Gallery: Pékin Fine Arts
Artist(s): Phénix Varbanov
Opening / Event Date: 28 Jul, 2023
Closing / End Date: 30 Sep, 2023
Exhibition Opening: Saturday 27/03/2021, 4pm to 6:30pm
In an age of democratization of imaging technology, we are all at once photographer and subject. This is ever more so during a global pandemic endured with practices of social distancing, quarantine and isolation. On closeness, Robert Carpa famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you didn’t get close enough.” The insistence on proximity is nonetheless qualified by “enough”, an intuitive call on the material space, relational dynamic and affective state of the situation. Centred around the play of distance, Closer is a group exhibition featuring nine living and late artists who work with an expanded field of portrait photography in different eras. Artists critically mediate their physical and psychological distance with subjects and sitters. For distance, now more than ever, is a gesture of care.
Some portraits show intimate relationships that condense the corporeal and emotional distance between sitter and photographer. Eros and Thanatos undergo a tender transformation in Nobuyoshi Araki’s Sentimental / Winter Journey (1970-1990). This iconic series starts with the honeymoon journey of the photographer and his wife Yoko in 1970, and ends with Yoko’s struggle with ovarian cancer and eventual passing in 1990. The dual practice of self-portrait and depicting one’s partner as muse takes a playful union in Pixy Liao’s ongoing Experimental Relationship series (2010-present). Featuring the artist and her Japanese lover Moro, Liao stages themselves in domestic settings, performing an equal relationship between the photographer and the muse-subject. In My Mum series (2014), the late Ren Hang asks his mother to work with the usual props that appear in his oeuvre, such as animals and daily objects. Ren’s direction behind the camera is at once filial and irreverent, his subject authentic and performative, their relationship loving and hierarchical.
In other cases, distances between the photographer and portrait subjects are critical in preserving the objectivity in observing the Many. Lai Lon Hin’s expanded portraiture collapses the abject physical distance of the voyeur and the hysterical closeness of iPhone’s digital zoom. In a newly commissioned slideshow Bells and Whistles (2021), the flaneur-photographer grifts and grafts fleeting shots of anonymous passers-by. The mosaic representation of a city congeals into the epic portrait of a nation in Liu Zheng’s The Chinese series (1994-2004). The photographer travels around the vast country and shoots unusual portraits of common people, such as transvestites, Shaolin monks, folk performers and laborers. The names of his subjects are not known, but identified in typologies and eccentricities. Contemporaneously, Zhang Haier takes many muses in many iterations, forms and genders. In his famed Bad Girls series (1980s-90s), the photographer roams the streets of Guangzhou, asking girls from all walks of life to pose for him. In another series, les filles, Zhang expands his representation of femininity by photographing transsexuals and transvestites in their intimate surroundings, further challenging the systemic oppression in the classification of genders.
Theatrical distance is often performed by the subject and activated by the photographer as a way to narrativize, publicize and politicize. Daido Moriyama’s Japan, a Photo Theater (1968) is the first photobook published by the prolific photographer, which established his fame and unique style of grainy, raw and gritty imagery. In the series, Moriyama records the lives of members of a travelling theater troupe. His focus is later augmented to include images of women in different rooms and settings, locating the eros of looking in different surfaces and beings. Contemporaneous to Moriyama, the late Yau Leung captures the seductive eros of the 1960s-70s in Hong Kong. Yau was once a staff photographer at the Cathay film studio and was commissioned to photograph promotional shots for actresses and actors in studio settings. Oriental bombshell, Suzie Wong, arabesque seductress, these starlets seem to acquire agency in the performativity of their confident individuality and sexuality. A famed portraitist for celebrities, Nadav Kander’s subjects include sitting presidents such as Barack Obama (2012) and Donald Trump (2016). Both images were featured on the cover of Time magazine’s Person of the Year issues. In a time when the act of representing others or being represented comes with a series of polemics and responsibilities, these images are testament to the continued challenges and relevance of photographic portraiture. People in the world exist and reveal to us as portraits, and we are all players in this ontological exercise to stake claims to our collective and individual representation.