Li Zhengde’s photography reveals an edgier side to China – by Thomas Bird
China’s second tallest skyscraper, the Ping An Finance Centre, was completed in the center of Shenzhen in 2017. The 115-storey superstructure is a testament to the city’s remarkable, four-decade ascent since its origins as a fishing village. Hong Kong has nothing as tall. Walking around mainland China’s third wealthiest city, Shenzhen feels rather well-to-do. Residential blocks have replaced the labyrinthine urban villages formed when high-rise buildings were hurriedly built in what had been countryside. A vast metro system has supplanted the old fleet of mini buses, while cars, not motorbikes, dominate the city’s six lane boulevards. The seedy border town once renowned for knockoff designer wares and sweatshop factories has given way to homogeneity and affluence.
To the east of town, Luohu district marks ground zero of China’s “reform and opening up” period in the 1980s. It was here that Deng Xiaoping is said to have proclaimed “to be rich is glorious” in 1992. But the rest of Shenzhen has caught up with its early prototype. China’s first tower blocks are now weathered and worn, while around the railway station vestiges of Shenzhen’s sleazy past linger on.
It is perhaps appropriate that I’m meeting the city’s most prominent artist in a Cantonese canteen amongst the massage parlors and DVD vendors of Luohu, rather than in a generic mall. After all, Li Zhengde rose to fame, and infamy, with the New Chinese series in 2009 – a searing, often hilarious photographic satire of crass commercialization in boom-time China. His photos often appear as crude snapshots, captured with the stealth of a street photographer. But the images juxtapose traditional China with its mercantile reality, contradicting the official image of a harmonious nation infused by Confucian virtue and offering gallery-goers an unsavory vision of life in the Middle Kingdom.
“They won’t let you smoke here,” Li complains, evidently frustrated by the ban. He is 41 but a slight build and good complexion belies his two-packs-a-day habit.
Li has always had difficulty with authority. He left Hunan Normal University in 1997 without completing his fine art diploma, claiming Chinese education to be “useless”. For the next eight years he drifted between Beijing and Guangzhou working as a journalist, a photographer’s assistant, a billboard designer and a photography teacher. “I seldom stayed in a job more than a year,” he says. “When I worked at [glossy photo magazine] Modern Weekly my colleagues nicknamed me The Alien because my opinions were so out of this world.”
It may seem curious that after ping ponging between two cultural centers, Li settled in a city associated with business, not art, but Li defends his adopted hometown of twelve years: “A lot of people say Shenzhen has no culture. They’re wrong. It has every kind of culture as people from all over China have swarmed here. Beijing can only represent Beijing, but for me Shenzhen truly represents China, warts and all.”
Since 2005, Li has worked in the city financing his art with commercial freelance photography work, steadily building a loyal following on the social media site Douban until the New Chinese series sent ripples through the Chinese photography community. His award winning, if polarizing, work was last exhibited at the prestigious and progressive Lianzhou Foto festival in 2016, though the series has been deemed too risky – and risqué – for other festivals of Lianzhou’s ilk.
Controversy has followed the New Chinese series since its inception. Prominent photographer Wu Jialin described Li’s work as “trash”. And one photo was removed from an exhibition in Shanghai for depicting a high-ranking official and a major business leader playing cards in a Las Vegas-like setting, hardly the Party image. But the storm around Li’s work only helped to gather winds, elevating him to the premiership of Chinese art photography and eventually carrying his work overseas to galleries in Germany, Denmark and Spain.
“Lu Xun used words to tell China what situation it was in; I’ve used the camera in the same way,” Li explains between thoughtful gulps of Tsingtao beer.
He finally put the series to bed in 2016. “I photographed it for ten years,” he says, “but I’m in China, I’m not short of inspiration. My only fear is that I won’t have enough time to make all the art I want to.”
Li Zhengde developed insomnia in 2009 and started the Invisible World series, exhibited in Dali International Photography Festival over the summer. The hauntingly solemn images were born out of the artists’ insomnia after he first arrived in Shenzhen. “I couldn’t sleep, I drove my girlfriend mad until she left me. Then I started walking the streets at night, taking late night buses to derelict industrial zone, watching how the night watchmen and the migrant workers lived.”
Unlike the New Chinese series, which is meant to appear crude, in these photos Li worked with the dawn light of the half-constructed cityscape to create beautiful landscape shots that capture the stories of those who live on the margins of society.
Li himself hails from a provincial river town in Hunan Province, in central-southern China, and as the urbanization craze has slowed, his artistic attention has turned homewards. “I made a performance art piece in my home county of Anhua,” he says. “There’s a sacred tree near an ancient gate. The tree was falling over so the government propped it up with a Roman column.” Li launches into a tirade against China’s fascination with all things Western, which manifests itself in architecture he dubs “peasant baroque.”
“I filmed myself painting the pillar gold, as the color signifies gilded in Chinese – it looks good on the outside but has no intrinsic value.”
Li has bought a secondhand film camera and his new project is to walk from the River Zi, which bisects Anhua, to the Yangtze along ancient trade routes for his latest series that combines the street photography style of the New Chinese series with the unseen China Li depicted in the Invisible World.
“It’s still a work in process, I go when I can,” he explains before showing me mesmerizing prints that evoke a muddled and unequal society far from the headline grabbing industrial East Coast. There is crumbling architecture and the debris of half-imagined infrastructure projects, yet the classic scene of the river junks that still navigate the jade waters remind us of ancient Chinese landscape paintings.
We step out of the canteen so Li can smoke a cigarette. He complains about money, his commercial photography work having dried-up with China’s slowing economy. I wonder what drives him to keep making art in a society where car and house ownership are what obsess most people.
“It’s not important to make art,” he tells me. “It’s more important to find a path to some kind of liberation. I can’t choose the time or place I’ve been born into but I can have my say. Who am I? Where do I fit in to the picture? It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the developed West or here in the developing East, people don’t analyse or critique, they just follow slavishly. Not me. I have my own viewpoint.” ∎