Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Poetics of Confrontation -- Femininity, Oppression and Transgression in Cui Xiuwen's Existential Emptiness

For all its preoccupation with female sexuality and identity in contemporary China, the work of Cui Xiuwen has always transcended the label of feminism with its intimate, emotive yet confrontational aesthetics. From her earlier paintings and videos to her conceptual photography in recent years, the artist's alter-ego has metamorphosed through grief and constraints imposed by the external world, to reach a state of illumination that speaks to the wider human experience.

Cui's latest series since 2007, Existential Emptiness is a deeper, more introspective voyage. The new series continues in a similar vein of digitally manipulated photography as her previous works, One Day in 2004 and Angel, where brilliant light and colourful palettes shine on the contradictions in cultural traditions and violence enacted against women in earlier times in China. The repercussions remain in Cui’s renditions, as the figures of young girls embody the pressure that is inherent in the feminine identity. Through the doleful girl-child in One Day in 2004 and the dejected, pregnant teenage girl in Angel, the protagonists are depicted in self-portrait formats and ethereal settings through which Cui addresses the violation of innocence under social and cultural pressure.

Paradox underlines the image of Cui’s alter-ego, which appears in different guises and settings. In Existential Emptiness, chilling landscapes of Northern China are transformed into monochrome images reminiscent of traditional Chinese ink painting. The solitude of Cui's alter-ego unfolds, framed by ice and snow, against barren backgrounds with hues of silver hinting at the arrival of spring. Existential Emptiness probes deep into the loneliness of femininity: in the fictive domain, the artist’s alter-ego is accompanied by a life-size doll that lays limb in her arms. At times the two are mirrored selves in isolation and enlightenment through their journey; at other moments the doll is a burden the protagonist must bear as she plods along her path.

The narrative acquires a subtly subversive dimension: for Cui, the doll evokes the duality of body and soul in the subject in art. Its presence in the photos symbolizes the artist's confrontation with her own female identity, and the dynamic shifts between helplessness and strength. In 'Existential Emptiness No.5', the girl succumbs under the weight of her struggle and falls onto the snow with the doll on her back, her face obliterated against snowy mountains. The artist's resistance strikes again in 'Existential Emptiness No.7' where her alter-ego, wearing splinters of snow all over her body, drags her doll across a surreal whiteness and misty veils of trees. The image is one of self-assertion, of a relentless search for an exit towards an unknown point in time.

The discovery in Existential Emptiness is an unsettling one for the audience—it presents the pain borne by women in contemporary China, inviting the viewers to experience its thought-provoking representations. 'Existential Emptiness No.6', a triptych of three horizontally aligned compositions, is the perfect culmination of this dilemma. The protagonist and her doll stand defenceless in the middle of a highway, and the doll's sexuality is exposed through her open school uniform amid harsh wind. The headlights of oncoming car, sightings of pedestrians and bicyclists and the pale silhouette of the smokestacks of an industrial factory site come together in a cold, ruthless symphony that plays to the girl's distress.

The motifs in this image are a stark revelation of the oppression that runs through the series: both the girl and her doll, in their school girl personas and vulnerable state, seemingly conform to the stereotyping of female identity as seen through the conventional male gaze. The artist's alter-ego can only hold her doll in front of her while huddling behind its inert body, then shielding it as they ride away from the scene. The city setting points to the universality of such female experience in the society, where women continue to endure and seek to escape from conventional judgement. The flight begins at an early as symbolized by the doll’s bony rib cage and thin pubic hair. Neither a child nor a woman, the girl protagonist struggles in isolation through the abrupt changes in her sexuality. The sense of loneliness lingers into adulthood, which the artist continues to redefine it in her series of alter-egos.

In the universe of Existential Emptiness one finds both oppression and refuge, as the void offers an opening into enlightened, interior landscape. The artist's alter-ego finds certainty in the silent union with her doll in 'Existential Emptiness No.9'. The two engage in a shared meditation, protected from the intrusion of the surroundings by retreating into their selves. The refuge is also a meditation on the wider human condition, as silence is often the only transgression one can rage against cultural and social constraints. And the power of such transgression must come from a true recognition of one's body and soul, which Cui alludes to in 'Existential Emptiness No.16'--an individual must face her selves, in perfect stillness and acceptance, as if one's existence was at stake in a vast, frozen wilderness.

About the artist

One of the most renowned artists in contemporary art in China, Cui Xiuwen graduated from Central   Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1996. Cui's artistic career began with painting and evolved to include video works in the early 2000's, and her works presented a pointed exploration of the new sexuality in China. Since 2004, Cui has turned to photographic assemblages in an intriguing mix of digital manipulation, traditional motifs in both Western and Chinese arts and her singular aesthetics.

The work of Cui Xiuwen has been exhibited in some of the world's most prestigious galleries and museums including Tate Modern and Victoria and Albert Museum in London; International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York and Pompidou Centre in Paris. Cui recently had a solo exhibition at Today Art Museum in Beijing.

Fragmented Emotions -- Photography of Cozue Takagi and Shu Ikeda

Since contemporary Japanese photography came to wider attention in the West since the 1990’s, it has been acclaimed for its diversity—in the words of photography critic and scholar Mariko Takeuchi’s, its ‘multitude of reactions’ in the reproduction of truth1. In the past decade, the new generation of Japanese photographers has elevated this diversity to greater magnitudes by pushing the limits of their visual representations, often prolonging the images beyond their original frames or dimensions and conceptual boundaries2.

On today’s forefront of such exploration are Cozue Takagi and Shu Ikeda, two young Japanese artists who illuminate the intervals between the visible and the invisible in their works. Both artists voyage into new possibilities in the photographic medium with their collaged creations: Cozue employs digital manipulation to give an incredible density to her emotional landscapes, while Shu uses the method of paper-cutting to create quietly punctuated universes, where one experiences a breakdown of the boundary between interiority and the external world.

One of the most recognized young photographers in Japan, Cozue Takagi stands out for the provocative imagery in her work, as well as her constantly evolving techniques and styles. In her signature diptych titled ‘Ground’, Cozue’s method is to scan a group of original negatives photographed on film and to convert the monochrome images into colored ones, before digitally mixing them as collages and adjusting the tones. The fabricated, multi-layered images carry deep, stirring hues and atmospheres that spring from Cozue’s creative process.

While Cozue started her artistic journey with the desires to confront the outside world and to protect her inner refuge, ‘split’ and ‘grain’ show that the two realms stem from the same place in the artist’s mind. In ‘split’, a series of 18 images that originate from ‘ground’, the assemblage of human figures, animals, plants, fire, objects and printed matters symbolizes scenes from Cozue’s life. The expressive gestures call to an intense subjectivism within the artist. ‘grain’, a further decomposition of ‘ground’ images, cuts to the heart of her creativity: the repeated cycle of life and death, of life being born for the dying and returning to the earth to be born again.

Rebirth takes on a different guise in the work of Shu Ikeda, who inverts the photographic images and reality to create unique, distant landscapes. Shu also photographs on film: he cuts out different shapes on the photographs with a paper cutter, and each artwork is a delicate creation that takes one to three months to complete. The layered images show both existence and voids: they represent Shu’s cropping of a moment in reality, then cropping it further and reinventing it in a new light and space. Mounted on acrylic, the punctuated photos contain a variety of visual effects that invite comparisons between illusion and substance.

The central subject in Shu’s work is scenery of nature, as he believed nature evokes feelings and impressions that are universal in people regardless of their backgrounds. In Shu’s world where the real and the imaginary intersect, the viewers recognize deep, visceral response to the external world in their own consciousness. Works such as ‘we must say goodbye until we see it once again’ draws on one’s perception of the passage of time, while ‘another shadow’ hints at the exploration of selves within the audience. These associations are questions from the artist, who maintains remarkable emotional restraints in his work.

For all the contrast in compositions and styles between the two artists’ works, Cozue and Shu share one creative ideal: to express their innermost feelings with clarity, and with no discrepancies between their artworks and their selves. In their reproduction of reality, Cozue and Shu explore compositional and conceptual limits in contemporary Japanese photography, a bourgeoning art form that often questions the nature of photography itself3. Fragmented Emotions brings Cozue Takagi and Shu Ikeda to the Hong Kong audience for the first time, in a showcase of the emotive, daring and innovative facets of contemporary Japanese photography.

Artists’ biographies

Cozue Takagi (b. 1985) – Cozue Takagi first rose to prominence in Japan’s art scene when she won the Grand Prize at Canon’s New Cosmos of Photography in 2006 during her last year of studies in Tokyo Polytechnic University. Since then Takagi’s works have been exhibited in various solo and group exhibitions across Japan and in Korea. She is the winner of the 35th Kimura Ihei Memorial Photography Award 2010, one of the most prestigious photography awards in Japan. She lives and works in Nagano, Japan.

Shu Ikeda (b. 1979) – Shu Ikeda studied painting in Tokyo Zokei University and graduated in 2004. Since his debut solo exhibition fragmentary time in 2007, Ikeda has risen as one of Japan’s up-and-coming artists with his Honorable Mention at Canon’s New Cosmos of Photography in 2009 and winning the Mayor of Judge Prize at Tokyo Wonder Wall 2009. He works and lives in Tokyo, Japan. 

1Photography in Japan’, an essay by Mariko Takeuchi for Paris Photo 2008 with Mariko Takeuchi’ in foam magazine #17, winter 2008 

2Photography in Japan’, an essay by Mariko Takeuchi for Paris Photo 2008
3Ferdinand Brueggemann, ‘Focus on contemporary Japanese photography: Interview 

Three Dimensions -- A Vestige of Time and Space in Architectural Photography

Between functional and artistic abstraction, architectural photography is centered in a depiction of perspectives that redefines the dynamic of its subjects1. Beyond the interpretation of locations and structures, architectural images often reveal temporal realms that are previously invisible and allow the viewers to see through dimensions2. In subverting temporality, photographers employ distinct visual languages grounded in personal and cultural backgrounds, to create new vistas of the ever-shifting cityscapes. 

Peter Margonelli’s photography of deserted industrial locations projects a world without time. The Invisible Geographies series are captures of industrial sites of flat light and grayish hues, devoid of recent human presence. The photos allude to film sets fallen into disuse, with a surreal ambience that resembles Edward Hooper’s paintings at times. The echoes of a distant past come from the artist’s childhood, and they are subtly stilled by the symmetry of objects, colours and typography in the images. The buildings are squarely exposed in their isolation, since Margonelli does not optimise them against the surroundings with compositional techniques such as dramatic texture or shadow. 

Decontextualised, the industrial landscapes become abandoned sites where the past obliterates the present and any possible future, and the viewers are offered no emotional entrance into the architectural subjects. Margonelli’s paradoxical strategy is precisely what makes Invisible Geographies metaphysically provocative: the photos propagate hidden architectures into a wider world where they normally cannot be seen. 

The manipulation of time and space takes the opposite direction in the Landmark series by Hong Kong photographer Eason Tsang. Taken at night from an upshot angle, these photos of Hong Kong skyscrapers give only small hints of their true identities, which are mostly famous landmarks like the Peninsula Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui and the Jardine House in Central. The compositions of these images revolve around emphasis and omission, while extending the subjects’ spatial dimensions beyond their physical settings. Conventional architectural qualities like stillness and formality are replaced by a striking sense of movement, as the buildings move vertically up toward the sky and become new landmarks on their own vertical planes. 

Tsang’s creation of these imaginative landmarks is a statement on Hong Kong being a densely populated space. It also unmasks an intriguing temporal dimension of the city: its architectural space thrives through the night, in moments that elude the viewers who perceive architectures as static human constructions.

In the words of architect and cultural critic Kazys Varnelis, architecture has become a way to represent the delirium of globalised space today, and the visual impact of architecture photography is divorced from its ostensible subject3. Dick Chan’s latest series The Familiar Peculiarity, which encapsulate the transformation of old districts like Kowloon Bay and Wong Tai Sin in Hong Kong, offer a succinct example of this accelerating modernisation and an alternate view on Varnelis’ critique on the art form. The panoramic images highlight the physical, intrinsic characteristics of buildings like deserted factories and traditional public housing, and modern skyscrapers springing up over the areas. The interpretation of architectural structures, as well as their relation to the environmental contexts, remains one of the central elements of the photographic works. Chan’s juxtaposition of the historic and the modern is a familiar theme to city dwellers, whose existence constantly unfolds in unfamiliar moments as the city changes every day. 

For the conceptual and stylistic differences between their works, Peter Margonelli, Eason Tsang and Dick Chan present highly individualised and imaginative interpretations of cityscapes that alter audience perception of their immediate surroundings or distant environments. By bringing together the distinct sensibilities of these artists, "Three Dimensions" showcases the cultural and artistic diversity inherent in architectural photography.

1 Architectural Photography: Composition, Capture and Digital Image Processing by Adrian Schulz
2“Is Architectural Photography Art Photography?” an essay by Alan Rapp in Critical Terrain, Jan 2010

3“On Architectural Photography Today”, an essay by Kazys Varnelis on, July 2009