Lin Zhipeng (No. 223), Flowers and Fruits

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by T&M Projects (here). Softcover, 176 pages, with 139 color photographs. Includes a fold out poster. There are no texts or essays. Design by Satoshi Suzuki. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Artists that work under and inside the constraints of controlling and repressive governments have a whole set of very real issues to deal with that artists in freer countries never really spend much time considering. Will my artworks cross boundaries set by law or cultural custom that will lead to them being censored, blocked, or prohibited from public view or sale? Will they get me branded a political dissident or subversive, thrown in jail, or exiled in some manner? Do they offend those in power who have the ability to influence the daily life of my family and friends? For the most part, artists by temperament alone tend to defiantly reject this kind of control over their art, but these and other worries often force artists in these kinds of regimes to stay out of sight or choose their rebellions very carefully.

One of the simplest and most elemental ways an artist can express his or her freedom inside a repressive system is to make works that embrace human nudity. While such imagery may run afoul of the censors, it can also feel like one of only ways left to express identity and individualism, while also boldly rejecting the idea that anyone can control what is done with our own bodies. Some of the Russian photographer Boris Mikhailov’s most subversive (and darkly comic) pictures made during the Soviet regime find he and his friends and family rudely and ridiculously cavorting in the nude, having fun, and generally thumbing their noses at the government. While these snapshots were made in private, and largely kept that way until much later, they represent a deep and important artistic impulse to find and celebrate freedoms regardless of the circumstances.

Lin Zhipeng’s photographs from contemporary China wrestle with many of the same questions, albeit with different constraints and realities. For young people on the margins of modern Chinese society, particularly those with alternative lifestyles, the conservative rules and pressures of the Communist system can feel stifling. And like Mikhailov’s, Lin’s images turn inward in search of release. Inside the relative safety of interior space, he and his friends can explore their individuality, where nudity is the glue that binds together love, companionship, fantasy, and playful eroticism.

Flowers and Fruits is in many ways a literal title for Lin’s most recent photobook – every image in the collection has one or the other (or both) included as part of the setup. The definitions of “flowers” and “fruits” are relatively loose, taking in not only the obviously real and the fake as well as the cultivated and the wild, but also the motifs of flowers and fruits that find their way to bedspreads, carpets, curtains, and other decorative objects that are found in the various bedrooms and apartments that provide the setting and the colorful tattoos that decorate the skin of some of his subjects. Thematically, the flowers and fruits tie all the pictures into one integrated flow, bringing still lifes, nudes, and surreal visual concoctions into dialog with one another.

Stylistically, because of Lin’s consistent use of blinding flash, there are immediate parallels to the whitened snapshot aesthetic of Juergen Teller. But the youthful energy found in Lin’s pictures connects more directly to the early work of Wolfgang Tillmans and Ryan McGinley, especially in terms of fluid acceptance of all kinds of couples and the comfort with the messiness of life at that age. And for those in the West whose primary taste of Chinese contemporary photography has been the work of Ren Hang, a faint but discernible echo to Li’s approach does exist (largely because of the youthful bodies playing around), but Lin’s work is less overtly performative and mannered, giving it a much more authentic feel, even when the staging gets deliberately kooky or provocative.

Most of Lin’s compositions seem spontaneous, or at least improvised rather than meticulously planned out. And while peppers and carrots strewn on the bed, red carnations taped to the ankles, pomegranate seeds arranged in triangles between legs, and birds flying loose in the bedroom certainly seem odd, they don’t feel entirely forced. It seems far more likely that boredom set in, and Lin’s friends started to get creative with whatever was at hand.

While many of the images do have an intimately playful appearance, a sustained look through Flowers and Fruits actually reveals a deep mood of melancholy. Again, I don’t think this a result of Lin trying too hard to be poetic – I think it is rooted in a genuine strain of quiet loneliness that runs through the lives of these people and has come out when they have been asked to pose. The flash-lit aesthetic says brash and confident, but what lies underneath that facade is often gentle and surprisingly elegant. A turn of an arm, the tenderness of an embrace or a kiss, a moment of rest and reflection, the curling up of legs, the scattered fall of loose hair – these are the observed details that make Lin’s photographs memorable and human. Then when the garish light is turned on showy blossoms, they feel exposed and exhausted, their petals and leaves blown out into tired decoration.

There are plenty of singular images worth finding in the pages of Flowers and Fruit. Misty smoke nestles in a bouquet of roses, cherries tumble from a wash of dark hair, legs tangle in a confusing mess around a black dress with holes, a man bends his foot toward a plant covered in light pink flowers, and a woman walks among a blizzard of white blossoms, each one a lovely self-contained meditation. The design of the photobook is simple, casual, and unobtrusive, its modest size making it easy to hold and contemplate. The images alternate between full bleed and bordered reproductions of various sizes, allowing interest to build through the page turns.

The last image in the photobook shows us a glass container of sliced figs sitting on the corner of a table, and for some reason, to me it feels achingly sad. The luscious fruits are drying out and bottled up, exposed to the sun coming from the nearby window but unable to breathe in the fresh air. Whether Lin reads this image as a metaphor for the trapped situation of young men and women of China (as I saw it), we can’t know. But seen as a whole, Flowers and Fruits offers a range of subtleties of emotional depth like this that feel gracefully fleeting and ephemeral, and the longer I look at it, the more wistful it feels.

Collector’s POV: Lin Zhipeng is represented by de Sarthe Gallery in Beijing/Hong Kong (here), M97 in Shanghai (here), and Stieglitz 19 in Antwerp (here). His work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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