Collecting Insanity

Every country has a past it likes to celebrate and another it would rather forget. In China, where history still falls under the tight control of government-run museums and officially approved textbooks, the omissions appear especially stark. An unusual museum dedicated largely to what is absent in China’s self-presentation is the subject of Joshua Frank’s short film “Collecting Insanity.” Frank tours the Jianchuan Museum Cluster of Fan Jianchuan, an ex-official and real estate magnate, in the town of Anren, near Chengdu. The group of exhibits, named after Fan himself, display their owner’s collection of millions of historical artifacts, gathered over a lifetime of obsessive accumulation. Fan’s museum displays objects from various historical events, including the officially memorialized Sino-Japanese War and the far more taboo fallout of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

But Frank, and Fan himself, place special emphasis on galleries devoted to the “Red Era” and, in particular, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a period when the collection and proper enshrinement of Maoist paraphernalia became a necessity for political respectability and thereby survival, when, in essence, anyone who hoped to remain free of persecution was forced to become a collector. Fan, himself, got his start during those days, gathering up leaflets and posters denouncing his father as a “capitalist roader.”

His museums recall the era through a deliberately grotesque (and well-financed) reenactment of its frenzied accumulation and display, piling up Little Red Books, porcelain busts of Mao, and household items emblazoned with exhortations to “serve the people.”

Much goes unsaid at Fan’s museum and that is by design as well. But it is unique in China, if not in the world, as a testament to one man’s will to spend his wealth and influence probing the boundaries of what can permissibly be remembered, and perhaps inspiring others to do the same.

Susan Jakes