O R D I N A R Y      C H I N A

an ongoing series

 
 

 

On a bustling Beijing street famous for its tourist shops, expensive restaurants, and nightlife, where graduate students empty their pockets on native sweets (according to my dad, who speaks from experience), a man plays the erhu and sings, his melodies illuminated by camera flashes. At his feet sits a can overflowing with loose change. He is Old Beijing, whose architecture China preserves in Beihai. In the midst of modern China, he is the quiet ode to the past.


This series focuses on the hidden gems of a country known better for its dragon dancing and dynasties than its diverse ethnicities. A culture of prioritizing longevity actively recognizes the benefits of aging: witnessing new life grow, honing skills to perfection, and taking on life with a new sense of humor.

2015

 

 
 
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Edit 5/2017: My father travels to experience an unknown China, far from the crowded cities and Mandarin Chinese. Deep in these mountains, his camera shows me the minority cultures which speak to his roots. He doesn't shoot like a tourist, but like someone who left a village longing to return, even as he watches high rises spring in multitudes from the now paved ground of his beloved hometown. 

 

Edit 11/2017: One of my teacher's exhibits was named East Meets West for what's described as his combination of Western medium with Eastern technique. What kind of interactions does he engage with, draw from, perpetuate, or mask? I know he peers into the eyes of Old Masters while holding his Chinese ink training dear. I more than pay homage to him with my empty canvas spots and dripping turpentine. I have always detested labored technique, valuing deliberate strokes at the expense of illusory space (but I find myself sometimes frustrated with the need to return). I have never been able to resolve the tension between gesture and representation when engaging with real forms. I think about extricating myself from them, but I’m not sure what that would truly entail. I question if I'll ever emerge out of the shadow of my teacher. So many things still have their grip on me, but what is it that I cannot release? Is such a purging of academic training, whatever it means to be trained by such a believer in free-forms, possible? Certainly I can never measure up to him in his own arena. What am I imposing onto these portraits? What was my father doing when he took these photos? What kinds of narratives can we possibly claim innocuously with the use of these photos?  

 

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Edit 2/2018: I try not to paint these portraits as exotic glimpses into an underdeveloped culture worthy of our Western spectatorship, but rather as everyday states of being—the same mirth or desolation, the same feelings of mundane routine, of wistful thinking, of things taken for granted, of living and watching life—for me, the sight of the skyline across the Hudson, blasted pink at sunset, for her, mountains I may never see. The landscape need not always be romanticized, and neither do the people within them.

 

I don’t know anything about her, and I feel no need to spill her story on my canvas (but in this, am I allowing other impositions?).

 

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Edit 7/2018: "I visited a mountain village by Lancang River (澜沧江) in the city of Lincang, Yunnan. A few hours driving from Nainai's home. The village is named 河边村 (By-the-River village), since there is a small stream flowing through it from a mountain peak. See it in a picture with water mill. The village is poor. Traditionally houses were built with large chunks of rocks and covered with even large and thin clay rocks from the local site. I went there with a group of government officials who help the villagers improve their life and develop economy. Villagers were very warm-hearted! Olders were willing to let me take pictures (without any tips)." —Xin (my dad)

 

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I'm wary of the kind of landscapes I want to include in these. I don't want to perpetuate the notion of idyllic perfection. I don't want these portraits to be vehicles for that kind of longing or escape. They exist in the here and now. As much as their landscapes shape them, there's no need to use a landscape to situate them; their figures have enough of that agency. Their histories are not mine to claim. 

 

Edit 8/2018: The history of the Wa is fraught with conflicting narratives of cultural "otherness": imposed by colonists, instrumentalized by war, made "primitive" by the countries in which they reside, confused by the lack of standardized written languages and religions. State-sponsored officials have been visiting these villages to gather data. Their goals are presumably to develop economic aid. Realistically, what should the state's role in these villages be? With so many ethnicities and cultures, what can, and what should a state do in terms of preservation, acknowledgement, and reparations?

 

The most I can do is respect their images by not overly disfiguring them, by placing them in real space and time, and hopefully through these actions, I give them both a humble distance and a relatable humanity removed from the guise of naturalism.