Seeing for the second time - Huang Xiaoliang’s photographs    2012


Seeing for the second time - Huang Xiaoliang’s photographs

By Francesca Tarocco



Huang Xiaoliang’s image making oscillates between ‘manifestation’, ‘reappearance’ and ‘disappearance’. A photograph, his images seem to suggest, any photograph, gives us something that a hand made picture never can. A photograph is a means by which the subject, perhaps at the instigation of one’s memories, manifests itself to us. The manifestation is the descriptive image and description happens with and by manifestation.

Looking at Huang’s landscapes, in his “World Scenes” (人间景) series for instance, we are reminded that in the original Chinese, the title contains the indication that what we are gazing at is the human world. A world inhabited by the artist’s view of disappearing social and cultural practices. Huang’s indefinite descriptions denote ambiguously and emotionally the artist’s relationship with China’s past.

The camera isolates momentary appearances and shows that the notion of time passing is inseparable from the experience of the visual (except in paintings). What the artist sees for the first time and the viewer sees for the second time depends upon where they were when.

Huang’s work is concerned with the ambiguous, the shadow, as well as with the less ambiguous, the silhouette. Because silhouettes give a very clear image, they are often used in any field where the speedy identification of an object is necessary. Silhouettes have many practical applications: they are used for traffic signs, where the modern, the car, the airplane, appears alongside the natural, a cow, a mountain; to identify natural objects such as trees, insects or dinosaurs; and they are used in the military, where silhouettes of ships, planes, tanks, and other vehicles are used by soldiers and sailors for learning purposes. Huang Xiaoliang’s anachronistic contrasting of silhouetted modern aircrafts with scenes from other times and other places within the same ‘photographic’ image reminds us that the experience of the visual is contingent. That photographs are artificial devices for actually seeing things, including past things and events.

Photographs, shadow theatre, are artificial aids to indirect perception. They are in the same class as mirrors, relics, icons and telescopes. And shadows have been a very productive site for the Chinese imagination. For instance, Chinese shadow theatre, already popular at least a thousand years ago, combines exquisite carving with painting, music, literature, singing and performance. Ubiquitous in the life of ordinary Chinese for centuries, it also entertained bourgeois families and the gentry. By the time of the Qing dynasty, shadow figures representing deities arrived at the beginning of the show in the first ritual playlet to be performed. The assumption was that the gods enjoyed watching the same tales as the rest of the audience. As modern viewers of mechanical shadows, we are afforded the god-like indulgence of second gazes.


One such gaze brought me back to the world of animated silhouettes of the pioneering German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger (1899 –1981). I remembered looking in amazement at The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed), a 1926 German animated fairytale. It is the oldest surviving animated feature film and uses a silhouette animation technique Reiniger invented which involved manipulating cut-outs made from cardboard and thin sheets of lead under a camera. The technique she used for the camera is similar to Chinese shadow theatre and to Wayang, though hers were animated frame by frame, not manipulated in live action. In Lotte Reiniger films, the silhouette are painstakingly photographed, movement by movement. The backgrounds for the characters are cut out with scissors as well, and designed to give a unified style to the whole picture.

Huang makes his images by a different process of cutting and assembling yet seems invested in a similar project, of painstakingly photographing shadows and memories of other shadows. His photographs are visual descriptions made though manifestations of the things described. We literally if indirectly see things by seeing his photographs.