‘A Departure from Reality I: Self-assertion.psd’
Through its evolution from the 19th century, photography has metamorphosed in both the understanding of its nature and its various forms. As Susan Sontag puts it, 'The destiny of Photography has taken it far beyond the role to which it was originally thought to be limited; to give more accurate reports on reality (including works of art)'1.
Technological advances have brought about a transformation to photography in the last two decades. From the development of Internet and digital technology to the widespread popularity of digital cameras, photography and computer share a deepening relationship. The debate no longer lies in realism in the photographic images. Nor does it fall on the photographers’ manipulation of objectivity through digital processing of their works. The development of imaging technology widens the realm of individual expressions for artists who constantly revamp their creations. The changes provoke further reflection on the nature of photography, as well as its forms and future directions.
‘Self-assertion’ lays stress on subjectivism and self-consciousness, which translate into an active and intense projection in the photographic images. In Photography: A Concise History, Ian Jeffrey writes, 'From the 1950’s onwards...photographers emphasize more and more...that the world is seen through individual eyes'2.
The opening exhibition of the trilogy ‘self-assertion.psd’ features Miao Xiaochun and Enoch Cheung. Both artists take the “real world” as the element in their works and use digital image processing to intensify their expressions of subjectivities. The works offer new glimpses into the relationship between photography, photographer and digital image processing.
Miao’s Beijing hand scroll draws its inspirations from the legendary painting from the Song Dynasty, ‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival’ （《清明上河圖》）. Both works revolve around the theme of urban life while they employ different mediums and visual angles. The two works share a common vision: the artists explore the limits of their mediums, as they depict their lives and times from fluid, personal perspectives.
Miao’s works are mirrors to everyday life in Beijing, including the impact of urbanization on the city. In his panoramic compositions, Miao captures the many facets of Beijing: anecdotes of daily life along the alleys, sites of demolishment, landmarks such as National Centre for the Performing Arts and Bird’s Nest, and the once-overwhelming presence of Olympic logo over the city. Contrary to the high-angle panoramic in ‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival’, Miao shoots his subjects from relatively close to the ground and eye-level. The panoramic image is consistent across the frame, whether it is viewed from left to right or from right to left. This creates a sense of proximity and familiarity in the works for the audience.
In addition, Miao instills a touch of Chinese ink painting in his photographs with the use of computer software processing3. The imitation brings out an intriguing chemistry and grounds Miao’s works in an aesthetic vision that reigns in the traditional art form. In his compositions, Miao forsakes the vibrancy of today’s Beijing for the subtle colors one finds in classical Chinese ink painting; the treatment revives the authentic charms of the city, of its narrow alleys and old architecture. It is an ironic play on the false quiet in today’s Beijing: the real world can only become the ‘reality’ in one’s mind through the artist’s subjective revision.
Apart from photographic images, Miao’s Beijing hand scroll is displayed across eight computer screens. A large number of panoramic images are displayed in a rotation of slides, accompanied by soundtracks of everyday sounds like mobile phone ring tones, pop music and the hustle of the crowds. The street noises turn into a unique music that hints at humor and wisdom; it stirs different images in the viewers’ mind. The multiplicity of imagery grows along with the audience’s imagination, pointing to the endless possibilities of ‘self-assertion’.
Miao’s works not only embody a fresh interpretation of ‘reality’ in contemporary photography and the broadening of the photographic medium, but also present new possibilities in Chinese ink painting. His photographs can be seen as an innovation of Chinese ink painting in horizontal scroll. In ancient China, hand scroll was a popular item among scholars who reviewed and admired the artwork at social gatherings. In Miao’s series, the images are unveiled one by one across eight computer screens, while the audience contemplates each image and awaits the next. The mix of classical Chinese art and contemporary photographic techniques represents a new manifestation of traditions. It forms a bridge between the two mediums, revitalizing and expanding the essences of both art forms.
In a similar vein to Miao, Enoch Cheung opts for panoramic compositions. His series Secret dialogue: about children hospital is a series of photographic images and a dual screen High Definition video.
Cheung has a deep affection for and understanding of the hospital environment from his personal experience. In Secret dialogue: about children hospital, Cheung’s subject is the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children in Hackney, England, which was demolished in 1997. The site still holds shadows from the past: abandoned equipment, traces of children and hospital staff and those of interlopers over the years. The sights struck a cord in Cheung and set him off to this voyage to the past.
Most of the shooting took place at night when there was no lighting at the hospital. Making his moves in the dark, Cheung relied on his recollections of the site, locations of its facilities and equipment. Using the “light painting” technique, Cheung delineates every object with absolute subjectivity. The lifeless site is transformed into a fantastic stage, unveiling infinite scenes and imprints from history in the audience’s imagination.
The use of panoramic view plays a crucial role in this series as it reinforces the self-consciousness Cheung seeks to convey. In ‘Night #6’, the long and narrow photographs allude to an endless row of closed doors. Shot from a close range, the panoramic view brings the audience face to face with the haunting blanks, which evoke a sense of anxiety, suppression and one’s innermost feelings. In ‘Night #1’, the sterile operating room expands and grows distorted through the panoramic view. Yet there is an interesting twist to this emptiness: on the wall hangs a large portrait of greenery that says ‘Everyday is holiday’, which stands in contrast to the gloomy setting. There are other surprise touches of life in ‘Night #1’, like glimpses of an orange wall and city’s lights in the distance through a small, round window in the room.
Cheung’s video in Secret dialogue: about children hospital—reinforces Roland Barthes’ concept of ‘punctum’ with the use of imaging technology. According to Barthes, ‘punctum’ is a purely subjective experience that punctuates the frozen image and provokes an unexpected emotional response. Individual viewers may have vastly different interpretations of and perspectives on the ‘punctum’ in a particular image. In his images Cheung amplifies the ‘punctums’ that resonate with him, such as the comic book characters that retain their colors against a solitary surrounding. In one of the scenes, the phrase ‘In and Out’ appears in the deserted hospital building like infinite echoes of reflection.
The series not only serves as records of the hospital’s past and present; it also contains the ‘punctums’ Cheung discovers from his experience with the site. The hospital was once a passage for the comings and goings of lives. The emotions live again in these digitally-processed and stirring images.
From his use of seemingly documentary photographic style and light painting in the photographic images, to the panoramic view in the High Definition video, Cheung leads his audience through a journey—to the artist’s subjectivity, to a site that touches his memories and those of the audience.
There is no cast or set in Miao’s or Cheung’s works. The artists illustrate urban life or architecture with documentary photography; both achieve their visions with the aid of lighting or digital processing. The intricate mix brings fuller manifestations of the artists’ subjectivities and their ultimate ‘realities’.