Year of the bare: China revealed as never before

Clifford Coonan
Saturday 13 March 2010 01:00

The photographs take us on a tour of iconic events from contemporary Chinese history.

There is a burnt-out Rem Koolhaas-designed hotel in downtown Beijing, a guesthouse where a waitress stabbed a government official who tried to rape her, and the capital's Bird's Nest Olympic stadium. What sets these pictures apart is the nude figure doing push-ups in the foreground.

The bizarre juxtaposition, a cheeky take on contemporary China, is the work of Guangzhou artist Ou Zhihang. His series, The Moment, a historical record with added nude, has just been honoured in the World Press Awards.

"As a creative artist, I wanted to express myself differently," said a fully clothed Mr Ou at his gallery in Beijing. "Press-ups are my artistic symbol."

His photographs are popular in China. Beijing Youth Daily, one of the country's biggest newspapers, ran a photograph of Mr Ou doing nude press-ups outside the Forbidden City, in the deep snow on Tiananmen Square. He believes he is the first naked man to feature on the front page.

One of the striking things about the images is how few people, other than himself, feature. They make a serious point about the role of the individual in the world's most populous country.

While American artist Spencer Tunick uses hundreds of nude volunteers in public spaces, Mr Ou's work is more about individuals in the face of power structures.

"I'm not an exhibitionist. The press-ups are positive and healthy and very sincere. My work is all about the body so I decided the press-up was the most appropriate way," he said.

Despite appearing nude, he says he is shy; and taking photographs only from behind meant he could hide his face and keep the pictures tastefully discreet.

Some images tackle controversial issues. They include one taken in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, on the anniversary of the riots in March 2008, another outside a courtroom in Chongqing during a crackdown on the mafia, and a third in front of the Chinese Football Association's headquarters, which has been mired in a corruption scandal.

"The Moment is about contemporary China. The 21st century is seen as the China century, and that's why I chose to do it in this way."

Mr Ou, who previously worked as a fashion photographer, admits that he has "some concerns" about getting into trouble. "But I'm glad I live in these days, because 15 or 20 years ago I might have been in jail. I feel very lucky the way my work can be communicated in my country today. Some people are afraid to face facts but it's necessary to show them regardless of whether they are constructive or destructive. If people understand what I'm doing, then I hope they can accept this."

When he works, he sets up a tripod, strips off quickly, uses the timer to take a photograph, and is soon gone. It's still a tough task. One of the photographs shows Mr Ou outside an illegal brick kiln where hundreds of young men were kept as slaves in 2007. "I had to check the exact location of the kiln, and get in and out quick, because if the locals found me, they might have beaten me to death," he said.

In some cases, such as when he was trying to take a photograph outside the Google headquarters this week, the security guards were initially sceptical. When he showed them some of his less controversial photographs, they were still nonplussed – but eventually they came around and he got the shots.

"Chinese people, sometimes even if they cannot understand, they can accept things," he said.

As well as his work as an artist, Mr Ou is a producer and presenter on a fashion show on Guangdong TV. "Contemporary art is very important, but a lot of art is very expensive and is only enjoyed by a small group of people.

"I want to make a wider impact on society, to go beyond a small circle," said Mr Ou.

"This is why I do my press-ups."

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