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Me, Myself and I

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So many ways to depict yourself or your Self – and so many reasons to do it! And this gets especially interesting when it is about artist´s self-portraits.

The thing is that there is no such tradition in Chinese art, although there is a real long history of portrait painting. Up until the late 20thcentury you can count the numbers of Chinese self-portraits – be it in painting or photography – more or less on the fingers of two hands. Why? What are the reasons behind this specific part of art history? What is the specific understanding of the Self, of the individual? Could we find some explanations within Chinese philosophy?

Liang Kai: Li Bai. 13th Century

Lo P´ing: Self-portrait as fisherman. 1750

These images not necessarily closely resemble the person´s features, nose etc., it is more a real depiction of the self. This may correspond with the Chinese approach towards representation of the landscape. While Western painters right up to the French impressionists wanted to achieve an exact and detailed picture of nature (topos of painting as window to the world), traditional Chinese landscape painting takes a completely different approach. Nature was not seen as being just made up of objects and so it should not be illustrated and reproduced in its material sense – instead it should be represented according to its internal essence; paintings should “express the spirit of it”.

Perhaps the most famous of the few historical self-portraits is the one by Ren Xiong, a really outstanding depiction of an artist´s self.

Ren Xiong (1823-1857): Self-portrait

Then, almost all of a sudden, a wide range of most various self-depictions occurred in contemporary art from the 1990ies on – so intense, so diverse. But how come? Why especially in photography? What societal changes have taken place as a backdrop for this development? What role could be ascribed to urbanisation in this context?

Featured here are three examples out of so many more – just to give an overview over the variety of approaches within contemporary art towards displaying the self.

Miao Xiaochun: Fatalism. 2008

Miao Xiaochun is one of the most well known artists with a constantly on-going development in his artistic oeuvre. He started with black-and-white photography, then turned to staged digital photography and is now producing inter alia fascinating works of digital art.

Xu Lijing: Maybe No.5. Series 2010

Xu Lijing is a young emerging photography artist who has started her art works just a couple of years ago. In this series of sculpture-like body images she is referring to the self-portrait as an “objectification of the subconscious.“

RongRong & inri: We are here No.1. Series 2002

RongRong is one of the outstanding pioneers of art photography in China. Together with his wife inri they founded the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing´s Caochangdi in 2007, the first institution of this kind in China.

I will pursue these deeply interesting questions in the context of an academic project – so there´s more to come!

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