Chassés-Croisés of Three Women Photographers in China : a Trilogy
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Story One: She photographed poetry in her mental cinema screen.
She was born in 1984, yet has none of the unhealthy syndromes of the Chinese “post-80’s generation”. Yi SHEN works a day job as a journalist for the Dongfang Daily, probably the best newspaper in Shanghai. At night she walks around the city, goes to the cinema and writes poetry. This black & white (night & day) background is omnipresent in her photography. As a journalist she writes mostly about intellectuals, writers and movie directors. Just to give you an idea, a couple of months ago she wrote a piece about the closure of the Chelsea Hotel in New York, and recently she published an obituary of the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos.
Wherever she goes she carries a camera, and takes random pictures seemingly for no reason, just by instinct. In the past, after building up a sizable collection, she would look through them and pair them up, then write a poem for each diptych. This time though, she has created composites of four pictures—quadriptychs, which she calls “montages” in reference to movie screens split into four windows, each with an independent action going on. Again the pairing or the matching of pictures is enacted by “feeling”; she “feels” which picture resonates with another, and vice versa. “A single picture is like an onion, if life can be compared to an onion” she said metaphorically. “When you peel off the layers of two onions and put the “punctum” of two pictures together, a new narrative is born.” Working like an inspired chef, she makes fusion dishes through permutation and combination, like Arthur Rimbaud associating vowels with colors, she creates a diversity of matching tastes and textures, a diversity of corresponding narratives. It happened that when Yi SHEN was “cooking” her quadriptychs, she was reading Czeslaw Milosz’s “The Separate Notebooks”. So she chose, once again “by feeling”, which poem enhanced the flavors of which association of images. As a result she produced a sort of Haiku petits-fours that are an invitation for us to “taste” them in sequential mode or to gulp them up in one bite. Now I would faithfully abide by her recipes and let myself slide comfortably onto my sofa and take in her “separate sushis”, in a long and silent sequence, a la Theo Angelopoulos.
Born in 1984 in Shanghai, Yi SHEN won the first prize of the Hong Kong Literature Award in poetry for two years consecutively in 2008 and 2009. Taking photography seriously, she was invited for a solo exhibition with her work “the Abandoned Chairs” at the 2009 Lishui International Photo Festival and to participate to a group exhibition with her series “a Book of Luminous Things” at the 2011 Dali International Photo Festival. Currently she lives and works in Shanghai as a journalist, a photographer and a poet.
Story Two: She photographed her life in the air and on the ground.
In the book Passenger Call, published in 1998, Swiss photographer/stewardess Tiziana di Silvestro quoted one of her colleagues: “What does the public know of the lives of flight attendants? Free travels, comfortable lifestyle, staying in the best hotels of the world, no worries, some language skills, and ... ah yes, of course, the beauty aspect must not be forgotten! Aren’t we all bright and pretty and young? But wait! Does this reflect really the reality of the profession?” (Catherine Dust, Chef de Cabine, Swissair). Tiziana, from Biel Switzerland, was a stewardess with Swiss Air in the 1980’s; she resigned first to become a photographer, then came back, put on her uniform again, and obtained permission from the airline to document in color the hectic, tension-filled daily life of flight attendants on board. Similarly, Wang Lin, from Tianjin, China, was a flight attendant on a regional airline and also obtained consent to document the life of her peers, on board and on the ground, in black & white realistic photography. Unfortunately her work landed her not with a hard cover book but with a dismissal from the airline, after someone anonymously posted her pictures on the Internet, in the form of a voyeuristic slideshow with sad music, pretending to reveal the miserable fate of stewardesses, without even crediting Wang Lin’s name.
“Stewardess”—such an old-fashioned anachronistic term—is now replaced by “flight attendant”, much more neutral and asexual. In Chinese, though, it is translated as “Miss Air” (kong jie), which still evokes clichés of elegance, pretty girls, free travel, world hotels, etc. with a certain appeal of fantasy to the male traveler. Actually what Wang Lin shows us, in a spontaneous black & white documentary style, is the plain and stark reality of Chinese stewardesses: loneliness and boredom, crammed into dormitories where they do their cooking and laundry, or working hectic schedules on-board, serving a full cabin of possibly uncivilized passengers. Over a five-year stint she has produced a series of intimate moments and touching scenes, depicted a sort of sisterhood that has bound these women together, sharing meals in their bedrooms, exchanging weight watching secrets and make-up techniques, with the omnipresent sacrosanct mobile phone as the umbilical cord to their mothers, as a lifeline to their lovers and friends. The “naturalness” of these pictures might give us a false impression of voyeurism. But Wang Lin is truly one of them, both as a woman and as a colleague, she is a real room-mate in every sense, in the air and on the ground; her subjects can surrender totally in her presence, oblivious to the presence of her camera. This fusion of the photographer with her subjects gives us a unique window into an un-suspected micro-universe. And this combined image of lace underwear with the airport watch tower in the background best illustrates the title of her work “Heaven and Earth”.
Wang Lin was born 1973 in Tianjin, became a flight attendant on Hainan Airline in 1992, and quit in 2003 to study photography at Beijing Academy of Fine Arts. She was employed as a flight attendant by Okay Airline (the first private airline in China) from 2005 to 2010, during which period she undertook her documentary series, first with film-based and then digital cameras. She has exhibited in the Pingyao festival and in galleries in Beijing, and has been selected for the Caochangdi PhotoSpring 2012.
Story Three: She photographed her scars like word made flesh.
“Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh”. This quote from Leonard Cohen’s book The Favorite Game comes to mind especially in relation to the work of Zhe Chen. Raised in Beijing, Zhe Chen started making scars on her flesh in her high school days. She then chose to run away and took refuge at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California where she studied photography. On her 21st birthday she photographed the 21 lines of scars she freshly cut on her left forearm.“Photographing my bruised body is the perfect way to evacuate the unspeakable suffering in a tangible form”, said Zhe, who produced for her graduation a collection of self (harm) portraits entitled “The Bearable”. This project won her the 2011 Three Shadows’ Young Photographer Award at Beijing’s PhotoSpring. Before she even turned 22, her work attracted the attention of the Magnum Foundation and she was granted the Inge Morath Award for a second project entitled “Bees”. This “book” by Zhe Chen is an extension of her self-portraits, for which she resourcefully located, then befriended, and finally photographed other young Chinese with whom she shared a more or less spiritual kinship.
Why “Bees”? Zhe quotes the Roman poet Virgil: because “they left their lives in the very wounds they had created for themselves.” From the relatively simple act of tattooing one’s skin, or of ear piercing to the more serious acts of auto-mutilation and body modification, Zhe found those she calls “Bees” by showing them first her own scars. This compassion helps explain the total self-abandon displayed by her subjects, in a way only offered to someone who is a member of the same club, a la Nan Goldin and Nobuyoshi Araki.
Who are Zhe’s subjects? And Why? The troubling questions arise like storms in our brains. We shall leave the answers to specialists and experts in wide-ranging fields: medicine, psychotherapy, sociology, politics, philosophy or theology. What we can only say is that here we have powerfully disturbing but at the same time indeed, lyrical, photographs. In apparently quiet and well-balanced images, under the surface lies a tension that spells danger, violence, and threat. Zhe Chen’s “Bees” has no equivalent in Chinese photography; her images also reveal a facet of China unseen before.
Born in 1989 and brought up in Beijing, Zhe Chen is a photographer currently living in Los Angeles. In the past 4–5 years, Chen has been documenting her self-inflicted activities while creating a series of projects focusing on body modification, human hair, post-traumatic stress disorder, identity confusion and memory. Chen holds a BFA in Photography & Imaging from Art Center College of Design. In 2010–2011 her works were exhibited in the Lianzhou Photo Festival, the Pingyao Photo Festival, Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing and Shanghai’s Beaugeste Gallery.
In conclusion, although there was no pretension of demonstrating anything initially, after presenting this trilogy we realize that these three women photographers all have one thing in common: their photography touches us because it comes from their own personality, their own personal experience, their very intimate sensibility, and this is the most interesting discovery in the present stage of photography in China.
Jean Loh is a photography curator and critic based in Shanghai, where he is founder and director of Beaugeste Gallery. He is on the Editorial Board of the TAP Review.