Xu Yong’s name might be familiar for various reasons. He is known as a pioneer of the 798 art district, having been one of the first to rent a disused factory space for art usage in 2002. Now a gracious post-industrial hall top-lit by Bauhaus windows, and with Maoist slogans still running along the ceiling segments, 798 Space makes for a memorable display setting. The black and white hutong photographs Xu took around Beijing during the 1990s both made his name and revealed his sensibility as an artist – one reflecting deeply upon his own internal state alongside the visible fabric of his urban surroundings. Whilst Xu is still known as a ‘‘hutong photographer,’’ This Face, - just taken down at 798 Space – affirms a new branch to his practice.
This unusual exhibition documents a day in the life of Zi U (an unfamiliar name), who is a prostitute working from a hotel room in Beijing. In an unbroken frieze running around the walls of the gallery at chest height are more than 500 photographs of her face – bare upon waking, made up, scrubbed clean, again heavily made up, and finally wet from the shower. The close-up portraits inscribe in graphic detail the physical stages and strains of her day, and hint at the emotional ones. A long wall text preceding the photographs has been written by Zi herself, describing in her own words what she did and how it felt, both at particular moments and beyond:
I used to be a carefree girl, a girl with lots of dreams… I think about how, coming up to the New Year, client’s pockets will be stuffed with cash and that sorts my head out and I set to washing my face and putting on make-up… From the very first day I started taking clients I threw the word "respect" into the river…
During the day of the shooting, Xu Yong set his apparatus up in the room next to Zi’s. The photographs he took are ruthless in many ways – indiscriminate, they don’t wait for the right moment and it is as if every click of the shutter is registered on the gallery wall (though this can’t, of course, be the case). Shadows of a pose rise in and out of the images, mirage-like; her expressions are sometimes seedy, vulnerable, or atrophic. The title is anonymous, yet particular: this face, not another. We see in all the brute clarity of the photographic image how Zi looks in the morning, before she meets a client late at night, and how she looks when they leave. The words on the wall describe, sometimes in fairly graphic detail, her encounters with customers.
This Face is remarkably different from Solution Scheme, a prior series for which Xu Yong collaborated with another sex worker, Yu Na. Yu was given control over the taking of the photographs, and is seen holding the shutter extension in every shot. In contrast with the bare, direct portraits of This Face, Solution Scheme positioned the girl herself as director of the images and the moment they were taken. She is shown as part of a series of highly staged tableaux involving herself, naked, and businessmen in suits; the ‘‘solution’’ was that instead of selling her body, Yu could sell these artistic images as an alternative.
It is difficult to gauge the photographs of Zi U against these; in place of a hope that she might be able to leave this trade is her resolute attitude to make money and let go of moral baggage ("Times we’re living in no-one can point the finger at anyone else because no-one’s living up to any moral standard…"). "Art" in the sense of the aesthetic was an uncomfortable application to these photographs; their rawness made for a strong contrast with the suspended atmosphere of the gallery, itself at once so steeped in socio-political history and infused with the aura of art viewing, and it is clear that this is not the aim. They are a social document, a personal document, and as much as they lay bare the exploitative, undesirable reality of a day in Zi’s life, image and word, she is dignified. It is a difficult exhibition to elucidate. Its importance as a true record is undeniable, and valid is its ability to deliver a snapshot of the realities of the sex industry - not just in China but everywhere – to viewers, all be they very few in relation to the mass of its employees and practitioners. It occurs that Zi U was probably working as we looked at these photographs, but perhaps this immediacy is where the power of the exhibition lies. Absent is an impression of the artist’s perspective, though based on the tenor of his hutong series it can be gauged as one at once of sympathy and acute awareness of the changing state of the country, and the individuals living within it. The exhibition resonated with the questions and conflicts of the contemporary moment, from the proliferation of images in our society to moral responsibility and social awareness, to the rarefied realm of the art world, and bare reality.
-- Iona Whittaker
(All images courtesy of 798 Space and the artist.)