Pt. 2, Thoughts on Chinese Photography (and other thoughts)

It’s simply a fact–there are only a few images left.

When I look out here I see everything is cluttered up. There are hardly any images to be found. One has to dig deep down, like an archeologist; one has to search through this violated landscape to find something. Naturally, there is a risk involved, one that I wouldn’t avoid. I see only a few people who take risks in order to change this misery–the misery of having no images left, none that are adequate. We desperately need images, those images that are relevant and adequate to our level of civilization–ones that correspond to those deep inside ourselves.–Werner Herzog, from Tokyo-Ga, a film by Wim Wenders, 1984.

i’ve been sitting on these thoughts of mine a good long while, waiting to see if they would turn and change into something else, have something more to say than just this. i saw the chinese photography exhibit at ICP while there a couple weeks back. i was greatly looking forward to it, and forward to it openly, meaning: i had no context for an expectation. i thought that this meant that i had no expectations, but, one finds, one always has expectations. the exhibit would be the first exposure i had had to contemporary chinese photography on any scale, and i was interested in what artists of the same generation as me had to say about the very different world they experienced from mine. what was it like to be a member of the largest nation in the world? what was it like to be living during a time in which long-held cultural norms were having to be redefined to fit in with a sometimes contradictory desire for cultural change? what about growing up as the first generation post-chinese cultural revolution? as the inheritors of that psychic pain? how would concerns of modern day china be addressed? what were the concerns of modern day china?

it began on a promising note. one of the first works you see at the ICP location (half of the multi-themed exhibit is being shown at the asia society) is this one by lian tianmaio:


it is an immense and quiet piece, with threads piercing the self-portrait of the artist in the face, and coming out of the back to form one impossibly large braid, which then fizzles out to be wound as a single thread around a spool. much is made on the wall blurbs of the chinese penchant for large and monumental art, a graphic loved left-over from a life built up around oversized socialist art murals and public sculptures. but this is one of the few pieces in the show which manages to successfully weave the personal and the cultural aesthetic (if it can be called such), and to gracefully nod to a chinese tradition of intense and intricate craft. a self portrait that, in the pure sense of the term, actually reveals something of the maker. which to me is a kind of risk, that by extension, is inherent in any definition of mine concerning art. something which risks one’s vulnerability accomplishes this.

others not so much. others to which, in fact, i roll my eyes long and high towards the ceiling, imagining the first-friday cocktail conversations had in front of “the work.”


(i tried here to imagine that conversation, but it was immediately so insipid i had to throw cheap champagne in viewer 1 and viewer 2’s face.)

part of what annoyed me with this work was that it seemed so obvious and easy of how this got into this show, and why this artist is popular with curators and those who write about art. exhibitionists almost always make good copy, or at least good gossip, and it helps too if the artist-as-model has a “startlingly stunning androgynous body” (an actual quote from a recent review of this show in this issue of Asia Pacific Quarterly–in what other context than one gay man talking about another gay man could this sentence even find its way into print in a serious review? can you imagine this same being said about an exhibiting female artist?). i am reminded of advice given to an attractive, charismatic colleague of mine in grad school that was having early success with his work, “the only thing that could make you more successful at this point and get you more high level recognition is if you were to come out and announce that you were gay.” (he wasn’t, and while it’s a cheap shot, it’s oftner than most would admit to a truer generalization than others.) another thing that bothered me was that it was so obvious. man walking naked along the great wall of china. and there’s an accompanying video of “the event.” what does it mean to walk naked along the wall? does it mean that a curator is happy his show is balanced because he got to include a “reinterpretation of a major historical site” (quote from the catalog)? if it is a reinterpretation, is liuming “reowning” the wall for his own personal use, or is he commenting upon the individual finally surmounting (and thus conquering) the political? i could go on and on, but i don’t believe for a second that it is any one of these off-the-cuff critical tropes. i think these are merely self indulgent self portraits that happen to include the great wall of china. it says nothing; it risks nothing; it is one of the many pieces of visual clutter that herzog spoke of in that quote.

another piece that baffled me was this one by artist (cum-masochist?) sheng qi:


the image by itself isn’t so disturbing (except that it is, but the fact of it being so isn’t what i mean here). i had the reaction to this piece that i did to many in this show, in which i may have responded more positively to it if i had completely ignored any corresponding information that provided context, and merely let myself project meaning and intention onto it. without reading the text on the wall, i had looked at this image and assumed something unfortunate and horrible had happened to the artist who holds a picture of a young boy in his chinese cultural revolution outfit. maybe the terrible thing, one reasonably begins to assume, that happened was in fact the chinese cultural revolution. well, in this case that assumption is wrong. the terrible thing that happened to this artist was the artist to himself. with very little reason why, we are told that the artist, upon leaving china for where we are not told, presumably here, he severs his pinky finger and plants it into the bottom of a flower pot. and then takes this picture (and probably others, i mean, if you’re going to start severing body parts, you might as well go for a whole series). i’m not totally adverse to the idea of body-as-stage, i mean, i’m with orlan or chris burden, but this? was this worth a finger? if there was a point, or a deeper meaning, could it not have been conveyed somehow? what is the point that i am supposed to get? is this just throwing the assumption of the limits of cultural understanding in the viewer’s face? am i terribly declass√© if i admit my defeat and say what the fuck?

i suppose what was the most disheartning was the lack of attention to any of the questions i would have thought that contemporary chinese artists might have been addressing (see: expectations and assumptions always raise their head). that is not to say that they are not being addressed at all, but that they are not in this show, and not (with little exception) by these artists. divided into four “themes” that could be the theme of any show at any time in any gallery in new york, themes of “history and memory”; “people and place”; “performing the self”; and “reimagining the body”, what i gleaned was that perhaps china has learned too much from the west already, and perhaps all of it bad. our way of curating, marketing and exhibiting art is not the only way to do things, and i would be delighted to have our sterile and commodity-oriented manner of considering art to be challenged by something thoughtful and new, instead of something emulating something that pretends to be the ideal.

considerations in two parts: a love letter to caravaggio and some thoughts on chinese photography, pt. 1

this past weekend i kept a promise with my eighteen-year-old self and spent a few days on an art pilgrimmage in new york. when i was eighteen, i traveled to new york city for the first time. i was the kind of child that had always idealized the city, and had fed myself on a diet of writers that described, in doting and unaffected detail, growing up a child of new york. i absorbed unabashedly as many museums, galleries, people watching, language listening as i could, and vowed that i would return at least once, every year. i thought: though i don’t know what it is i am to do with my life, i know that whatever tasks i give myself, i want an awareness of things that this city makes you aware. i want to be fed on the art of this city, and to know it. and so i have made the trek, and kept that promise to me-at-eighteen, for most of the last decade.

and this weekend i was excited to go because the premise of this pilgrimmage was to view the not-often-travelling caravaggios that are on exhibit at the metropolitan museum of art. i have been a person who has measured optimal aesthetic experiences by how many times i have been able to stand in front of one of this man’s canvases. i have seen him in florence, in rome, dublin, paris and now in new york, and my count is at 23. his supper at emmaus was the one i was holding my breath for this time around, and it did not disappoint.


there are two versions of this painting by caravaggio, but this one is the most moving to me. the image is spectacularly dynamic, and peter (it is peter, isn’t it, with the shell pinned to his shirt?) has his arms wide and i don’t know why–will he embrace christ in a moment or is he expressing surprise and awe?–and the other disciple is sitting down or standing up; i like being on the precipice of wondering if this is the moment christ has revealed himself as the resurrected to those in his company, or if it is the moment where it is realized before he says anything, and then having said it, vanishes (and thank you burke for the refresher on the story–a wonderful reference to have as i was actually looking at the painting).

i’d been reading leo bersani’s book caravaggio’s secrets prior to going up, and he has a section where he examines where the subjects of his paintings are looking, and what it means to rest one’s gaze where one does–and where one doesn’t. an excerpt:

it is as if everyone around the ambiguously centered christ of caravaggio’s work knew, as caravaggio himself seems to have known, that no one has the authority to center our gaze, to define its primary relation. that caravaggio knew that, and principally painted religious subjects in which relational primacy could not by definition be questioned, is immensely moving.

it is always difficult to tear myself away from such moments; it is a selfish wish of mine to be all alone and immensely quiet and reverential in front of such paintings. maybe this is why it is easier for me to view his work in places of worship. not because of the subject matter so much or that i adhere to the beliefs that commissioned the work in the first place, but because what i want more than anything in such a moment is to encounter it fully, personally and without distraction. i want to place myself in direct relation to the painting, and i sometimes will move around it, trying to find what spot i would have to be in to make a mark on that canvas. is this how far he stood to paint this ear? is this how close? there is no other painter i can think of that felt his paintings so thoroughly as he thought them into being.

i was lucky enough to be in florence at a time when two of his last (and largest in scale) paintings were brought to the city to be cleaned. before the restoration the city held an exhibition of just the two paintings, and i stood in the same space with one of the most moving images i have ever seen:


(shown here in situ, at the alter of st.john’s cathedral in malta.)

it is immense, even in the tall-ceilinged halls of the palazzo vecchio, where i saw it. 12 by 17 feet. i was moved because it didn’t look like a religious painting, that it looked like a common street killing. had he stolen a chicken? i was moved because the death of a common man set upon by those seeking vengence for a petty crime was as revelatory and meaningful in my looking upon it as imagining the subject portrayed as a saint or martyr. are we all of us saints and martyrs? is this one of caravaggio’s fractured fairytales? is either portrayal less valid than the other?

the only disappointment that i experienced was that one of the six paintings i had come to see had already been sent back the week prior, as it was coming upon the closing week of the show. but if one is to miss a caravaggio, then it is best that the one missed would be the painting that lives in the same country that you travel from to see them (i am speaking of his early painting, the cardsharps, which is housed at the fort worth museum of art in texas. yes, texas has a caravaggio painting. don’t ask me how).

and though i wanted to be full only of caravaggio (and leonardo da vinci’s beautiful little drawings of misshapen faces, also on display), it is hard to turn away from things at the met, and so also rushed through rooms full of rodin, chinese gardens, and stumbled, almost accidentally, on the stunning august sander exhibit that is there. and there were other galleries, and many photographs seen (writing on china coming up) but thoughts on photography will have to wait until the next post, because while i could not be full of caravaggio in that moment at the met, i reserve the right to do so here at the space in between.