“Push-ups do not expose my private parts and the pictures look pure, dedicated, positive and even reverent. Upon first sight, the body looks like a caterpillar, trying to establish a link between itself and society.”
From the late 1990s, the Chinese artist Ou Zhihang 区志航 (born in Guangzhou) has been photographing himself naked, doing push-ups, in front a variety of emblematic urban and natural landscapes. On the one hand, it echoes Chinese long-standing performance practices exploring the naked body and its relationship with the immediate environment, which reached its heights in the 1990s in Chinese art circles. On the other, Ou’s photographs move beyond the mere record of a performance. In truth they unveil subtle and severe critiques on societal issues, while providing an outcry against social amnesia.
The paradox between landscape and nude is created on purpose. According to Ou, the landscape remains the main subject matter: it represents the background of a story that everyone should be aware of and remember. These stories can be associated with key historical moments, local scandals, or from a broader perspective can relate to international events. The events that he chooses are usually mediatized either in official media or on the internet, and prompted public reaction and discussion.
Why then posing in the nude? Ou explains it rather simply. Firstly, a nude body attracts the eyes. Secondly, the push-up gesture is inspired by a calligraphic inscription Chairman Mao made in 1952 for the new sports administration: “Promote physical culture and build up the people’s physique” (发展体育运动, 增强人民体质). More than a reference, Ou’s push-ups appear as a transformative practice, encouraging people to build up their local and global memory. As the Yale University scholar Dihao Zhou has clarified: “Ou’s art practice anticipated the association of the term ‘push-up’ with the general absurdity of Chinese society in the public discourse, after the Weng’an incident in 2008, in which the local official used the term ‘push-up’ to fudge a hideous murder case. His works then continued to serve as silent witness to a series of public events.”
Ou is actually a television personality in China. In 1988, he began working for Guangdong TV, founding and hosting important programs over the years. This is the reason why he has been able to go to places others would not have access. Ou also went abroad to capture other society stories. For instance, he conducted performance at sites of Paris and Belgium terrorist attacks. Other of Ou’s works have visually examined sensitive issues such as Tibet, and the consequences of the Olympic Games in 2008. Yet interestingly he has never been censored and can freely exhibit his photographs in China.
In the end, his “push-ups of memory” involve a complex intertwining of video and photography, conceptual and documentary, and social analysis. Such atypical mingling has been recognized: in 2009 he received the World Press Photo Award in the category Contemporary Issues Story. Through this series, Ou intends to engage in a dialogue with wide local and international audience, hoping to spread awareness and to offer an art in service for the people.
Photography Friday is a regular feature from Shanghaiist in association with Photography of China, Marine Cabos’s fantastic trilingual blog about photography and photographers in China.
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