Liang Xiu / Fire at the Limits
‘Why do I always imagine a fire? And why night? ...the world only appears before my eyes as a solid ‘landscape’, lustrous like plastic. While this does not bode well for my body and my senses, I could also say that it is precisely for this reason that I continue to take photographs…’
(Takuma Nakahira, Rebellion against the landscape: Fire at the Limits of my Perpetual Gazing… Tokyo, 1970)
Takuma Nakahira was a founding member of the influential Japanese avant-garde magazineProvoke, which brought together a group of artists and writers around the central question of the value and use of the photographic image in late 1960s Japan. A gifted photographer and critic, Nakahira thought long and hard about the motivations behind taking photographs, as well as the effects of the photographic and filmic image on their viewers and on the world in which they lived. His notion of the ‘limits’ or fringes of society was completely in tune with the artists grouped around Provoke, who like both himself and Daido Moriyama, sought to push their visual languages in ever more extreme directions. At that time Japan was a country in turmoil, a place of student protests, counter-culture and the increasing impact (both positive and negative) of American popular culture on a young generation of artists and thinkers. But the response of the Provoke group was never as overtly political as that of many of their peers, out in the streets documenting unrest. Instead they sought to disturb the ideas underlying the ways that their world presented itself to be seen and understood.
Liang Xiu was not born when Nakahira and Moriyama came together to ‘provoke’ Japanese society. But, nevertheless, there remain key associations between that avant-garde moment and the context within which she is establishing herself in China today. Think for example of the issue of Provoke dedicated to the theme of ‘Eros’ for which Moriyama produced some of his first (and still best-known) nudes: blurry, out of focus, intimate but tough representations of the female body sacrificed conceptually at the altar of the camera’s lens: images which speak of the effects of proximity rather than a precise account of anatomy, and which were, consequently, all the more effectively concerned with ‘eros’ as a result. In the still-developing work of Liang Xiu we likewise find a powerful and convincing voice with its own alternative perspective: that of a young woman born into a society which has yet to fully accept notions of personal and creative freedom, which are taken for granted elsewhere; and which likewise, arguably, had yet to evolve in late 1960s Japan.
Liang Xiu’s work offers up the body of the artist and the gaze of the artist at once: a burning fire at the fringes of a society which is at once the most powerful political economy in the world, and yet continues to encounter essential challenges around equality, sexuality and artistic identity, both in its present and recent past. Hers is a practice which encompasses the radical performative rhetoric of Ren Hang, who was directly inspired by the poet and theatrical innovators Shuji Terayama (one of Moriyama’s first collaborators), and the dark, alternative vision of youth found in the Japanese avant-garde of that same generation. But despite all appearances to the contrary, Liang Xiu, like Ren Hang himself in his own way, is emphatically and wholly a Chinese artist. Both are compelling and inspiring figures whose shared position in relation to the society that produced them is at once emblematic and marginal.
‘Why’, Nakahira asked, ‘do I always imagine a fire?’ And why, we might ask in response, does Liang Xiu also identify with this most dangerous and fascinating element: (fire) which evokes at once light, colour, heat, danger, life, death, purification and rebirth. For Nakahira, fire seems also to have been a source of endless fascination, for both his body and his senses; something that it was impossible to tear his eyes away from: more ‘real’ perhaps, than what Liang Xiu calls ‘things with form’. And this too, we might say, is already true of much of the work of Liang Xiu, which likewise compels us to look, think, and re-consider our preconceptions and assumptions about the wild fires burning bright in the new generation of Chinese artists today.
-Simon Baker, Director, MEP, Paris
A wooden leg, a headless young woman wrapped in plastic, a smoking vagrant -- disturbing and ethereal, Liang Xiu's images embody life on the fringe of Chinese society. Born in 1995 in a remote village in Shandong Province, Liang started photographing in May 2016, quickly honing her existential approach to imagemaking. Capturing life around her home, her photos speak in the language of a place far removed from the gentrified megalopolis. The subjects–often the artist herself–either avoid meeting the eyes of the spectator or look straight into them with a coquettish lack of shame. By leveraging the observer’s voyeuristic eye with simultaneously crude yet finely wrought images, Liang puts them in direct contact with a reality rejected by the traditional socio-cultural system in China, raising thorny questions about economic disparity, the role of women, and sexual orientation.
Text: Nataline Colonnello