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Gao Bo: Black and White Photography as Ritual.





The black and white photography of the artist’s Tibetan period offers documentary images that use the many aspects of this most unusual of ‘means of expression’: black and white’s memorializing effect, its inherent lyricism, in conjunction with its -often contrasting- sense of reportage, its sense of a gritty realism that offers ‘truth’ as it is (unvarnished by glossy colour). This latter effect also negates any potential for the kind of touristy exoticism, the images of the ‘travel romance’, that we often find adhering to images of people from ‘other’ cultures, their life style or geography – as is all too often found to be the case with the people here represented. These image investigations crystalize around the genre of the portrait; here again, black and white offers a seriousness, even austere cast to the documentary effect, as well as offering a beauty that augments the personal honour, pride and uniqueness of the people so portrayed. Rather too many have ventured here, amongst those depicted, to photograph ‘authenticity as Other’, a ‘lost life’ or ‘disappearing way of life’; today bookshops offer such folksy coffee-table accessories aplenty; but Gao Bo’s images rise above these commerce-based, exoticising fantasy, or ‘professional’ travelogue type appropriations. We can immediately sense whether a photographer is looking for a cute face and a striking pose, or a way to express serious engagement with his subjects… This desire for a unique representation of the unique is further accentuated in the techniques and accretions that envelop, reframe or otherwise transform the later photographs of the Tibetan way of life; here the photograph becomes the basis for an original and inimitable art work at once expressing the intensity of the mode of life represented and the commitment of the documentary photographer driven to extend the expressive remit of the photograph to become an artist - so propelled by the impact of his subject matter.




(I)       The Black & White Group Portraits and Other Documentary Photographs.


The stilling and silencing of the original voices in art: the condition of their being seen; the condition of their survival. As portrait. And as portrait, the silence is a part of the genre as well as the image medium meaning (the means of expression include the absence of voice, foreground the presence of silence). Portraits do not speak, do not move… but they do speak to us and move us. When we listen to that gift of silence they bring… Still Lives. (‘But what, after all, is a Portrait…?’)



Of the face, and the stare that resides within it - or the absence of this stare. This residence the mark of consciousness (our modern way of paraphrasing the older notion of the windows of the soul). And with consciousness the ocean in which it swims, the irresistible current it must follow; of temporality in painting. In the genre that privileges and compresses their combination into the presence of a single face: the Portrait.



For the choice of this particular means of expression, the choice of black and white, avoids another kind of ‘noise’; the noise of colour. If we see (night vision apart) in colour; then our reproduction of the images we see appear always to carry other meanings, meanings attached to the medium, the means of expression - meanings perhaps unwanted. Or wanted by some: at issue is that of avoiding the question of exoticism; local colour does not mean ‘local’ colours but the colours of the other; of otherness for some (that Some is ourselves, the Same, looking in, looking out, looking for a ‘colourful’ experience’). So the avoidance of colour reproduction precisely voids the tourism or travel industry effect, the advertisement for an exotic holiday (‘of a life-time…’); leaving gritty black and white to tell the ‘truth’ (and one reason why black and white is preferred to this day for many documentary images). Yet this disqualification of colour does not disqualify the discovery and revelation of poetic moments - even incorporating or suggesting elements of the ‘classic’ effect so closely linked to black and white photography in the popular mind (as yesterday’s well-formed documentary images become today’s poster and postcard classics). The resulting poetry is no longer ‘gaudy’, a ‘bauble’, decorative food for a short ‘hit’, designed to (momentarily) distract eyes over-charged with the visual inputs of today’s perception and communication (and extended by our reliance on the technologies of personalized communication, recording, storage and transmission): rather we are called to stop and think. As with black and white as the medium of documentary news, so the frame of the message, the frame of the content of expression is one of a different kind of attention. Yet if the sense of urgency and reflection carried by such images also is accompanied by an aesthetic charge, rendering the image, poetry, then this is not some manner of contradiction, rather the inevitable corollary of the range and subtlety of our visual sense (we are not reading a ticker tape feed-out nor a telegram nor text massage shorthand – nor even the abbreviated sub-titles of news headlines that flow across our many screens). Conceptualism was wrong to associate rebarbativity with thought. The implied contrast here is to certain received images in the popular realm, to certain tourism-type images, as to other forms of ethnic-exoticism or exotic ‘othering’. So we see in the reproductions and art works featured here, non-exoticising images taken from Tibetan culture. Here, precisely because in black and white, with the colour, of ‘local colour’ excluded, so excluding such ‘colourful’ meanings as would elicit ‘coos’ from the passing tourist (or the reader of a colour magazine). Faced with these faces, in black and white, such noises would be inappropriate. What we see in this use of black and white photography is an image resisting stereotypes (insofar as a passive, silent, image can resist our cognitive attempts to find significance through stereo-typology). These are classic anthropological documentary images, showing documentary force; a memorializing in the present: but which also include lyric feeling (or otherwise ‘classicizing’ elements due to the effect of formal arrangements in their relation to the black and white format). This drawing on a sense of the past, by emphasizing the pastness of the image content, may also indicate the passing of a way of life. These images, along with the collection of which it is a part, also avoids the other cliché, now becoming popular with ethno-photographers; that of a ‘high art’ or putatively ‘serious’ form of the depiction of Others (of those deemed the Other of ourselves), as a form of ‘authenticism’ depicting ‘others’ as possessors of ancient wisdom, and in true touch with Real Nature. Part of the Neo-Romantic ideology of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. Such depictions seem to us to be ‘flat’; lacking in the depth (temporal and cultural) that is offered here, so lacking in rationale (we ask ourselves: ‘Why were they taken?’). The rationale of the pictures we see now is that of the fruit of a long engagement with the cultures in question - and not a hasty appropriation of an empty (if popular or even universal) ideology of nature, authenticity and timelessness. We are back with the politics of representation, with the politics of the portrait. (‘But what, after all, is a Portrait… ?’)


What is a portrait?


Face on: apart from the hands (culture depending) the face is the one part of the human body (sex and culture depending) which remains naked, exposed as indispensable to identification, recognition, and communication. Every feature found to be readable, interpretable, scrutinised for signs of presence, signs of intention; combinations infinite. Full on: (like a full moon centre-field, centre-screen, taking up the space of central focus, hypnotic in its demand for our full attention). But the portrait does not demand that we act as if we are being read in turn… (we are permitted to drop our visual manners, the etiquette of exchanged stares is absent, there is no exchange - or at least none between minds, our own identity continues in its endless quest to bargain time and objects for self).




(II) The ‘Blood Portraits’ (photographs of documentary origin).


Two elements arrest our vision: over and above the depicted content, the portraits and documentary images of life, there is the strange calligraphy and the texture and colour of the pigment employed; could this be blood in which the writing is expressed? It is these factors working together (with other additional materials) which transform the photograph or documentary image into an artwork existing beyond the reproducibility of photography - so, in one respect, returning us to the early days of photography and the uniqueness of the daguerreotype. And like the daguerreotype, carrying a similar sense of uniqueness; an insistent originality which ineluctably points us towards the lost past or to the temporally and geographically distant persons and objects there represented; transferring the sense of uniqueness to the referent of the image. In effect the image functions as a ‘prosopopoeia’, the classical trope of the evocation, or here, representation, of the dead and distant, abstract or absent. A trope, a meaning relation, a form of meaning making, which at once covers all photography, the relation of photography as such to its referents, but has a particularly special affinity with black and white, and with the passage of an image from documentary to larger meaning (perhaps eventually into a ‘classic’) - and may even go on to offer a toehold in the realm of the Sublime. If in written language, in the realm of the Word, there is a ‘call’, an evoking of the absent, then in the world of visual culture we have the face and the stare, the ‘return’ of gaze, from one who is not, no longer, there… their presence in our mind, our viewing, our reading, is their return – their… summoning to presence.

        The first extra-photographic element is a meaningless invented script, at times resembling Chinese characters, at times resembling Tibetan script (at times almost resembling a scrawled form of the Western or Cyrillic alphabet). So it is that we are presented with a de-particularisation in the place of the irredeemably particular; as the images so specify, so the writing abstracts (may we even say, evokes a universal frame of reference). Indeed amongst the very materials, which, when added to the photographic images so framed, guarantee their uniqueness, their denial of mere (or pure) photographic reproducibility, are elements which in turn deny this uniqueness through an evocation of writing as such, a graphic signifier bereft of its signified, or whose signified (as symbol) points us to recorded meaning in general (or perhaps its opposite, as a invented language, bearing no sense for anyone, might well be called ‘unique’). Uniqueness and generalization, these terms of course readily apply to the human condition, more precisely to our perception of ourselves in our difference and commonality, our sense of distinction and sense of community. The very difference and commonality which calls upon a common humanity, and which is present in and through every cultural and genetic difference, as well as asserted in every unique human life. A uniqueness and generalization which is best expressed through the face (and so the genre of portrait) and in those most over-read, ceaselessly interpreted, features of the face… the eyes…


Stare: (looking back, look averted (gendered looks)). Above all zones of the face it is the eyes that offer most to the politics of interpretation. With return of stare or not, not-withstanding, we understand from the nature of the look the character of the transfigured, the pious, the convivial, the successful and the downright arrogant (‘full of self’). Potential contexts: the history of the painted eye from Giotto to Rembrandt, from Caravaggio to Paula Rego. Offering a range of expressions we might want as templates for ourselves; an armoury of masks, ‘of the peg’, a training ground in the school of self-image, a select range of ‘look’ (all by-and-large positive, this is not journalistic photography where the face of disaster is sought to illustrate the hideous fact). The eyes have it.


The second extra-photographic element, the faded red pigment we see expressing the scripts, the brown-red ink in which they are written, their means of expression, not only suggests blood – but is, in fact, actual human blood. What first appeared as a suggestion is again found to be a reality (an icon again turns out to be an index, a trace of what is seen). There is nothing fake about these artworks… in leaving behind the realm of pure photography (with its infinite reproducibility) we have not entered the world of illusion or painterly illusionism. The blood on the frame and face of the image, through its ability to be what it appears to be, offers a promise, a kind of guarantee, that the content is genuine (indeed a genetic signature). So the signing in blood implies a contract with the viewer, to which, by the very act of looking, we are called to bear witness: for the blood we see, in which the graffiti or note-like text is written, is the blood of the artist and even of some of those portrayed. The apparently additional afterthought, scrawled over the textures of the image and its frames, acts as an index that points back to the unseen materiality of the bodies, their corporeal element, that obtains at the origin of these images and that is a part of the referents. Not only is the representation of a culture to be found here, but part of the nature too of the inhabitants, the bearers of that culture (a synecdoche, or part for whole, as well as an index or material, physical quotation, the marks of reflected light, tracing the surface, the outside, and a sample, a gift, taken from the inside…); all this is found in the world of the artwork.

These additional textures and expanded palette offer an extended means of expression, an extended range of meaning which is at once part of the images contained, framed or even quoted by their en-framing, and at the same time a commentary upon them and the veracity, if you will, of the emotional commitment, of their meanings… This method also transforms once easily reproducible photographs into a part of a sequence of art works that are now unique; the inclusion of unique materials renders each image individual and personalized (the blood, again, is precisely that of the artist and many of his sitters, his subjects, now equalized, in terms of a politics of representation, made ‘blood brothers’ as the artist includes a sacrifice of a part of his own corporeality into the material text of the image).

These additions also mean that the work can now also refer to a unique time, a people and a place; a means of expression pointing out the content of expression as something now irredeemably particular – performing the original place and objects and persons, as irreplaceable and beyond simple reproduction and exchange - to be valued… And in its offering, a ‘blood offering’ a reminder that in its irredeemably particular and personal origin there also lies a commonality, a shared blood, which when scratched, is the colour in which we all bleed. Sacrificial witness to a shared species-being. Ritual offering to a shared humanity.


The browning red in black and white.


Together mobilizing an alchemy which transfigures photograph into fetish, record into art work, historical mark into memorial - in a word, into ritual (or into the sacred object at the heart of a ritual, that object of our visit, the ritual visit to the temple of art).




(III) The ‘Sketch Portraits’:  Masks and Defacement. Portraying Others…




Silence: the silence of the portrait is also the silence of the voyeur (and we are all in love with our visual sense). For the making of a portrait, the rendering of a likeness… is also to render someone dumb.



The image is speechless; it speaks otherwise. The pose of the sitter must therefore be suitable to silence; otherwise they would render themselves (be rendered) laughable… The portrait somehow functions, even glories, in the absence of the most important form of human communication (there is also the absence of touch – but this realm of social experience is anyway always heavily tabooed; witness the latent violence and brittle erotics of touch in the case of contact between strangers). The image is speechless; it must be made to speak otherwise. This lack of speech leaves all to the work of visual cues, to realms of human comprehension and experience dependent upon the eye and its memory. The visual imagination (and its unconscious, a social as well as a personal unconscious) must take over the guiding of the other senses: not least that of speech (how rarely do we think of smell before a picture). For the portrait only encourages our tendency to make a mental paraphrase of everything. Words may describe, summarise, provide a suitable narrative setting (a temporal trajectory) but they also play games with the image; punning and seeking out the possibilities of the rebus.



Foregrounding speechlessness and providing the Word. Silence underlined; the silence proper to the portrait doubled, then contrasted… The portrait as puzzle. A picture in interrogative mood. A question, yes; but addressed to whom? To ourselves, but also to our time; and our time is after… after that of the image. Just as the descriptive sentence (declarative, indicative) exists in the present (where we may question its reference, its truth values) or the past (where the moment of reference may have past, leaving testimony or physical proof in demand) so the interrogative is launched out into time to find a home that does not yet exist (unless in the case of the already answered ‘rhetorical question’). Every question is addressed to the future in the sense that its answer (no matter what the origin of the proofs that may inform it) lies in the future, it is something we await (as every question awaits an answer). So in contradistinction to other ethnographically inspired photographs which function as an indicative, documentary, record, these pictures offer the form of the image as a question, are framed as the asking of a question. In the example of the ‘Sketch Portrait’, series (1996) we have a powerful example of the interrogative voice in black and white photography.

One of the ways this interrogative effect is achieved is that the image incorporates smearing and handwriting - incorporating graffiti or a written note as a form of commentary (or as a citation, suggesting, ‘citing’ the word as from the mouth of the silent speaker, or read as present in his or her mind). This addition then de-presences the image, re-presenting it as a source of difficulty (it is important that the ‘deformation’ occurs on the level of the image, as if between us and the image, and not in the world of the image, for these temporal-rhetorical effects to come into play). Furthermore the use of such deformations to the surface of the image can have the effect of combining the tenses (past, present and future) as we are provoked to perceive a pre-existing problem, acknowledge its presence in the here and now, and address the possibility of a solution (or if there is no suggestion of a solution, then as the continuation of the problematic state) into the future… A picture that predicts the persistence of its problematic. An image that insists, in its very effacement, on foretelling the presence of a response. Oracular.

Deformation here has the status of a question posed; a future deixis that throws us into a realm as yet undecided. Problematising not only the status of the life of the depicted object, person, or event, but also posing a question on the very nature of the black and white photograph, indeed of photography itself as the right medium, or action of recording, of representation, as suitable for what purpose? Calling representation itself into question (the ethics of representation, posing the question: is it right to show certain things, and how should they be shown and when, in what context, the question of the responsibility of the arts and processes of representation). So asking the question: what is it for, what does it do, for whom… when? 



Also dating from this period are the Duality Sketch Portraits; a series in which each discrete work is made up of two pictures, a diptych, with one face wearing a mask (breathing/medical) the other featuring a mask itself, upside down, a ritual Tibetan Buddhist mask; all in black and white (including also the addition of paint), for the artwork begins with the ‘indexical foundation’ of the photographic image, then accretes layers of paint and other materials. Yet the resulting image is still black and white, the aesthetic too, is also that of black and white imagery; despite the additions and reframing, the unique meaning repertoire of black and white photography, still applies (as it will continue to do throughout Gao Bo’s work, whether as ‘Bomu’, or ‘GB’). The use of the diptych form does not only foreground the framing and contrast of the portraits, it also references religious art history and the rhetoric of eternity, the attempt to represent the sacred. In the ‘Dualities’ sequence, over and above the content with its sense of ritual masking, the self-protection of the medical mask and the supernatural protection afforded by a ritual mask, and also beyond the mask as an implied absence of speech which deflects meaning onto the eyes, over and above these, the form of presentation, the diptych, suggests a sequence of oppositions to be overcome… Oppositions of tradition and modernity, interiority and exteriority, expression and silence, illusion and reality. (See the section on the Beijing Exhibitions, in section IV below, for a full analysis of these works in their latest manifestation.)


And like a trail of image-thoughts, a trail of presence haunting galleries and the artist’s personal history alike, reoccurring in many artworks, in installations and performances, the repeated figure of the repeated use of stone faces. Of portraits on stones. A ‘borrowing’ of lives, as in the stealing of the self, that many peoples of simple technology believe is the result of the taking of their photograph. A borrowing that will be atoned for, as the artist plans to ‘return’ them to their source, to be washed away, washed clean in the waters of their origin.


And again, we witness, have our meaning-making configured by, the unifying means of expression, black and white, conjuring up the art history of the photograph; and the unifying theme, the force of genre; the presence of Portraits, of the Face… the presence of another in all their enigmatic offering and refusal of self…



Portraits are always iconic. Making sainted (representing the ideal, and so the immortal, as well as representing the merely mortal, the real, the mimetic). Part message to the future (continued existence within a given quantity of time), part claim on status as an eternal (qualitative shift of identity), the suggestion here is that a not-so-surreptitious attempt at immortality is part of the rationale of the commissioning of the Portrait. A link to the afterlife maintained this side. When the past coincides with the shades of eternity, and memory with the fires of the sacred, and when the soul and limits of our belief find their symbolic place in a picture of a deceased mortal, then we begin to comprehend the power of the historical portrait. Portraits are our form of ancestor worship.


(What, after all, is a Portrait?)


The ‘wake’ of this photography in stones… on stones… these enfaced stones used in a variety of installations – but this is another story, even if consequent and contiguous…


As living rituality takes place outside of the space of ritual, so repetition is the first degree of ritual (as identity, the end, is the second, and eternity, the means – although represented as the end in intense forms- is the third). As a sign, the portrait already is repetition; its use, temporality and identity function (observed above) reveal it as ritual image, as ritual. The ritual possession which results makes of portraits a microcosm, a mise-en-abime, or part/whole relation, of the process of identity-making and its supports. Indeed our relation to images as such (whence the logic of the iconoclasts) produces this conferral. The slower the image flow, the more persistent its call upon us; the more slowly we peruse a given image, the greater its constitutive force; the more profound our fusion; its role in our confirmation, its transformation into a sacred object which comes to represent us (which becomes us by metonymic extension). The portrait as ritual; given image as graven image; most precious palimpsest.




For what, after all, is a Portrait?


Transubstantiation observed.














Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2016