Asia is Still Unfamiliar

Unfamiliar Asia: The Second Beijing Photo Biennial ( 2015 )
Central Academy of Fine Arts ( CAFA ) Art Museum, Beijing
15.10.15 – 29.11.15

Translated by Richard Dobson

The Beijing International Photography Biennial, with the theme and title Unfamiliar Asia opened at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing on 15 October. Overall, the exhibition certainly includes plenty of major works by artists from Asia: for example, RongRong & inri’s collaborative work is one of the more successful efforts at updating elements of a profound Eastern tradition; Ahmed Mater’s photographs of the holy city of Mecca, in his series The Desert of Pharan, also present a remarkable view of the very special dialogical relationship between a modern, Western-style cityscape and the holy setting of an ancient Eastern religion; Shai Kremer’s Ruins Series and Girard Offimo’s War-Filled Relics have not yet escaped from the time-worn genre of depictions of ruins, but may be also ascribed to a new style of Asian art that can readily be identified with the poetry and romanticism of an aesthetics of ruins that firmly belongs to the classical, Western tradition of painting.

However, what made the biggest impression was the element of the ‘new’ in this biennial photography exhibition. In an interview with the Chinese edition of The Art Newspaper, Wang Huangsheng, curator of the CAFA Art Museum and  of the Unfamiliar Asia exhibition, said: ‘Our biennial exhibition is constantly tracking, actively paying attention to, and applying, new technologies and new media. However, when talking about the essence of the photography biennale, new technology should not be taken as the principal theme; rather, the focus should be on the new methods of viewing and expression that have emerged through the development of new technologies.’

Yu Ying’s video work Unfinished Village, completed in 2012, may be regarded as an exceptionally good interpretation of this exhibition’s uniquely innovative theme. As the artist mentioned in his introduction, this work was inspired by the posthumous display of some sketches by the late socialist realistic painter Wang Shikuo, for his painting The Bloodstained Shirt.1 In the film with the same title Yu Ying staged a re-enactment of certain aspects of the actual violent clash, which occurred over land rights in a southern Chinese village. What we can see is actually derived from his use of a video camera to invert the usual process for creating a static picture. In the resulting version of The Bloodstained Shirt Yu Ying returned to re-enact the original scene on the spot, with the aid of a non-stop, hand-held video camera, before returning to complete the final painting itself. Although, as the artist himself puts it, this arrangement makes the film ‘question the relationship between pictorial imagination and authenticity’, the problem itself was purely technical and is, indeed, an unusually important, and widely overlooked, problem in photography. In fact, almost every time a photographic image is produced, it is bound to be subjected to a similar close questioning, along the lines of: Is this a real moment in time? As far as I know, this type of meta-problem for static images is rarely touched on by domestic artists. Of course, the success of a work lies in the richness of the topic itself, and the relatively high degree of competence employed. For example, the subject of a body that is performing, compared to that of a body in everyday life, serves as a by-product of questioning ‘authenticity’ and, to a certain extent, responds to the brilliant description by Roland Barthes, in his Camera Lucida, of the problem of ‘posing’ that faces people who are being photographed.2

Dayanita Singh’s File Room is somewhat similar. And although she uses a new method of digital projection, Singh’s focus is still on photography. The process used in File Room, of digitally projecting still images in the dark exhibition space, brings us back to the era of slides.3 It is worth mentioning that the imposed viewing sequence of a slideshow, regardless of whether this order relates to the narrative or not, looks like the original, but also produces an unexpected chemical reaction in the special subject matter, just as with Singh’s File Room: even though, in both cases, these are just plain black-and-white photos taken out of the archives, they still continue to tug at the heartstrings, in a perfectly conventional way. They are knowledge, they are memories, but they are also trapped in the courts, municipal offices and national archives, and they are prisoners that cannot escape. Perhaps all human conflicts and suffering are isomorphic, and war is merely one of the most intense and most visible examples of this. Why else would we feel as if we can see the spectre of war amid the files scattered on the ground and piled limply, tottering on the verge of collapse on the shelves? Are they not like the luggage confiscated from the Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War? Like the sorrowful and desperate inmates lying on the narrow bunks of the concentration camps?

Unfortunately, although the works in Unfamiliar Asia are largely of a high level, viewed as a whole they fail to respond well to the stated theme. In fact, in relation to an ‘Asian’ or a ‘European’ or ‘American’ perspective, we can scarcely see differences between any of the works. What we see is a collection of works in one hall by artists from different Asian countries, such as India, Israel, China, Korea and Japan. And while these Asian artists are indeed from Asia, it is debatable whether they have anything to do with Asia or an Asian ‘subject construct’, as claimed in the introduction to the exhibition. Mikhail Ruffner’s video installation Immediate, for example, clearly explores the classic modern issue of ‘crowds’, but it is clearly not related to ‘Asia’. Here perhaps we should not excessively blame the work, but instead return to thinking about the curatorial agenda itself: is not this agenda overambitious, with the result that the curatorial team is left struggling to work out a satisfactory solution to it, in putting together the exhibition?

That said, however, how could a photographic approach be used satisfactorily, to try and construct an ‘Asian’ identity? Perhaps we should not equate ‘identity’ with cultural ‘convergence’4 – this political ideal bears a strong whiff of the kind of utopian thinking that has already proved unsuited to too many countries in Asia. Instead, we should focus, perhaps, on the ideals of Edward Said, in attempting to ‘reproduce the differences objectively and fairly’.5 Considering that the reproduction of differences in many areas, including literature, art, philosophy and so on, is routinely tied to a Western-centric ideological paradigm, whose efforts to ‘reproduce differences objectively and fairly’ themselves amount to a deconstruction of the Western subject, in the end, this ‘deconstruction’ is actually a kind of ‘Asian’ construction. Or we could borrow from Homi K. Bhabha’s preface to Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, in asserting that ‘the question of identification is never the affirmation of a pre-given identity, never a self-fulfilling prophecy – it is always the production of an “image” of identity and the transformation of the subject in assuming that image’.6 ‘The demand of identification – that is, to be for an Other – entails the representation of the subject in the differentiating order of Otherness. Identification …  is always the return of an image of identity which bears the mark of splitting in that “Other” place from which it comes.’7 In other words, the establishment of ‘Asia’ ( subject ) is still based on the relationship with ‘non-Asia’ ( the Other ). This is not to say that, in order to show an ‘Asian’ subjectivity, all exhibitions must juxtapose ‘Asian’ with ‘non-Asian’ works for comparison, but suggests that the ‘non-Asian’ view and agenda should be concealed within, or assimilated by, an ‘Asian’ construction, from which it can periodically escape, if only to revert to form afterwards. Only in the interplay and semantic slippage between the two can an ‘Asian’ subjectivity ultimately be manifest. Video art’s way of intervening in this topic may thus be able to expose visually the style and personality of the language, in this strange, tense relationship.

1. ‘The painting The Blood Stained Shirt is an account of a group of farmers complaining to a landlord. … The landlord, standing on the left side of the picture is removed from the crowd of people around him, isolated, alone. To be exact, he was sic surrounded by people, with no means of escape … There are people to his left, to his right, and behind him, and he is surrounded by a crowd of people forming a seamless arc, so perfectly stitched together that there is not the tiniest gap to be seen, except for the large gap in the foreground of the composition. The solitary offender who has been convicted of the crime has no means of escape.’ Wang Minan, ‘Truth in Painting: From ‘‘Blood-Stained Shirt” to ‘‘Fathers’’’, Literature and Art Studies ( Wen Yi Yan Jiu ), no. 4, 2014, pp. 132.
2. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida – Reflections on Photography, trans. Zhao Kefei, Culture and Arts Publishing House, Beijing 2003, pp. 15-22.
3. The ‘slide’ here refers to the physical slide, usually made from a colour negative, dating back to the era of photographic film.
4. ‘Convergence’ is a word that appears in the preamble to the fourth unit: ‘The future, a more all-embracing structure of Asian cultures, and more convergent cultural construct, possibly hidden within these huge differences and tensions.’ But it should be noted that, in view of the differences and tensions involved, this ‘convergence’ of cultural constructs is not strictly comparable to the postcolonial views of Edward Said and Homi K. Bhabha, and should not, therefore, be confused with them.
5. Zhao Xifang, Post-colonial Theory, Peking University Press, Beijing, 2009, p. 51.
6. Ibid., p. 26.
7. Ibid., p. 26.



2015年10月15日 – 2015年11月29日



于瀛完成于 2012 年的视频作品《未完成的村庄》堪称主题展中对这一理念的绝佳诠释。正如艺术家在介绍中提到的,该作品的创作灵感来源于已故社会主义现实主义画家王式廓的遗作草图金《血衣》素描1。在影片中,于瀛让村民围绕《血衣》的场景对这起真实发生在中国南方乡村的土地权力纠纷事件进行了一次相对去情节化的重新排演。我们可以看到,这实际上是对静态画面之形成的一次谱系学式的逆向推演:借助视频这一媒介,于瀛让《血衣》的场景重新回归到画面构图最终生成之前的那种持续的、未完成的震颤之中。虽然一如艺术家本人所说,如此编排使得影片“质疑了绘画性想象和真实性之间的关系”,但事实上,这一问题本身也是非常摄影式的,它甚至是摄影的一个异常重要却被广为忽视的问题。其实每一次摄影画面的生成几乎都必然会遭受类似的诘问:瞬间就是真实的吗?据我所知,对于这类静态影像之元问题( Meta-problem ),国内艺术家是鲜有触及的,但《未完成的村庄》却算是一个与之相关的绝佳案例。当然,该作品的成功之处还在于议题的丰富性以及针对这些议题相对较高的完成度,比如对于表演身体和日常身体的议题,作为对“真实性”进行质疑的副产品,也在一定程度上回应了罗兰巴尔特在《明室》中对被拍摄者的“摆姿”问题的精彩描述。2



Unfamiliar Asia, Beijing International Photography Biennial, 2015, Space 1 2015“陌生的亚洲”北京摄影双年展展览现场 1

Unfamiliar Asia, Beijing International Photography Biennial, 2015, Space 1. 2015“陌生的亚洲”北京摄影双年展展览现场 1.

Wang Shikuo, sketch for The Blood Stained Shirt,1973 ( above ); Yu Ying, video installation, Unfinished Village, 2012, video still ( below ) 王式阔,《血衣》,素描,1973 年( 上图 );于瀛,《未完成的村庄》,视频截图,2012 年( 下图 )。

Wang Shikuo, sketch for The Blood Stained Shirt,1973 ( above ); Yu Ying, video installation, Unfinished Village, 2012, video still ( below ). 王式阔,《血衣》,素描,1973 年( 上图 );于瀛,《未完成的村庄》,视频截图,2012 年( 下图 )。

不过话说回来,究竟应该怎样以摄影的方式建构一种属于“亚洲人”的认同?或许我们根本不应该将“认同”与文化的“趋同”4等同起来金这种带有浓重乌托邦意味的政治性理想已经在太多的亚洲国家证明不大可行,相反,我们可以将目光聚焦在萨义德的理想之上,即“客观公正地再现差异”5。考虑到目前包括文学、艺术、哲学等诸多领域对差异的再现总是习惯性地受到西方中心主义之思想范式的牵绊,这种“客观公正地再现差异”的努力本身就已经是对西方之主体的解构了。继而,这种解构其实也就是一种对“亚洲”的建构。或者我们还可以借用霍米巴巴在给法侬的《黑皮肤,白面具》一书写的序言中的说法,“认同的问题从来不是对于某一个既定身份的肯定,从来不是一种自我完成的预言,它通常只是一种身份‘形象’的生产和设定这种形象的主体的移动”6,“认同的要求金相对于‘他者萊需要对于在‘他者’秩序的差异中的主体的表现。认同,正如我们上面所说,通常是对于回到一种身份的‘形象萊这种‘形象’刻画着来自于‘他者’分裂的印记”7。也就是说,“亚洲”( 主体 )的建立仍然要建立在与“非亚洲”( 他者 )的关系之中,当然这并不是说为了展现“亚洲”的主体性,一切影展就必须要把“非亚洲”地区的艺术品摆在旁边来对比,而是说“非亚洲”应该藏匿于对“亚洲”的建构之中,前者会不断地逃逸,再不断地返回,在两者的嬉戏中,“亚洲”的主体性才能最终显现,而影像艺术对这一议题的介入方式或许就是要将这种奇特的张力关系以可视化的手法、个性的语言揭示出来。

Unfamiliar Asia, Beijing International Photography Biennial, 2015, Space 2 2015“陌生的亚洲”北京摄影双年展展览现场 2

Unfamiliar Asia, Beijing International Photography Biennial, 2015, Space 2. 2015“陌生的亚洲”北京摄影双年展展览现场 2.

1. 《血衣》的“画面讲述的是一群农民对一个地主的控诉。地主站在画面左方,他和周围的人群隔离开来,孤身一人。准确地说,他被周围的人所包围,无处可逃。在他的左边、右边和后面全是人群,这个呈弧形的人群如此完满地缝合在一起,丝毫没有暴露出一点缝隙,唯有前方是画面一个大大的豁口。这个犯下罪行的孤独的人,这个被审判者,他在劫难逃。”汪民安,《绘画中的真理:从<血衣>到<父亲>》,《文艺研究》,2014 年 第 4 期,第 132 页。
2. 罗兰巴特,赵克非译,《明室金摄影纵横谈》,北京:文化艺术出版社,2003 年,第 15-22 页。
3. 这里的幻灯片指的是物理性的幻灯片,一般是胶片时代的彩色反转片。
4. “趋同”一词出现在第四单元的序言中,“未来,一种更为兼容并包的亚洲文化格局,与更为趋同的文明建构,也许就蕴藏在这种巨大的差异与张力之中”,不过需要注意的是,这种趋同之文明建构蕴藏于差异与张力的观点与萨义德和霍米巴巴的后殖民观点是不太相同的,因此也不能混为一谈。
5. 赵稀方,《后殖民理论》,北京:北京大学出版社,2009 年,第 51 页。
6. 同上,第 26 页。
7. 同上,第 26 页。