Earth God & Fire Ancestor ¨C Tushen & Huoxian

Hu Li¡¯s photography brings to mind immediately two sets of consideration: one is the meaning of these photographs or their representation, and the other is the photographic language no one has attempted until now at least to my knowledge.

Let¡¯s start with the representation. Hu Li¡¯s has been photographing the Shehuo Festival for some years now and it was only in 2007 that he departed from the conventional practice of other photographers that consists of recording plainly and simply the event as it unfolds.

Every lunar new year in the county of Zhongguan of the Shaanxi province: Shehuo is a spectacular folk event from the backstage face makeup and costume dressing to the procession, or ¡°parade¡± more exactly ¨C although today it tends to lose it original ¡°religious¡± meaning to become more of a tourist attraction.

The festival or shall we say CARNIVAL - of Shehuo combines the two names of folk deities: SHE for Earth God and HUO for the Ancestor of Fire. ¡°Earth & Fire¡± then is a theme inspired along the Daoist tradition and based on the five elements among which Earth & Fire are the two most vital to the farmers¡¯ livelihood since the ancient times. As farmers have no other means but to live off their land, the Earth God is by force the all mighty number one entity they must worship and pray to. Fire is the indispensable energy for sustaining life from cooking the food to keeping the house warm against the inhospitable winter cold. Earth God can only bring good things and the Fire Ancestor has the power to prevent catastrophe and to dispel evil.

For over a thousand years the people of Shaanxi have been taking up the tradition to celebrate Shehuo in honor of these two deities by parading in disguise. They would paint their faces and dress in ancient costumes according to the standards of the opera, and assuming the personality of the heroes they represent, be them historical or legendary figures dating back to the warring kingdoms, to Han dynasty, Tang or Song dynasties. These figures are made of kings, generals, political strategy counsels, princes and princesses. They can be either good or evil characters, as long as they are known to possess extraordinary powers, be that martial, righteous or cunning / scheming.
To draw a parallel we can compare this festival to the All Saints Day in the European tradition, basically this could be the (Chinese?) Halloween! O when the saints, go marchin¡¯ in. O when the saints go marchin¡¯ in!

As to the photographic language, Hu Li has opted to photograph these costumed figures one by one, by pair of front and back shots. At the beginning he wanted to convey a message on past versus present, of tradition versus modernity, of ¡°backwards¡± versus ¡°forwards¡±. He started out by photographing his subjects in the village against a backdrop of walls and alleys. Then in 2008 he decided to photograph them more systematically in the open fields, on a hill, or in the snow.
And to further enhance the expressionism he de-saturated the colors to obtain both an operatic poignancy and a vintage picture effect ¨¤ la Ed Curtis.

In fact Hu Li stands in the lineage of August Sander, and especially Sander¡¯s students Berndt and Hilla Becher. Photography for the Becher is not just a mere reflection of the reality as they deal with the conceptual dimension of accumulation. Hu Li¡¯s photographic language here is one of accumulation also. Structure precedes images and predetermines the account: the accumulation of diptychs, in a systematic pairing of front and back shots can at the same time be detached from the identity of who these figures are. We either look at them from the logic of negative and positive of the photographic process, or we can look beyond at their deeper connections: the relationship between life and death, or the relationship between the invisible world (underground - below earth) and what is visible above ground. Fire is on the painted faces, earth is the yellow loess under green grass and white spring snow. We have all the options according to our inclination: these opera figures serve the same function as Greek icons and Tibetan thangkas. We could adopt general Guan Yu as others might opt for Saint George (taming the dragon) from the Greek iconography or the medicine master from Tibetan thangka painting. For whatever purifying healing power or evil-dispelling energy they inspire. Some may prefer the Yang forces that come from the figures¡¯ stance and martial instruments; some may prefer the Yin forces.

In any case there is a dramatic tension in the fixed posture, transcending the impersonification of the character; each local farmer seems to be in turn inhabitated by the role they play, with a visible energy (fire) inflating their costume and headgear (earth). These are the precious moments, early in the morning, in the quiet of the hillside or of the field, where they surrender completely to the photographer, before they carry out the parade amidst the crowd of villagers and visitors, in the middle of fireworks and confetti, amongst the hundreds of photographers who have flocked to town for the yearly rendez-vous they would not want to miss. That¡¯s when Hu Li packs up his camera and says good-bye: he has seen what others have not seen, and we the viewers we are grateful that he can share these invaluable moments with us. To the photographers who just get off their rented car, and are surprised that he is leaving while they arrive, Hu Li just says: ¡°my job is done¡±.

Jean Loh

Hu Li - Earth & Fire
Hu Li
4 color printing
128 pages