Maleonn: Theatre of the Mind

© Maleonn ‘Self-Portrait’ [detail] 2009

I don’t like perfection, because life itself is imperfect.

Perfect means fake.


The magic of theatre is an act of aesthetic complicity. While a cinema screen appears like a window onto an alternate reality, complete in every detail, the proscenium arch reveals what is self-evidently artificial. The scenery is constructed, the actors declaim, presenting their actions to the audience through a fourth wall that is indisputably absent. Yet the narrative unfolds persuasively, the actors become their characters, the stage and scenery morph to their own reality, the language flows as if from the soul of the performer and not the pen of the playwright. The drama is no longer over there beyond the proscenium, but inside us, framed by our imagination with all the emotional texture of real experience. We have suspended disbelief and entered the theatre of the mind.

In the labyrinth of the mind, that experience is not a singular thing, but echoes across different registers. The very artifice of the setting and costumes, the actors’ technique, the shifts in lighting from myriad lanterns, each becomes not a hinderance to credibility but an enrichment of narrative. A delight in that which is manifestly crafted and contrived, skills mastered. And so, in the theatre of the mind, we become committed to the unfolding story – immersed within in it – while at the same time delighting in the craftsmanship by which the illusion is sustained.

For the Chinese artist Maleonn (Ma Liang), it is this ability we have to be simultaneously immersed within an illusion and delighted by the means of its elaboration that lends his images their eccentric magic. Each stages as performance the abstraction of complex mental states: despair and desire, determination and doubt, dreams of the future and the dereliction of the past. These abstractions cross-pollinate, seeding an idea that passes out into the world. Here it is crafted by the hands, performed by the body, and recorded by the camera. A picture to be perceived by fresh eyes, and so enter the mind of others, there, if the seed is strong and the mind fertile, to take root. It is this fusion of theatre and photography that imbues the artist’s work with its distinctive character, a quality simply known in China as Maleonn-style.

Alasdair Foster


Alasdair: When did you begin making photographs?

Maleonn: It was 2003. I was thirty-one and directing film commercials, but feeling un-creative and bored. I had studied art since I was twelve and had always wanted to become an artist, so I decided to change career. Easier said than done, of course. I started painting, using photographs as a reference. I bought a camera and invited my friends to be models and costume designers and so on. But I soon found that photography was more interesting to me than painting. And when I put my images online, they attracted a lot of attention, which made me eager to continue shooting.

There is an image from relatively early in your photographic career which echoes ‘The Creation of Adam’ [Michelangelo c. 1508–1512]. It also encapsulated a number of the elements that have come to define much of your best-known work: a ‘stage’, actors, props, a hybrid that expresses the fantastical through the hand-crafted. How would you describe your ‘visual signature’?

© Maleonn ‘The Portraits of Mephistopheles #01 2006

Your description is very accurate. Stage, actors, props… this is the way I prefer. I was born to a family full of theatre artists. It was a big part of my childhood. You could even say that I grew up backstage. So naturally, when I started to create, I intuitively expressed myself theatrically. And, having been a short-film director for many years, I know how to work with actors, costumes, props and settings.

All the same, I am not really sure how to define my ‘style’. When I first published my work, other Chinese photographic artists would describe it as ‘Maleonn-style’. But I could not say that I chose this style. It was simply the way I found I could work.

Tell me about the creation of ‘The Portraits of Mephistopheles’ (2006).

At the end of 2005, I read Goethe’s masterpiece ‘Faust’. It had a big emotional impact on me. Back then, I was experiencing a very difficult phase. I had given up a stable job. My career as an artist had just started … barely anyone understood what I was doing. No one wanted to buy my work. Yet, I was super excited making creative work. I felt conflicted, torn between the economic realities and this creative high. I could no longer sleep at night. Faust and Mephistopheles were fighting in my head, re-enacting Goethe’s eternal dilemma between flesh and spirit; between self-doubt and redemption.

The title ‘Portrait of Mephistopheles’ was a tribute to ‘Faust’, but I wanted to avoid the narrative logic of the original work. These are not illustrations of Goethe’s story. They are my dilemma and my confession.

Who are the central characters, what roles does they play?

There are two actors – one skinny, one fat – but the role they both perform is me… different aspects of how I felt myself to be: a man with a mask who is weak and suspicious, imagining himself to be the Chosen One; a fat man looking at himself in the mirror, searching for a vision; a lecher, indulging in lust; or a blindfolded fantasist, self-doubting, even trying to find beauty in self-destruction. Each image tells a story.

Who are the actors?

They were my photographer friends, younger than me. The fat one was for many years my assistant and then, five years ago, he changed career and moved into business. He’s now a very rich man. The skinny one did not continue his artistic career and became a photo-equipment dealer. Sadly, he passed away in 2014 due to a sudden illness. Every time I look at this work, I feel that there is something particularly cruel and confusing behind it, as inscrutable as life itself.

In 2008, you made two series that share some similarities: ‘Little Flagman’ and ‘Postman’. They each feature a single character engaged in activities that seem to be without purpose yet are undertaken with great dedication. Who are the Little Flagman and the Postman?

The sub-title of ‘Little Flagman’ is ‘for my artist friends and all the idealists who dare to face disillusionment’. He is the symbol of all unknown art workers who stick to their beliefs. With his clown face and bloated body he is a lonely hero, lost in a desert, waiting for something to arrive from the sky. He sticks to his purpose despite his disappointments, until his life ends and his body disappears.

And who is the Postman?

Back in 2008, I happened to pass by my childhood home and found that the old house was about to be demolished. The alleyways where I used to run and play as a child were being reduced to rubble. I made these photographs as a kind of memorial. While this work reflects my personal memories, it also tries to express the sense of loss felt by my generation here in China.

In this rapid process of development, we are experiencing a weightlessness of the soul. I believe this is a common illness in modern consumer societies. People feel the need to look back and try to find their point of origin, everything is changing so quickly that no one can return to the homeland of their soul.

The postman is me. My fantasy is that I could travel through time, take flight from the roof of the edifice of my memory, wend my way through the disappearing alleys, and recall the events and feelings from the depths of time.

Despite the fairy-tale aesthetic, the bright colours and comedic styles, both these series depict tragedy; an absurd tragedy that leaves you unsure whether to laugh or cry. At least that is my hope…

How do you go about creating works like this; works that involve locations, actors, make-up, props, post-production? They are cinematic in the way they use locations and actors. But in many ways they feel more like theatre, the means of making remain visible, asking us to join you in the fantasy and suspend disbelief. This is clearly a choice, since seamless effects are relatively easy to obtain with digital post-production and, if anything, your approach is more difficult and time-consuming.

It is important that these images retain their sense of being staged, I don’t want them to look like commercial movies. It is true that I spend a lot of time and money making the work as detailed as possible, but I don’t want to trade all that effort for realism. I don’t want to achieve ‘simulation’. I don’t like perfection, because life itself is imperfect. Perfect means fake. The world we live in is full of flaws. Imperfections, mistakes, doubt are just part of being human; they are real and warm. Let’s just try to relax into it.

In 2011, you began making a series of works that involved different people acting out strange little dramas in your studio.

I used to have a beautiful studio. Unfortunately, in 2010 I received a notice that the house would be demolished at the end of the following year, and that the site was to be used for commercial purposes. I felt sad for my dear studio, soon to be lost. I created a sort of photo-theatre in a corner and invited my friends to come and make some souvenir pictures with me. For me, the photo studio is a place to capture dreams and illusions. It was like a theatre with a new play every day, for each scenario we staged would never be repeated… just like life itself.

© Maleonn On the road with Studio Mobile 2012

The following year you took your studio on the road to reach people further afield. How did that begin?

Inspired by this photo studio that was soon to be no more, I created a mobile version. I moved to the suburbs and spent almost a year preparing: making props and sets, purchasing and re-modelling a van. In 2012, Studio Mobile set off and began its travels around China.

I would drive my truck to each city and find a space to build a temporary photo studio – thirty-five cities and thirty-five photo studios, each lasting three days at the most. I invited people to come in and create their picture with me. Most of them were strangers, so I needed to spend some time getting to know them and discussing the process. We would select costumes together. They could come along and watch me photograph other people so that they were familiar with my approach. Each person spent about one hour in the studio, during which time I had to help them evolve from shy ordinary people into dramatic actors. It was quite a challenge! But most of them achieved our goal and presented their new persona to my camera with flair.

Shanghai. This is a very important art activist in China who has held very successful art events. When he came to the studio, he brought a copy of his favourite book from childhood, ‘Pinocchio’. (If you look closely, you can see the book on the table.) He told me that he wanted to be Pinocchio in his picture, so we worked together to realise his wish. He and I are about the same age, and ‘Pinocchio’ was also my favourite book as a child. In a way, this image is also how I imagined myself: we grew up manipulated by invisible hands and became the little lying guy.

© Maleonn Portrait from the series ‘Studio Mobile’ 2012

Beijing. A researcher of photographic history and his wife, who consider themselves as aliens who never grew up. They communicated with me in advance saying they wanted to make a funny wedding photo. So I created a UFO especially for them. They both have baby faces, which gives the picture a charming feeling of innocence. They liked the picture so much that they later established their own studio shooting retro portraits. And now their company is the most successful retro-photo studio in China.

© Maleonn Portrait from the series ‘Studio Mobile’ 2012

Shijiazhuang. This young man had just broken up with his girlfriend. He had invited her to come with him to the studio, but ended up coming alone. He said that love was too much trouble, and he was just a fool led by his desire. I suggested this pose for him, which he accepted with a rueful smile. I gave him a giant toy phallus and asked him to pose his body like Rodin’s sculpture, ‘The Age of Bronze’. This image may seem like a joke, but there is something else there, too.

© Maleonn Portrait from the series ‘Studio Mobile’ 2012

Hohhot. This is a wedding photo of a Mongolian couple. The husband is a musician and the wife a dancer. All the costumes and props are in the typical Mongolian tradition.

© Maleonn Portrait from the series ‘Studio Mobile’ 2012

Changzhou. This picture was the request of a child. He wanted to enact the ancient Chinese fable of ‘Mr. Dong Guo and the Wolf’. His father contacted me a few weeks in advance to explain the idea. I didn’t have a wolf in my studio store, so they brought a stuffed coyote that they had borrowed from a museum. Later, his father told me that the little boy had been in a public speaking contest at school and had won a prize for recounting this fable, which was why the little boy especially wanted to have a picture like this.

© Maleonn Portrait from the series ‘Studio Mobile’ 2012

In 2014, you began working on a theatrical production called ‘Papa’s Time Machine’. This is a drama played out by life-size puppets – one might say the aesthetic is steampunk. How did your involvement in this project begin?

I wanted to make a theatre piece to pay tribute to my parents, especially for my father, who had been a theatre director all his life [he was formerly the director of Beijing Opera]. He has had two children and trained several students, but for various reasons, no one ended up becoming his successor – something he regretted. He was writing a book about his theories of stage direction when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. His memory rapidly began to deteriorate, and he could not finish his book. So I dropped my photography and started working on a theatrical production. I had the romantic idea that since I couldn’t cure my father, I would at least give him some comfort by creating a theatrical work especially for him.

© Maleonn – puppet head from the stage show ‘Papa’s Time Machine’ 2014–16

What is the story of ‘Papa’s Time Machine’?

It is a play about my father and me. It combines the feelings of my heart: the pain and fear I feel thinking about my father’s disease, and my unwillingness to say goodbye. The story is a fantasy in which I create a time machine that we use to revisit the beautiful moments shared by father and son… before he completely forgets. In fact, the play is itself that time machine; the time machine I have built for my father.

© Maleonn – scenes from the stage show ‘Papa’s Time Machine’ 2014–16

Where has it been performed?

The play has been staged in several cities in China, and also in the United States. Soon it will be back on stage in Shanghai. But now it has been taken over by other theatrical directors. To be honest, I am not quite satisfied with this new version. Maybe this is the fate of theatrical works, they keep changing, evolving.

But now I have returned to the creation of visual art.

Given your interest in theatricality, why did you choose photography as your primary mode of artmaking?

To be honest, I don’t really like theatre. Theatre is a collective creation. You need to juggle many interests: the need for the producer’s money, the need for government and institutional support. The team need to share the same tastes… I prefer photography because it is very personal; I can decide everything myself, create for myself, take responsibility for my own success or failure, and that makes it easier to maintain the integrity I am striving for in the work.

A photograph is complete. It may be full of ambiguity and have many intentions, but when the image is published, it is a finished work. In contrast, a theatrical work – with different actors, venues, directors – is constantly being reinterpreted, improvised, reinvented. I know that, for dramatists, this is the interesting part. But for me, it’s just devastating if my work doesn’t belong fully and wholly to me. The process of creating this play gave me the chance to get to know my father again. Now I understand why he was always bad-tempered. As a passionate theatre artist, it can be really maddening when an author is not able to be master of his own work.

I don’t earn a lot of money and fame making my art. But I can do whatever I want to do and say whatever I want to say. For me, that’s the romance of this job.

© Maleonn ‘My Photo Studio’ #01 2011

What has making photographs taught you?

When I was young, I was arrogant. I dedicated my photographs to the whole world, to countless strangers. I wanted those images to make a difference. But now I feel that these pictures are for myself. Looking at them, I know that I have travelled to so many places, seen much beauty with my own eyes. I have connected with so many real people, our lives have intersected, however briefly. When I look at these pictures, I know I have felt ecstasy, love, and sometimes deep disappointment. While these are not documentary images, they contain my ideals: the light that has illuminated me, and also my darkness. It is the interplay of shadow and light in these images that reveals the proof of my existence. They are my life, my love, the road I have travelled, and the journey itself.

© Maleonn ‘Postman’ #03 2008

Biographical Notes

Maleonn (Ma Liang) was born in Shanghai in 1972. His mother is an actress, and his father was the director of Beijing Opera. He was encouraged to pursue art from early childhood, entering Shanghai Huashan Art School when he was twelve years old, later graduating from the Fine Art College of Shanghai University (1995). Initially, he worked in advertising, winning two gold awards from the China International Advertising Festival. However, in 2004, he left the commercial world of advertising to become an artist. In 2012, he began Studio Mobile, a public art project travelling China for ten months, making free portraits for 1,600 strangers in thirty-five cities.

Maleonn has garnered many accolades including the IDAA Digital Photography Award (Australia 2006), Photographer of the Year at the Fourth Spider Awards (UK 2008), Photographic Artist of the Year at the China Culture People of the Year Awards (2008), and the silver prize for Photography and Photo Manipulation Design at the prestigious A’Design Awards (Italy 2017).

In 2014, shaken by the onset of his father’s dementia, Maleonn began creating ‘Papa’s Time Machine’. This fantastical adventure performed on stage with life-size mechanical puppets premiered in Shanghai and Beijing in 2016 and has since toured across China and to the USA. ‘Our Time Machine’, a documentary film about the making of the stage show, was created over a three year period by S. Leo Chiang and Yang Sun. The film premiered in 2019 and has subsequently won many international awards.

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.