As you might expect, there is more to the manipulated photography of Cui Xiuwen’s Existential Emptiness at Kiang Gallery than meets the eye. The Chinese photographer’s series of self-portraits with her doll-doppelgänger are, in fact, about making visible the invisible processes of the conflicted and evolving self. The self-portraits visualize internal tension, reflecting the artist’s sense of uncertainty regarding the nature of the self, and literally show the artist beside herself, or opposed to herself.
The images, at first encounter, seem both self-evident and striking. A young woman sits in the bow of a boat in a vast landscape while her lifesize doll-double slumps in the unnaturally extended stern. The same woman, clad in a schoolgirl uniform, drags the doll as a dead weight through clinging snow. Other tableaux situate the pair in a mountain landscape that seems extracted from a classical Chinese painting.
The panoramic form of the photographs intensifies the sense of opposition and isolation as the duo, one living and one a simulacrum of living, deal, or fail to deal, with one another. The whole panoply of theatricalized, set-up photography combined with the resources of digital programs is brought into play, using a deliberately limited visual vocabulary. The traditional isolation of the figure in classical Chinese landscape painting is transformed into the dilemmas of a living young woman alone with her other self, a literal body double that is both familiar and alien.
The difference and disconnection between superficially identical selves expresses a psychological truth that crosses cultures; in European literature, it dates back at least to Goethe’s “Two souls dwell within my breast.” American viewers who know that inner division all too well will find much with which to identify.
But of course, the experience of a young woman artist in today’s China derives from a completely different historical and personal background. If the self divided and cut off from society in a wintry landscape seems universal, it is only because the biological and psychic substrate of the human spirit operates similarly in all cultural circumstances.
It would require considerable background information to interpret the social dynamics that shaped Cui’s work, and almost as much to discern the exact form of the dialogue between tradition and contemporary photography. The mixture of imagery and symbolism, however, is enough to convey an expanded function of art that expresses inner psychological or spiritual growth, a growth that Cui occasionally describes in terms possibly borrowed from Buddhism. One passage in her artist’s statement is translated as “From the time when I first start thinking to the actual shooting and post production, I have experienced intensive marginal experience. From a gradual enlightenment to some occasional spontaneous enlightenment, the joy of growth is far beyond the joviality of completing the series.”
The “enlightenment” reference seems closer to the Buddhist notion of intuitive and transformative inner realization than the European philosophical concept of rationally clarifying one’s place in the world. However, the unintentional ambiguities of word choice (does “marginal experience” mean “experience at the limits of self”?) would leave us uncertain without such further clues as the remark that “Contemporary art needs culture, spirituality, ideas, concepts, even religious faith. Human beings need freedom; artistic creativity is one kind of freedom in the spiritual realm.”
Given present-day investigations into the neurological basis of the self (which, David Eagleman would remind us, is a more contested area of research than the reductionists would allow), it is particularly interesting that Cui perceives these photographs as expressions of her realization of multiple levels of selfhood: “I have often felt I was formed by several different selves that exist simultaneously within me, in different times and spaces. They are doing what they should do and are enjoying themselves without interfering with one another. This may seem schizophrenic, but I don’t think so! Some levels of my existence can be seen with the naked eye because they are physical. Other levels are only felt or sensed.”
This is a perceptive analysis of the situation, and one on which neurology and Buddhism would find common ground. It might seem more discomfiting to adherents to Euro-American models of the autonomous self, or the contrasting old-fashioned behavioral model in which stimulus-response is all there is, and the self is superfluous.
On the other hand, a conceptual model in which emptiness or voidness becomes the underpinning of a self that is not one and yet is in communion with all environing things—that kind of model of existential emptiness would find these photographs excellent examples of a self on the way to full realization.