Cai Dongdong

At Cai Dongdong’s solo show Photography Autocracy, New York, 2017. Image courtesy of Klein Sun Gallery

Did you have the freedom in terms of artistic expressions when you were a photographer in the army?

Back then I was in the academy of the army. Over a thousand soldiers went to study there, and there was a demand of a photographer to archive their profiles. I was doing administrative job in the army, therefore was assigned the task. I ordered a local newspaper called Chinese Photography to teach myself to use the camera, together with all the reference books mentioned in it. In addition to those, I did take a lot of profile pictures as a practice. So I picked up the techniques quite fast, from shooting to darkroom.

So you learnt it from scratch, when doing a commissioned job?

Yes. I was deeply impressed by two books on world contemporary and avant-garde photography, and had access to great artists like Cindy Sherman. I was shocked at the time, as a portrait photographer in the army, that a woman took photos of herself as different characters through her life. After 5 years in the army, I enrolled in the photography department at Beijing Film Academy. Back then only few academies had photography majors, but I was already a skillful cameraman. So while I was in school I also started a small photo studio next to the academy.

Cai Dongdong The Eighth of December. Image courtesy of the artist.

Since you worked as a professional photographer, no matter in the army or at your own studio, where do you think the demand of documenting a specific moment comes from, in general?

I took photos in the army for 3 years, after that 3 more years at my own studio, during the whole time I was always nothing more than a photographer, and never put any thought on why I took photos, or why people produce images. I stopped traditional photography in 2005 and turned to art theories, after which I began to create pieces that critique on the production of an image. For instance in my work The Eighth of December, I reset the scene of Goya’s oil painting The Third of May 1808 but with a different narrative: the KMT executing Chinese revolutionaries, and I replaced the shotgun with a camera. It’s a representation of Susan Sontag’s quote “a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder”. As years passed by, I do realize that her theory has its limitations, and photography has richer characters to it than solely a violent symbol.

Same concept is also embodied in your new work Aiming at the Camera, in which a camera on the tripod confronts a picture of youth holding guns in silence. However in other pieces at your new exhibition, violence exist more as a subtle suggestion and a metaphor, in the format of bullet holes, shooting targets, or military uniforms.

This installation actually recaptures how that photo was made: there was a camera on the tripod standing in front of the subject. Photography has a violent nature to it, that it conceals the primitive desires of humanity. To take a photo is the same as when Adam approaches the forbidden fruit.

Cai Dongdong, Aiming at the Camera. Image courtesy of the artist.

You’re a photographer who gave up photography, a soldier who put down their gun. Is it like to kill with a borrowed instrument when you use found images to create work?

You’re describing the camera as an aggressive weapon, something like Yang or positive. But I think the process of photography includes the fusion of Yin and Yang, positive and negative. The act of taking a picture is Yang, while the production of the image inside the darkroom is Yin. Photography is both. I’ve been thinking about such essential things behind photography through the years. The moment when you take a picture, it’s cosmic, an integrated experience.

The usage of found objects, on the other hand, is to break the integrality and continuity of a picture, to make a clear image ambiguous.

Please talk more about your usage of found objects and found images?

There were a lot of examples in art history. Movements like Dadaism focused on playing with images per se. But my scheme is different, that I tend to create a dialogue with the existing images. Like when an arrow hits a target, it’s for a reason. It interacts with the content of the image.

It looks like a typical Existential technique, to reconstruct reality in order to reveal its absurdity. It’s interesting to think about the fact that Existentialism peaked after the war. Due to the collective trauma and insecurity in the society, the self-mockery of individual malaise extended to the questioning of the institutions. So is it a historical collective mentality that you tried to reconstruct, or its projection in our own time?

I’m essentially working with images themselves. However due to the content of the images it’s hard to avoid political interpretations. So that it’s dual-purpose. On one hand it’s the invasion of an image, on the other hand it’s the disintegration of that historical moment within that picture.

Cai Dongdong, Target Practice. Image courtesy of the artist.

Is it an allusion of the situation in the contemporary society?

I think so.

I’ve read about another public art project of yours that was a temple with various gods collected from the public. The demand of divines is often based on either desire or fear. Why made you decide to collect and to display gods in an atheistic cultural environment? Was there anything unique in terms of people’s responses to the idea of divines?

Traditional Chinese culture is by no means atheistic. There’re a lot of local deities out there. I lived in the rural areas for a couple of years when I was a kid in Northwestern China. Every village has their own god and their own temple. On the 1st and the 15th of each month villagers would go to the temple to worship the local god and make wishes to them. As an adult I’ve lived in suburban Beijing: Songzhuang, Caochangdi, Heiqiao…all of them villages, yet sadly the tradition of local gods were lost. I’ve talked to the locals, they said that there used to be temples.

Sounds like a typical process of gentrification, that urbanization overwrites the regional culture.

So that I wanted to establish my own temple. Initially I planned to do it at an artist-run space in Caochangdi, then one of the shows they hosted offended the authorities due to its radical content and the space was shut down. I wasn’t able to do the temple project until another friend got a space in Heiqiao and asked me if I had any potential project in mind. So that was it, we set up the temple. However there was no god, and I ended up calling for made-up gods on social media without any expectation. To my surprise 30 “gods” were brought to the opening. That project continued for more than 2 months, people even brought in real local gods from their hometowns, in conjunction with the made-up ones, filled up the whole exhibition space from the floor to the ceiling. We had a donation box by the entrance; the money collected contributed to the project and the space.

Exhibition Oh My God. Image courtesy of Action Space

A non-profit temple.

Exactly. The whole project was running independently, outside of the capitalist system.

I thought about the concept of Post-Postmodernism that Tom Turner nailed in 1995 “that seeks to temper reason with faith”. To instinctively enshrine various deities could be seen as a model of decentralization, an extreme representation of cultural niches, as well the reconstruction of reason and order in the chaos. What do you think about that?

My temple project is actually called “Oh My God”, more of an exclamation with surprise. The world might be chaotic for some people, but for others like politicians, historians and religious believers, those who put the world in the context of a specific system, their minds are clear and organized. Men were born with religious needs. Despite the fact that the social environment in China discourages religions, I’ve had an unidentifiable figure that I wanted to pray to from an early age. I think everybody has one. In Christianity human beings appear to be both negligible and mighty. I still believe that the idea of god could only exist in the context of monotheism. Gods are no longer gods when there’re too many of them.

Now everything in relation to that project had been packed in one large container. It would be an interesting archive to look at in a few years.

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