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Top>Opinion>A Commitment to Tend to Sacred Waters Mo Yi and Documentary Photography in China


A Commitment to Tend to Sacred Waters

Mo Yi and Documentary Photography in China

Akira Yamamoto
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: Chinese Literature and Stylistics

Read in Japanese

Mo Yi’s solo exhibition at the Zen Foto Gallery in Roppongi opened on June 23, 2017. The show gives multiple exposure of the individual desires that have been passed down over the course of two decades; the desires to secure a place in history for his works.

From Pingyao, China to Arles, France

I was visiting Beijing to study in September 1985. Buried in the surge of the city’s enormous pedestrian crowds, inevitably walking shoulder to shoulder, I felt that I had been thrust inside a single organism buzzing with countless emotions.

The instant I saw Mo Yi’s solo exhibition “Caged Beast: Three decades” at the MEM Gallery in Ebisu twenty-seven years later, everything I felt back then suddenly came flooding back.

“The bustle and anxiety of society—its dynamism, its passion and resistance. I think it’s all in there. Images leave traces of a powerful qíngxù. This image is the truth. In an instant, I remembered all of the experiences and sensations that that city gave me in the eighties. Twenty years later, I was moved again by my own work.” (Mo Yi, 2005)

Qíngxù is a Chinese word for an emotion faltered by inner pressure of apprehension. China had started plunging into a market economy and the Tiananmen Square incident was just four years away. Everyone knew that something was happening. It was the unease of being at the mercy of great tectonic shifts.

The blurred landmark you see in the center of the photo on the right is St. Joseph Cathedral in Tianjin. It’s a subject to which Mo Yi is quite attached, appearing in eleven out of the forty works in his My Illusory City: China 1987 collection. The dignified Romanesque Revival form stands as a symbol of the religious culture of the time, and it can also be considered a symbol of the history of colonialism, and of Tianjin’s modern-day culture. It was for this reason that when Wang Duanyang photographed the red guards hoisting their communist flag from the roof of the cathedral in 1966, he had to depict both the buildings and the crowds scrupulously in order to express the joy of conquering an old world order.

In Mo Yi’s work, however, we lose the contours of both the architecture and the crowds. There, they are nothing but floating traces in the air. Multiple exposures at different times and positions even include the movement of the photographer’s view. This chaotic destabilization of everything allows the living energy of the crowd to gush out. It was Mo Yan, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, who in his 1987 work Red Sorghum Clan brought the timeless energy of the crowd organism to life through multiple time exposures in a single sentence. Mo Yi seems to capture that same essence.

Mo Yi has searched for new expressions as times have changed, and his activities can be divided into three periods. Meanwhile, certain things continue to spring forth from him unchanged. Elements like shadowy crowd images, or bedding or window designs that retain traces of human activity. He assembles these elements into a collage, showing energy stemming from the processes of motion and growth itself.

The process by which Mo Yi rediscovered himself in 2005 is described in his own words above, and this rediscovery has gradually spread across the world. He received the Gold Prize in Chinese Photography at the Pingyao International Photography Festival in 2008, and in 2015 he received the Gold “Power of the People” Award at the opening exhibition for the Beijing Minsheng Art Museum. That same year, he was given the Documentary Photography award by the Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation for Documentary Photography & Film at the Rencontres d’Arles, a French international photography festival which has been held for nearly half a century and is often called the Cannes of the photography world.

From Kazuo Kitai to the Zeit-Foto Salon, Zen Foto Gallery, and beyond

In Japan, Mo Yi was rediscovered in the 1990s, and this process of rediscovery continues to this day.

Photographer Kazuo Kitai rediscovered Mo Yi in 1993. This was a difficult year for the Chinese artist, Mo Yi. His first period of activity had already ended with the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, and he had discontinued wandering Tibet. He was out of work, and the burst of activity that would come with the start of his second period in 1995 had not yet arrived. Kitai encountered works from Mo Yi’s first period, and prepared a special collection titled “Undiscovered Chinese Photographers” [Dare mo shiranakatta chugoku no shashinka tachi], which appeared in a special May 1994 issue of Asahi Camera. Mo Yi was featured on 11 pages; an exceptional treatment for a newcomer. Kitai also appeared in an installment of NHK Sunday Special titled “Capturing the True Face of China” [Chugoku no sugao o toru] with Mo Yi, during which the narration quietly proclaimed that Mo Yi was “not understood by modern China,” and was “ignored as a photographer—whether as a target of criticism or acclaim.” It also talked about the “exceptional artistic worth” of his pieces, which “transcended the bounds of Chinese documentary photography.” Kitai’s strong passion to communicate the value of Mo Yi’s work has never changed and he even wrote the postscript to Mo Yi’s first ever offset-printed photo collection as recently as 2016.

The windows of old Beijing homes in Kitai’s photographs have a dreamlike sway about them in terms of the lighting and sense of time. It seems that his life is a form of cultural multiple exposure. Having been born in Manchuria, he has within him childhood experiences there as well as his mother’s words on Beijing that “It’s a place where the tree-lined streets, siheyuan courtyard homes, and hutong alleys go on forever. Keep walking, and you’ll enter such a serene state that you’ll start to feel as if you’re in a dream.”

Mo Yi was also rediscovered by Etsuro Ishihara, founder of Japan’s first commercial photography gallery, Zeit-Foto Salon, and the subject of Yumi Aota’s The Man Who Turned Photos into Art [Shashin o ato ni shita otoko]. Mo Yi held his first solo exhibition in 1996, titled Urban Spaces: Documentary Photography by Mo Yi. His second solo exhibition, Recent Works: Mo Yi, was held in 1999. Ishihara decided to select Mo Yi as his first ever solo Chinese photographer in the course of his 402 exhibitions, and Mo Yi was also the first Chinese photographer he ever featured solo for the second time. Truly, he was an exception. Ishihara not only brought an awareness of the photography’s artistic value to Japan, but also tried to communicate the value of Chinese art, including Mo Yi.

Ishihara’s passion for Mo Yi’s work was passed down to Mark Pearson, who came to Japan in 1981 and founded the Zen Foto Gallery, picking up legacy of the Zeit-Foto Salon. Since the Zen Foto Gallery opened in 2009, Mo Yi has been given four solo exhibitions there: Scenery in Red in 2011, The Eighties Part I: Father and Old Landscapes in 2015, The Eighties Part II: Mo Yi 1987–1989 in 2016, and Study–Red 1982–2017 in 2017. The Zen Foto Gallery is the only gallery in Japan to systematically feature the work of a Chinese photographer, and Mo Yi is the only artist that has been given four solo exhibitions among the 147 that the gallery has held. Furthermore, the collection contains works from the period prior to that in which Mo Yi started his career as Mo Yi, featuring a comprehensive selection of items from his first period published in the photo collection Mo Yi: 1983–1989, complete with a detailed chronological record. This may well be called a historic decision, as it is the first attempt in the world to create a starting point for basic research on the Chinese photographer.

In his postscript to Mo Yi’s photo collection, Mark Pearson explains why he decided to make China a key theme when he opened his gallery. “It was fascinating to see China,” he explained, “a country even then still in the throes of wrenching change.” Perhaps the receptors for the pain of this intense change can be found in in the multilayered sensitivities that have cut across diverse territories and cultures.

The person responsible for elevating Mo Yi’s fourth solo exhibition to a level of such exceptional quality is Amanda Ling-Ning Lo. Born in Taiwan, Lo studied abroad in Japan and has been involved in the editing and artistic direction of the gallery’s photo collections. Too young to have lived through the early eighties in China, she is unfamiliar with the era and the social conditions at the time; Mo Yi: 1983–1989 is a result of her standing toe-to-toe with Mo Yi and sorting through a massive amount of raw materials.

Mo Yi’s previous photo collections measured more than 45 centimeters along one edge, the sheer size of which was a hallmark of the style of his work. Lo made their final printing 21.5 by 15.5 centimeters, small enough so that viewers can take in the entirety of each piece without shifting their gaze when they hold the book in both hands. Multiple series are collated into one volume, and the value of each series is highlighted through different types of paper, frayed edges, or deeper black ink. If anything, Mo Yi’s prior photo collections were more like handicraft pieces. Because they were hand-stitched with threads in the old senso binding style, only about a hundred of each could be produced. His first officially printed book is likely to make his worth more widely known. This can be understood as a rediscovery from a comprehensive viewpoint—meaning that the history of his acceptance has entered the period of acceptance by a second generation of viewers.

But this latest exhibition is substantially different than his Scenery in Red exhibit in China in 2011 or the one he held at the Zen Foto Gallery that same year. It goes beyond past series, bringing together a collage of his rediscoveries within his own works and newly captured subjects, the theme of “red” becoming somewhat auxiliary to the main thrust of his work. In that way, it is a creative rediscovery that offers fresh value. This collaborative collage between Mo Yi and the Zen Foto Gallery bore fruit in the form of the exhibition as well as the printed photo collection Red 1997–2007.

Gu Zheng’s phrase, “one of the two poles of Chinese modern photography” has become cliché when talking about Mo Yi’s place in the art world. Gu, who is widely-known, discovered Mo Yi’s role as a spearheading force. Gu has studied in Japan, and he is not just driving the world of Chinese photography, but also continues to communicate the value of Chinese photographers to the wider world. Akira Higashikata has made steady use of the book shop Nitesha as a way to promote worthy unknown photographers.

Entering the canon of the classics

The value of Mo Yi’s work continues to be rediscovered across generations, national borders, and genres, and today has spread across Japan as well. All who have found him have a collage of multifaceted culture within them as their receptor. This is a typical example of a history of reception that speaks to the quality of the receivers. An almost miraculous chain of events has led to this exhibition. Earlier I wrote it gives “multiple exposure of the individual desires.” However, while it carries an incredible risk business-wise, that decision is perhaps best called a commitment rather than a desire.

The precious value of a hot spring that gushes forth bearing a distillation of a cultural moment is rediscovered in each era, and those who made such rediscovery resolve to be a custodian of the hot spring. It is the sequence of this process that creates the history of famous waters. In that sense, the genre of documentary photography and Mo Yi’s works will enter the canon of classics by continuously being rediscovered in their ambiguity that can respond to the demands of each era. We may be witnessing the opening of that very door now.

Then again, from the perspective of the study of China in Japan, the fact that I (a person who has only the tiniest sliver of knowledge about film studies) am even writing this piece tells you everything you need to know about the level of research on documentary photography. In fact, the only person I know currently giving any indication of this is my esteemed friend teaching Japanese studies at junior and senior high schools.

In his postscript, Pearson described the times that Mo Yi lived through as those in which “Order has dissolved, to be replaced by chaos.” And it wasn’t just China during those years that suffered from upheaval. Today, we may need to rediscover Mo Yi more than ever.

Akira Yamamoto
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: Chinese Literature and Stylistics
Professor Yamamoto was born in Hokkaido in 1962. He graduated from School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I, Waseda University in 1987, completing his master’s program at the Graduate School of Arts, Letters, and Sciences of the same university in 1989. He went on to complete his coursework for a doctorate in the same program in 1993, withdrawing before being awarded his degree.
He served as an Assistant Professor and Associate Professor at Chuo University before taking up his current post in 2004.