Han Lei :Theater of Ordinary Life's Small-Time, Bit-Part Players

For Chinese contemporary artist Han Lei, the act of photographing the world is his way of engaging it, processing it, filtering it and digesting it. By finding the coexistence of the ugly and the poignant, the common and the unique , in a single frame, he captures multi-layered subtleties rarely found in single images. While his areas of interest are diverse and his creative endeavours follow no single libretto, there is nevertheless a distinctive aesthetic and sensitivity to the inner states and emotional complexity of his subjects that characterises his body of work.
Born in 1967 in the ancient city of Kaifeng, in China's Henan province, Han Lei comes from a family that encouraged him to pursue a career in art, long before there was any market for art within the People's Republic of China. His father was a solar physicist and his mother was a worker, but they shared a love of the arts and supported their son's artistic endeavours since he was a child.
While Han Lei's art practice employs many diverse media, including sculpture, installation and painting, photography has been the most consistent and pervasive vehicle for the creation of his acclaimed body of works. He was one of the early contemporary artists in China to make a name for himself with a camera, and his work has been shown worldwide at prestigious venues including the Kwangju Museum of Art (2007), the Guangzhou Museum of Art (2005) Lianzhou Photography Festival (2006, 2007), Guangzhou Photography Biennial (2005), Rome Photography Festival (2003, 2004, 2005), Prague International Museum (2003), as well as Pingyao Photography Festival (2001), and he has had numerous solo exhibitions in galleries in Europe, Asia and the US.
"I guess the main thing about my work," recounts Han Lei, describing his creative process, "is that each piece is very specific to the individual I am shooting. Also specific to my particular way of looking at and making sense of the world around me, is attention to certain kinds of details, each person's view is different. The things that draw me in and compel me to take pictures are things that also sort of repel me once I've taken the picture. I love the process of taking the photograph, but afterwards if I look at the pictures too much, they make me feel very uncomfortable; I don't actually like looking at my own work. I can't bring myself to make images that uncritically reflect the dominant aesthetic, so there are always traces of discomfort there alongside the sentimental, the nostalgic elements that exist simultaneously in the images."
In one of his seminal works, Pan Jinlian Who Performs a Rabbit Girl (2007), Han Lei offers a clear glimpse into the inner workings of his creative process. Uninterested in traditional notions of beauty, his works often veer away from not only the putatively "exceptional" in society, but also even away from that which is considered "normal." It is the small-time, bit-part players that captivate Han Lei's imagination and animate his lens—the same sorts of people who make up most of the population and whose distinctiveness is elided by homogenising ideas of the "normal" and "average" blank qualities such people are thought to possess. In Han Lei's world, the truly normal is always just a bit "warped." He is drawn, almost compulsively, to the solidly banal and mediocre, mildly substandard, slightly defective, not-quite-up-to-par, but never over-the-top freakish, fantastical or otherworldly. These are people who are just "off" enough for their ordinariness to become uniqueness and their imperfections to become their allure.
This is the creative impulse informing Han Lei's creation of the arresting, unsettling image of an overweight, surly woman playing Pan Jinlian, who in turn is playing a "rabbit girl"—an icon of libidinous fervor. Pan Jinlian is a controversial and meaning-saturated female character in Chinese literature, and has become the site of much discussion about the changing fate of women in contemporary China.
In the legendary work of Chinese fiction, Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh), written in the 16th century, Pan Jinlian is just one such small-time, bit-part, side character who has captured the collective imagination. She is a woman of exceptional beauty sent by her father to work as a servant in a rich man's home, only to be sexually harassed by her benefactor-boss and then forced into a marriage with a nasty, dwarfish, toadstool of a man who makes a living selling cow dung, as revenge for spurning the benefactor-boss' advances, so that society comes to see her mismatched marriage like a flower stuck in a cow patty. When Pan Jinlian is tricked into an affair, blackmailed, and then found out by her husband's outlaw brother, she is murdered by her husband's brother and condemned as a shameless adulteress. Only in recent years has society begun to re-evaluate Pan Jinlian as a symbol and rethink the patriarchal model of morality that her demise represents.
Instead of making his Pan Jinlian a lissome beauty, Han Lei went to great lengths to locate the particular model he chose for this work—a corpulent woman whose aggressive, defiant gaze is anything but coquettish or come-hither. Her carriage and demeanor indicate a psychological state at odds with that of the traditional woman, who submits without complaint to cruel fate. While the model is not ugly, she is in no way attractive by today's popular aesthetic. In describing his thinking about this project, Han Lei recounts how he took "this person who is imperfect by society's standards and elongated her legs to make her better fit that idea of beauty," but did so in a way that leaves the traces of the visual intervention fully visible. We're not really fooled by the elongation, nor does he expect us to be. We know she's not perfect, that she's been tampered with. For Han Lei, this is a sort of sardonic move that mocks those dominant standards of beauty and normalcy as unreal and unattainable, rather than mocking the woman who is deemed flawed in light of those standards.
Like Pan Jinlian as Rabbit Girl, Han Lei's other tri-panel works Naked Malan (2008) and Ears of Monkey and Ears of Strawberry (2008) extend this train of thought and take his interest in the visual expression of "shanzhai" culture in China, to a new level. “Shanzhai” literally means "mountain village," but in current slang, it connotes something more like a hick, backwoods, home-hacked, kludge culture of knock-offs that have a distinctly low-culture flavor—tacky, unstylish, cheap and possibly poorly-made, vulgar and probably a little out of style, though striving mightily to be the opposite of all this. The image of the short, stocky woman, sprawled ungainly on a shoddy lamé cloth, wearing tacky purple stockings and cheesy red boots, with little stuffed toys and knickknacks lying about in an attempt to express "cuteness," is a "shanzai" knock-off version of Goya's famous Nude Maja(1797-1800). Yet it would be wrong to say that Han Lei is mocking the girl in the picture, or mocking her "type," for there is an undertone of tenderness—faint enough to avoid becoming cloying—in the image. It is not the coltish supermodels that society fetishises who interest Han Lei, but those who don't make the cut no matter how hard they try. "In this vein," Han Lei explains, "I created a low-class scene with ugly, tacky cloth, an unattractive woman, and cheesy props because really, the whole society is actually a lot like this. Bad taste, vulgar, poor-quality, yes, but also very real and exceedingly common."
There is a certain poignancy in these details that Han Lei finds compelling, and he seeks to illuminate that in a subtle way with his staged scenes. Likewise, with Ears of Monkey and Ears of Strawberry (2008), we see the same attention to typical details, like the silly earmuffs shaped like strawberries or monkey faces. "I am always collecting these kinds of weird, cheap, tacky things that are so common in our society," he relates. "They're totally classic if you know what I mean, because they capture that particular quality and second-rate aesthetic that is so pervasive here."
In many other works, we see a similar preoccupation with images of scenes and people that are just a bit "off," imperfect, banal, but nonetheless intriguing if not endearing, and yet just unsettling enough to prevent us from taking a cozy, condescending higher ground, because they are closer to us than we might like to think.
A Girl in the Hair Salon (2006) was shot after Han Lei passed a typical Chinese brothel disguised as a hair salon and saw a corpulent beauty in the picture window. He was drawn to the "visual texture" of her fat body. When he approached the women, of course she assumed he wanted sex, and when he explained he just wanted to take her picture, she had trouble believing that he only wanted to shoot her portrait, and not take pornographic pictures of her. He persuaded her to trust him, but during the shoot in the back room, she was very nervous that the Ji-Mama would find out she was not having sex, but instead taking pictures. The photograph that resulted is one of his best. It penetrates deeply into the complex psychological state of the subject, revealing all at once several layers of her face—the flirtatious role of her profession, the distrust she had for the photographer, the anxiety of being asked to perform out of the usual context of her profession, the fear of being discovered by her boss and being reprimanded, and more.
For Three Standing Nude Women (2007), as with Pan Jinlian as Rabbit Girl, Han Lei had a scout search high and low to find the perfect models for this shot. He had a very clear idea of what he was looking for—three women whose bodies were extremely similar, and whose weight and proportions harkened back to an aesthetic of a distant era. He shot them in a setting much like the old photography studios of days gone-by, with a cheap, opulent cloth as a backdrop, bunny ears on their heads and fuzzy panda slippers on their feet and then leeched the colour out of the image to achieve a low-saturation effect, like that in Pan Jinlian as Rabbit Girl that gave him the feeling of another time, already far from us. The whole effect is unsettling, vaguely humorous, and gently twisted. Once again, it is that flawed, off-kilter feeling that gives this image an intimacy and immediacy that works as a counterpoint to the strangeness.
Such strangeness is amplified in Han Lei's many works featuring folk actors and opera singers as his photographic subjects. This is taken to an extreme in the striking images in his 13 Fictional Methods of Civil Punishment series. Han Lei recounts the story behind this series: "These people come from a family in Chisha town, in Shaanxi province, who have traditionally performed these roles each year during the Chinese New Year. They are acting out roles of inveterate “bad guys” who must be killed off because of their bad morals at the start of each New Year. This sort of ritualised performance is a dying art and the young people have no interest in carrying on their local culture, while the older people who do the acting are all working in the city away from their homes for most of the year. So the only time I could shoot them, and preserve these fading icons, was during the Spring Festival when they come home for a short visit. I went to their town with a 4 x 5 medium-format camera and tried to get their portraits. The actors were impatient and didn't want to cooperate. Maybe they were out of the habit, out of character, already. They didn't give me much time, and local hooligans kept harassing me, bumping into the camera on purpose while I was trying to get a shot. I finally left unsure whether I had gotten even a single decent frame."

(ISSUE 02-2009 magazine,Netherland)

Han Lei’s Portrait Gallery
Chang Tsong-zung 张颂人(香港)

Han Lei is no stranger to the world of false history; the early works that helped to secure his reputation had intentionally created a view of Chinese sceneries as if seen through the eyes of early foreign travellers. The slightly washed out tone, the distance and the immense stillness of the landscapes bring forward the enormity of history, and hint at the rich details encased in the vast unknown being left out of the scant documentation bequeathed to us. As moments rescued from the tides of time historical photographs are precious, and they carry more weight than other moments left unrecorded. Of course the pictures created by Han Lei are neither old nor rare, nor does the artist intend to deny the contemporary date of their making. What he does suggest is that these images are just as evocative and rich as their predecessors, and that we should scrutinise them equally intensely for traces of time that escaped the photographic lens.

The overwhelming mood in Han’s work is nostalgia. In nostalgia Han finds timelessness. He loves images that freeze mobility, images that become immutable and lasting representatives. He presents us with the typical misty Chinese mountain we imagine from our knowledge of classical paintings, he seeks out the beautiful female profile we seem to remember from old photographs. While the camera is a most democratic instrument, equitable in granting significance to any living moment, Han has used this instrument to create a hierarchy of types. He is interested in images that can be greater, more permanent and more typical than other images of their class. With these images Han constructs a world that bring alive an order and an aesthetic that is both familiar and distant in time.

The studio portraits Han recently completed refer to a project he first conceived in the mid 1980s, as the artist explains. These photographs are uniformly taken in the studio with the same drapery background. The artist explains his choice of subjects to be discerning, made to capture characteristics that underlie a social psychology. He takes note of quirks and special features in the faces to highlight an assortment of character types, as though this was a modern version of fortune-teller’s manual, or an anachronic physiognomy.

What motivated the artist in the recent portrait series seems to be the same fascination with archetypal images and a comparable brooding nostalgia that produced the “historical” landscape pictures. From his own description there seems to be two stages in his interest in people’s faces; first there was the earlier fascination with people whose dream world indicated a psychological imbalance, and the artist thought this reflected the mental state of society at large; later his interest was diverted to a form of scientific curiosity, when special facial features suggested archetypes of human character. At neither stage of Han’s portrait photography was the artist random in his endeavour; each face had to be unique and special, but also representative of certain psychological or character type. The latter stage’s evolvement into a pseudo science gave Han’s work a nostalgic mood and a reference to history.

Perhaps the artist does not truly believe his own claim that his portraits may be a key to face-reading, as he would then be producing a working manual. Han is too engrossed with each character he invites to the photography studio to believe each can be reduced to an abstract marker. For Han the scientific reference is a guide to ensure each person’s uniqueness, and to see more into their significance. The reference to the 19th century European science of physiognomy puts the collection of images into a time capsule, and adds an aura of romantic fantasy to the artist’s schematic project. As a science physiognomy has been totally discredited today, just as face-reading is generally regarded as a pseudo science. However, the failure of scientific support does not prevent people from believing in them and making use of their systems. People continue to believe the face betrays the inner workings of the soul, therefore, if ever there was an art designed to record this phenomenon it would have to be photography. In this capacity photographic portraiture may lay claim to a higher stature, a more significant role in the quest for truth. But both Han and we know this not to be the case; the age for faith in this type of science has past us. Hence Han retreats into the nostalgia and the magic of the dark photo studio. He believes in the dignity of the profession of studio photography, and he knows the audience is equally fascinated by its magic without knowing why. Resolved in this faith he has produced these fascinating pictures for us to moot on.





80和90年代,他的作品以黑白摄影为主,采用抓拍的方法,拍摄的多是北方乡镇日常生活里的普通人物和场景,戴厚厚的深度近视眼镜、牙齿不整的打花伞青年,坐在车上猴脸妆扮赶赴演出的男人,候车室被烟囱遮住半张面孔的工人,大雪中聚集在一起的人们,同时手推两部自行车载着一对双胞胎女儿的父亲,铁路边穿着脏衣眼睛被打破的男孩…… 有人说,你越想看什么,就越能看到什么,反之,你不留意的、不重视的东西即使迎面遇见,也可能进入不了你的视线。韩磊作品中出现的人或场景,可能就是韩磊与他们擦肩而过的时候他看见了而人们熟视无睹的情形,它确实在当时日常生活中比比皆是。它是人们因为太熟悉和被不屑一顾而轻视的情形,却被韩磊一个个挑出来一起摆在眼前。人们惊愕了。那么多荒诞的、离奇的、丑陋的、令人震惊的情节,韩磊到底想看什么,令人惊讶的场景也同样使他惊讶吗?