JTF (just the facts): A total of 40 black-and-white photographs, in white mattes and black frames, hung in a line on four white walls of the gallery. All of the works are dated between 1993-1998 and were printed in 2002-2003. They are sized either 11×14 inches or the reverse. In addition, the center of the room contains archival material and copies of books by the artist. A color video of a 2019 interview with the artist by Felix Ho Yuen Chan plays on a monitor in a niche space behind the East wall. (Installation shots below.)
The exhibition coincides with the publication of RongRong’s Diary: Beijing East Village by The Walther Collection and Steidl (here). Hardcover, 248 pages, 124 black-and-white photographic reproductions, 8 ¼ x 10 ¼, text in Chinese with English translation, $60. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Opening on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and, by chance, when thousands of demonstrators in Hong Kong are again challenging the dictatorial rule of the Chinese Communist Party, the dark and somber photographs of RongRong from 1993-98 have an even sharper political edge than when they were made.
Most were taken in an unlovely rural suburb east of Beijing, where in 1992 a group of young avant-garde artists and photographers, drawn by cheap rents and proximity to the capital, established what they called “Beijing East Village.” Several had trained as painters in official schools there and were now interested in trying to make art by less conventional means, chiefly performance. About 20 artists eventually settled in the community until it was dispersed by government order in 1994.
The area was home to lower rungs of the Chinese proletariat (garbage collectors, construction workers, the unemployed) with whom these artists identified. In general, the feelings were not reciprocated. Locals regarded the artists as invasive lunatics or as pornographers, and the antics of the young provided them ample material for these beliefs. As such, the “Beijing East Village” was not another experiment in class consciousness raising of the sort that the Communist government had promoted in the 1960s or that American and European leftists have always dreamed of. Many of these artists were deliberately outrageous and happy to alienate their neighbors in the name of pushing the boundaries of art.
RongRong was 25 when he arrived there in 1993 from Fukien. He began to document the scene with his camera and, it turns out, in a diary that is historically valuable and, by turns, sad and hilarious to read.
The early entries have the unguarded wonder of a provincial having his mind blown by what he’s seeing. It was a time and place when anything could happen. Here he is on June 3rd, 1994, writing to his sister back in Fukien about his collaboration with the artist Zhang Huan.
It’s been about a month since the last time I wrote to you, and you won’t believe what has happened here.”
He goes on to describe how Zhang Huan had planned a performance during which he covered his naked body in fish sauce and honey and installed himself in the “dirtiest and smelliest public toilet in the East Village.” To add to the sensory assault, on the summer day he chose to enact the work, the temperature topped 100 degrees.
“I don’t know how I managed to take pictures in these conditions,” wrote RongRong about the overwhelming heat and stench. “All I can remember was the noise of the flies and the sound of the shutter.”
He was amazed that Zhang Huan “never flinched, even with the flies moving about and biting him….The worst was watching flies try to get into his ears.” Locals went into the toilet and ran out, saying “How indecent! How can he sit in the toilet naked?” After sitting in this fetid, suffocating air for an hour, “still as a statue,” Zhang Huan walked out of the stall and into a nearby pond where, “as the water got deeper and deeper, his body slowly disappeared, leaving only countless flies on the surface of the water….”
RongRong signs off: “It is late now. So that’s it for today.”
As the only documentarian of this mythical event, which Zhang Huan named 12 Square Meters—the measurements of the stall—the photographer enhanced his own artistic reputation. The elegant sequence of 9 images reproduced in the book (only 3 are in the show) begins with a portrait of Zhang Huan’s bald head and ends with ripples on the surface of the pond. In all of them, black flies dot his shiny-sticky chest and face like cloves on a holiday ham.
Ai Weiwei makes numerous appearances in the book. He did not live in the East Village but was an inspirational figure for many who did, including RongRong. (Zhang Huan told him that 12 Square Meters was conceived as a tribute to Weiwei who had been forced to clean toilets as a child with his father during the Cultural Revolution.) A photograph here after Zhang Huan’s performance shows him seated in a restaurant where Weiwei had toasted him and 10 other artists in the East Village, a meal that RongRong, looking back, calls “The Last Supper.” Not long after, the police ordered the community to disband.
RongRong set out “to photograph every artist in the village.” His portraits of lesser-known figures, such as the women painters Little Duan and Duan Yingmei, have the same melancholy aura as those of the more famous men. The squalor in which all of them lived—ruined houses decorated with shoddy furniture—is portrayed with equanimity and even affection. He also documented the growing popularity of the artists as word spread to other parts of the country about this experiment in living and making art. In one photograph one sees a cluster of tourists or day-trippers in shorts and baseball caps aiming their cameras at a nude Ma Liuming in his courtyard.
RongRong became an active partner in chronicling several other legendary performances, such as those between Zhang Huan and Ma Liuming, who had invented a persona, Fen-Ma Liuming, with both male and female characteristics. Not all of the photographs are documentary. The book (but not the show) includes multiple-exposures that were produced by accident. Even if his explanations don’t make complete sense—“Weiwei gave me some negatives a few days back to develop for him. I wasn’t careful and put his negatives in my camera and went out shooting”—the surrealistic results are in the chaotic spirit of the place. His self-portraits are invariably despairing, expressing solipsistic hopelessness and a frustration with the limits of photography. Several years after the destruction of the East Village, he portrayed himself alone in Beijing, stripped to the waist and holding his camera against a mirror at night:
“Myself, myself, I only have myself
my loneliness at this time all consuming,
filling my blood…”
The book is a gripping and generous first-person account of a community, and a short-lived era, that has proven to be enormously significant for contemporary Chinese art. RongRong participated in the ongoing fight for unbridled expression within a repressive social structure, and the vital role that performance played in this struggle. Nudity by artists remains largely forbidden in China. Since his years in Beijing East Village, Ma Liuming has usually performed outside his native country. (One anomaly of Chinese art in Beijing East Village that distinguishes it from most American and European performances from the period: all of the nude figures in RongRong’s photographs are men. There is no female nudity in the book.)
It is frustrating, and a lost opportunity, therefore, that the essays have nothing to say about the production of the photographs—the cameras, films, papers, darkroom facilities that RongRong had access to in the Beijing East Village and after. How he made a living, whether he sold his prints to art magazines, and to which ones and when, it would be helpful to know. We don’t learn about the education of his artistic taste that led him to portray his fellow artists in this earnest manner. He prints with a black frame around the border, in the fashion of Arbus and others, so he must have been exposed to American and European magazines and books. (This was the pre-Internet and pre-digital era.) He shoots here without flash, often with minimal light, as if he wanted his dim funereal palette to reflect the grim aura of the performances.
One exhibition note: the details in RongRong’s photographs are hard to discern in optimal conditions. The white walls of the Project Space and the reflective glare off the Plexiglas from the overhead lights are at odds with the crepuscular atmosphere that is pervasive in the book.
The publication of his diary should enhance RongRong’s central role as mythographer of the Beijing East Village. Even if the deep shadows of his pictures romanticized the scene rather than critiqued it, as, say, Nan Goldin often did in her East Village series, he was there with his camera when no one else was young, brave, and foolish enough to want to live this dream.
Collector’s POV: Since this is effectively a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. RongRong is represented by Three Shadows +3 Gallery in Beijing (here). His work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.