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On images of women…


(Xing Danwen, Gao Bo, Jiang Zhi, Marcus Harvey)






A comparison of four images of women: a photographic portrait of a tearful female star of recent Chinese art history, ‘Biaotai’ by Jiang Zhi (in ‘Biaotai’) with an image from British art and cultural history, ‘Myra’, by Marcus Harvey (in ‘Sensation’) based upon a found image, a documentary photo-portrait, which is then contrasted to a similarly altered photo-portrait by Gaobo (‘Parle’), and to Xing Danwen’s, photographic diptych of a woman (or two women), front and back… 你的痛就射我的痛 (readily available online).


(These images taken together constitute a kind of ‘little anthropology’, suggesting a comparative cultural installation, together showing a piece of cultural history… gender history…).


A recent image of a woman in tears, with its particular, and very public, past, reminds one of a past event, of another image with ‘a background’… and then with other, more recent, images designed, perhaps, in part, to counter the assumptions of these backgrounds, in turn…?




The first picture, is a photo-portrait of Ah Jiao, by Jiang Zhi, called ‘Biaotai’ (from Biaotai, China Minorities Art Photography Press, 2013).


One of China’s leading conceptual artists, Jiang Zhi is well-known for his thought-provoking installations as for his subtle photography – so it comes as some surprise to see the appropriation he has made of this particular image…


No innocent viewing. We see through layers… layers of memory; layers of relevant context… Layers; at the most general level; the relation of image and thing; their difference, and the history of this relation, its dependence on prior history (tradition), the history of representation and thing… or person. What we might call the politics of the image… More cogent in the history of women and representation; the history of received images (for example, note the history of woman as representation, as pretending… as ‘made-up’ versus male as sign of reality, authenticity… as ‘Truth’, so male as Nature to woman’s Culture… except that the opposite cliché, equally historical and insistent, equally hierarchicised, also obtains, not least in Romanitic influenced thought: male as reason, as Culture, woman as emotion, as Nature… losing both ways is a sure mark of received hierarchy).


Again on the relation of image and thing. The (knowledge of the) image as posed, as a made-thing; the degrees of awareness of this basic fact (art photography, conceptual-art photography and documentary; mimesis and recording; icon and index). Especially in the case of images of women; in this case, this woman, an actress, acting emphasized… ‘image’ in both senses… a double pose?


And tears. A woman in tears, a cultural and interpersonal cliché… calling up the history of women in tears, as ‘sexy’ or ‘sad’, or both. Or perhaps we should add, sad for whom… Two senses: the audience (an implied male or otherwise sexually curious audience?) and the actor, or, in this particular case, ‘actress’: she is feeling sad for whom: for a male lover – as the usual assumption; of cause, the cause could equally be female or some other cause… (but then nothing is equal when it comes to traditional representations of men and women…). But usually (default) read as a sign of male power over women. Conversely, we may read the tears as fake (which of course they are, it is after all a posed photograph), as a ‘act’ as female power over men, a rhetoric of strategy… Empowerment through the reversal of a given cliché. So much for the general level…


Reading this image would partake of, indeed rely upon, these general layers, or allusions, a first frame: an actress, acts for, poses for, portrait, with the advertising cliché of ‘wind-blown’ hair to add to the cliché of ‘a woman’s tears’, with the addition of make-up, a sexy face with tears… Making the image a conceptual investigation of a cultural cliché… Part of the politics of the image.


The particular, is, this image, with this particular actress, with her particular history… a sexual scandal and then a stolen image (paparazzi and the nudity of the famous… currency of gossip and the media), with (public) tears as a response… This history we know (part of the recent history of popular culture in China and so difficult to avoid) and so find it impossible to see this image without being reminded of it – without activating this filter, this primer, this preparation for the making of meaning… No innocent vision, the past as irreversible, we notice and remember; all that we bring with us is a part of the process of interpretation, of meaning making… this, after all is how traditional prejudices survive…


This present acting in the image, its posed-ness, and artificiality, is what gives it its critical ironic edge, as through it we are reminded of the making of images as the making of all such images, as of a culture and a history (the cultural history of the making of images of women, a sequence of repetitions or making apparent of cultural memory) this all is in the background of our perception. And this then meets the particular history of the person, this person. Her history too then is appropriated - the artist could hardly be unaware of the background, the connections and so the results… even if the actress might have been unaware (or complicit; ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ as one possible attitude?). However, this very role (sic) of the actress is perhaps also the under-cutting of the role of critique, of irony, as we look at representation and culture, that was set in motion on the general level… In fact, that is, in practice, the clever, ‘knowing’ or cynical use of an individual’s history and the use of a woman in this conceptual critical interrogation, perhaps just a little, offsets, outweighs, drowns out, the original task or critical insight (an awareness and critique of media stereotypes)? The layers of question and reference work well on an anthropological or cultural conceptual level, but perhaps are more than a little spoilt by the particular choice of image content and its popular pre-history? By the apparent lack of regard for the individual. The unfeeling use of individual history, only abets the media as home of clichés (gender and sex scandal), as the clichés and obsessions of popular culture become those of ‘high’ or art culture even in its most high-brow form, conceptual art (and we might add the fact that the actress is from Hong Kong, not the mainland, so perhaps enabling another fraught set of clichés with a history…).


Test: without this notoriety, this background, what is left of the image? (Back to the clichés listed at the beginning…)



This affair of a background, this memory, calls forth another background, another memory…



Marcus Harvey was associated with the ’80s YBA movement in Britain and their particular form of ‘shock-jock’ post-conceptualism…


Marcus Harvey's painting of the ‘Moors Murderess’, Myra Hindley, 'Myra' (1995), is taken from a photograph taken from a past context - a part of popular gothic culture, the culture of ‘folk-devils’, or an icon representing a mass taboo, which was constructed around this person arising out of the torture and murder of children. (Marcus Harvey, 'Myra' (1995), acrylic on canvas, 396 x 320cm, the Saatchi Collection; in Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1997). The re-use of her picture in art caused the same kind of public disquiet as the use of another photographic image as art in the mid-nineties, that of a child, Jamie Bulger, being led away by his young murderers-to-be. Both images were reframed from one discourse, media documents, reportage, in the case of Hindley originally an institutional document, a police ‘mugshot’ (supposedly dealing with facts) into another, that of art (a discourse not primarily factive, but where wishes and dreams often have priority of place). Reportage may be read as a discourse which parallels the linguistic mood of the indicative (the propositional 'it is'), where facts only are supposed to predominate and consumption is supposed to be pleasureless: art appears, by contrast, to be governed by the other major linguistic mood, the subjunctive, where various notions of expectation (and so pleasure, of the 'would like') and normative notions (of morality, the 'ought', or enlightenment) are predominant. As can clearly be seen, the discourse of reportage, is expected to be based upon past fact (although this may not, of course, always be the case); whilst the aesthetic discourses are expected to be based upon a pleasurable experience which should, we tend to believe also yield future educational or civilising values (even genre painting or photography such as history, or portraiture, or landscape, do not in practice, conform to pure fact). A world of facts is opposed to a world of pleasure and virtue.


Two effects with definite temporal significance may already be noted. First, in the artwork under question, the past is re-used for present shock: no future pay-off is found (unless it be the simple confirmation of the viewer's superiority to the person represented). Second, this relation is not only an effect of borrowing from the past, but also a result of the mimicking of, as well as borrowing from, the discourse of reportage, where, despite the artistic techniques employed, the relation to time remains the same. The process of putting-into-art has not given the work a future value, or moral lesson, nor has it begun the work of mourning, nor working through, nor even does it constitute a memorial to the victims; it simply engineers a shock effect by juxtaposing genres or mixing discourses. Simply blowing-up the picture would have been sufficient to achieve this effect (however this had already been done with other atrocities dating back to the era of the Vietnam war). Like the Hindley picture, the Jamie Bulger picture also was aestheticised by the additional use of colour (change of tone or tinting) and texture. However, these manipulations are usually associated with visual pleasure, which is felt to sit uncomfortably with the subject matter of the Hindley picture and its origins (as also with the Bulger picture). The artist has also included a temporalising effect through the techniques he has employed to render the Hindley photo-portrait into an art work.


The chief technique used to render the photographic image into a painterly image is the use of the repeated form of child-sized hands. The Hindley image is made-up out of the imprints of children's hands. The very construction of her image refers to her crime. However, the reminder is surely superfluous. The very infamy that made the image use-worthy means that no-one capable of responding to the painting would not also know of the history of the person represented. The hands do refer back to the past crime in a kind of cause and effect relation (the effect of the hands points back to the cause which was the crime; a kind of metalepsis, in rhetorical terms). The crime is figured by the presence of the hands in the picture; but what kind of reference back is this? The present shock of the image is, by these means, only reaffirmed; it is a matter of reinforcement of affect, and not the (always partial) release of remembrance and learning that leads to futural precaution. Furthermore, as the semi-present element in the picture, the hands also refer to the past on a formal or experiential level: the image of Hindley is present, and the, harder to discern, images of the hands are less present, are 'behind' the image, are its background, its past. Again, reinforcement of affect (the picture's effect) seems to be the only result of this presence of a past horror. If there is, perhaps, a moment of memory, it exists only to refresh the impact of the picture as the breaking of a taboo. Myra Hindley's image is now juxtaposed to its own means of rendition. Might not the semi-presence of the hands have a futural figural deixis? Formally this is certainly possible. Yet the effect of this temporalisation is only to suggest more of the same, more of the same tragedy, more of the same kind of crime, given the absence of a purifying temporal frame that would re-contextualise the events alluded to by the picture. (But such a frame would precisely rob the picture of its shock value, and so of its notoriety).


The effect of recontexualisation away from YBA, and 'Sensation', and a recontextualisation in a collection or exhibition where moral justice was the major theme, could, in theory, result in a reading of the work as one promoting the remembrance of the child victims and not the production of shock effects. Whilst this reversal is theoretically conceivable, the absence of any features which work through the picture itself would appear to deny this option. Indeed, when the picture was shown in New York, to an audience unaware of any of the relevant contexualising background, the picture appeared to have no impact what so ever…


It is precisely through the reference to children's, that is the victims', hands, then, that the picture's shock-value -also its financial value- is constructed. The past is used to bring horror to the present. The future exists in no recuperable rhetorical form except as repetition; we are returned to horror. If the painting's message and its temporal implications end in the eternal now of the outraged present, this is also a part of its shock value (as of its exchange value). Whatever might be said about the tabloid press and their (ab)-use of this image and the attendant moral outrage for purposes of circulation (and much could be said on this issue), it is important to note that the outrage the art-work provokes has to do, precisely not with the person, Myra Hindley, nor with the original event, nor with the suffering associated with it (continuing in the persons of the relatives left behind), but with its blunt use to gain notoriety. The public protested against the collapse of the complex moral temporality of loss into the simple now of shock. The market has not yet entirely sundered the memory of pain into a pure commodity. Even by means of the transmission belt of art.


If the Hindley picture contains the germ of an interesting idea, it stops short at pure shock, is satisfied with pure novelty. No further re-positioning is attempted. In fact the picture mirrors precisely the use of the image made by the tabloids; it differs only in its aestheticisation and its art-institutional position. At best, then, one might argue that the picture highlights the tabloid, or popular cultural, appropriation of the Myra Hindley photograph (one in which, in contradistinction to other photographic images of her, she looks particularly frightful) as populist folk-devil (or, that difficult formulation to resist, the deserving, or already guilty, scapegoat), and that the artwork only highlights this appropriation. However, this highlighting is achieved at the cost of blindly repeating the tabloid operation - its complicity must therefore be regarded as total.



These in turn evoking the memory of recent exhibitions…




In China, by comparison, the artist Gao Bo also uses the black and white photographic image as the starting point for further painterly or plastic development; however, the meaning that results serves to accentuate the commemorative or interrogative function of the original image and its referents – and addresses cultural memory in a respectful and responsible way.


Gao Bo is both one of China’s leading photographer-artists, noted for his installations, and also one of China’s leading performance artists…


In contradistinction to many other ethnographically inspired photographs and offering the form of the image as a question, an image framed as the asking of a question, we have a powerful example of the interrogative voice in black and white photography, in a photographic portrait by Gao Bo, ‘Sketch Portrait’, (1996) in ‘Convection’, (Three Shadows, Winter 2007-8, photographs from the permanent collection). This image incorporates smearing and handwriting – as if incorporating graffiti or a written note as a form of commentary, which 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). ‘Parle’ in French, the imperative, asks someone to speak, the addressee of the imperative, is it her or us, her viewers. ‘Speak!’ The imperative awaits its response, its intended, demanded, effect. But the image does not speak -it is an image- its ‘speech’ lies in our interpretation. The future of the image. An interpretation that turns on the deformation of the image.


Indeed the use of such deformation can have the effect of combining the tenses (past, present and future) as we perceive a pre-existing problem, its presence in the here and now and the possibility of a solution (or if there is no suggestion of a solution, then as the continuation of the problematic state into future…). Oracular. Deformation here has the status of a question posed; a future deixis that throws us into a realm as yet undecided. A question addressed to the future (as every question awaits an answer). 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? Portraying Others.




Xing Danwen ‘Your pain is my pain’/你的痛就是我的痛 (2015).


Xing Danwen is China’s leading feminist photographer; women, urbanism and modernity are her chosen themes…


(The title already, as titles do, and must, carries quite a lot… The English translation does not quite carry the insistence or forceful assertion of the Chinese sentence/title, where the effect is rather of emphatic assertion. If the sentence asserts a simple predicate relation, ‘is’ , the intensification by then reinforces it: or ironises it (which, is a matter for context; the image). As ‘title’ the function is precisely to interact with the image, guiding and collecting meanings… suggesting questions. Much hangs upon the identification of the ‘you/your/’ in the title; the ‘you’ of sympathy/identification, the recipient of a problem or problems, the ‘you’ and ‘I’ of a shared or comparable problem – a case of solidarity or, if incommensurable, of irony).


A Diptych to the others’ single framed images, this form already offers a new way of framing information, a different genre of presentation; traditionally of religious use in painting (the division of the image as its magnification) it has passed into photography as an indicator of importance, the division here being of two persons of the same gender, or perhaps two moments, two facets, front and back, of the same person. The artwork consists of an image of a woman (the artist) first from the front, then, in the second part of the diptych, a back view, of a woman in different clothes with a different hair style, but similar build – probably (but not exclusively) indicating a different woman. Certainly, asserting some identity – some shared ground. Yet the ‘back-view’ of the second image complements the ‘front-view’ of the first: the opposites that make up a whole (‘as if’ they were the same person). It is as if we have a background, a back story, ‘written on her back’, ‘written on skin’, as the next door, metonymic comment, to the topic of the first picture (note we are normally drawn to the face-bearing image first, as prior, and that the order of reading is left to right, the default global standard of reading and writing direction, further suggesting the left image as prior, or as topic). The ‘second’ image then, the back view, or metaphoric ‘back-ground’ acts as a comment which inverts the priority of first and second, indicating the lie or in this case half-truth; the apparently lesser problems of the ‘first’ image, presented, up front, the ‘face’, its ‘no comment’ expression  - and the marks and scars on her body…… which perhaps we did not notice when we were too quickly distracted by the vivid colours of the medical marks on the second… (Now reading from right to left - the old traditional directionality of reading in Eastern cultures – so suggesting that we need to re-examine the first image.)


The content of the first image is a woman already semi-clothed, and with signs of the medical covering over invisible wounds: as well as other visual wounds (a black eye, incision scars on breast and stomach). The second image then shows (what is probably) another woman’s back (although the same person may have posed for both) and we see a frightening array of red welts and bruises, scrapings and rashes; frightening looking, but typically the effects of medical treatment (the main meaning, somewhat negating the shock of the original impact). If the first suggests the physical and emotional pain (invisible) of physical or domestic abuse, then the second suggests either the pain undergone in the treatment or the pain of the original malady (which may also be psychological or spiritual). As the title ironically indicates, there is the question of commensurability, of identity: to what extent can we compare pain? Are domestic violence and bodily or mental illness comparable? The gender and postures indicate similarity; questioning the causes does not.


Marks on the back. (Marks on background…) Signs of ill health, of earning a living, of stress (‘cupping’ and ‘scraping’ as ancient remedies, now again fashionable forms of traditional Chinese medicine and relief). Like black marks on the background of the first two pictures… the negatives that carry the pictures into notoriety. But the latter case ‘Your pain is my pain’, the second negative distracts from the first - aided to be sure by the ‘I can cope’ attitudinal image of the first. The less livid marks on the front of the first tell the story of violence by others -or even by the self (‘self-harm’)- with their accompanying, but hidden, physical and spiritual pain.



All four art works reference women: the first two as persons with Proper Names, the third as a nameless image, the fourth with the artist (and maybe another), through the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’. The first two images use these particular real women only because of their background: the third, an altered documentary image problematises gender, culture and speech in a women of a given background; the fourth raises the background of a problem (the causes) through the role of the artist as model (a particular person embodying a general problem). The first photograph, by Jiang Zhi, has a moralising tone added by a ‘spicy’ reputation, its background as its only source of value-judgement; in the second artwork (by Marcus Harvey), of photographic origin, it is again the person’s background that, provides an extra, shocking, level of meaning; Gao Bo’s photo-portrait, by contrast, signals a more responsible, interrogative way of proceeding, the question of voice as applicable to the marginalized, what Gayatri Spivak has called the ‘Subaltern’; whilst in the last art work, by Xing Danwen, paired images, perform the change of face of the ‘first’ image by the ‘second’ part, by first distracting from the injuries in the first, then, as we look more closely, discovering and comparing them - suggesting the forms of life behind the images… The pain behind the images, their origins… the relevant background. In all four cases we might argue that the background in some way ‘spoils’ the image, alters the image; in the latter case by the form of a clever ‘optical illusion’ - strategically eclipsing the pain (the wounds) of the depicted at first glance, only to permit its return (their recognition) at second glance. Like a metaphor where we look for the second meaning.


Like so much human suffering: ‘Hiding in plain sight’





Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2018