Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne, 2007-08-25 – 2007-10-20
"A man has only one death. That death may be as weighty as Mt. Tai, or it may be as light as a goose feather. The difference is only in how he made use of his life."
(Sima Qian, Han dynasty historian)
All humans are mortal—a fact which, across cultures and epochs, neither authority nor prosperity have been able to refute. However, the questions of "how" one dies and gets buried as well as ideas about what awaits us in the afterlife, are as multifarious as the life on this side. Religion, philosophy and art have been grappling with these essential questions since time immemorial. Beijing artist Bai Yiluo (b. 1968 in Luoyang, Henan province) thus moves along classic themes with his recent series of works entitled Fate. Weaving thousands of little photo portraits to a memento carpet, he created both two-dimensional and sculptural pieces over the past years. With the six-part sculpture series Fate No. 4, Bai Yiluo now—after more than half a decade—finally realized an old project of his: the material and esthetic transformation of a more than 2000 years old jade burial suit made for Chinese dignitaries into a ‘photographic sculpture’.
"After I had moved from my home town of Luoyang to Beijing, I was working in a photo shop. These tiny black-and-white photographs for I.D. cards were part of my daily business. And I knew right away that I wanted to do artwork with them as well. So when I was at a Beijing exhibition in 2000 looking at a historic gold-wired jade garment from the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), I immediately had this mental image: I wanted to replace the thousands of little jade plaques connected by gold wire with these portrait photographs."
The Ritual of Making Art
As an autodidact, Bai Yiluo had already chosen the medium of photography before he moved to Beijing. Through a number of manually laborious procedures by which he transforms the pictures into his working material, he arrives at suspending the essentially detached character of photographing. This phenomenon is particularly evident in his pieces Flies (2001-2003) and People No. 1 (2001). Living in a suburb of Beijing, one of the daily chores of the artist was to combat the annoying flies which—seeming to appear from nowhere—would gather constantly in buzzing swarms. He then somehow had to remove the dead insects. Bai Yiluo turned this routine into an everyday ritual, collecting the dead flies not only in his apartment but also from around the house, arranging them on photographic paper and making "pictures". In this way he created large-format B/W photograms with an ornamental esthetic quality. While in Flies the ceremonial part of the artwork took place before the act of photographing, it is the other way around in People No. 1. Here Bai Yiluo took several thousand frontal black-and-white portraits in the working class environment of his hometown Luoyang and post-processed them—picture by picture—by separating the image held by the thin emulsion layer from the paper base, crumpling it and smoothing it again to then sew them together with red thread. The result is a surface of more than two by four meters showing a sheer, reticulately veined craquelé landscape of faces. These are countless people of all ages, with serious or smiling faces, open or closed eyes that we see before us. The cobweb of crumpling folds covers the portraits. The red thread joining them all together opens the way for the association of a ‘blood relationship’. What unites them in this work of art is their aura of vulnerability or even having actually been hurt. In reality, their connection in reality is the place where they live, in this case, Luoyang.
"To me Luoyang is associated with hard work in the factories, although nowadays many workers are jobless as well. It is a gloomy place. If I want to incorporate the faces of these people, I have to find a technique that adequately takes their fate into consideration".
In the years that followed, Bai Yiluo followed the topics touched upon in Flies and People No. 1 in an essayistic manner. As he emphasizes, he never abandoned the idea of using the form of the ancient jade burial suit in a work of art, although he was not quite sure of the implementation details for a while. In 2004, a first computer simulation was made under the title People No. 4. It took three more years until this virtual three-dimensionality took shape in a material sculpture with Fate No. 4. While Bai Yiluo called his first series, in which he worked with portrait photos, simply People, by titling his more recent works Shell (2004) and Fate (2005‑2007) he now signals a shift in perspective that moves from the concrete reference to everyday life to more existential issues.
From Jade Platelets to Portrait Photos
Ceremonial garments made of nephrite jade (nephrite is one of two minerals commonly called jade) used as death shrouds for deceased emperors, princes or influential ministers, were an invention of the Han era. In the Western Han dynasty (206-9 BC) not only the emperor but princes could also be buried in nephrite jade garments adorned with gold wire thread. Later, during the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD), a hierarchical system was developed that clearly defined who deserved a burial garment of nephrite jade and what kind of thread it was allowed to contain. According to these rules, only emperors were allowed to don garments of nephrite jade with threads made of gold (jinlü yuyi), while princes and princesses were accorded silver and the emperor’s elder sisters were left with bronze wire. (1)
In the early civilizations of East Asia, jade was in high esteem for its robust qualities. The mineral which is difficult to machine was said to have the power of protecting a deceased person’s body from evil spirits but also from decomposition, it was even afforded qualities believed to aid in resurrection. It is in this context that the cult of jade burial suits (in Chinese: yuyi – nephrite garment, or yuxia/yujia – nephrite armor) should be considered. Made of thin jade platelets of varying shapes that were joined by gold, silver or bronze wire, these garments were tailored to fit the deceased person’s physique: a helmet-like headgear, a face mask, front and back parts of the torso, sleeves, legs, mittens and shoes. Among the most well-known archeological discoveries are the jade garments of prince Liu Sheng (deceased in 113 BC) and his wife Dou Wan. Their tomb which is 2700 cubic meters large and contained 2800 grave treasures was found in Hebei province in 1968. The king’s burial suit was made of 2498 jade plaques of which 2160 belonged to the queen. The way in which the labyrinth of burial chambers had been designed, as well as the tomb furnishings, indicates that at the time there might have been the idea of a life after death—though not for everyone. Mural paintings from the Han dynasty show dead dignitaries freely moving about in the Beyond and congregating with spirits and deities who appear only to immortals. However, none but those who had the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ could be considered immortal: not only on Earth did Chinese emperors and kings assert their singular claim to power but they postulated their right to the status of eternal rulers through burial cults such as the jade death shrouds and the palace-like tombs.
Bai Yiluo flattens out such intricate human hierarchy without further ado. It is not one particular prominent person set apart from the masses that the sculptures of Fate No. 4 intend to commemorate; instead they honor the Chinese people as a whole: they entered namelessly into the work but were rescued from oblivion—and even from the process of aging—by preserving their faces. This perspective, which removes individuals from the collective while fully respecting them in their distinctiveness, is enhanced by the fact that Bai Yiluo gives a new definition to the pool of portraits he works with. For where the pictures used in People No. 1 had been portraits of people that the artist felt he had something in common with because of shared background and life reality, the portraits for Fate were simply commissioned. In the Fate series, Bai Yiluo is not concerned with his personal horizon of experience but with a more elementary issue that is abstracted from the self. "Death is the most important question of life", the artist says. "And a question everybody has to confront."
On public squares in Luoyang where many people converge, a mobile photo booth was set up that collected several thousand portraits. These formed the basis of Fate No. 4. The original photographs were not used for the sculptures; reprints were used instead (using the giclee print technique). This also allows producing the different platelet sizes necessary for reconstructing the burial suit. All in all, Bai Yiluo uses five different formats: 2 x 3 cm, 2.5 x 3.5 cm, 3 x 4 cm, 3.5 x 4.5 cm and 4 x 5 cm, most of them rectangular, a small portion were rhombus-shaped or triangular. He follows his original historic model quite closely. Paralleling the production process of traditional jade burial suits, the individual portraits are interconnected by means of cross-stitched wire chosing copper wire as a material. This collective of portraits now form the surface of the sculptures of Fate No. 4. By making several sculptures of similar design, Bai Yiluo distances his artwork from the Han death shroud not only by way of surface composition—portrait photos instead of jade plaques—he also denies each single sculpture the status of a unique piece. Fate No. 4 raises an unequivocal objection against hierarchical human thinking. The people portrayed thus obtain a place in collective memory—each as an individual, and together as a proxy for all mankind.
"It was a very long process until I found a way to make my idea of the sculptures for Fate No. 4 become reality. Time and again, simple technical problems made me fail. You know that actually my medium of choice is photography, not sculpture. If I hadn’t had friends to support me, I might have thrown in the towel. The works realized in the last few years are in fact stages on the way to Fate No. 4. The jacket and the pants of Shell (2004) are already quite close. These garments protect a person as in real life—like a clam-shell, or a second skin. Through the portrait photos constituting the clothing fabric there is a tension between the inside and the outside. When looking at these historic jade burial suits, I was not so much interested in the person for whom this effort had been made. My perspective was rather the ‘Here and Now’: what will remain of us, of our lives, after we are dead?"
The Memory of Art
While the People series started with the concrete person and his or her unique fate and their connection to the collective of everyday fellow sufferers, the pieces in the Shell series already argue at a three-dimensional level, the portrait photos becoming material and (clothing) fabric. The pants and the jacket of Shell are hollow bodies. Both objects just stand there, stark and abandoned. Was there someone who wore them, will there ever be one? If he truly existed, there would be a clear power divide between him and the people on the portraits who are reduced to mere material. In this sense, the clothing shells of Shell are a reflection on man’s subject/object character. In Fate No. 4 Bai Yiluo also plays with this tense relation between the surface and the unseen. Where the ancient jade garment shrouded the body of the deceased, the artist sculpts a hollow body out of a photographic skin, as in Shell. However, the reconstructed basic form does not function as an ‘unknown quantity’, but by acting as a contrasting foil provides the very horizon of meaning. The series Fate No. 4 becomes an object of commemoration not in a retrospective, conservational sense, but as a look back ahead. As emphasized by the title, it asks the question about the elementary forces of human existence, about the destiny of man.
"Fate" in What Sense?
Let us assume that opinion pollsters asked people from various cultures, different ages and education levels whether or not they believe in the force of destiny. If so, how would they define this authority? Is it a personifiable entity, a god, or maybe a plurality of gods? Is it the power of heaven that is at work there, or rather an all-pervasive energy in the sense of a cosmic Qi? Are there opposing forces clearly distinct in essence that nonetheless are complementary parts of a higher-order unity, like yin and yang? Or is it the power of nature as an elemental force? Do spirits, demons and our ancestors have an impact on our lives and can they determine the time when we have to leave this world?
"If we don't know life, how can we know death?" (2)—with this rhetorical question China’s most important scholar Confucius (551-479 BC) managed to distract any inquisitive longing for knowledge about death (and what might come afterwards). While his wisdoms handed down in the Lun yu (Analects, or aphorisms) offer the most detailed pieces of advice with regard to daily coexistence, developing elaborate organizing principles and moral categories, they do not provide much help with the human desire for metaphysical contexts. Therefore one can easily grasp why the teachings of Daoism and Buddhism carried so much appeal in China. With their fantastic imagery and clearly determined conceptions of the Beyond—systems of heavens and hells, awards for good deeds and punishments for evil ones—death becomes a transition to another sphere, and the nothing in the sense of Nirvana is even a quite positive category. Even today these quite varying doctrines have their effect, and Confucian family ethics and the Daoist or Buddhist conceptions of the Beyond are not at all mutually exclusive. Bai Yiluo does not want to commit himself to any definition of destiny although he does believe that the life of man is predetermined to a certain extent. The artist confers a personal signature to his series in Fate No. 3 which technically combines the working method of Flies with the black-and-white portraits. On the picture scroll in upright format we see a crane whose body is formed by portrait photographs that were scanned for this work. The otherwise untreated ground shows five panels made up of pseudo-calligraphic ideograms.
"The crane is a subject taken from traditional Chinese ink-and-wash painting, a technique I also learned in my childhood and youth. The crane is a holy animal in Daoist paradise, often accompanying a deity. The pseudo-calligraphy—I tried to capture the shape of flies’ legs—is my personal reference to Chinese tradition, though only at the formal level: the ideograms cannot be deciphered any further."
The purely photographic pieces Fate No. 1 and Fate No. 2, with their unmistakable death-related symbolism of skeletons and skulls still emphasize the physical finiteness of human existence, but Fate No. 3 does leave some hope for an otherworldly form of continuation. In Fate No. 4 this longing is expressed as an esthetically mediated collective wish. While the sculptures formally refer to a period more than 2000 years in the past—thus presenting history as a continuum that our own lifetime fits in—on the content level they communicate a most humanist vision: the privileges for life after death which in imperial China were reserved to monarchs alone are now transformed into a more democratic afterlife.
1 Müller. S. (1994). Nephritgewand der Dou Wan. In: China. Eine Wiege der Weltkultur. 5000 Jahre Erfindungen und Entdeckungen. Mainz: Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum.
2 Wilhelm, R. (2005). Konfuzius: Gespräche (Lun-yü). München: C.H. Beck. S. 98.
Translation: Werner Richter