Diary of a Mad Man: Exhibition Review

‘Diary of a Madman: Manchester Plan, New Bees’ by Cheng Ran at CFCCA UK

Photography by Charlotte White

I do sometimes struggle with CFCCA’s exhibitions. They are usually very conceptual and I struggle with relating to them. I can’t remember ever going and seeing a landscape painting, or a simple portrait, it tends to lean towards really conceptual themes, unusual installations, and artistic video pieces. This exhibitions falls in the latter.

‘Diary of a Madman’ by Cheng Ran at CFCCA UK

Diary of a Madman: Manchester Plan, New Bees, is based on Cheng Ran’s short-term residency at CFCCA and his research into Greater Manchester’s urban culture.’ This video installation, a video diary if you will, was a tricky one to understand at first, but I’ve noticed in re-reading this article back, that I have talked myself into understanding the work! It’s a really weird actually, being there and being confused, then coming home, writing why you were confused and then it all kind of falls into place.

The gallery at CFCCA was dark, and the only light came from the huge video installation. I sat down and the first thing I noticed was the cracked screen – what does that mean, why is it cracked? What relevance does that have to the exhibition? Is Manchester cracked? Are we breaking down? Is it unstable? I have no idea! The screen looks like it’s been punched or shot or something. Maybe that is what it is representing, Manchester’s rough-ness and crime, but I doubt that very much to be honest.

‘Diary of a Madman’ by Cheng Ran at CFCCA UK

Back to what was showing on the screen, it was a huge, colourful, abstract video. Images flickered like it was broken, like your TV has just crashed and the image is there in the background, but it’s got those crazy-colour lines through it, breaking it up. This exhibition should probably come with an epilepsy warning there was so many moving and flashing images!

The video was kind of dreamy, with so many flickers of images, layered over each other, it seemed a little lost. There was no story-line, nothing seemed to be chronological, it all blurred together in one kind of brain dump.

Within the short video, named ‘Manchester Plan: New Bees’, there were some still photographs of Manchester that I recognised, places around Castlefield, graffiti under archways and the infamous Sachas hotel just off Market Street. It was an overload of Manchester – Manchester in your face!

Over the video we hear a deep voice, slowed down like they are trying to hide his identity. It was kind of creepy at first, it sounded like a mafia boss, or an evil villain, giving out demands. Then music started to come in and it almost sounded like rapping, making it a lot less daunting.

‘Diary of a Madman’ by Cheng Ran at CFCCA UK

Reoccurring in the video was a grid motif, of hexagons, like honeycomb, linking back to the Manchester bee. The overall video reminded me of the crazy streets of Tokyo. I have never been to China, so all I can imagine is that they have similar streets with neon signs everywhere, an overload of lights, flashing, adverts, noise etc. It’s very similar to Times Square in New York. It is taking that overload of senses that are so common in these cities, and creating the same effect with Manchester images.

There are two smaller screens in this exhibition, also showing videos, similar to that on the main screen. However, one includes text, writing in the ‘diary’ perhaps, but it is almost poetic. ‘Sacrificing everything for one little cell in the hive.’ Although the images in this video are of China, there are still those references to Manchester. The images are not the famous sight-seeing images of the Great Wall or The Terracotta Army, but of grey high rise buildings, corrugated shop fronts. Perhaps this video is a comparison piece, showing the similarities in the two places, the urban sights of these places.

‘Diary of a Madman’ by Cheng Ran at CFCCA UK

Another sentence stood out to me – ‘They are just like me, on vacation forever’. This one simple sentence could be read positively, or negatively. Does that mean Cheng Ran is never settled? Is he a no-mad, never fitting in, always feeling like an outsider? Or that he is loving life traveling? A backpacker forever! The freedom of movement, embracing new cultures, trying new things? Who is this ‘they’ that he refers to also? What are ‘they’ thinking?

The other video on the small screen made me feel sick! Not because of what was showing on the screen but the way it was filmed. We followed a man sitting on a bridge, and when he got up and started to walk, the camera followed him. The camera was hand-held, it moved as he did, it wasn’t steady, it was bouncing all over the place. Then the camera followed his feet and did the same, moved all jiggidy and bouncy. It was horrible. Maybe I was just stood too close! I couldn’t watch that one for too long. I needed to look away.

A point to make for all those planning on visiting ‘Diary of a Madman’ – it was pretty dark in the room, the only light coming from the videos, so it wasn’t until after I watched the smaller screens that I realised there were headphones there!

‘Diary of a Madman’ by Cheng Ran at CFCCA UK

CFCCA says; ‘These works were completed during short residencies in New York, Jerusalem and Hong Kong between 2016 – 2017, making the project a visual trilogy of a phantasmal journey across three vastly different cultural spheres. Manchester Plan, New Bees will continue this journey.’

‘Manchester Plan, New Bees’ refers to what Manchester has become so well known for, the worker bees. The bee symbol has always been there, hidden in the background, most commonly seen on the end of benches and public bins. But after the tragic M.E.N bombing, the bee became a solidarity symbol, a force to be reckoned with. It is now so common, people outside of Manchester and the UK know about the Manchester bee. Perhaps this is what Cheng Ran was referring to, the resurrection of the bee? Or, perhaps, he, as a new resident here, calls himself a new bee? Perhaps it’s a reference to new people moving to Manchester, wanting to be a part of our proud community?

‘Diary of a Madman’ by Cheng Ran at CFCCA UK

‘Diary of a Madman: Manchester Plan, New Bees’ by Cheng Ran is on at Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art from 25th October 2019 – 19th January 2020.


Charlotte White is a freelance photographer and multidisciplinary artist based in Manchester studying Interactive arts at Manchester School of Art. Instagram is charl_captures


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