Sha Ge Xi Ren –Chinese Opera Paper Dolls

It is with great pleasure for us to welcome the New Year of Tiger with this little known work of Jiang Jian’s: ?"SHAG XIREN" - the Chinese Opera Dolls from Pingyao – which was commissioned and collected by the French Ministry of Culture.

This is a work that Jiang Jian holds dear to his heart because this photographer-musician (who graduated from the Conservatory of music of Shenyang), began his career as a stage photographer for the Zhengzhou Opera House. These "SHAGE", a generic name designating these miniature opera figures set in a Shanxi lacquered box, were created a hundred years ago by a talented craftsman XU, a lost art that no one is capable of replicating today. Jiang Jian’s photographs become the only 'authentic' portraits of these 28 plays. These paper dolls are so old and so fragile, and in such disrepair that they could very soon fall into ashes, due to the impossibility to restore them.

The uniqueness of this photographic work comes not only from these SHAGE dolls but also from the fact that it is a work of conservation and of recreation. Jiang Jian’s camera captures the reality through fragmentation (here we no longer see the box that contains each of the scenes), and through a compressed framing (the viewer is led "onto the stage” through the frontal vision). His centered framing flattens the three dimensional dolls into a two-dimensional image, giving each photographed doll a status of single object emerged from the depths of the ages, a genuine typological model. The relationship between the “dolls box" with the “camera box” is fascinating: these miniatures dolls that were originally created and placed in a lacquered box for collection and display, are now captured and stored inside the “camera box” for further exhibits and collections.

By photographing them in the manner of a stage-photographer Jiang Jian has created a "new image" of these opera plays. Especially through carefully chosen angle and non-obtrusive lighting, he has achieved a remarkable objectivity in the total respect of the photographed objects. There is none manipulation here, nor any stage setting. Photography here fulfills the function of granting a second life - just as authentic – to these dolls that were doomed for oblivion.

As this collection of dolls is too fragile to be moved to other places for exhibition in places other than their place of existence in situ, Jian Jian’s photography acts like a substitution and becomes the only visible expression of the work itself.

Like the Berndt and Hilla Becher couple, who through their accumulation of representations of anonymous sculptures (water towers, blast furnaces, etc) have obtained the grand prix of sculpture at the Venice Biennale in 1990 for their only practice of the photographic medium, Jiang Jian practices a “molding” photography, a kind of casting of his subjects in their entirety. A language that he has started to use in his "Masters" series (portraits of peasants in their interior), then through the series MAJIE Folk Singers and later in his Shaolin orphans, each time with objective, neutral and almost sculptural poses.

A big thank you to Jiang Jian to remind us that we must remain vigilant to the many illusions of the life we lead. This is an invitation for us to learn to use a photographic eye when we are confronted by the daily comedy and tragedy, an invitation to practice the lesson of objectivity taught by Jiang Jian, which helps us keep a safe distance from the illusions of the reality.

Jean Loh
January 2010

Jiang Jian - Sha Ge Xi Ren
Jiang Jian
4 color printing
90 pages