A Coney Island of the Chinese Mind

text by Robert Goethals, photography by Liu Zheng

Three Transsexual Males, Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, Yossi Milo Gallery

In 1976, after 10 years of Liu Zhang Chunqiao’s Red Guard Goon Squad pulverizing the skulls of peasants, workers, and soldiers, (not to mention all the elitist, intellectual motherfuckers abandoned six feet under somewhere in the vast expanse of the Empire of Grief), nobody creative in China was feeling particularly aglow or agog with the spirit of Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution anymore. Across the Deep Blue, in the Great Land of Opportunity, the Museum-Gallery Complex was too busy moving their mega-money Post-Painterly Abstract and Pop knock-offs from 10th Street Uptown to stand still for John Szarkowski’s commie-sounding ideas about Social Realism, much less be alert to the Chinese documentary photography movement, Scar Art, springing up from the Cultural Revolution’s treasons like a supernatural vendetta.

Young Man Dead of Traffic Accident, Harbin, Helongjiang Province
 JGS Collection

The blazing Chinese renegades who emerged in the 1980s grooved to the dark side. Documentary photographers were widening their event horizons to include the loonies, transsexuals, and assorted street rabble previously excluded from Social Realism’s classical scope of vision and, among them, Liu Zheng reigned supreme. “I can never have good relationships with people around me,” Liu Zheng once remarked. “I don’t know if this is because I don’t understand them or because they don’t understand me. It just seems so absurd!”

Waxwork, Emperor and Girl in Fornication, Changping, Beijing, Yossi Milo Gallery

Looking at Liu Zheng’s photographs, however, you see he does have a few good relationships. Just not the sort of nice, normal, cocktaily people you might find yourself with, smart and taxiing about the dreamy city. In fact, the protagonists of Liu Zheng’s visual storytelling are probably the types you’d avoid altogether. That is, lunatics on the verge of meltdown, icy beauties ready to fleece you to your last Yuan, or, corpses with swollen and bloated faces. Liu Zheng’s portraits of his fellow countrymen are a ride among the human ruins, and in the shadow realms of Guangdong Province, forget about never-never land.

Two Rich Men on New Year's Eve, Beijing, JGS Permanent Collection

Born in ‘69, Liu Zheng grew up in a mining town in Shanxi Province. Nerd attended Beijing’s University of Science and Technology, majoring in Optics, when the bloody freakery in Tiananmen Square rained down. After graduation in ’91, Liu Zheng worked at Beijing’s Municipal Mining Bureau for a year, before his conscious self triumphed over his unconscious one, the camera became the thing, shooting for the Workers’ Daily the gig. Years later, when Liu Zheng’s Fellow Countryman hit Art Land, the series made for some heavy vibes. “At that time, documentary photography had become the trophy of most younger experimental photographers,” wrote the Chinese artist and curator, Yang Xiaoyan. “It had become so faddish that one's status as a photographer would be questioned if one didn’t include the topic in a conversation or have some work of the sort in one's portfolio.”

Three Soldiers Under the Sunflower Trees, Harbin, Yossi Milo Gallery

Exhibitions of Fellow Countryman gave chic Aries, Venice, Berlin, London and Tokyo something with bulletproof cool to patronize. That Liu Zheng’s Hasselblad luxuriated in the seamy, bourgeois-proof underbelly of Guangdong Province touched off a mighty brawl on the topic of political propaganda. Among the big-decibel scenester-spinners in Beijing or New York, no winner emerged. The sagacious Yossi Milo first exhibited Liu Zheng States-side in Chelsea, noting and certifying the eerie likenesses of the former Workers Daily photojournalist’s images to those of the former American fashion photographer Diane Arbus. The two shared a predilection for shooting the seductively strange, the anguished, and the lonely. If, back in the Day, the deathsquadding of the Red Guard had distorted all human value in Beijing, Arbus was hip to how the Drillmasters of Corporate Conformity, (forget how winning Mad Men spins things), turned human beings into an army of young, smiley, and mindless goyisheh here in good ole U.S.A.

A Chinese Girl with a Foreign Friend, Beijing, Yossi Milo Gallery

People say Diane Arbus’ karmic vision lifted her Vegas strippers, Coney Island sword-swallowers, amiable dwarfs, and Jewish giants from the netherworld in which they dwelled. She gave her freaks sanction. Yet today, during colder climes, Liu Zheng gives you no hail and well met but a bitch slap. His subjects possess unwanted identities. They are people who’ve been transmogrified into objects of scorn. “I am not a humanist,” Liu Zheng said. “I photograph these people to show the helpless absurdities of human existence.” Which is not to say Liu Zheng is cold. "Contemporary [Western] society tells them they are supposed to be having something called 'leisurely fun,' but in fact they are not, despite the masks of so-called happiness on their faces."

One-armed Beggar, Tatung, Shaanxi Province
, JGS Permanent Collection

Little wonder the qualities of feeling and imagination Liu Zheng awakens in you makes you feel insecure or wretched. That’s the gift, dude. You’re less special, less detached from your enlarged social world, the myriad responsibilities this ephemerally sober realization entails. In the mind canvas of the artist, it matters little whether the image is one of a miner emerging from the ruination of his oxygenless world or the dark veil of death closing the eyes of a farmer succumbing to the thousand scabby tortures of a lifetime of hard labor. What matters is the wondrous current that splits you open, the beauty of compassion, and the ties that bind.

Statues With Chairman Mao, Shenyang, Liaoning Province, Yossi Milo Gallery

~ Robert Goethals, October, 2010

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