We all know a little—and many of you know a lot!—about video games and gaming culture. Few of us, however, have actually attempted and succeeded in creating our own video game. Not only has the artist Feng Mengbo done so, but the video game he created is so large in scale that it requires installation in an exhibition hall. Mengbo started off this pursuit in a traditional enough way for an artist: in 1993 he created a series of paintings titled Game Over: Long March. But as the title hints, Mengbo had video games in mind all along—the forty-two paintings, which the artist called “game snapshots,” were clustered in a way so as to depict a “side-scrolling game,” but on canvas. A “side-scrolling game” or “side-scroller” is a video game in which the action is viewed from a profile-view camera angle, and your character generally moves from the left side of the screen to the right (think Super Mario Brothers). The character in Mengbo’s work is a small Red Army soldier sweeping his way across China, wiping out ghosts, demons, and deities, much in the vein of Mario wiping out Koopa Troopas on his way to rescue Princess Toadstool.
It wasn’t until 2008, fifteen years after beginning Game Over: Long March and five years after acquiring his first computer, that Mengbo could realize his dream of creating an artwork using the medium of video games. The final work, Long March: Restart, was acquired by MoMA last year. One thing that makes Long March: Restart so special is that instead of sitting in front of a typical television monitor, you, the gamer, are instead dwarfed by an enormous screen, approximately 80 by 20 feet. Your avatar (the small Red Army soldier) and the pixels around him are magnified tenfold and projected behind you on a second enormous screen, the sparkling pixels a fitting homage to the enormously popular (but graphically simple) 1980s side-scrolling video games. A second element that makes the work so unique is, in Mengbo’s own words, the artist’s “original intention in designing the installation, which lies in the continued use of the audience’s, i.e. the gamers’, way of motion as the chief measuring mechanism…I wanted to enable the character to move freely along the stretched scroll. Because of the vast space of the exhibition hall and the intentionally designed pace of the character, the gamer and the audience would have to dash to catch up with the character.”
I, like millions of others out there, move around my living room quite a bit while playing Wii Sports and other such games. However, Mengbo’s Long March: Restart is no simple game of Wii Tennis. The “Long March” in Mengbo’s title refers to the massive military retreat of The Chinese Communist Party’s Red Army, under the command of Mao Zedong and others, that began in 1934; pursued by the Chinese Nationalist Party, the Red Army traveled over 8,000 miles in 370 days, covering some of the worst terrain in China. Mao’s firm leadership throughout the Long March sealed his fate as China’s leader for decades to follow. In 1935, in a report titled On Tactics against Japanese Imperialism, the leader wrote, “The Long March is a manifesto…. It has proclaimed their utter failure to encircle, pursue, obstruct and intercept us. The Long March is also a propaganda force. It has announced to some 200 million people in eleven provinces that the road of the Red Army is their only road to liberation.” Something tells me that Mao would not have passed out cans of Coca-Cola for his Red Army soldiers to launch at their enemies, as Mengbo has done in Long March: Restart!