Photographer Liu Zheng is drawn to the outsiders in his homeland
By Mark Feeney
WILLIAMSTOWN - Imagine trying to represent US society photographically, and in just 120 images - black-and-white images, at that. Even if you gave yourself seven years to do it, the task would still be overwhelming.
Now imagine trying to do the same for China, a society vastly older, far more populous, and undergoing a transformation so rapid as to make the American experience of change seem plodding. Yet that's what photographer Liu Zheng undertook between the years 1994 and 2001. The results can be seen in "Liu Zheng: The Chinese," which runs at the Williams College Museum of Art through April 26.
The best-known recent photographic work about China has been Edward Burtynsky's quite stupendous images of manufacturing and development. Burtynsky presents what one might call a Charles Sheeler or Margaret Bourke-White version of China. He photographs massive things - shipyards, assembly lines, hydroelectric dams - things meant to make other, less-massive things. The East is red? This East is Rouge, River Rouge, updated and supplying Wal-Mart.
That view of China could hardly be more different from Liu's. It's not just that Liu sees China as a native rather than foreigner. What Burtynsky shows is at once thrilling and impersonal - indeed, all the more thrilling for being so impersonal.
There is nothing impersonal about Liu's China. What interests him are people and their idiosyncrasies. Or what is unmistakably the handiwork of people. The single most memorable image here shows monumental sculpture "Buddha in Cage, Wutai Mountain, Shanxi Province." That cage indicates Liu's fondness for the unexpected.
Always dispassionate, he's never clinical. It's not by chance that Liu shows his sitters singly or in small groups rather than in crowds. "The Chinese" can be understood as both a collectivity and as a descriptive term for many individuals (people of Chinese descent, citizenship, or both). It's the latter Liu concerns himself with.
Liu specifically cites August Sander and Diane Arbus as influences on this project. It's easy enough to see why. Sander's "People of the 20th Century" is the greatest taxonomy in the history of photography. It could just as accurately be called "August Sander: The Germans." Conversely, Arbus is the unrivaled recording angel of human grotesquerie and radical individuation. (Arbus was ahead of Liu in recognizing an affinity between her and Sander. In 1962, she sought his address, hoping to contact him.)
Liu takes Sander's overarching ambition and peoples it with Arbus characters: transvestites, strippers, clowns, beggars, drug dealers, convicts, hospital patients, corpses. Equally outside in Chinese society, if nowhere as outre, there are monks, nuns, coal miners, Muslims. Clearly, it's not the Chinese mainstream that attracts Liu. He prefers to go - and record those who live - on the periphery and between the cracks. Just as this is not an industrial or commercial version of China, neither is it a tourist or official version.
In this 50th anniversary year of US publication of "The Americans," one inevitably sees another connection, to Robert Frank. There's a similar sense of looseness and unpredictability, of looking afresh and ranging far and wide. There's also a distinct air of the subversive. It's not hard to imagine the Chinese leadership denouncing Liu's work with words from Popular Photography's notorious dismissal of "The Americans": "a sad poem for sick people."
The pictures, which are all 24 inches by 20 inches, hang in bunches in the WCMA's Class of 1954 Gallery. It's a terrific space, and the hanging uses it to excellent advantage. The pictures function as self-contained units within the larger whole. This is subtly distancing, as if each person or place is part of a mural. If the photographs were in color, this mural effect would be garish, even overpowering. Instead, the resultant visual restraint more than compensates for the loss of information and emotion entailed in the absence of color.
Photography has always been about documentation. For much of its existence, the medium was about discovery, too: showing as well as recording. Whether as pictures or postcards or lantern slides, photography served as a substitute for travel. "Liu Zheng: The Chinese" doubly recasts the role of discovery in the medium. For Westerners, it fosters the further discovery of a still largely alien society; for Liu's countrymen, it's the discovery of a particular vision of that society. One is discovery as presentation, the other is discovery as self-revelation.
Where Liu is interested in how the Chinese perceive themselves, Vik Muniz, in "Vik Muniz: Memory Renderings," is after how we perceive perception - or, better yet, how we perceive recollection.
Muniz has taken 10 immediately recognizable images from the second half of the 20th century - the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi, John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting at his father's funeral, and so on - and, in effect, smudged them. Having drawn them from memory, he photographed the drawings and printed them through a half-tone screen. Their soft-focus blurriness captures (and arrests) the progressive myopia of memory.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Liu Zheng: The Chinese
Through April 26
Vik Muniz: Memory Renderings
Through May 17
Williams College Museum of Art
15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown 413-597-2427
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