stand in place of our cultural brains were completely inebriated by it all. Scary...