Chinese photographic artist in naked display of how to get noticed
A photographer’s bizarre juxtapositions are more than just a cheeky take on China, writes Clifford Coonanin Beijing
THE PHOTOGRAPHS depict the iconic events of contemporary Chinese history – the burnt-out husk of the Rem Koolhaas-designed hotel building in downtown Beijing. The guesthouse in Hubei province where waiter Deng Yujiao stabbed a government official who tried to rape her. The Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium over the Beijing skyline.
What sets these images apart from other documents about China is that in every picture there is a nude man doing push-ups in the foreground.
This bizarre juxtaposition is more than a cheeky take on contemporary China. It is in fact the work of Guangzhou artist Ou Zhihang, whose series “The Moment”, which shows him recording history using nude press-ups, has just been honoured in the World Press Awards.
“As a creative artist, I wanted to express myself differently,” said a fully clothed Ou at his gallery in Beijing. “Press-ups are my artistic symbol.”
His photographs are popular in China, and the Beijing Youth Daily, one of the country’s biggest newspapers, recently ran a photograph of Ou doing nude press-ups outside the Forbidden City, in the deep snow on Tiananmen Square.
He believes he is the first naked man to feature on the front page.
One of the striking things about the images is how few people they feature, other than his own form, doing the press-ups. In this way, they make a serious point about the role of the individual in the world’s most populous country.
While the work of American artist Spencer Tunick uses hundreds of nude volunteers in public spaces, Ou is more about individuals in the face of power structures.
“I’m not an exhibitionist. The press-ups are positive and healthy, and very sincere. My work is all about the body, so I decided the press-up was the most appropriate way,” he said. He is a little shy, he added, and the press-up device allows him to hide his face and keep the photographs discreet, as they only show him from behind.
Some images deal with controversial issues, such as photographs taken in the Tibetan capital Lhasa on the anniversary of the riots in March 2008, or outside the courtroom in Chongqing during a recent crackdown on the mafia there, or in front of the Chinese Football Association’s headquarters, which has recently been mired in a corruption scandal.
“‘The Moment’ is about contemporary China. The 21st century is seen as the China century – and that’s why I chose to do it this way,” he said.
Asked whether he is worried about getting into trouble, Ou admits he has “some concerns”.
“But I’m glad I live in these days, because 15 or 20 years ago I might be in jail. I feel very lucky the way my work can be communicated in my country today. Some people are afraid to face facts, but it’s necessary to show them regardless of whether they are constructive or destructive,” he said.
“If people understand what I’m doing, then I hope they can accept this,” he said.
When he works, he sets up a tripod, then strips off as quickly as possible, uses the timer to take a photograph, then is gone in short order. It’s a tough task. One of the photographs shows Ou outside one of the country’s illegal brick kilns where hundreds of young men were enslaved in 2007. “I had to check the exact location of the kiln, and get in and out quick, because if the locals found me they might have beaten me to death,” he said.
In some cases, such as when he was trying to take a photograph outside the Google headquarters this week, the security guards were initially sceptical.
He showed them some of his less controversial photographs, though they were still nonplussed, but eventually they came around. He got the shots.
“Chinese people, sometimes even if they cannot understand, they can accept things,” he said.
As well his work as an artist,
Ou is also a producer and presenter on a fashion show on Guangdong TV, and he has previously worked as a fashion photographer.
“Contemporary art is very important, but a lot of art is very expensive and is only enjoyed by a small group of people. I want to make a wider impact on society, to go beyond a small circle. This is why I do my press-ups, I haven’t seen anyone with this profile in the public media,” he said.