Around 2012, the photographer Cai Dongdong lost interest in making new images. By then, he had been taking photographs for fifteen years, first as an official portraitist in the People’s Liberation Army in the late 1990s, and then as an artist in Beijing, where his work evolved from evocative black-and-white snapshots to carefully staged scenes, featuring mirrors and camera lenses, which probe the nature of the medium itself.
'Picking Fruit' 2016, 46.6 x 59cm, Silver gelatin print, Mirror
In the early 2000s, before emerging as a rising star in contemporary Chinese photography, Cai had a particular hunger for new images. Rent was negligible then in the Songzhuang art colony outside Beijing, where Cai roamed freely with his camera. “During that period, I only had a Contax T3 clipped to my waist, taking photographs wherever I went,” he recalled in 2017. “There wasn’t much of an art scene or art market. Our village didn’t even have restaurants.
But over time, something shifted in Cai’s relationship to photography. “I’m no longer so interested in the photograph directly as artwork,” he told me recently. “Nowadays everyone takes photographs, so there can no longer be any distinct perspective.” Beneath this observation of the medium’s ubiquity lies a deeper lament: in their profusion, photographs may have lost their hold over the past, lost their evocative power over memory.
This can be gleaned from Cai’s recent turn toward archival and found photographs, and his careful attention to their materiality. He folds, cuts, curls, and rubs these nearly forgotten images, and sometimes even attaches three dimensional objects to the pictures, extending them into real space and giving them a second life as what he calls “photo sculptures.”
‘The Mountain Cutters’ 2017, 52 x 55.5 x 56.5cm, Silver gelatin print, Stones
A few such works were on display this past summer in the survey exhibition “Ten Directions” at Beijing’s Three Shadows Photography Art Centre. Barrier (2018) features a folded middle section that sticks out, creating a literal “barrier” between the photograph’s two human subjects; in Rolled Road (2015), a sliver of the image has been cut out and curled to leave a blank space in the shape of a winding road; in Moved Moon(2015), a hole punched in the print serves as the double of a full moon that shines nearby. In a wall-text statement, Cai described these manipulations as a “surgery on the pictures,” intended to meld real and photographed space.
Cai’s play with space is especially striking in the installation Night (2018), his most elaborate work in “Ten Directions.” Over a thousand small black-and-white photographs line the glass panels of a folding screen. The images are imperfect—some out of focus, some crookedly shot, some underexposed or washed out—and their subjects are unassuming: modestly dressed men and women pose before scenic sites; children, couples, and families smile or gaze out dreamily.
Taken with 35mm film cameras, these small photographs were printed directly from the negative without enlargement—a common, low-cost format in late 1970s and ’80s China. They bear the physical traces of time, with yellowed and frayed edges, creases, and stains. Some have hand-scrawled notes on the back—visible through the other side of the glass panel—disclosing names, dates, and dedications in faded ink.
Once precious momentos, the photographs have now been abandoned, perhaps outliving their owners. Cai collects these expired possessions, rescuing them from antique shops, recycling stations, and dumpsters all over the country. Displayed together in the open space of the gallery, they had a startlingly intimate effect. Each imperfect image unlocks a moment in a particular life, which has likely since disappeared or become radically different. By assembling them inside a piece of furniture, Cai emphasizes their lingering presence in everyday life, and allows the past to take shape and occupy physical space.
Facing the folding screen a few feet away was the rest of Cai’s installation: a round desk mirror propped on a stool, with a camera lens protruding through the glass. This reflexive reference to photography is less interesting than the domestic space opened up between folding screen and mirror. “There’s a sense of human presence,” Cai remarked of this space, “as if there’s someone living there, getting dressed behind the screen or doing their makeup before the mirror. . . . A sculpturized photograph is no longer just a surface, but a place.”
This emphasis on an embodied and transportive experience suggests Cai’s desire to return to an older, now waning, relationship to photography. As remnants of a past era, the small portraits in Night also anchor us to this older relationship: photographs as scarce, physical containers of memory, and not, as they have become in the age of social media, an infinite stream of short-lived, virtual scenes that substitute for current reality itself. Cai, whose career matured during the transition from analog to digital photography, has always preferred to work with film cameras. “Digital cameras have no sense of life,” he told me.
In addition to highlighting the digital turn, Cai’s preoccupation with old images reflects the fraught relationship between photography and memory in recent Chinese history. Under Mao, most photographs were carefully composed to reflect state ideology, depicting happy soldiers, workers, and farmers in a collectivist utopia. They amounted to what the theorist Gu Zheng calls a kind of “false history,” overwriting private memory. After Mao’s death in 1976, documentary photographers began to depict social and historical truths left out of the official narrative, opening up a restorative space for remembrance and reflection.
'Burying The Mirror' 2016, 46.6 x 59cm, Silver gelatin print, Mirror
“Photography is not just about looking, sometimes it is also about resisting forgetfulness,” remarked the photojournalist He Yanguang, who documented the rehabilitation of persecuted cadres and intellectuals after the Cultural Revolution, among other previously restricted subjects. Li Xiaobin, who photographed quotidian scenes in 1980s China, defended his apparently plain style by noting presciently: “This period’s particular look is different from what has gone before and from what is to come. . . . If we cannot capture it with our cameras in a timely manner we will be creating a gap in our history, creating a loss that is difficult to make up.”
'A Tree' 2015, 30 x 39cm, Silver gelatin print