JTF (just the facts): Published in December 2014 by New Century Press (here). Hardcover, 78 pages, with 63 color photographs. Includes a text by Shu Song (in English and Chinese). (Spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: In the spring of 1989, a powerful wave of pro-democracy protests shook Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where student led demonstrations brought millions to the streets demanding additional freedoms and an end to years of heavy handed censorship. These hopeful and largely peaceful protests ended in a violent crackdown, leaving hundreds, maybe thousands dead on the streets of Beijing. Over the years, the Chinese government has consistently frustrated any attempt to celebrate these fateful days, doing everything possible to conceal memories, reminders, and photographic documentation of the unrest.
That spring Chinese photographer Xu Yong quit his day job and spent his spare time photographing the protests; his on-the-ground photojournalistic images have remained unseen for the past 25 years and only recently did he make the decision to publish them in a book. In China’s highly censored society, these images of idealistic Chinese youth are still not welcomed (even three decades later), and this publication can absolutely be seen as a protest book. Published in Hong Kong, the book will not be available in mainland China any time in the near future, and a box of books sent to the photographer was confiscated by the customs department and likely destroyed.
The book itself is curious in many ways. Xu decided to print all the photographs as 35-millimeter negatives, so what we see is a selection of the raw, genuine negatives that Xu took with his Konica, sprocket holes and all. A note at the beginning of the book provides instructions on how to set up a smartphone to convert the negative images into positive, so that the otherworldly reversed colors can be transformed into a more recognizable palette. And while digital conversion of the images might seem as a fun trick to grab attention, Xu has his own reasons to present the photographs in this intriguing way. As he explains himself: “On the attempt to cover-up and induce amnesia on a historic event, negatives have more direct impact as evidence than normal photographs or social media”. His negatives are both tactile, physical reminders of what happened, and also “encoded” to prevent the intrusion of the censors. There are no details on exactly how many images Xu took in 1989, but 64 of them made it into this book. In the Chinese language, the event is more commonly known as “June Fourth” or “sixty four” and so the number of images included also plays with the date of the crackdown.
At first glance, the images look unclear and it takes a few minutes to get used to their unnatural eerie tones, with the dominant black color and white spots. The inverted colors turn the protesters into spooky looking figures, masking details and emotions. In image after image, we see endless crowds of people in Tiananmen Square, dense vistas of bodies with the rooflines of the Forbidden City in the background, often mixed with piles of parked bikes. People are gathered in the square with various protest signs and flags, under the gaze of the liberty statue, using umbrellas to hide from the sun. Bullhorn speeches rally the crowd, and impromptu marches wind through the thick mass of humanity. Another set of photographs depict the camps set up by the protesters, with sleeping bags and rows of bottled water. As the reader inverts the colors, the pictures come to life, reflecting both the rather peaceful atmosphere in Tiananmen Square and the determined mood of the protestors. Together, the pictures show a markedly different reality than the “counter-revolutionary rebellions” of the official Chinese government characterizations of those events. Only a few helmeted heads of soldiers and a blurred tank make direct reference to the force used by the government to end the demonstrations. Mostly, the images reveal the strident but peaceful protests that brought thousands of people to the streets; there are no shots of the violent crackdown on unarmed protesters by Chinese troops.
As a book, Negatives has a simple unassuming design, with a straightforward layout of one image per page. There is one spread with six smaller images per page, creating a stronger dynamic and offering an overview of the protest at one glance. And the simple numbering of images from one to sixty four (the date of the crackdown, 6 June) turns into a surprisingly symbolic act.
Negatives by Xu Yong is one artist’s first hand tribute to one of the most significant events in recent Chinese history, the public discourse of which is largely still forbidden by Chinese government, and that blanket of censorship has left the majority of younger Chinese generation with little or no knowledge of what actually happened during those now famous days in Tiananmen Square. His simple act of inverting the immediate documentary images not only plays with the clash of traditional and digital culture, but it also gives the viewer a more creative (or even subversive) role in the interaction with the book. It is an invitation to look closer, to play, and to surreptitiously pose questions and join the discussion. In this case, the book form becomes an integral part of the sensitive underground storytelling.
Collector’s POV: Xu Yong is represented by Hua Gallery in London (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.