Xu Yong’s exhibition shown in Hamburg, Germany from February 11 to March 16, 2019

This year’s June will see the 30th anniversary of the deadly suppression of the 1989 Chinese student movement. The movement represents the peak of China’s gradual move towards openness and social liberalization in the 1980s, its untimely, violent end was a traumatic rupture of civilization which China had last experienced during the infamous “Great Cultural Revolution” of the late 1960s.
Since then, the subject of the student movement has become taboo in China, the taboo enforced both online and offline, targeting “professional” dissidents as well as common relatives of victims of the military crackdown.

To do our part in keeping memory and awareness of this turning point in Chinese history alive, the Hamburger Sinologische Gesellschaft (Sinological society) advanced the idea of having an exhibition of Xu Yong’s negatives, eventually implementing the exhibition in cooperation with the Landeszentrale für politische Bildung Hamburg (Center for political education), as well as the Bücherhallen Hamburg (Public libraries). It was decided to hold the exhibition from the middle of February to the middle of March.

My part was the task of curating the exhibition, which gave me a chance to get in contact with Mr. Xu, to work out the details of the exhibition in a half-year long process of deciding on the final shape of the artworks as well as their presentation in the exhibition alongside information about the student movement and the artist, among other things.

Xu Yong

Mr. Xu (*1954) is an internationally acclaimed fine art photographer based in Beijing. With more than ten published photobooks under his belt, and being represented by international galleries, he does not need to pursue a project like this just for shock value or the publicity. Presenting the negatives to the public (which he originally did for the first time in 2014) as a form of historical testimony is a matter dear to his heart.

Many of Xu’s earlier photographic artworks, among them his photos of Beijing’s Hutongs from the 1980s, published in 1989, already touch upon the passage of time, or photography’s relationship with time.

The NEGATIVE/SCANS are the culmination point of this pursuit. They were taken by Xu, presumably without “artistic intention”, when he was 35. He had left the Beijing Advertising Company, where he worked as a photographer, the year before. In 1989 he had started his own company and at the same time began to exhibit his own art photography. Such was his situation, when the student protests began to unfold in the middle of April.

30 years later, Xu Yong has already carved out his place in the Chinese art scene. The publication and exhibition of the negatives as an artistic statement by Xu, now 65 and looking back on a successful career, is at the same time both a brave jab at history and the forces shaping it, as well as a symbolic return to his beginnings as an artist. The passage of time itself integrates the author Xu into his artwork, transforming his role from that of a witness in 1989 to one of a conceptual artist in 2019.

The Artworks

The colors of these negatives, which I exposed 30 years ago and kept deep down in some drawer, are slowly fading away. Due to the circumstances, they cannot be exhibited as regular photos. Because of this, I used the method of digital scanning to capture the material form of the negatives, which is almost like recording the photographic records of that year a second time.

The pictures contain the traces of the oil used in the drum scanner. These traces are – just like the images on the film – the most direct proof of the uniquity of our world. The pictures appear inverted, because they have not been corrected, but the technological progress allows us to transform the pictures into their correct form, by using the digital devices we constantly carry with us.

As far as I am concerned, the most important message of these artworks is the form of the negatives in itself. It expresses what I want to express. Maybe it can prompt the viewers to reflect on the essence of photography and the relationship of the film age and the digital age, especially in China.

— Xu Yong

The 20 artworks on display are reproductions of snippets of 35mm color film in their raw, negative shape, enlarged to 60cmx60cm. Using a properly set-up smartphone, the viewer can reverse the negative colors and see the “true” historical picture inscribed in the material artifact of the film strip.

Compared to the negatives already published by Xu in book form in 2014, the shape of the negatives exhibited in Hamburg differed slightly: This time the scans of the negatives showed the film base around the picture area of the film, including sprocket holes and oil traces from the drum scanner used to digitize the negatives. This alternative shape was suggested to Mr. Xu by me, hoping to strengthen the perception of materiality of the negatives in the shape of the artworks.

The name of the group of artworks displayed in the exhibition was accordingly extended to “NEGATIVE/SCANS”, to cover the difference in regard to the “NEGATIVES” already published in 2014.

The Exhibition

The exhibition was displayed in the entrance area of the central library of Hamburg’s public library system. While it is an unusual location for an art exhibition, its daily average of around 4000 visitors from all walks of life, who would pass the exhibition on their way into the library, ensured a high visibility of the artworks and the issue of the student movement of 1989. In theory, about 120.000 visitors of the library would have had the opportunity to see the exhibition while it was on display, but of course it is impossible to say how many of those took a closer look.

From my personal point of view, when I sometimes went to the library to check up on the exhibition, every single time there were people taking a closer look at the artworks. The central library also reported a Chinese gentleman had contacted them to tell them that the Chinese characters on the banners of the demonstrators in the artworks were all wrong, showing up as mirror images of the normal characters. This mirror image is of course an intentional part of the form of the artworks, but I’m glad someone even noticed and took the time to ask.

For the end I saved a little practical joke: The picture below is a scan of a negative, which I — exposing Fomapan 400 ISO film through a 1:2.8/55 Micro-NIKKOR — made of one of the artworks in the exhibition. Looks like you don’t necessarily need a smartphone to decode the images. On a film negative, the negative shape of the artworks is reverted to a positive image too.

Perhaps the choice of medium through which we engage with historic images is not all that important after all, the importance is in the engagement with the images themselves.

Xu Yong – Negatives (review)

The Cover of Xu Yongs "Negatives".
The Cover of Xu Yongs “Negatives”.

As part of the work on my dissertation, I research the different photographic representations of certain turning points and events in Chinese history and as far as events go, they don’t get any more iconic than the ’89 student protests on Tian’anmen square.

Today is the anniversary of the violent crackdown on the ’89 Democracy Movement (or vulgo Tian’anmen Square Protests) in Beijing and other cities. On this occassion I want to discuss a photobook released last year, which the library of the Asien-Afrika-Institut of Hamburg University was so kind to acquire just a few days ago, making it accessible for me:

Xu Yong 徐勇. Negatives. Dortmund: Kettler.

(ISBN 978-3-86206-529-5, bound copy 48€)

The Photographer Xu Yong 徐勇

According to the information provided in the book, Xu Yong was born in Shanghai in 1954 and is now living in Beijing.

Photographic works of his include:

Hutong 101 Photos 胡同101, 1989

Opening Beijing 开放北京, 2001

Xiaofangjia Hutong 小方家胡同, 2003

Backdrops and Backdrops 布景与背景, 2006

Solution Scheme解决方案, 2007

18% Gray 十八度灰, 2010

This Face这张脸, 2011

The Book

The book itself is lavishly produced, the cover done in linen and protected by a clear plastic dustcover reminsicent of an oversized strip of 35mm film. This dustcover bears a negative print of the “Goddess of Democracy”, a statue made from plaster and styrofoam which the protesters erected on the square, directly vis-à-vis the portrait of Mao Zedong hanging on Tian’anmen.

The 64 negatives in the book are reproduced in a fantastic quality on thick, coated paper. Most negatives get their own page, with none printed across the gutter. This makes it possible to concentrate on appreciation of the pictures. Some of them are printed smaller, in groups on one page, but they are still large enough to clearly make out the scenes. The negatives are accompanied by three short essays written by Shu Yang 舒陽, Gérard A. Goodrow and Martin Rendel. Especially outstanding is the one by Shu Yang discussing the use of the negative as a part of the photographic process and – perhaps as an answer to problems posed by digital imaging – as a possible final product of photographic creation.

The Photos

The photographs in this book all show different scenes of the protests on Tian’anmen Square, with the catch that they are all reproductions of part of the negative film strips, complete with sprocket holes on the upper and lower border of the pictures, showing the picture in its original, negative form, basically the way the camera recorded them. They have even been reproduced as mirror images, the way the light from the lens draws them in the camera, though the authors didn’t go as far as to print them upside down, which would ultimately be correct. (The picture drawn by a camera shows an inverted image: Left becomes right, and up becomes down.)

To allow the non-photographer to make sense of the scenes, the author suggests using a smartphone or tablet with the colours of the screen or camera-app inverted, thus revealing the picture “hidden” in the negative. This brings the pictures to live and adds a sense of immediacy and viewer participation, which is acknowledged as intentional in Shu Yang’s accompanying essay.

negative 6...
negative 6…

... and negative 6 with inverted colours.
… and negative 6 with inverted colours.

Negative 25...
Negative 25…

... and negative 25 with inverted colours.
… and negative 25 with inverted colours.

My Impression

Originally I just wanted to lay hands on this book as an example of “recently published photographs of the Tian’anmen incident”, but the way the pictures are presented turned out to be much more interesting than their immediate content.

Printing the pictures as negatives, and thus perhaps forcing the viewer to decode them by him/herself powerfully underlines the fact that the photos we encounter day to day, no matter if in books, newspapers or now online in blogs and the Facebook, are the result of a process controlled by someone. The final shape of photos is thus no longer strictly bound to reality, the way a negative is. This is no new development, for also in analog (or chemical) photography, the negative needs to be processed to become the final print or photograph. The question of authenticity and truthfullness has thus been discussed as long as photography exists.

It has become somewhat acute again in the general photographic public over the last few weeks, following the discovery that renowned National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry (his most famous picture is the portrait Afghan Girl) used post production techniques (i.e. Photoshop) to change the shape (and thus also content) of some of his pictures, from adjusting small details to even removing or adding persons to a picture. This sparked a wider debate in the photographic circles on the standards to which photojournalism and photography in general are held accountable to or should be held accountable to. Finally McCurry had to acknowledge he is no longer a photojournalist, but a “visual storyteller” on the page of Time Magazine.

Encouraging the viewer to use his/her smartphone for this decoding is a spark of genius. Not only is it the tool with which most photographs are produced now, its ubiquity also makes it the way through which most social unrest and protests are percieved today. In other words: if new demonstrations were to happen on Tian’anmen square, the tool they would be recorded with would surely be the smartphone, like it has happened with the Umbrella Movement of 2014 in Hong Kong, for example. Viewed through the smartphone, the pictures in this book gain an uncanny topicality, removing the historical distance to what happened in China during the summer of 1989 and keeping it alive and present. I feel deeply moved by this book and recommend everyone to take a look inside if you havn’t done so already.