Text by Tang Hongfeng Photographs by Yu Jian
Two photography exhibitions in Beijing and New York City, respectively, stunned spectators simultaneously on opposite sides of the world. While the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Museum at Beijing’s 798 Art Zone hosted “Nil Mirror,” the first photography exhibition of Bei Dao, one of the most influential Chinese poets of the modern era, the Grey Art Gallery at New York University was displaying photography by poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997). Few were aware that the two literary figures had been friends and that Ginsberg even mentored Bei Dao in photography, inspiring the Chinese poet to make the leap across disciplines. The exhibitions triggered an interesting discussion: What will a photographer with a poetic background capture?
Bei Dao, whose real name is Zhao Zhenkai, exhibited the most distinctive examples of his work, which evidenced his obsession with solid colored lumps, lines, geometric patterns, and light and shadows. With much emphasis placed on abstract details, the images appear vague - difficult for patrons to discern the original subjects. This is the defining characteristic of Bei Dao’s photography style, making it reminiscent of abstract art by Wassily Kandinsky, an influential Russian painter. Because human faces are hard to find, the work seemed to lack the artistic power necessary to truly move the audience.
In contrast, Allen Ginsberg focused on real figures, which contributed to the charisma of his photography. Through his lens, writers of the Beat Generation pose as laid back drifters, stretching their arms around each other’s shoulders while puffing on cigarettes. They amble down streets or stand static on platforms, their eyes exuding a glow that pierces time and space. The photos feature an exquisite use of light and shadow, so much so that even patterns on furniture and peeling wallpaper radiate with texture. In the early 1980s, Ginsberg added poetic captions to many of his photos, introducing the subjects and context while revealing personalities and dispositions of the subjects. Simple yet dynamic, as a timeless documentation of the photographer’s warmest memories, the captions enhance the photos’ power even more. Ginsberg’s perfect blend of poetry and photography testified to his endeavors to bring out the “luminousness of the ordinary event.”