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Poetic Images


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.

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