A Visual Interlude in “The Manor of Spectacle” 

By Zhu Dake

1. Mirror and View

By its very nature, photography oscillates in contradiction with the human state of affairs. Attempts to examine the “nature of photography itself” result in endless frustration. In light of limitless technological developments, fine art photography seems to have been kidnapped by technology, but as a result, it possesses infinite possibilities for self-determination. However, this in no way hampers our fundamental evaluation of photography. First, photographers take on the role of “the other” to observe, performing a technical reduction (representation) of pictorial prototypes, thus forming stunning visual memories. Second, photography is a subtle chess match between photographer and technology, and thereby truly serves as an important way for humankind (both in thought and feeling) to prove its dominance over machinery. Third, this chess match aims to delicately transform the structure of image prototypes in time and space, and imbue the image with some sort of artistic aura. No type of photography can transcend this philosophical boundary. With regard to the viewer’s psychological anticipation, photography should provide a combination of memory, technology, peculiarity, and beauty. These are the four key poetic elements of photography. Playing off of these key elements, outstanding photographers are able to strike a balance of visual expression, formulating an extraordinary visual language.  

It is with this in mind that the festival presents Jacque Henri Lartigue’s “Lartigue au Grand Air,” as a means of paying tribute to this master photographer. The photographic image is precisely about the silent echo of years passing. Lartigue’s lens presents those eulogized spaces and places, preserving the inherent quality of a seven year-old’s playful naiveté and affection. August Sander’s photographic portraits attempt to record and restore the essence of German folk society. Sanders said, “I never made a person look bad. They do that themselves. The portrait is your mirror. It’s you.” This is an agreement between photographer and subject, and this sentiment supports a European “mirror aesthetic,” which record everyday existence using a technically rigorous form of realism. 

Photo editor John G. Morris’ “Somewhere in France” secretly responds to this call. In summer 1944, Morris shot 14 rolls of black and white film on the front lines, which served as a personal visual record and had lain dormant in his office desk drawer for nearly 70 years. In 2013, these photographs chronicling the most significant event of the twentieth century finally saw the light of day. Exhibited on the mottled walls of Lianzhou Foto, these images present us with a speeding tank, captured German soldiers, and a girl sharing a tender kiss with an MP. Just as Morrison said, “I was photographing the margins of the war but they kind of held up a picture of what war is really like.” 

Making mirror images of reality and memory is undoubtedly the main trend in contemporary photography. Weng Naiqiang’s memories of “Great History” records the revelry in Tian’anmen Square when the Gang of Four was overthrown in 1976, as well as images of everyday life and street scenes in Guangzhou from 1987. These photographs present two mutually resonant intersections in time—the end of the Mao era and the rise of Deng Xiaoping’s “Two Cats Era.” The faces of these celebrating people, when inlaid upon the dark framework of history, become an oft-cited philological visual resource. Zhuang Hui’s “Agency Fire”is the urban “mirror image” of a rural “negative,” while Zhu Feng’s “Mirror,” in contrast, is the extreme of mirror-image realism, using a satirical logic to overturn the habitual associations between image and reality. 

2. Face and Portraiture

In comparison to grand historical narratives and group representations of “the people,” individual portraiture sometimes constitutes a greater visual “pressure,” due to its ability to draw even closer and present the face with greater clarity. This is the continuation of traditional portrait composition as expressed in contemporary photography. On the other hand, considering technological convenience, the camera is able to catch more of its “prey” than painting, and as such, it can create a thematically rich anthropological atlas. 

Olivier Cullman’s “The Others” features a certain type of canonical portraiture composition. Shot in India, with its tradition of ethnic segregation, it features the same man with different backgrounds and clothes, but he relies upon his apparel to determine individual identity (religion, caste, social class, occupation, and birthplace). The serious expression of the man in the portraits seems at odds with the modern world, creating a discordant, eccentric, and comical air. These pictures present the veiled irony of Indian social norms and its system of representation. 

Playful mockery of traditional photography studio techniques is represented in the portraiture of Harcourt Studio. Therein, we recognize German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, French singer Edith Piaf, Shanghai traditionalpingtanballadeer Gao Bowen, and film starlet Fan Bingbing. Within the elegant black space, the strange affectations of these portraits (such as Piaf’s peculiar pose and Fan’s lewd look) produce a dramatic sense of sarcasm. Another group of portraits comes from Afghanistan and present a stark contrast to the Harcourt Studio style: in a war-torn country, photographers took to the streets, using traditional handmade box cameras and haphazard techniques to stockpile the fleeting precious moments of civilian existence. 

In Jhin R. Oh’s “Laugh,” the model’s body is hidden behind a black or white curtain, while only the head (face) and hands are exposed and brightly lit in the foreground. The performance is carried out by partially-exposed body parts. The “laugh” is an expressive attribute of the face/portrait, it is like an invisible prop, ridiculously suspended and stuck in space, mocking the exorbitant spectacle of the world.  

Edu Monteiro’s “Autorretrato Sensorial” is comprised of a series of bizarre “expression” portraits. The photographer uses an octopus, bananas, crabs, cigarettes, and twine to sculpt masks, creating a new sort of sensory experience. He takes piles of “other’s viscera” and hangs it directly on the most prominent part of the body, seemingly simulating an innate yet indescribable fear. Each “mask” attempts to articulate feelings that are beyond expression. This isn’t a game of bodily packaging, rather it reveals something of the hidden truth of human nature. 

Lee Seung Hoon’s “Surgery” revises the definition of “portraiture.” South Korea is the epicenter of plastic surgery for women, and the self-beautification movement has surged across East Asia and ultimately spread around the world. The phenomenon of facial reconstruction means that everyone who gets plastic surgery is essentially another kind of “photographer,” without need for camera equipment. Their mission is to transcend the boundaries of photography, from the perspective of the photographic subject, directly transforming the intrinsic quality of “portraiture,” so that it presents a more pleasing appearance to the eye and the mind. 

In curator Zhang Xiangou’s group exhibition from South America, Sol Miraglia’s “Asimetria” allows us to see how physiological flaws are bound by our ways of viewing abnormalities. While the photographer is viewing them, the subjects are also quietly reflecting back their world, including the photographer within it. On the basis of this fundamental asymmetry of viewing, ultimately the world is doomed to come across as deformed. It’s hard to believe this outcome isn’t somehow a bizarre allegory for the personal predicament surrounding the photographer (and viewer)…

3. Memory and Allegory

When referencing allegorical style, we must first discuss Florencia Blanco Cutuk’s “Fotos al Oleo.” These are small-scale photographic paintings, depicting a husband and wife, brothers, and twin sisters. Set into exquisite frames, they became easily portable family memories. However, they were ultimately forsaken by time. Even after the photographer places them in “other” public spaces (walls, fields, flower gardens, trees), they still tirelessly recall the warmth of bygone days. This is a quadruple reproduction of time and memory: the memento prototypes of the initial photographs, the colorful paintings made in accordance with those photographs, the photography resulting from the photographer’s installation/intervention, and the photographs printed and installed on the wall in this exhibition. These four representations of time are layered atop one another, forming a skillful allegorical reference to “The Book of Time,” and unfurling before viewers a long and winding road towards the utopia of memory. 

In contrast to this complex manipulation of time, Yang Chen’s “Leave” presents a more succinct narrative structure. After home furnishings have all been moved out, the imprints of former existence remain on blank walls. The empty walls, absent of objects, form a space for semantic reversal, with these insipid traces articulating the infinite sadness of the vicissitudes of everyday life. 

This festival’s narrative exploration of the female body is limited to Si Mayuan’s “The Second Sex,” which is an allegory for the inner world of Chinese women. In the piece entitled “White Night,” a young woman curls up her feeble form into the fetal position, while the dried leaves covering her body hint at death. This is a counterpoint to the semiotic sense, and it aims to trigger a contemplation of the female processes of development, freedom, love, death, narcissism, and alienation. Xie Aijun’s “Slow” is, in contrast, a bodily allegory for rural countryside idols. The forms of those unfinished clay idols—the corporeal structure formed by a tangle of branches and mud, exude an unspeakable sense of evil. The “slowing” of time produces an effect; it reduces the spatial distance between idols and demons. Perhaps this warping of time and space is a significant element in the production of a Chinese-style spectacle. 

Carlos Spottorno’s “PIGS” is an acronym composed of the first letters of Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain, all of which are currently facing extreme economic crises. This work alludes to national narratives, presenting the somehow weakened landscape (street scenes) of daily life as a metaphor for these Mediterranean countries having “the same fate as pigs.” 

The industrial domination of Chinese cities presents another type of narrative theme. Wu Di’s “Floating in the Dust” offers a visual allegory directed at sandstorms, smog, and environmental pollution. Gas masks aggressively obscure the subject’s face, wiping out his or her life, dignity, value, and essence; on the other hand, this type of equipment was used extensively during World War II, connecting to cruel memories of biological and chemical warfare while hinting at citizens’ incommunicable existential dread. 

Recording views of old factories, Jin Hai’an’s “Steel City” captures rusty machinery and pipes as representatives of industrial age aesthetics and as symbols of post-industrial material waste, both of which are quickly fading from the field of vision of the average Chinese; in another sense, Lu Di’s “Red Lines” focuses on discarded electronic components as emblems of the post-industrial age. Under the camera’s lens, these circuit boards present a delicate and elaborate labyrinth. It is an allegory for the world of the Internet and digital technology. We can already see, in the era of Big Data, how electronic products are insidiously replacing human existence. 

Roger Eberhard and James Nizam’s “Tumulus” presents the ruins of manmade camps in the forest. The fragments of building materials are all that remain of old hermit dwellings, and they have now become a sort of fresh grave, wherein three types of historical fragments are buried—fragments of human residences, fragments of civilization, and fragments of memory. A serious truth resides here: fragments are the only means by which to stockpile the totality of human memory. There is no other method. The mission of photography is to select and utilize fragments from the grave of vision, reorganizing composite images of life and representing memories that have been pulverized by the passage of time. 

4. Poetic Sentiment and Poetry

It is precisely the poetry of images that provides a rich semantic aura to various spectacles. Within the framework of poetry, imagery becomes important and its value is determined by its connection to its prototype. These prototypes include human imagery, material imagery (buildings, streets, roofs, bedrooms, walls, drawers, caskets, and cupboards), spatial imagery (big, small, deep, flat, soft, solid, gloomy, and vibrant), and technical imagery (composition, focus, depth of field, light, tone, pixilation, sharpness, hue, grain, striation, and various other effects).

Photographers stand at the threshold of space and scan time (past and present) from afar, seeking out the prototypes to which we’ve grown accustomed, while simultaneously attempting to transcend their limits. This technically complex process of image creation forms a multi-sensory texture, incorporating object and portrait, light and shadow, substance and spirit, immediate experience and distant memory. A photograph is an independent presence; it is separate from the photographer and takes on a free and unfettered life of its own, motionless in the drawer or on the wall, whispering profoundly to us.   

On the one hand, it means seeking out the necessary poetic sentiment in everyday life; on the other hand, it means avoiding the grand narratives of the Xinhua news agency and the impressive aesthetics of salon photography. This is indeed a narrow space to navigate. Photographers are forced to travel through this space on the hunt for their own distinctive poetic sentiments. They come, in part, from the outside world, but originate primarily from memory and imagination. They cast a spiritual and knowing light, which shines from two different directions, illuminating the soul within “The Manor of Spectacle.” 

Zhu Lanqing’s “A Journey in Reverse Direction” attempts to use a pictorial method to resist the frenzied progress of urbanization. Republican-era women’s clothing that has been stored away in musty boxes, a coiled silver wire bracelet, the old-fashioned bun at the nape of Grandmother’s neck, and a dirt road in rural Fujian all draw infinitely close to our familiar concept of the image prototype. But here, they become tender road signs for a journey in reverse, wordlessly pointing to the dim passage of time and acting as a nostalgic womb of memory. Jiang Jian’s “Portrait of the Times” adheres to a customarily austere style. In a succinct manner, it portrays a young peasant wearing a Western suit standing before a sparse mud wall. With a dull look on his face, he expresses a limitless longing for urban fashion and lifestyle. From this view of the countryside, fraught with allegory, emerges pure, simplistic concern and nostalgic, poetic sentiment.

Taiwanese photographer Shen Chao-liang’s “Stage” couldn’t be more different, as he uses an ardent eulogistic manner to present multi-colored mobile stages. These mobile stages are put to use during the celebrations surrounding traditional weddings, funerals, banquets, and elections. This work conveys cultural information about the Taiwanese people and their collective memory. The photographer shoots at sunset, using the vehicles, equipment, set up, and lights to construct a dreamlike image. This is the Taiwanese cultural utopia, as well as the photographer’s own landscape totem. 

Petr Lovigin’s “Jamaica” is presented on the pages of an open photo book: a Jamaican woman wearing a white dress, with the national flag flying on the back of her bicycle, rides and stands in various locations, using an array of compositional techniques such as staging, low angle, and panorama, to compose an idyllic poetic language for the nation-state. In some ways, it is a rather odd flag, with yellow stripes intersecting on black and green, the three colors symbolizing sunshine, resilience, and hope respectively. The children we see trailing the flag and the woman in white seem to be chasing a bright and sunny future. 

Taking Chicago as its subject matter (City Hall, Children’s Memorial Hospital, and Randolph Street), Brad Tempkin’s “Rooftop-Second Nature” reveals the poetic nature of the city’s scars and dispirited locales. Strange rooftop furnishings—chimneys, cow sculptures, vegetation, air conditioners, ventilation ducts—that resemble still lifes are erected in the highest spaces of the city, and have become an entirely overlooked secret landscape. Liu Zhangbolong’sLaboratoryis another example of the esthetics of technology, attempting to capture the spectacles that occur inside the laboratory. The images are comprised of the shapes and colors of experimental equipment (such as Figures 5, 13, and 19). While they are abstract images of metal and glass, they suggest engineered artificial order and poetic logic.    

Serving as an important example of the “poetry of uncertainty” in photography, “Mountains of Uncertainty”(Roberto Fernández Ibáñez) is an escape from rationalism. With a sensual, mysterious, and entirely uncertain narrative, the pictures display a marvelous curtain of black lines, simulating the pricing curve of Brent Crude Oil, changes to the Dow Jones Index, and the rising population of France living in poverty. These nonlinear lines serve as an uncanny verification of Prigogine’s “Theory of Dissipative Structures.” From the original chaotic and disordered state, in a nonlinear region far from equilibrium, new, stable macro-organizational structures were formed and curvilinear fluctuations composed poems full of visual ambiguity. 

“Traveling in Mountains and Streams” (Yu Xiqi) transforms the original mode of portrait photography, conversely seeking a new means of expression for landscape imagery. Sparkling ripples on the water’s surface, shimmering mist, the wavering headlight of a motorcycle on the road, and fog rising out of the forest all form a half-light, half-dark image of the natural skin, texture, and tone of the landscape.

Li Zhiguo’s “All Living Creatures” is a combination of animal (fish and insects) and plant (flowers) remains, treated as specimens and digitally manipulated to form unusual black and white patterns that resemble woodcut prints. The deliberate placement, symmetry, and texture speak to the secret codes of life and death, steeped in mysterious radiance and deathly aesthetics. He Yue’s “Peach Blossom Spring” utilizes the mold forming on rotten fruit, as well as the name and history behind the “Peach Blossom Spring” (aka paradise), to address the inverted poetry of everyday life. The varieties of mold captured are surprisingly alluring, such that the mold is much closer to the essence of true aesthetics than the peach blossoms. The mold even encourages us to dwell on the poetry of the mildew blossoms themselves. In a country that has lost its means for measuring shared human values, this sort of reversed aesthetic is currently becoming a prevalent artistic truth. 

5. Spectacle and Blindness

The theme for this year’s festival is “Staging Encounters,” which insinuates a combination of the following important questions: Where and when does this encounter occur? Between whom? What kind of encounter? Why did this encounter occur? Why does it need to be staged? This is a common journalistic line of questioning, and yet it poses difficult problems for the creators. 

Undoubtedly, China is a peerless “Manor of Spectacle.” Since the dawn of the twenty-first century, power, capital, technology, and culture have joined forces to shape numerous unprecedented, unimaginable occurrences or “miracles.” It provides visual experience, often referred to as “spectacle,” that is a mix of astounding, absurd, surprising, and delightful characteristics; the world’s most creative writers, artists, and photographers all sing its praises for its uniqueness, shock value, and intensity. More importantly, as residents of a place where so many “miracles” and “spectacles” transpire, Chinese photographers have many opportunities in which to “encounter” these spectacles, thus constituting the trinity of miracle, spectacle, and encounter. 

There is only one type of spectacle to which people will turn a blind eye, which is “the happy blind person.” As Camus described, “From this moment, high noon is borne away on the fast-moving stream of history…and the blind, fingering their eyelids cry out that this is history.” However, this is the result of selective blindness. Cultural blindness is the twin brother of the society of spectacle. 

This edition of Lianzhou Foto addresses the concept of “staging encounters” as an attempt to provide a new opportunity for dialogue between the photographer and “the Manor of Spectacle.” Zhang Lijie’s portraits of Chinese patients suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), “Ice Bucket Life,” and Zhao Rongrong’s portraits of obese Chinese women, “FAT GIRLS,” are both specialized spectacles. The subjects melt away into everyday life, but when the photographers seek them out and gather them together, they form a solid visual unit that reflects the photographer’s poignant and powerful attention.

In the central room of a poor peasant home, in front of worn furniture and faded posters, the protagonist’s form appears blurred in motion like a whirling vortex, eerily sweeping through a destitute home. Liang Jianyong’s“Taihang Home” creates a virtual scene of a portrait/subject, presenting a technologized narrative of spectacle to express the most prosaic of scenes and reveal the tragic fate of China’s peasantry. As I see it, these indistinct figures only exist in the Public Security Bureau’s census database, merely finite numbers used for population statistics, so much so that their dignity and value fail to solidify even in their own homes. Their essential nature is even more nebulous than that of the crude furnishings and faded posters of leaders and gods that surround them. 

Jaap Scheeren’s “3 Roses, 9 Ravens, 12 Months”tells adult visual fairytales. The strange form of a man perched in the forest, a man in a red hat buried chest-deep in the earth, a snapped tree trunk forming the head of a horse, a “green mother” camouflaged by a carpet of fake grass, and a human “cocooned” in plastic wrap are odd installations scattered in the wild; they are meticulous mirages arranged by the photographer featuring visual prototypes taken from Slovakian fairytales. It is a clumsy adult imitation of childhood fantasy. However, this imitation refuses to fall into satire. It is an aesthetic spectacle based upon individual experience, which is accessible to very few. That is to say, few people can penetrate the disguise of common landscape to view the wondrous fairyland hidden within. 

If we suppose that this is an aesthetic construction of personal spectacle, then Pieter Hugo’s “The Hyena and Other Men” is an image critique of the spectacle of African society. In the oil-rich West African country of Nigeria, there are men who domesticate wild animals such as hyenas, baboons, and pythons for use in itinerant street performances, creating rare urban public spectacles. In these images, the hulking hyenas assume the docile air of family pets. Aided by this truly astounding scene, the photographer aims to shed light on the sharp conflict between human welfare (namely the profits made from these animal performances) and animal welfare (freedom). 

The story surrounding breeding animals (cattle, horses, and chimpanzees) provides an even more far-reaching inquiry. Yann Mingard’s “Deposit” offers a complete visual investigation of European livestock breeding associations, including the immense supply chain of semen collection, cold storage, laboratories, banks, and trading. The narrative relies on the entire collection rather than an individual image, forming a powerful event with shocking effect. This not only refers to the spectacle of exposing an entire industry, but also has a strong zoological quality. The fate of this assembly line of breeding and reproductive equipment includes a deep concern for how sex, breed, and species optimization relates to the fate of humankind. 

Xiao Rui’s “Surveillance”makes humans the focus of this sort of deep concern. Surveillance cameras aimed at capturing “spectacle” can be found in public spaces, at traffic intersections, in residential communities, in apartment block elevators and corridors, and surrounding assembly lines, thus forming a massive web of surveillance, sufficient to capture all the spectacles of Chinese society. We have been told repeatedly that China is the world’s number one recorder of surveillance imagery, possessing the world’s most abundant archive of secret intelligence, and isn’t this, in and of itself, a sort of spectacle to end all spectacles? There is nothing more astonishing than this extreme act of viewing. It is the pinnacle of the widespread application of surveillance equipment and the ultimate allegory for power, dictatorship, and “maintaining stability.” The aesthetics of a Chinese-style spectacle is that of politics, caught on security cameras, pushed to the end of human history. 

At present, we’re approaching the essence of this edition of Lianzhou Foto. “Staging Encounters” is about seeking a “visual interlude” within “the Manor of Spectacle.” This “interlude” takes place between photographer and subject, and occurs repeatedly between artwork and viewer. Despite having meticulously selected the photographers and their work, the organizers are still unable to predict how they will appear before the viewer’s eyes. Public exhibitions are the final stage of investigation and verification, providing the ultimate result of this “surprise encounter” (or more simply put, an “interlude”). Moreover, we can clearly see, for this tenth edition of Lianzhou Foto, the “encounter” is an engagement with the coming ten years, as well as a fond farewell to the past ten years.