|My old China
In 1946 Li Tianbing stole his grandmother's cow and bought a camera with the proceeds. Some 300,000 photos later, he is being feted as one of his country's most influential artists. Jonathan Watts reports
Wednesday October 13, 2004
Makeng's inaccessibility is a large part of the reason for the sudden celebrity of Li, the village cameraman whose "natural light" technique - which involves exposing film by opening and closing his bedroom door - has remained unchanged for more than 50 years.
For Li, it is a hobby and a job, rather than art. But his evocative images of a China that was thought to have passed without visual record have upstaged some of the most provocative installations and performances of the country's growing avant-garde movement.
Li - whose work is on display at the Shanghai Biennale - is one of a handful of craftsmen "discovered" in the Long March Art Project, an ambitious attempt to break contemporary art out of its secluded urban shell and take it into the countryside, where the vast mass of China's 1.3 billion people live. Since the project began last year, more than 200 contemporary artists have amused and bemused peasant audiences with impromptu performances, political lectures and screenings of Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 film, La Chinoise, which explores the Maoist posturings of late-1960s French youth. Their attempts to provoke and confront have often been intriguing, but somehow even the work of the biggest risk-takers - such as Qin Ga, who had the route of the original Long March tattooed across his back - seem familiar compared with the surprises evoked by the peasant craftsman encountered along the way.
Take the hill carving of Jiang Jiwei. For more than 40 years, this ascetic, who lives from donations by awe-struck visitors, has been reshaping the landscape by cutting reliefs of communist leaders, manifestos and state edicts into a hillside in Quanzhou, Guanxi province. The results are a higgledy-piggledy juxtaposition of Mao deities next to a stone tablet bearing the full text of a government white paper on birth control, as well as busts of minor provincial officials placed beside Marx's communist manifesto.
Another surprise hit has been Wang Wenhai, a former propaganda sculptor whose work has changed dramatically since he was enlisted on the Long March. For decades, Wang worked for the Yan'an communist party gift shop, churning out thousands of classically heroic Mao figurines. Last year, after spending a few weeks in Factory 798 - the contemporary art hothouse in Beijing - Wang's art was transformed. Suddenly, the craftsman became a modern artist, producing abstract Maos, faceless Maos, Buddha Maos, gay Maos and a giant 4m-high Mr and Mrs Mao.
But Li's photography has had the biggest impact on the public consciousness, perhaps because his collection represents not only a body of art, but a historical record.
In 1946, Li - then 12 years old - took a risk that would transform his life. He had been hired as a porter for a British-Chinese cameraman who had been sent to Fujian province to take portraits of local peasants for the identity cards being introduced by the Kuomintang authorities. For a year he lugged the heavy Thornton-Pickard triple extension imperial camera through paddy fields and bamboo forests in one of the most remote corners of China.
He and his boss drew incredulous crowds everywhere they went. Most villagers had never even seen a photograph before, let alone had their picture taken. The boy who helped change the film, print the pictures, and show the results to the excited subjects had discovered his vocation.
So when the foreigner packed up his equipment for the last time, Li embarked on a wild scheme of which only a 12-year-old boy could dream. Although his family was poor and sometimes short of food, he stole his grandmother's cow, led it for four days to the town where the photographer was staying and sold it for 600 renminbi (about £40 today). He persuaded the foreigner to part with his camera and returned home, vowing to make up for the loss of the cow with the money he would earn from his new vocation: village photographer.
Recalling that day to the first British man he has seen since, Li grins, deepening the wrinkles on his weather-beaten face. "My mother was furious when she saw what I had got in return for the cow. To try to win her over, I offered to take her portrait. But she wasn't having any of it."
Ever since, Li has been making a unique record of peasant life in one of the poorest parts of the world. Li estimates he has carried his Thorton-Packard 220,000km on his wanderings around 400 villages, some of which take more than a week to reach on foot. Simply going to the nearest town to buy film and processing materials meant a four-day, 200km walk along mountain paths. And walking alone through this still wild part of China can be risky. Li's close escapes from wolves, snakes and tigers have become the stuff of family legend. But political persecution caused the greatest suffering.
In 1974, towards the end of the cultural revolution, Li was labelled a "capitalist roader" for using British-made equipment to earn a private income. He was driven out of town and his family forced to disown him. His wife and children were denied rice rations. According to Li's son Jincheng, they survived by eating grass. He said his mother was so poor she had to sell one of her children.
Tales of craftsmen suffering for their art do not come much more harrowing. Some - such as the story of Li leaping through a window with his camera to escape a fire set by bandits, or the one of him holding the equipment above his head as flood waters closed in - appear to have been embellished or mistranslated over frequent tellings. However, it is not the veracity of the yarns but the quantity and quality of the photographs that make Li remarkable.
Li estimates he has taken 300,000 pictures of village weddings, communist party meetings and spring festival family gatherings using the most natural facilities. Until last year, Makeng had no electricity; the only running water comes from a stream. And Li still relies on techniques he was taught at 12. He removes the film under a blanket in his darkened bedroom and exposes it by opening the door for a few seconds. Developing the prints, he works with chopsticks by the light of a candle inside a red paper lantern. For enlargement, he shortens the height of a pipe from the ceiling that lets in an adjustable circle of light. "It doesn't get much more basic," says Li. "But you have to take account of the weather, which can be tricky. On a sunny day, you only need to open the door for one or two seconds to expose the film. But you need a bit longer when the clouds roll in."
Given this method, the results are impressively clear, if not always uniform. Even the slight over- or underexposure - as well as the occasional tint of colour added to the monochrome images - adds a distinct pre-industrial flavour to the collection at the Shanghai Biennale.
That Li's photography has travelled better than many installations of the increasingly jet-setting generation of contemporary artists, has raised awkward questions for the Long March Art Campaign's organisers. But Li says there is no comparison: "What they do is so different. It's a good way for them to express their thoughts, but it's not for me," he says. "I just love pictures. I always have. In all these years I have never - even for one single moment - regretted stealing that cow."
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