Three Shadows +3 Gallery | June 1 – July 15, 2013
About 15 years ago, Beijing-based photographer Liu Zheng was in the midst of a project of epic proportions: a photographic survey of the Chinese people that took him to morgues and nunneries, among other places. At the same time, he was also working out the details of an erotic series of images based upon famous scenes in Chinese opera and literature in which the women wore headdresses but not much else. The combination of documentary and allusive photography pushed Liu forward in terms of recognition. Now, in 2013, he has offered a show that reaffirms what he was doing long before. Seen in the gallery affiliated with the non-profit photo space, Three Shadows, this exhibition demonstrates that his obsession with Chinese culture, sometimes heavily eroticized, goes on. In the current show there is, generally speaking, a greater involvement with troubling imagery including such Diane Arbus-like oddities as dead bodies, overweight women in bondage, and a boy dressed as a girl. These pictures are startling and sometimes even outrageous, but they reflect a China now willing to address formerly forbidden subjects. A new freedom is available: there is no censorship of the actual photos in the gallery (although in the catalogue, reproductions of female genitals are digitally deleted).
Sex attracts people everywhere, of course, but in this current presentation, I missed the larger spirit of Liu’s earlier work. Such a spirit does come through at times, in a wonderful picture of a boy resting on his knees. His head juts forward, and he displays a gaze of extreme alertness—a strong portrait of individuality and youth. But this picture, taken in 2008, is the exception and not the rule. Usually Liu depicts images designed to trouble if not shock, for instance, in the image of a dead man in formalin lying in a steel bathtub, also from 2008. His eyes are covered so he cannot be identified and his skin has either decayed or been flayed to reveal the muscle underneath. It is a deliberately horrific image that followers of Joel-Peter Witkin might find compelling. In another example, a grossly overweight woman grabs her rolls of flesh, seemingly resigned to the visual extremity of her condition. Certainly material of this sort has been produced before by other photographers, and not only Western ones; some of the bondage scenes remind one of the Japanese photographer, Nobuyoshi Araki. But the exhibition of such pictures in Beijing points to the expanded artistic freedoms currently being explored in China; not so long ago, a public display of such imagery would not have been allowed.
Clearly, these pictures pose problems not easily solved. Would the general public be repulsed by the man lying naked on a couch, his trunk covered with a skin disease that looks like gigantic warts? Indeed, the professional art world may also be asked the same question. There is the impulse to lament the decline of a classical culture like China’s, especially when the viewer is facing a contemporary expressiveness that borders on the bizarre. Yet strangeness has always been part of Liu’s work, which shows more than a slight familiarity with Western photography.
Liu’s erotic photography as an expressive medium may come from Western sources, yet the people and the subject matter are mostly Chinese. Because China never really had a modernist period in the Western sense of the term, it makes sense to see this work as a kind of catching up with Occidental precedents. Additionally, one recognizes that Liu does not necessarily dwell only on the disturbing; there are photos of a female nude lying on rocks beside a stream, which fall into a more conventional category. And there are photos of old men with long beards that seem intended to bring about deference in the viewer. Inevitably, the work will attract controversy, which is fueled not only by the primal humanity of Liu’s themes, but also because he presents them so effectively.
Courtyard 155 A Caochangdi // Beijing, China
Jonathan Goodman is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.