In 1994, Liu Zheng began photographing moments in which archetypal Chinese figures are encountered in contemporary incarnations – and often in extreme and unexpected situations. The resulting series, The Chinese, portrays a society wrestling with the contradictions between traditional culture and modernization. The series presents a broad cross section of society including the wealthy, the poor, transsexuals, coal miners, opera performers, as well as waxwork figures in historical museums.
From 1991 to 1997, Zheng worked as a photojournalist for Workers’ Daily, one of China’s most widely distributed newspapers, in a culture where photography was historically linked with political propaganda and Communist ideology rather than a documentary tradition that equated photography with truth. He began work on The Chinese during an explosive period of change and growth in the contemporary art scene in China catalyzed by national policies of reform. Drawing on his background, Zheng utilizes photography as a tool for constructing false reality. The lighting and poses in these square format photographs all appear candid, but in fact, staged tableaux and spontaneous images coexist in the series.
Influenced by both Diane Arbus and August Sander, The Chinese presents the viewer with a personalized study of Chinese culture, concentrating on the dark side of its psychology. Through his photographs Zheng performs an intricate balancing act between harsh reality and romanticism, between engagement and detachment, seeking to reconstitute Chinese history in the process.
Liu Zheng was born in Wuqiang County, Hebei Province, China, in 1969, and grew up in Datong, a mining town in Shanxi Province. He currently lives and works in Beijing. His work has been exhibited extensively abroad, including a one-person exhibition at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, in 2001, and is included in the touring exhibition Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video From China in 2004; Strangers: The First ICP Triennial of Photography and Video in 2003; The Chinese at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany, in 2004; and the 50 th Biennale di Venezia, Venice, Italy, in 2003.
Liu Zheng on the state of contemporary Chinese art and the genesis of The Chinese:
I have worked during an exceptional period (from roughly 1990 to the present) of radical and unprecedented change in the Chinese contemporary art scene. These years have also seen a new level of maturity in Chinese art circles. The shock waves of Deng’s policies of opening and reform and their effect on peoples’ ideology is fully reflected in contemporary artworks from the mainland. Photography, like other forms of art, went through a period of hard yet much-needed transition. During these years, the dominant role of news photography in China began to crumble, and the importance of traditional salon photography was also significantly weakened. Humanized and personalized works started to have an impact. It was in this context that, in 1996, I started the private journal New Photo with some of my friends. We all felt that a new era was coming. I was driven by a powerful intellectual force, which slowly evolved into a set of personal beliefs. For many years, it was this set of personal beliefs that helped me overcome numerous difficulties. The Chinese is the fruit of my own personal struggle.