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China Dolls

The smuggled works of one of China's most controversial photographers are about to surface in Richmond. What can we learn from Liu Xia?

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Chinese artist Liu Xia (left) poses with her husband, imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, in happier times.
  • Chinese artist Liu Xia (left) poses with her husband, imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, in happier times.

In the shaky, handheld video, three Chinese men film themselves walking up to the entrance of a Beijing apartment duplex on the night of Dec. 28.

"What are you doing?" one of the men asks the plainclothes guard standing in front of the door, who looks like he could be a neighbor.

"I am enforcing the law," the guard replies.

"Why are you enforcing the law here?" the man asks.

The guard asks them what they are doing there.

"I am here to see Liu Xia," another man says.

"No, that is not possible," the guard replies.

A scuffle erupts, with one of the men wrestling the guard away from the door. The others push through and immediately are met and hugged by a frail, smiling woman, her shaved head covered by a knitted blue hat. Together they walk up several flights of stairs to her apartment.

The woman is Beijing-born photographer, poet and painter Liu Xia (pronounced Lou-zha), who has been under house arrest for a little more than two years. She has no connection to the outside world, save for brief weekly contact with her mother. Yet she hasn't been charged with a crime.

Hers is one of the most significant human rights stories in the international arts world. It's conceivable that she's never heard of Richmond — where an exhibit of her photography is about to open.

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The photographs in the exhibit, "Silent Strength of Liu Xia: an Exhibition of Photos" were smuggled out of China and do not have titles. Renowned photography critic A.D. Coleman says this photo by Liu Xia symbolizes the entire series, with its light-bulb-headed figure "a kind of mindless mechanical object chastising [the dolls]."
  • The photographs in the exhibit, "Silent Strength of Liu Xia: an Exhibition of Photos" were smuggled out of China and do not have titles. Renowned photography critic A.D. Coleman says this photo by Liu Xia symbolizes the entire series, with its light-bulb-headed figure "a kind of mindless mechanical object chastising [the dolls]."

The men filming the video, which was posted on YouTube and translated by Amnesty International, are activists conducting a flash-mob action on the birthday of Liu Xia's husband, the only currently imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner in the world.

Liu Xiaobo, a poet and dissident, was tried by the Chinese government in December 2009 for "inciting subversion of state power." The charges stemmed from his drafting of the manifesto known as Charter 08, signed by thousands of Chinese and prominent intellectuals, which calls for constitutional and democratic reforms in the communist country. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison. When he won a Nobel Prize in 2010, the world saw only an empty chair onstage.

It's difficult to know how many political prisoners there are in China because of a lack of government transparency, says Sharon Singh, media relations director for Amnesty International. But on-the-ground sources number them in the thousands, she says: "China has a history of repressing freedom of expression in all forms."

When the video camera moves inside Liu's wood-paneled apartment, you see black and white photographs on her walls of ugly-faced dolls positioned in various stages of torment. Some dolls are drowned, bound, caged or imprisoned, and one row of dolls is wrapped in plastic, as if to muffle the screams.

Prints from this series were smuggled out of China by well-known French columnist, author and free-market economist Guy Sorman. That's how, in part, Richmonders will get a rare chance to see underground art from China.

"The Silent Strength of Liu Xia: an Exhibition of Photographs" will make its second United States appearance at the Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature at the University of Richmond. Opening Feb. 28, the exhibit is a joint presentation with Virginia Commonwealth University and the First Freedom Center.

The work represents an untapped reservoir of Chinese art hidden from the rest of the world.

"What we see out of China are movies, paintings — either commercial or official art. Most of the time, that is the same," Sorman says from his home in Normandy, France. "The artists promoted by the Chinese government are really not the best. The best is underground, which is absolutely remarkable, exciting and very new. If you don't go to China, you have very few possibilities to see that."

Near the end of the short video, Liu cups her hands around the ear of the lead activist and whispers to him, her eyes wide with fear. The man abruptly tells the other they must leave, that Liu fears for her safety. But first they give her a bundle of letters. Never looking at the camera, she wipes tears from her eyes.

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Liu did not set out to be a political figure. She was a painter and writer when she met her husband in the 1980s around the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre. As she once told Germany's Spiegel Online: "We discuss politics as little as possible at home. My husband knows that it doesn't interest me."

There has been a long-held Communist tradition in China that literature and art should serve the official party line, going back to a famous speech by Communist Party leader chairman Mao Zedong in 1941. Little has changed. But China's economic boom has increased pressure on the aging Communist Party as it grapples with its peoples's rising awareness of the outside world. The government has been cracking down on dissidents and interrupting the Internet. And there have been random cyber attacks on western newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, which have published articles critical of the regime.

"In that kind of environment, it is hard not to consider art as a primary form of political expression," says Vincent Wei-cheng Wang, professor of political science and associate dean at UR's School of Arts and Sciences. "I think the Nobel Peace Prize really infuriated the regime, and his wife became a persona non grata. The regime is very risk-averse. By allowing her to be seen or heard, that carries too much risk. And they have the manpower to make someone disappear."

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This untitled photo features Liu Xiaobo holding his surrogate ugly doll that "just can't keep its mouth shut," as photography critic A.D. Coleman describes it.
  • This untitled photo features Liu Xiaobo holding his surrogate ugly doll that "just can't keep its mouth shut," as photography critic A.D. Coleman describes it.

The story of how her unsettling black and white photos found their way to Richmond begins with Stephen Trapp, a doctoral student in psychology at VCU. Originally from New York, Trapp saw the exhibit in February 2012 at the Italian Academy at Columbia University. Even without knowing the compelling back story, he says, the work was so powerfully haunting that he contacted Sorman, who offered the photos free for a Richmond exhibit.

Trapp contacted Shane Rocheleau, adjunct assistant professor of photography and film at VCU, who immediately loved the work. "The photos are so emotional, which I just don't see that much anymore," Rocheleau says. "And they're about something that extends well outside of art itself. A lot of art is incestuous. Ultimately her work is about China and how it treats its people."

The photos had such an affect on Rocheleau that it completely changed the direction of his photography work, he says. It now branches out from philosophical to more socially oriented issues, such as Richmond's homeless population. He's started working with a homeless tent encampment on the city's South Side, handing out disposable cameras to the men there, as well as documenting them and doing performance pieces, including flying a homeless sign on the corner himself (one saying "I'm human") to learn more about their experiences.

"It was all because of Liu Xia," Rocheleau says. "In a way, we're so isolated here. You don't see a lot of highly socially aware art at First Fridays. Just the fact that we can argue about abortion shows us how lucky we are in a way. ... I would hope this work has an affect on local artists and activists, as it has on me."

Looking for local partners, Trapp contacted the nonprofit First Freedom Center. Based in Richmond, the group has honored international figures such as Vaclav Havel and Tony Blair, and plans to build an educational center — as part of a twin Marriott hotel complex — at 14th and Cary streets in Shockoe Slip, where the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was enacted into law.

Chris Payton, vice president of First Freedom Center, says that the organization agreed to help with funding the Liu Xia exhibit because of Liu's story of persecution. University of Richmond was considered the ideal location for it in part because of the expertise of associate dean and professor Wang, who notes that UR has a relatively large Chinese student population.

The work "was chosen for its artistic values, but it promotes our deep concern about fundamental rights and dignity for about 22 percent of mankind," Wang says. "Our faculty and students should know about the lack of principles, which they hold dearly, in other societies."

Beyond that, Payton adds that he was moved by the story of the artists' husband and wife relationship. "Her views are based in art. But they're both poets, and it's a moving story in itself, a love story," he says. "These are obviously more than photographs for her."

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Much of Liu Xia's black and white photography melds traditional Chinese art such as calligraphy with modern approaches that have no precedent in China.
  • Much of Liu Xia's black and white photography melds traditional Chinese art such as calligraphy with modern approaches that have no precedent in China.

The love story between these two artists, forged under the pressure of an authoritarian regime, has received a fair amount of international media coverage. They met during the volatile days of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, when Liu Xiaobo was outspoken in his support of Western countries such as the United States, which allow freedom of expression.

Shortly after Liu Xia moved in with Liu Xiaobo in 1996, he was arrested for speaking out in favor of the political autonomy of Taiwan and sent to a re-education and labor camp in Dalian, a city in north China. The couple applied for a marriage certificate in 1998 while he still was being held. When asked by authorities if she knew what she was doing, Perry Link writes in a New Republic article from 2012 that Liu Xia reportedly answered: "Right. That 'enemy of the state'? I want to marry him!" Link, an emeritus professor of East Asian studies at Princeton University, has been blacklisted by Chinese authorities ("I haven't knocked on the door lately, but I'm pretty sure it's still closed," he writes in an email to Style Weekly).

Once the couple was married, Liu Xia was able to make formal visits to her husband in prison, a 1,100-mile round trip from Beijing, which she made once a month for nearly two years. This is roughly when Liu started taking the doll photos, between 1996 and 1999.

As Link explains, while her imprisoned husband wrote many love poems to her, she was too private a person to risk writing down her feelings and having jail censors read them, so she began using the doll photos to send secret messages to him.

"When I look at the doll photos, I think of both the personal and the political. It is hard to feel a distinction between the two," says Link via e-mail. "I think Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo would say the same. Their love of each other and their love for their shared ideals are all the same thing."

Upon his release, Liu Xiaobo remained free for nearly a decade before penning Charter 08. During his 2009 trial and subsequent sentencing for inciting subversion of state power, he directed his final statement to his wife: "Your love has been like sunlight that leaps over high walls and shines through iron windows. ... It has infused every minute of my stays in prisons with meaning. ... Even were I ground to powder, still would I use my ashes to embrace you."

In 2010, four days after her husband was given the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xia returned home to Beijing only to be placed under house arrest, with no phone or Internet access.

Sorman, the French columnist and economist, says he'd encouraged Liu Xia to show the photos for years. He befriended the couple in 2005 while he was in China writing a book on dissidents (published in the United States under the title, "The Empire of Lies"). Liu Xia finally gave him some prints two years ago just before she was placed under house arrest.

Sorman's only contact with her today is through her mother. "Liu Xia is aware the photos are exhibited, but she doesn't know where or when," Sorman says. "I can say she never heard about Richmond, as I've not yet informed her mother."

When setting out to bring Liu's photos to the world, Sorman asked internationally renowned photography critic A.D. Coleman, known for his work at The New York Times, to be a co-curator. In reality, the job was more of a tour manager, considering that the 26 photos were chosen by virtue of having made it out of China. Sorman won't go into detail about the smuggling for fear of repercussions against those who helped him.

Coleman knew of the Richmond art scene, having lectured at VCU. He has a longstanding interest in Chinese art, and his wife, Anna Lung, was born in Liuzhou, China, and immigrated to Hong Kong. The couple has helped set up exhibits for the photos in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Berlin, Madrid, New York and now Richmond.

"As a critic and historian of photography, I've always supported photographers who undergo any form of censorship," Coleman says by phone from his home in Staten Island. "Especially in this case, where there were no [criminal] charges made."

Coleman notes that in every present-day military dictatorship, with totalitarian exceptions such as North Korea, there is a dissident or underground scene in the arts. Much of that work circulates privately among members of its circles. In China, for instance, much of the public doesn't get to see the work. Only a small percentage makes it out of the country for distribution, he says.

"So of course we here miss much of that work, of which Liu Xia's images offer us a glimpse," Coleman says. "But we also miss much of the above-ground work from the People's Republic of China, only a slice of which circulates here. Moreover, since China lacks a robust, free-wheeling, uncensored critical dialogue about all the arts, we lack the contextualizing material that would help us understand all this work in relation to its own culture."

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Liu Xia once wrote of her doll photos in a poem: - "Living together with the dolls, - Surrounded by the power of silence, - The world open around us, - We communicate in gestures." - (from "The Power of Silence," November 1998).
  • Liu Xia once wrote of her doll photos in a poem:

    "Living together with the dolls,
    Surrounded by the power of silence,
    The world open around us,
    We communicate in gestures."

    (from "The Power of Silence," November 1998).

To understand the full significance of Liu Xia's art, it helps to know something about the unusual history of photography in China, which is very different from the West.

"China did not go through a modernist phase of photography, or surrealist or Dadaist phase, basically only going through a pictorialist phase in the early 1900s," Coleman says. "Then because of social unrest, the Japanese invasion, World War II, the Communist takeover — it became almost entirely documentary-oriented and photojournalistic-oriented. There really was no such thing as creative photography, except for what we might think of today as camera clubs or landscape photography."

In contrast, the government in the former Soviet Union saw photography as medium of the masses. It made inexpensive cameras and promoted photo exhibitions as an art by the people. China was an entirely different story.

"Cameras were rare. Few had access to processing chemicals. Photography was not encouraged among the general population at all," Coleman says. "They don't have a history of people dealing with the staged photograph except for political purposes."

So Liu Xia isn't only a pioneering artist in her country, she's also in a sense playing catch-up to the rest of the world. Her photos offer a link between the traditional Chinese arts — they are square and black and white, like traditional calligraphy — and the modern world, Sorman says. Coleman interprets the dolls as surrogates for the photographer, the people in her circle, and even her husband's enemies.

"The pictures are clearly about confinement, oppression, frustration," he says. "About the difficulties of being someone who speaks, reads, thinks, and tries to express herself in an environment in which that's forbidden."

He thinks the closed-mouth dolls represent her, while the doll most frequently shown with its mouth open, the one "that just won't shut up," is a stand-in for her outspoken husband. The photo that seems to symbolize the entire set for him is an image that features a light-bulb-headed figure haranguing the dolls — which he takes to stand for Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia — as a "kind of mindless mechanical object chastising them," he says. "Everything is done to silence them and yet they persist."

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It's worth noting that the doll photos have never been officially forbidden, nor have they been shown in mainland China — though the Chinese authorities have made unofficial inquiries at past exhibits of her work in Europe.

Wang says that well-known individuals such as Liu Xiaobo, whose causes have become known internationally, are generally better treated by the Chinese government. It's the unknown people, the great masses, who are at risk for abuse. "Therefore the best defense for Liu Xia is actually prominence outside of China," he says. "If the message is conveyed to her that the work is traveling, she should feel she is not alone. There are actually a lot of courageous people who admire her courage trying to do something to remind people not to forget about her."

Coleman notes the irony that her husband likely is in a safer position, even though he's in prison. "Because he is in prison, there are strict regulations about how he can be treated. He is being watched. There are witnesses to everything," he says. "They couldn't torment him easily without word getting out. But they can torment her, which seems to be what they're doing."

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A group of pro-Democracy protesters hold signs picturing Liu Xia (left) and Liu Xiaobo outside of the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong on Dec. 25, 2012. They called for the release of Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to 11 years of imprisonment on Christmas Day in 2009.
  • A group of pro-Democracy protesters hold signs picturing Liu Xia (left) and Liu Xiaobo outside of the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong on Dec. 25, 2012. They called for the release of Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to 11 years of imprisonment on Christmas Day in 2009.

A prime motivating factor for the Chinese government in the past decade has been the quest for international respectability. Playing host to the Olympics and getting Nobel Prize awards are a big deal for the regime. Last year, Chinese writer Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in literature, and the authorities had a markedly different reaction. That's because "the literature prize winner actually holds an official position in the government," Wang says. "Perhaps the Nobel committee chose his work out of primarily literary value," Wang says, "but the Chinese see it as an affirmation of their promotion of certain viewpoints."

It would appear that the regime picks and chooses what art is acceptable almost in terms of its public-relations value. Just last week, eyebrows were raised when the New York Times reported that China's new leader, Xi Jinping, had made comments to Communist Party officials that China must heed the "deeply profound" lessons of the former Soviet Union.

"In China, everybody reads everything between the lines," Coleman says. "It gets a little frustrating when you say something or write something. They will ignore what you're saying, because they're too busy reading between the lines."

The University of Richmond exhibit will conclude Coleman's personal involvement with the exhibit, he says. He and Sorman plan to attend, and Coleman will give seminars at both UR and VCU. There will be a panel discussion about the work on Feb. 28 at UR's Carole Weinstein International Center and the University museums are publishing a catalog to accompany the exhibition.

Wang notes that there has been little reaction as of yet from the small Chinese community in Richmond, but this may be because it's unaware of the exhibit or the artists involved, considering Liu Xia is less known than her husband.

"We're hoping we will draw in that community," says Richard Waller, director of museums at UR. The universities also hope for national media exposure, he says, and his museum studies class will use social media to market and promote the exhibit, which runs through April 28. "We had to make sure with [Liu Xia's] family that we are presenting this as an art exhibition, which of course we are," Waller says. "But we also want people to understand the context and circumstances as well."

When asked why there wasn't more support from governments in the West for human rights issues in China, Sorman offers two rapidly converging reasons.

"In the West, we are not absolutely sure that the Chinese know the meaning of democracy. We have these old stereotypes that China was always governed by enlightened rulers. You have this biased, weird vision of Chinese history largely based on ignorance; China was a democracy in 1911," he says.

"The second explanation is everyone wants to do business with the Chinese, and they don't want to disrupt business, which is as stupid as the first argument," he says. "Because, I think, China needs us more than we need them." S

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