Pékin Fine Arts is pleased to be hosting another solo exhibit by Liu Zheng. In his latest Selfie project, once again pushes photography’s boundaries to new limits, raising questions of on-line technology’s impact on photography’s future, as well as the role of Selfies as “tools” of personal expression and social interaction.
Art Over The Internet: Selfie by Liu Zheng
Selfie is a self-portrait photography initiative launched by artist Liu Zheng using social media in China. The project parameters are simple: Everyone on-line is invited to take photos of them selves and to send those photos to Liu, who then uploads those self-portraits to social networks such as We Chat and Instagram upon mutual agreement. Liu as artist-editor-curator often chats on-line with these mainly anonymous volunteer Selfie – makers, offering encouragement and instruction during the process. Of course, if he likes the photos he simply posts them directly on-line. Images continue to be uploaded daily.
Amidst a more open cultural environment in China, partly due to the availability of new media technologies, Liu’s Selfie project is undertaken in the name of art and using the methods of art to explore new possibilities for ordinary people to express them selves, to communicate and to interact with each other. More and more participants are taking part in the Selfie project and they are pushing boundaries, innovating and remodeling the program with Liu as the initial founder and the Selfie project’s current manager.
Selfie is a term coined from the Internet and included since 2013 in the Oxford English Dictionary. It refers to self-portrait photographs, typically taken with a camera phone by youngsters and shared on social networking services. Worldwide, more and more people are interested in showing their Selfies via the Internet.
Unlike common Selfies, the initiative by Liu is combined with a dedicated Internet interface and is focused on universal pursuits of human beings, such as the desire for greater freedom and equality as well as sensual desire. Arguably, these are the basic human rights asserted, pursued and safeguarded by all citizens in the developed world and are cornerstones of contemporary culture. Whereas in China, restricted areas and ambiguous rules subject to varied interpretation remain. When Internet and mobile phones come together, people can share information everywhere and at any time as part of their daily routine and everything seems possible. With the unprecedented openness brought by the Internet and the intrinsic excitement encapsulated in the naked body of many portrait takers, Selfie enables free and inexpensive distribution of self-portrait photos and inspires vitality, free will and independent spirit of spectators and auto-portrait photographers alike.
From the photos presented, we see that most participants are youngsters who have diverse interests and come from a wide variety of backgrounds; there are also couples, pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers. In the process of photographing them selves and often their naked bodies, so-called civilized people reveal their innermost private impulses via public widely distributed images. They free their heart and express their intense and latent desires no matter how eccentric those desires are, via images of homo-eroticism, costume play, S&M scenes etc etc. Selfies also enable people to express themselves in other ways, to feel reaffirmed and to prove their uniqueness in the world. In addition, by showing a nude portrait to strangers, they attempt to communicate with, lure and challenge others. Many pictures are sexual and are bound to inspire natural human desire. A seemingly simple Selfie contains a variety of complicated motives and deep psychosocial elements including - but not limited to - narcissism, exhibitionism and voyeurism.
Liu and other Selfie on-line viewers were amazed by each amateur photographer’s creativity in the process of making self-portraits - even of a naked body – and, as the on-line invitation to submit Selfies became more well known, more and more people took part in this initiative and tried to express themselves, communicate with others and to form new friendships through Selfies. Such a simple and rather banal action instigated by Liu Zheng has now triggered infinite possibilities by singular personalities, each carrying his/her own unique life style, mindset, knowledge and technical on-line acumen.
At the outset, participants are encouraged and inspired to participate because of Liu Zheng’s reputation and status in the photo world. Liu is the original designer and organizer of Selfie. His endorsement gives the project more credibility and critical influence; and everyone involved begins to develop creatively, and to practice and to promote the Selfie program. Selfie is an open-ended and ever-changing invitation to all, inspiring more possibilities and gaining wider popularity over time. Here in China expressing emotion and taking the initiative are matters of growing significance and mutual respect; on-line chats and group discussions become even more important. For Liu, every photo taken and sent represents an opportunity to have an in-depth exchange and on-going dialogue.
Selfie is democratic, open and inexpensive, and it relates to an individual’s private life and inherent desires and is potentially more true to one’s genuine self. During the production and dissemination on line of Selfies, rapid and fundamental transformations of individuals take place, inspiring personal awareness, creative consciousness and on-line interaction. Finally, in my view, the Selfies are promoting a convenient mode of self-expression and a more open value system.
Liu is called one of the “masters” of China’s Conceptual Photography, and is known by many as the founder of its fundamental principles and means of expression. Since the 1990s, his photographic output has reflected on the impact of Chinese traditional culture in works like The Chinese, Spiritual Trinity and Four Beauties and tried to demonstrate these ingrained and hard-to-change mindset and values through images. Such critical self-reflection, in Liu’s view, is necessary in order to spark positive change, via more open thinking and self-awareness. Since the 1990s, China has become wide open to the outside world with no turning back and aspires to enjoy a flourishing contemporary culture. During this modernization drive, China’s cultural scene is gradually changing. And the younger the people are, the less influences they have from the past. The gradual growth in individualism is the most obvious change, although the slow pace remains unsatisfactory. The widespread use of the Internet and the possibilities offered by mobile telephone Internet devices is accelerating openness and changing the pace of this modernization process. After having sensed such a transformation within his social circles, Liu opted to make a difference in his own way. Compared with earlier photo works by Liu, the most significant change that comes with his Selfie project is that Liu has created a platform on which expressions of individualism can increase exponentially.
Liu recognizes the profound implications resulting from the ease of on-line photo sharing. Since its invention, photography’s technology has changed radically, and the photo image as a concept is being constantly updated, leading to a period today of unprecedented openness. The wide spread availability of digital images has substantially reduced production time and related costs. The rapid and widespread use of mobile Internet devices helps to make the distribution of photos much easier. The unprecedented popularity of photography and its many forms of new technology has far-reaching implications: Simply put, visual images today are made and distributed by more and more people, instead of monopolized by a small group. Inspiring everyone to record, express, spread and interact with one another via image sharing. Currently, taking and posting on-line photos has become a daily routine of average people and its convenience is improving all the time. In such a situation, instead of sticking to his original work, Liu promotes the openness of contemporary art to even more people. Liu’s actions imply that everyone can be an artist and everything can be art; everyone can turn one’s life into art and oneself into an artwork. He encourages ordinary people, who might not otherwise be confident and open enough, to believe in themselves and to participate in acts of creative expression.
Art is first and foremost a form of self-expression, and by its very nature it must be expressed, distributed and communicated. Art cannot survive without being relevant to the times and the technology of the times. With the widespread application of open, democratic and low-cost mobile Internet technology, mainstream contemporary art is increasingly derided as classical contemporary art due to its powers of monopoly, luxury and elitism. In recent years, spectacular social change in China has occurred partly due to the popularity of the Internet, enabling more and more people to blossom and to compete against more established artists in terms of public awareness, on-line expertise and more rapid-fire problem solving capabilities. Widespread technological applications allow average people to achieve mastery of technical strengths previously relegated to artists with years of academic and technical training. Under such circumstance, the classical contemporary art typically seen in a gallery setting appears to be pale and weak in comparison. Inspired by the Internet, art is becoming a life practice of the many, and so-called professional contemporary artists seem to be working in ways more akin to a craftsmen.
Confronted with multiple obstacles, such as outmoded mind sets and forms of expression, the contemporary art world seems increasingly outdated and overly rigid, and will inevitably require adjustment and transformation: It is only a matter of time. Truly contemporary art will have a close relationship with mobile Internet technology. However, questions remain. For example, “How should art face the mobile Internet age?” These are new questions confronting all artists, questions that remain to be answered. Critically observant people are aware of the huge possibilities and dramatic changes taking place. Liu has spontaneously and actively connected a more open artistic concept with a mobile Internet platform; and Selfie represents a bold practice and breakthrough of Internet art in the Mainland Chinese photography field. Here, Liu’s Selfie project acts as an overturning and extension of current concepts and prevailing expressions in digital photography and video art making.