In the confines of the darkroom, shielded from both artificial and man-made light, the only permissible light source is a dim and mute, functional red bulb. There is a sultry atmosphere—a controlled flirtation or banter and a sense of composure despite the underlying current of passion. The celluloid negatives are suitably arranged within the frame of the enlarger and exposed for a brief time—projected on the surface of the photographic paper, bleached red by the light. Everything seems blurred, immersed in the developer and the fixer, a motionless image slowly floats to the surface. This frozen image—a small fragment of a real image which once existed—is transformed into a photograph through the act of manual labor. This is a fixed action in the era of film before the digital image, produced in the darkroom, after the time of Niépce and Daguerre. This generation of photographers, took great pains to reproduce reality or preserve an image.
Luo Mingjun is not really the average professional photographer, and she needn’t crouch in the lanes, waiting to pounce like other photographers such as Cartier-Bresson. And unlike Araki, she needn’t put her private life on display through film. These are photographs which are related to the traces of her life—“readymades” which are products of her thoughts and creativity. The greatest invention in the age of mechanical reproduction—the photographic image—in the hands of Luo Mingjun—reverts back to the form of painting. These images are carefully delineated by the artist. Their colors marked by the experience of degradation, also undergo a certain arduous process of being “re-written”. Using the most unadulterated drawing technique, she drags the image into the realm of photography and the darkroom, or at least we can say into the temporal realm of the “pre-history of photography”. Luo Mingjun, through this working method, tries to create a dialogue with photographic history, not to mention a return to the original form of the image. Her work attempts to fine-tune or correct these coordinates of personal memory, to create an ethereal stage for dialogue between the individual and the disorderly and chaotic affairs of the world. This stage is not the sort of stage that is surrounded by an audience, nor is it the kind of stage which is facing a wall, a kind of actual space. It is not something poeticized from the imagination of the artist, but rather an ethereal attic, shrouded in mist.
Luo Mingjun is an artist who shuttles between different cultures. In the early days, she started off in the interior of Hunan province when the New Wave art movement was in full swing in the 80s, when the young artists resolutely adopted the means and methods of western art, subverting and critiquing the old artistic concepts, it was easy to see at a glance the vanguard nature of the use of readymades in her art. This generation of artists keenly experienced the feeling of loss and bewilderment triggered by the rupture of the coherence of traditional context brought on by the forging of the collectivist consciousness. But she jumped into the Western world feet first. Living and working in a foreign country and an alien land, she had to face the intrinsic conflict between these two cultures and her own anxieties in regards to self-identity.
In Luo Mingjun’s works: “River”, “The Invisible Peach Blossom Spring”, “In Quotes”, “Sense of
Security”, “In Search of the Peach Blossom Spring”, “Intersection of Time”, and others, we can clearly see that the images are procured from a different era, remnants of a time prior to this age of consumerism and information technology. These were taking during a time when the value of the individual was not respected and these kind of ritualistic group portraits invariably came to symbolize that era. After the tragedy and pain of that have subsided, we are left with a recollection of the past, like a scar left over as a token of a bitter lesson. The brilliance of Luo Minjun’s work is that she does not engage in simple strategies of social critique or reflections upon values. Those images which have been washed away by time, those blurry, yet indelible memories are nonetheless fleeting like the first blush of youth. Her meticulous depictions reveal the past of the individual, not so much with a crisp line but a soft strokes of the pencil. Her rational and transcendent approach, offers hints and traces which speak directly to the process of human maturation using the form of the work, as a flashback on this history which is stubbornly unspeakable. Amongst the names these works we find a reference to the Peach Blossom Spring, this is not only the geographical name of a place but also the secret garden, the spiritual sanctuary of the literati, to which their hearts and thoughts oft returned. It might be described as a kind of utopian world characterized by the concept of an pin le dao—meaning to discard material comforts and take delight in “the Tao”. The paradoxical element is that the information provided to the viewer by the image, the period when the image was produced, coincides with the most extreme years of collective madness—an era where “collectivity” crept into every corner of our lives. Therefore, there is a kind of dislocation between the image and the text, which creates a sense of the abnormal or the absurd. We can see that Luo Mingjun’s works will always confront ideologies from different directions, brushing past, without falling into the vulgar quagmire of sociology and politics, therefore allowing the audience adequate space to read the works on their own.
In her well-known work, “The Crossroads of Time”, people or groups of people, are compressed into flat silhouettes, like small fragments of a long-lost painting, where the details have been all but rubbed off. The crowd of people sit like lonely objects surrounded by a vast plane of white, as if posing the question does life and existence amount to nothing more than pure nihilism? The work once again, like the end of Antonioni’s “Blow-Up”, employs an interesting intertextual relationship. The information provided within the work “Nothing To Say,” echoes the title of the piece. A group of people—some sitting, some standing—is scattered about a nameless mountain top, either facing the light or enjoying the fading rays of the sun, yet they seem to hang in space like meaningless symbols. There is only this singular, directional light source which depicts the blurry outline of the characters, transforming these everyday images into a vision of the uncanny. Is this divine, transcendental light a metaphor? Can these lowly bodies, placed within this majestic natural scenery, the various sorrows of this earthly life, this irresolvable grief locked within the heart melt into this traditional landscape painting of blue and green without a trace? It seems like there is no straight line which points to an answer.
In addition to using these old photographs which recall her childhood, Luo Mingjun’s stage is occupied by many photographs which were taken in the present time period. For instance, “Above the Clouds”, “Olive Branch”, “Scar”, and “Enjoying the Landscape Together” are like “pillow shots” (a term used in cinema to describe empty scenes with no characters, only scenery
or décor)—images which are the product of the scratchings of a charcoal pencil. Having undergone a transformation of the original texture of the image, these works provide a detailed narration, albeit in a restrained tone, the act of imprinting and processing these images consuming time in its own way. The images are captured from the artist’s daily surroundings or more precisely revived and reprocessed from remote past experiences, and on the level of visual expression. In this, we can see a dialogue between traditional landscape painting, however, this interplay of pen and ink contained within the spirit of the landscape paintings, is soon replaced by the layering and superimposition of charcoal, a medium which comes from the West. From the standpoint of the image “Above the Clouds”, we can easily see the itinerant nature of the Tang Dynasty poets reflected in the forms of the floating clouds. In “Enjoying the Landscape Together”, the sense of volume of the tree is compressed into a sense of flatness, the scribbling charcoal pencil comes to symbolize the concept of a free and unfettered life. A bird occupying a conspicuous spot in the middle of the work, engaged in a migration from place to place, motionless and hollow, it evolves into an eternal “freeze-frame” of life. The magnolia flowers in the oil paintings “I Walked Past You 2”, and “I Walked Past You 3” have already transcended the associations we have with flowers, women, and sexuality. We only encounter them on occasion, as a kind of coincidence, and they become readily available materials to the artist. The flourishing bustling nature of the flowers retreating into the greyness of the scene. These elaborately constructed “image paintings”, represent Luo Mingjun’s search for a balance between eastern and western visual languages frames of reference. More over it is only after the artist’s thorough understanding of the full nature of existence, naturally, that an understanding of the inner meaning of Chan Buddhism—of the wordless expressions of her artistic conceptions which approaches the realm of life.
“Stage” which shares the same name as the exhibition provides the viewer with an interior view—the deep and serene black background and the blurry fringe of light, bears the same light quality as the discarded old photographs. The chair seems almost to vibrate with a lingering warmth from the departed sitter, while the speaker appears as a single lone image. The possession of discourse and the non-existent audience, form a multidimensional and paradoxical relationship. According to the theories of Foucault, knowledge and information posses the power of discourse, and their effective dissemination is contingent on the subject’s acceptance of that information. But the artist has placed these subjects outside the frame, eliminated them through a kind of “pillow shot”, perhaps a metaphor for the dialectical relationship which exists within the gains and failures of power.
Luo Mingjun really is the master of the self-reflective mage; she has provided us with a series of black and white images reminiscent of silent films. Each image is arranged in a non-linear fashion. Combined, these silent images create a background to the stage, but it is also the performance itself. These performances involve a clever intertwining of memories and daily life, the individual and the greater world, observation and experience, always employing an open structure, which quietly await the visitor’s gaze.
A brief reading of the works of Luo Mingjun.
June 1, 2018