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Free Radicals - Elad Lassry´s Hermetic Photographic Works
It's interesting to be unsure - A conversation with Lorna Simpson
The Human Dimension - Thomas Scheibitz at the MMK
Visual Encyclopedia of the People's Republic - Liu Zheng's monumental photo atlas The Chinese
On Disappearance and Illumination - Michael Stevenson in the Portikus, Frankfurt
10 Years - ArtMag Celebrates its Anniversary!
Dynamic Duo - Preview Frieze London and Frieze Masters
Fabian Marti: Trip to the Other Side
Wallpaper and Transcendence: Shannon Bool - Excursions into Modernism


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Visual Encyclopedia of the People’s Republic
Liu Zheng’s monumental photo atlas The Chinese

Liu Zheng worked on "The Chinese" for eight years. He traveled extensively through the People’s Republic and took photographs of people from every region and social stratum. The result is a portrait of a country during a time of tremendous cultural and social upheaval. A selection of works from this sensational series is part of the Deutsche Bank Collection. Rajesh Punj introduces Zheng’s mammoth project.

Begun in early 1994, The Chinese series could well be described as Liu Zheng’s biography of China; the work spans the vast populace of the Chinese Republic. With a blend of choreographed images and candid photographs, Zheng has amassed a visual archive of modern China akin to the laborious documentation on the part of early western ethnographers. For The Chinese, Liu Zheng has photographed very distinct elements of the Chinese people in an effort to record their altering circumstances; by repeating this action and photographing a large number of individuals across China’s vast and unruly landscape, Zheng appears to enact a “protest against forgetting” the country’s people in the face of the unprecedented economic upheavals China has been undergoing. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm has described the necessity for “a protest against forgetting” as a way to consider something numerous times in order to commit it to memory; Zheng’s series of photographs effectively immortalizes his subjects, turns them into history.   

The Chinese reads like a vast visual encyclopaedia of the most densely populated country in the world. Zheng’s candid images of prosperous landowners, transsexuals, performers, discarded fetuses, and the poor are evenly lit, thus according each photograph equal attention in an ongoing accumulation of lasting photographic images. Belonging to the Deutsche Bank Collection are six compelling acquisitions that merit a re-examination of the entire body of work. Examples from The Chinese series include the photograph, Qigong, Beijing, 1996, an image of an elderly man dressed in a traditional Maoist uniform, emerging from the darkness in what might initially appear as a moment of rage (his hands are held aloft); on closer inspection, it turns out to be a man in idle contemplation, practicing basic Tai Chi movements as it gets dark. As with a number of his images, Zheng appears to have choreographed this scene to center his subject evenly within the frame; he succeeds in capturing the spirit of a man in deep meditation. Like so many of the elderly in China, this man is dressed simply in a black pullover, dark canvas jacket, and flat cap. For Zheng, his allure lies not in his appearance, but in his inner strength, measured breathing, and composed posture.

Zheng’s Buddha in Cage, Wutai Mountain, Shanxi Province, 1998, a large marble statue of Buddha photographed at the edge of a precipice against a thick curtain of fog, is more observation than animation. The seated Buddha encased in a rib-caged crate is propped up by two bamboo beams which, if removed, might cause the statue to topple over into the ravine. Captured in a moment of utter isolation, with the devotees having since dispersed, this elegant monument is in the process of being transported to the village below. The subtlety of Zheng’s image alludes to meditation as something beyond choice. A Flower Boy at the Roadside, Daqing Mountain, Inner Mongolia, 1998 was taken at the very edge of China, in Mongolia, where the landscape is vast and unobstructed. Whether the photographer has encountered him by chance or design, Zheng depicts a flower boy against the idyllic scene of an open prairie, with clouds rolling over the horizon. A little perturbed by his new role as a figure in a picture, the boy grasps his ragged flowers as he comes to realize that Zheng is not interested in buying his wares, but wishes instead to make him the subject of his photograph.  

Two Old Clowns, Dita, Beijing, 2000, recalls something of the vivacity of early Chinese Opera. Two elderly figures, their faces painted and of ambiguous sexuality, appear to be wrestling. The smaller of the two figures stands next to a tent, while the taller protagonist wields a paintbrush. Dressed head to toe in the traditional regalia of Chinese theater, the two dated and disheveled clowns muster a smile for the camera. Zheng’s photograph captures something of the regal history of China, when the dynasties reigned and the “age of one thousand entertainments” flourished. Yet for all the majesty of such recollections, the crestfallen embrace of his two made-up clowns suggests the final moments of a chapter in Chinese history; with traditions supplanted by modernity and grand economics, China is now firmly in the hands of the industrialists.

For much of the 1990s, Liu Zheng worked as a committed photojournalist for the Chinese Workers’ Daily, a simplified Chinese-language newspaper. It was during this time that Zheng appears to have experienced a revolution of his own that would alter his perception of reality. Exposed to every element of Chinese society, Zheng was impressed by the resolve of the Chinese, who in spite of their openness to the camera remain anonymous to the outside world. Recording the truth was a means to comprehend the greater good of the people. The apolitical action was a deliberate breach of the rationale for image-making, particularly for photography in China. Tellingly, The Chinese series was initiated while Zheng was still working for the newspaper; it was only when his photographs accumulated that he became more seriously involved and finally severed his political ties.
Historically Zheng’s moment was a time of great social and cultural change during which China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, had opened up the economy to foreign investment and orchestrated a daring and unprecedented system of exchange that allowed free enterprise to grow and flourish under the all-pervading eye of a one-party state. During this time, peasant revolt was replaced by the economic evolution of well-educated, professional technocrats. This critical shift from the sustainable economics of the countryside to the potential wealth of the cities caused Zheng to return to those citizens most affected by these changes. Powerless, penniless, and of little education, the people Zheng made portraits of are those who gave up their political and cultural traditions at the expense of their own self-worth. Tellingly, Zheng’s photographic works critique a modern China whose rise comes at the expense of its people.

Zheng’s formulaic approach is to depict his figures within a square frame. After he began his first series of photographs, it became obvious that this could turn into a work of importance. Dates, times, and seasons appear irrelevant in these encyclopedic photographic images of men, women, and children captured in a variety of poses. Historically, Zheng’s photographs can be compared to the work of American photographer Diane Arbus, who also employed the black and white square format in the late 1960s in her photographs of deviant and disillusioned people in their own settings. Raw, unruly, and of great integrity, Arbus’s images came at a time when influences such as the Beat Generation were introducing new narratives to American culture. There is a sense that Zheng was seeking something of the absurdity and fatalism of Arbus’s works in his own deviant images.

For Zheng, another role model was the German documentary photographer August Sander, who created the defining series of portraits People of the 20th Century, for which he diligently photographed whole groups of people during the Weimar Republic from early 1911. Sander also saw people in their work clothes, their costumes, and their traditional dress as representatives of various different classes and social groups, which he then categorized in his work. Of very different eras, both Arbus and Sander were determined to reveal something of the deeper-lying truth in their unusual circumstances; as a photojournalist and photographer whose images of people are direct and open to the viewer, Liu Zheng evidently had these aesthetic references in mind. Indeed, when considered in an international context, The Chinese series can be described as photographs of an international caliber made by a Chinese photographer far more than as Chinese photography per se.
In China the history of straight documentary photography was rudely interrupted by the advent of Communism. Luminaries such as Sha Fei (1912–1950) or  Zhuang Xueben (1909–1984) were among the early fledgling photographers; it wasn’t until the 1990s, with the liberal exchange of trade and industry and the influx of Western influences, that photography was once again open to ideals that allowed for something new. Liu Zheng was among a wave of avant-garde photographers that substituted their own idealism for the restrictions of photojournalism and manifested this in a new publication; New Photo was initiated a year into his Chinese series. Zheng formally chose to distance himself from his newspaper job in favor of something more individual, which meant that he had to work independently, surreptitiously, and without formal recognition or salary.
Liu Zheng’s influence on the contemporary Chinese art scene can be measured by his unbridled ambition to seek the truth. Distrusting the Chinese media, Zheng seeks to challenge the prevailing but tired propaganda imagery of men and women at the precipice of a mountain, holding aloft copies of Mao’s Red Book while reaching for the stars. It is Zheng’s idealism in challenging the status quo that can be seen in the works of his contemporaries Ai Weiwei, Song Dong, Wang Guangyi, and Xu Bing, among others. For Liu Zheng, The Chinese series is a substantial reexamination of the Chinese people, uncensored and without political agenda. His portfolio is an unequivocal account of the beleaguered lives of those living in China now. When speaking about his mission, he describes his endeavor as something akin to a revelation: “In the process of photographing, I have come to understand many abstract concepts such as truth and falsehood, emptiness and reality, and gradually the separation of these concepts have lost meaning for me. To me, The Chinese started from an attempt to record reality, but ended in a singular vision.”

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