Autopsy: Cui Xiuwen, a Woman in Chinese Avant-garde Photography


Angel NO.11

A context to open up

Chinese painting has led, over the past decade, a strong international interest which seems to be faltering somehow. The Chinese painting locked itself in its own system, which was to present a caricature of China with Mao’s portraits in all states and situations possible until the critical presentation at International Art Fair of Basel in 2008 by British artist, Jonathan Monk, who pointed out the proliferation of Mao’s niche installing a range of seven large format paintings representing all full-length portraits of Mao. From that symbolic mocking show, “Mao’s seam” was worked out.

Of course some painters stand out from that large and caricatured production of Chinese paintings. They are technically excellent like the great Zhang Xiaogang and Zhang Fazhi. Some other great painters express a cynical realism like Yue Minjun or Fang Lijun for example. They are excellent but, after all, if you look at their topics, the content is not as strong as what we find in the New Chinese Photography


Emergence of a New Chinese photography

Liu Li Tun by Rong Rong

"The last Judgment" by Miao Xiaochun


New Chinese photography is composed of young people who were born in the 70s at the end of Mao’s era. They lived their Chinese teenage years when some openness to the market economy. The opening to the world sharpens curiosity and critical attitude creating the crucible of a new vanguard that would dare to express new ideas through photography, using an exciting mix of symbolic tools.

One of the leaders of the Chinese avant-garde, Rong Rong, takes us, with the strength of black and white, to his scenes in which young naked people lay down in urban landscapes in ruins. Another example is the intriguing world of Zhu Ming who installs naked people too, locked up in a bubble in the middle of some landscape.

Whether realistic or more fantastic symbolist, these young Chinese photographers all have one thing in common which is to prepare their image a long time before to provide a composition in which nothing is left to chance and where every detail has a symbolic value.

In this Avant-garde Symbolist Group stands out a group that blends traditional Western symbolic tools to others more specifically Chinese. For example Miao Xiaochun embezzles the famous “Last Judgement” by Michelangelo, imagining the scene seen from backstage, where, through its composition, symbolically as well as for real: “the last one ends the first” -as it is said in the Bible.

A singular artist: Cui Xiuwen

Among that Symbolist Chinese Group of Photographers, a young female artist offers us a work of exceptional strength in both form and substance: Cui Xiuwen.

Angel #4

After having expressed through painting within she learned certainly the power of color and the sense of composition, she seems to feel cramped and takes, in 2000, the turning point of Art Video. She became famous thanks to “Ladies’room (2000)”, shown at the International Center of Photography in New York in 2002. She filmed the activities of young women who go to the ladies room of a karaoke club in Beijing, turning the viewer into a voyeur.

Cui Xiuwen, “Lady’s Room”, video still, 2000

To work with videos gave her the sense of staging, the sense of drama and teach her how to build an image.


Cui Xiuwen: a Signature

ciuxiuwen1 angel #8
angel #8

Obvioulsly, the reactions and difficulties Cui Xiuwen encountered as a female artist to show her previous work has helped to reveal the nature of the message she decided to work with which is to awake young Chinese girls on their status as daughter, mother and wife.

This is step by step, since painting through video, and carried by the effervescent and rich artistic context described above, that the artist  comes naturally to the photography using the force and power of its unique image.

With such an understanding she starts to produce, and to offer to us, a style signed Cui Xiuwen.


Freedom drawn from a protocol of constraint

angel no 6
angel no 6

From her beginnings in photography, Cui Xiuwen has found her creation system. She uses a binding protocol of constraint which consists in a long time preparation of concept and when the work is conceptualized to choose always the same character and a minimum of signs to express it.

Her whole work contains the same hero, a young girl dressed the same way, in different situations surrounded with the fewest, but the strongest possible signs.

It produces an impact inversely proportional to the aesthetic minimalism proposed.

This is, paradoxically, because of this protocol of constraint that Cui Xiuwen offers us a strong image, so rich in symbolic interpretations.


« Angel » series

angel n° 3
angel n° 3

In the Angel series Cui Xiuwen uses classic compositions that could pass for caricature, but as she takes off any unnecessary signs, she creates a restrained image, dotted with a wide range of symbolic vocabulary that give to the photograph a great strength:

The color red is a symbol of Power

A wide blue sky -symbolizing the passing time or the remaining time to pass- in which clouds dotted here and there symbolize some torment or anger;
The heroin -always the same-  is an ordinary girl, with every Chinese girl characteristics: straight hair cut square and jet-black color, short bangs, a complexion milk
like with rosy cheeks made with makeup.
The heroin always wears the same simple white robe symbolizing purity and innocence.

Cui Wiuwen gives exaggerated poses to her heroine (poses that could be borrowed to some kind of novels or silent film) to emphasize the feeling. The heroine is sometimes multiplied indefinitely with a different facial expression for each one.

Each one of the 14 photographs from the series “Angel” explores a different status of the Woman and a different feeling that comes with it, like ingenuity, anxiety, submission, abandonment, sadness, loneliness. There is also a series in the series that focuses on what appears to be a real problem in China, the very young pregnant, who, like Virgin Mary (as the color blue of the sky reminds us) wondered how she did it to get there. Her facial expression and her body reflect perfectly her soul and show she is conscious that her life dramatically changes.

Each posture of the young Chinese girl is widely studied until the gesture of her hands which takes the same strong meaning as in portraits drawn by Ingres. For example, a hand can be placed on a round belly that has a baby without touching it, without affection, just like a simple statement that will change her life.  Another image shows a hand that scrapes an outdoor wall somewhere in the street showing a suppressed rage that is expressed only by that nail scraping the wall.

The human condition and more specifically the status of women are a rich ferment for an artist, whatever medium he works with, literature, film and visual arts. On this side of the American West Coast, a contemporary author of cartoons, the Artist Charlie White offers a great study of morals and behavior of young American girls -on a more cynical and mocking way-  that convey to reflection. In her times, French Writer Simone de Beauvoir has awakened the conscience of a generation of young girl with words. Cui Xiuwen found in a similar empathy with her sisters and a common desire to raise awareness.


« Existential Emptiness »


Existential Emptiness #11
Existential Emptiness #11

The last new series of photographs by Cui Xiuwen “Existential Emptiness” is more metaphysical than sociological. The special process of creation I described above of using a protocol of the constraint still remains but she added one more constraint which is the black and white color. That black and white series forces the viewer to focus on the young woman even further, on the emptiness and the obvious absence of details.

The photographer deepens further the mental world of a Woman. It is made of torment, madness, that can go to a disembodiment if we consider the dolls that sometimes replace the young women. That new series, darker in purpose, yet opens the discussion to a more international dimension, where women in general may feel a close echo.


Existential Emptiness #16
Existential Emptiness #16


A link with ancient tradition

As explained above, we see -grace to Cui Xiuwen, and some other wonderful photographers- the emergence of a new symbolist movement of photographers that will mark undoubtedly the long history of Chinese art.

They all have in common to use this same protocol of the constraint which is to build a previous concept, then to create a perfect scenario to show only the essentials.

Their purpose is to put the minimum, but the essential, for a maximum impact.

This reminds us the principles that underpin Chinese Painting since the Tang Dynasty. The principle being that the work is only the visible part of a long prior meditation from the artist. This is a long maturation of a mental state that must be reflected on a canvas -or rice paper- with an economy of means, of gesture and colors and that must be able to produce in the viewer a meditative state equivalent.

It remained to be applied in photography, it’s done and it’s new!

Beatrice Chassepot,
a French voice from Los Angeles,
December 26th, 2010

Special thanks to Hélène Lacharmoise, owner and director of Galerie Dix9, from Paris, for helping me to get in touch with Cui Xiuwen