Basic Photography/Critique

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Awakening from a Dream: Body Narration in the Sense of Micro-politics

Yang Xiaoyan


It was over ten years ago in Beijing that I first crossed paths with Liu Zheng and listened to him talk about photography. He struck me as an extremely conscientious and sincere young man, a human being who was almost too harsh on himself. Liu Zheng talked about the quality of photography, the responsibilities of photographers and the cruelty of the lens. His methods of persuasion were soothing and convincing, engaging in discussion, but ultimately nailing down conclusions with little room for doubt or debate. His gaze fixed on you, words clearly spoken and eloquently organized, Liu Zheng cast a spell on his audience, under which they felt compelled to listen attentively and reply earnestly.


I learned that it was back then Liu Zheng engaged himself in his controversial “Fellow Countryman” series, which was quite a sensation. At that time, documentary photography had become the trophy of most younger experimental photographers. It had become so faddish that one's status as a photographer would be questioned if one didn’t include the topic in a conversation or have some work of the sort in one's portfolio.

Liu Zheng and I never had in-depth discussion that covered the subject, but it is possible that when we first met, I fell for the habit of labeling him a “documentary” photographer. My direct impression was that through his lens, Liu Zheng tried to express a full set of visual concepts and a macro-existence of a reality that was Chinese. Liu Zheng hoped to create a presentation of a powerful, significant world of independence. Just like the German photographer Sander, Liu Zheng wanted to make a profile of a nation.

But in time, I realized this interpretation was flawed. First of all, throughout Fellow Countryman, Liu Zheng featured people with strangely distinguished facial structures. After carefully studying their visages, I realized that Liu Zheng had his own unique feeling towards images. And this dictated him in his choice of models. It had nothing to do with the commonly understood idea of “Documentary Photography”. Liu Zheng wouldn’t find satisfaction in responses stirred by ordinary images; neither would he linger on the shallowness of novelty. He was digging for the deeply hidden universal in all the irregular, irrelevant and irreplaceable images. Please pay attention to the word universal here. I need to emphasize here that in Liu Zheng’s decision-making, universal doesn’t even exist. This is a concept too fake and too posed. Universal exists on a hosting body. The details have been molded over and over again by the repeating course of history. Once embodied into different bodies of flesh, these details radiate awe-inspiring composure and style.

In his search for this composure and style, Liu Zheng even zoomed in on those drawing their last breaths. Their flesh carried the syndromes of naturalism and chanted grief over losing its grip on life. He also examined bodies that were once exuberant and lively, but interrupted brutally by ugly accidents; corpses swollen and decomposed; the specimen of a deformed fetus. He never shunned away from inevitable cruelty when he was challenged to look. Instead, he wanted the concept of vision to return to the state of being challenged to look. To him, this is the true nature of vision.

Liu Zheng’s lens stayed on the dead body of a young female: every trace of life drained. Still and silent, a naked body with all the aesthetics traits lay in the morgue. The delicate shadows of the image froze the rapid changes the body of the deceased was going through. Underneath the skin, there was an overly severe interrogation of watching. When my eyes fixed on this photo, I came to understand what Liu Zheng strived to achieve here. I sensed his inner tension, a stress of life that could not be calmed or comforted, and a magical power released from the tension and stress. I can imagine how Liu Zheng held his breath in his practice of the responsibilities of the onlookers. Throughout the process, he never lost his sincerity and conscientiousness most vision workers did not have. Through his lens, he stared at the image of his choice before depressing the shutter release, then he must have closed his eyes and dealt with the muted waves crashing from the darkness of his heart. After all this, he led the waves into his lonely dark room and allowed them to flow into the dark red narrow spaces.

At some point, Liu Zheng went through a transition. He no longer continued adding to Fellow Countryman. The superficial explanation was this task had been “finished”. In actuality, he had discovered a new concept.

To those who never understood him, his transition seemed to be so rapid that it was even a bit unbelievable. At this stage, Liu Zheng was not merely looking for objects. He was creating and manipulating them to visualize long-standing concepts. He set off to replicate classic Chinese legends and folklore that no one had previously imagined visualizing. Through adequate regrouping and reshuffling of visions, he wanted to transform these tales into black humor-motiffed scenes that took place in the visions of daily life.

The “Pan Si Cave” series was an important work of this practice and marked a starting point. Eerily and aimlessly, the nudity of seven vulgar women demonstrated the absurdity-filled metaphors of classic literature. When this story existed only in written form, spread around as an anecdote in literature, nobody had savored the true meaning of the sense of vision. Once it was put into practice by Liu Zheng, it inspired a lot of irresponsible versions of replica. My curiosity was aroused. When some replica had reached more resonant fame than Liu Zheng's works, I gained a more conscious knowledge of his practice. Liu Zheng works with the determination of no return. This is reflected in his indifference towards replica derived from his works. He has more important things to worry about. Then some meaningful works were listed as part of his art creation. It was a series of revolution themed works, such as Nan Jing Massacre, the Revolutionist, the Five Brave Warriors of Mt. Lang Ya, the Milk of the People, etc.

This series of works stated that Liu Zheng was no longer a photographer. His works had the piercing power into history. He transformed the once magnificent tragedies into ambiguous, mentally labyrinth-styled comedy.

After that, he came to a stop. It seemed that he was hibernating, waiting for an awakening.

To me, he was brewing another visual riot.

Now, this riot has become reality. Liu Zheng has named it “Awakening from a Dream”: elegant, traditional and poetic. In my humble opinion, the fundamental meaning of this riot is a desperate march towards the ultimate truth. Attempts to overthrow the present world of vision are made. To me, this desperate marching on of Liu Zheng is a brand new experiment on the narration of the body in the sense of micro-politics. It becomes even more so when he is facing the iron-clad regulation concerning the flesh. The marching is not just desperate. It is becoming an unprecedented soul agitating sound: clear, bright and shrill.

For over 30 years, the realm of vision has been trying out ways to establish a narration of the body. Invigorated by the essence of aesthetics, arts, spiritualism and vision, it seeks high and low for a legitimate presentation of the flesh which has been banned constantly. Pitiful, the more legal the presentation of the narration of body gets, the more vanished the true flesh become in the celebration and the noise of the art of vision. I think the aesthetics of flesh has murdered the narration of flesh. The aesthetics of flesh, in the most widely known sense, it’s to zoom out from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic. In the process, the focus is lost. Strictly speaking, the aesthetics of flesh is anti revolutionary practice. It fears all the acute social issues that are involved. To empower the flesh to become a powerful narration of the body, we need to put the flesh into a spacious political environment. Whatever is pretentious and staged are to be get rid of. The core of our daily action of staring should be honesty, intelligence and even abandonment. Furthermore, the order of the body needs to be restructured into an open, direct, microcosmically meaningful order.

I understand the audacious hardship Liu Zheng endures for his works. In the narration of the body, the difficulties don’t lay in the exquisite techniques or the rich layers of the shadows and lines. These two loom tremendous challenge on the photographers. But the most difficult part is to find suitable objects to portray. A sufficient communication is needed before encouraging your objects to respond accordingly to the requirements of the body narration. You need to bear it in mind that Liu Zheng’s body narration, despite its huge amount of work, fails to win the favor and fondness of either elite society or the common crowds. In this sense, Liu Zheng considers his latest practice “awakening from a dream”. It’s obvious that he has seen the multi-layered meanings related to the flesh.

Frankly speaking, our nation has not developed a set of body narration that possesses the strength to penetrate the reality. Our bodies were defined by the traditional rules first and then altered by the mortal aesthetics. The most extreme presentation was Lingci (an ancient Chinese torture in which a man tied up to a stake is submitted to a lingchi by an executioner, who throws the sliced pieces into a basket on his feet). The most public display is the execution square. The most humiliating blow is flogging with a stick. The most daily aesthetics is the “3-inch binded feet”. The most hypocritical expression is the currently ruling aesthetics. It could either be hiding behind a secret curtain to generate murky smiles of debauchery or be amputated mercilessly by the frightening knife of the executioner. Today, the concept of the body is always linked with aesthetics. Then, the pair shamelessly roams all kinds of public functions and becomes subject to the touches of every type of worldly judgmental eyes. You are stung by this numb feeling until you lose sense of feeling eventually.

Liu Zheng hopes that he can rewrite about the body narration. His approaches may seem radical on the surface but deep inside he never loses the calmness. Because of the fine details of the shadows and lines, the fearlessness in the composure, the cutting edge of the images, the height of the spirit and the daring gaze in the microcosmic sense, Liu Zheng’s body narration has been elevated onto the level of visual politics. Just like awakening from a dream, his works make the world of the mortals tremble, fear, bellow and flee. Through his arts, Liu Zheng speaks to us that only when we stare with the most genuine attitude that our action of staring can obtain its full value. Trembles, fears, bellows and attempts to escape only indicate how hypocritical we are.

There are no other options. We have to be honest and at ease if we don’t want to harbor anything hypocritical. Then we will stare, to stare at Liu Zheng’s “Awakening from a Dream”, a body narration in the sense of micro-politics.

2008-11-20-Zhong Shan University