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Notes on Return of the Dead


There are photographs that you do not have the heart to take, even at this age of portable camera phone where taking a photo is easier and more common than ever. It has nothing to do with the ethics of photojournalism, the idea that you ‘shoot’ your subject, or that you are turning life into a dead image. All of these actually do matter. But I was talking about the times when you stand in front of / in the presence of / witnessing… something so overwhelming you need to mobilize all your sense and sensibility just to comprehend or defend against it that you cannot spare your heart to make a visual record of it however you wish to.


I was standing in front of my father’s frozen dead body on a stretcher in the morgue. His full head of silver hair was freshly dampened by the defrosting process. It was a very warm November midday, sunny when I arrived at the hospital, and we were just outside the refrigerated room, in a narrow corridor, next to an opened exit leading to the car park. Me, the undertaker, the morgue staffer, and my father’s dead body. Yes, this is my father, I dutifully re-confirmed. Just take your time, look carefully, and confirm this is the person on this ID card, the morgue staffer said a second time. The problem was, except his foxy silver full head, the most recognizable proud feature of his, I couldn’t recognize this person. The skin and muscle were all slackened, wrinkled and condensed; its chill didn’t come from its frost but its colour, the unbearable whiteness. The face shrank and the mouth gaped. This reminded me of defrosting chicken. Not a person I knew, I related to, I had affection with, someone I was having dinner with just days ago.


Yes, this is the person on this ID, he was my father, I re-confirmed again, wondering inside whether I could take a photo of him right there…


Going through old black and white photos of my late father in his teen / early twenty, I had an incredible urge to re-read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1981), and then Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1990), Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). I didn’t just reconfirm what indexicality means, or how photograph points to death, or that it sits in a place between infinity and subject, or why I couldn’t take that photo in the morgue, or that I was being voyeuristic and numbed along the way. I was experiencing them all. But the painful truth is, these theories simply verify the fact that none of those old photos of my young dad can get me closer to him. These young men on the photos all resemble him, but I don’t know them, or more precisely, I don’t have a clue about the contexts of those moments captured by the camera. They could be old film stills from movie archives.  I just found it too hard to relate them at a personal level. Particular those few that show my young dad dating my young mum. If photography acts as prophecy in reverse as Barthes claims, that it helps predict the past, I am at a complete lost in front of these pictures of my young pre-marriage parents. This is something I cannot understand, that these two persons were actually once young lovers, that they looked like they were in love. The prophecy had not materialized well. Or, these photographs lie.


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We are so used to distrusting photographic images nowadays. Postmodernists’ critiques on signs, texts, images and representations have provided us plenty of reasons to doubt what we see everyday everywhere. But it is ultimately ourselves that make us suspicious of the whole image culture we are living in. Whereas people used to experience disappointments with an unflattering photo print freshly received from developer, we now snap one image and check the little screen to ensure satisfaction on the spot. Reality can be rejected, and delayed. We re-shoot, and re-check, and again. Afterward, we make adjustments in Photoshop, and we make selections for Facebook. We can’t blame the media now but ourselves who are having a credibility problem. Years ago when people did not have the tools and channels of the specialist, they could comfortably sit in the spectator seats on one hand and on the other stand pointing at the mischief of the media. The term user-generated-content signals a game change. We cannot just be passive spectators and angry accusers simultaneously anymore, but as actors-producers-distributors too, we are also susceptible to actively intervening with ‘reality’, the representation of reality. The most obvious example is of course the countless self-shot portraits we produce and upload onto the internet. So we are performers, photographers, editors and media in one, and distrusting everyone in between and everything we see, including ourselves. This is a dead and enclosed circle. Is there a way out?


This is why I was very excited coming across the proposal of Jacques Rancière (2009), who suggests to reformulate the logic of theatre and free the spectators. It is not about turning deprecated spectators into active agents or pitting one against the other, but creating a paradoxical environment that validates both, allowing viewers to become participants, and as contributors bringing in their own knowledge to the story and thus opens the possibilities for new meanings / realities. So, yes we can be everyone along the image production and consumption line as we are all already, and yes it is well acknowledged that there could be credibility issues too. The way out here is to recognize the potential of the image as a site of new meaning production and discourse, a paradoxical point where image subject, the spectator, and the image producer re-encounter each other, and try to learn something new from the experience.


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I have been fascinated by the ‘negative’ function of digital imaging software for some time. With just a simple click, a photo image digitally taken from real life is turned into its negative form. Since we don’t use cellulose negative film to develop photo anymore, we easily forget there used to be another medium with a whole set of processing between the camera capturing the moment and we finally seeing what had been captured on the print. So now turning a digital photo we already have into its negative image, I feel like I am reversing reality back to a work-in-progress of itself. Particularly so when I then paint the image of that negative image onto white unstretched canvas. Not only it is a reversion in technical process and its history, but a subversion in light and form too. Reality now looks otherworldly, hidden parts become over-exposed, strange colours occupy familiar figures, gradations of shade do not make sense anymore. And in extension, value and knowledge are also turned upside down – brightness has now become darkness, ignorance and despair, while shadow turns into illumination, dignity and truth. The same text, but if it is in negative form, it offers completely different messages.


But we do recognize what is in front of us, most of the time. While seeing an image of a girl with two rows of black squares between her green lips, our brain actually has the ability to reverse back the weird colours and forms we see and match the shapes of matters to those within our knowledge, so we can conclude that it is an image of a girl showing her teeth smiling. When put into this paradox of an unfamiliar yet recognizable negative world, we become alert and we re-adjust our senses and reverse our knowledge and logic in order to comprehend. That is a process of enlightenment through negation.


However, the paradox I want to create and present to my viewers doesn’t stop at there. It is not enough for me just to point out how certain image or text cannot represent reality, or how a negative image highlights our negotiation with representation, or that we sometimes deny this reality in order to comprehend the other one. I feel that merely being analytical and critical and imparting the problems of representation and interpretation stops short of sincerity to the viewers. That is why I find the approach of Gerhard Richter or Luc Tuymans cold and detached. They simply reinforce the dead text, mocking our inability to do anything. As progressive and poetic as their works are, I find them too self-enclosed, disheartening and nihilistic. What I would like to offer instead, is the possibility of connection, that through reconciliation with a given dead text, our struggle from trying to understand such representation could lead us to reach better understanding of different realities. I instead find inspiration from Michel Foucault’s reading (2010) on Manet’s boldness and inventions to the pictorial reality, how he twisted space and implied viewer’s unreasonable viewpoint with the subject, reflecting the multiple directions of the gaze, and as a result created a new self-conscious painting-object. I therefore propose questions like “where are you standing when you raise your doubt on this image”, “in which reality do you situate yourself when you encode this text” and “how about changing your position so even with the same text you could get a completely different message”. I want the viewers to entre a paradox, experience it, negotiate through it, play with positioning themselves within it, and hopefully see new possibilities out of it. I hope they become aware of new prospects beyond a dead text.


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So here at last, we shall return to the images of my late father – not only those old photos of him dating the young lady who would later become his wife and my mum, but also the image of his dead body in my mind on that November midday five years ago in the morgue. My refusal to rest my last knowledge of him upon his poor representation as a defrosting chicken keeps pushing me to look for a different connection with him, a new insight of him. And through painting these old photos in negative, this handsome young man dating my young mum in unfamiliar territories, both in context and in colour and form, I let myself entre slowly but freely into a reality I have no knowledge of. Then, filming and real-time screening the painting with its environment in situ with the ‘inversion’ function on, a double negative in two opposing worlds immediately occurs. The belated nature of the painting act and the instantaneous magic of media technology encounter each other. Object and Image have become one; Author and Viewer have become one; Spectator and Subject have become one. Through this paradoxical situation, the universes of mine and the image have swapped places. For a quick moment, my late father no longer is a past, distance and unknowable, but has returned as someone vividly alive, his future full of possibilities, and the sweetness between him and his girlfriend is genuine.

solomon yu artist hong kong 余迪文 香港 藝術家 余廸文

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