When social norms get too dull, there are always people that do something different.
Privacy, as it is conventionally understood in the west, is a relatively new concept, dating back just a century and half or so. In classical Greek and Roman times and in the later medieval period there was no Latin word equivalent to ‘privacy’. For most people bathing, dressing, and even sex, were undertaken in the presence of family and friends with no sense of shame. It was usual, given the enormous cost of a bed, for the whole family and any visiting guests to sleep together. Indeed, up until the mid-seventeenth century, anyone seeking privacy was viewed with deep suspicion – what exactly was it they sought to hide? Attitudes began to change rapidly with industrialisation, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and developments in building techniques, concepts of hygiene, and notions of social and moral propriety. Even so, it was as late as 1890 that the editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post was to declare that “privacy is a distinctly modern product”.
In the 1960s, issues of privacy became entangled with those of self-determination, of the right to shape how one is perceived. Meanwhile, technology began to blur the line between public and private. The Walkman, when first introduced, was noted for the way it allowed an individual to enjoy a private experience while in public. Later, the internet created a paradoxical blending of public and private, as netizens shared their most intimate thoughts and images on the world’s most public platform. At the same time, rapidly rising property prices have meant that many young adults live communally in shared housing, with little privacy and more relaxed attitudes to nakedness and sexuality. Although the penetration of data-scraping technology into every aspect of our lives is anxiously discussed in public, in cyberspace behaviours continue to demonstrate little restraint as the drive to self-determinacy manifests in the performance-of-self online.
The photographs of the Chinese artist Lin Zhipeng (aka No.223) arise from within this milieu of open intimacy. His images are performative yet unstaged, as youthful Asian women and men engage in the conscious but unselfconscious presentation of self. His work has been associated with the recent art-phenomenon of so-called ‘private photography’. But these are not really private images made public. They are co-created in the knowledge that they are to be shared, that they will become part of a pictorial polylogue that interconnects a generation on a global scale. At a time when, in a number of contemporary cultures, traditional notions of modesty and privacy are being codified and enforced as forms of subjugation, these images raise an interesting question about the underlying nature of privacy as a concept: is it a function of liberty or an instrument of control? Although the bitter irony is that those who most vigorously demand that others keep themselves private are also the ones who most often invade that privacy through surveillance.
What drew you to photography?
When I was younger, I was a big fan of Japanese manga, which I used to draw. Then, after I graduated, I started to work on magazines as an editor, which gave me access to independent fashion and art publications from all around the world. I made a kind of visual transition to taking photographs instead of drawing. Looking back, I think my photography has been deeply impacted by magazines.
Another big influence on me was Hong Kong cinema. Even my name, 223, is from a Wong Kar-wai movie, ‘Chungking Express’. I love the Hong Kong style – the visuals and the colours – and I try to make my photos look like they were out-takes from a movie. I have also been able to travel a lot over the past ten years. I have visited over forty countries, something I have drawn a lot of inspiration from. My still-life and landscape photographs, for example, are definitely rooted in these experiences.
[Left] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Zigang and Mengwei’ 2010
[Right] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Flying Cat’ 2020
How would you describe the type of photographic work you make?
I don’t know how to describe my type of my work exactly. I don’t have a good memory and I use photography as my visual diary. Perhaps it’s a kind of documentary photography, but I also bring my personal aesthetics and preferences to my work, so it is also partly conceptual. I shoot intuitively in a very spontaneous and improvised way. I don’t like set-up shots.
When I photograph people, I try to let them express their own characteristics. If I do make suggestions, they are in harmony with their personal nature. I don’t want to make a person appear how I might imagine them to be, because then they would no longer be themselves.
[Left] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Shishi’ 2011
[Right] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Foot Love’ 2009
Who are the people in your photographs?
Almost all of the people I shoot are my friends, some close and some new to me. Sometimes I seek models online, and then most of those who sign up are strangers. I still try to become friends first, spending a lot of time chatting with them before we begin shooting. I choose the people I photograph intuitively. There are some people that I know I want to photograph at first sight, and there are some friends I have known for many years, but I have never photographed. Of course, I am always attracted to photographing people who are interesting and distinctive.
Although you have made work in different parts of the world, your subjects are (as far as I can see) always east Asian.
Yes. I am Chinese. I have to start with my personal cultural roots, and I am more familiar with Asian characteristics, behaviour, and cultural background. So, making work with Asian people is more manageable… it’s easier to communicate. I don’t have the roots to photograph Westerners.
[Left] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Pink Kid’ 2004
[Right] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Mandala and Coco’ 2020
Has your work changed over the years?
I photograph because I love it. All I want is to make a record of my life. I don’t really have a ‘message’, I just do what pleases me at the time. That hasn’t changed from when I first began. But over time I have experienced more things, so I feel the world differently. The people and things I come into contact with, the colours I feel in the world, the more travel I experience, the more stories I see, all of this slowly sinks into my work.
I photograph young people because I’m young too. For now, young people really appeal to me. When I get older and my friends get older, I might well be photographing older people. I have a friend I have been photographing for a long time, from his twenties into his forties. It is a beautiful thing when people age. I find it a touching process to see his skin begin to sag as time creates its traces in his body.
[Left] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Butt Table’ 2019
[Right] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Dan and Shiao’ 2018
Your work has been associated with – sometimes considered to lead – a trend in contemporary Chinese artmaking of si shying (私摄影) or private photography.
I don’t like to define my own work and don’t care how the outside world defines it. I create it and leave it to others to judge. Everyone in my photographs knows the kind of pictures I take, and they are happy to open up in front of the camera.
For me it is easy to avoid the role of spectator because almost everyone in my photographs is a friend. I feel involved, I’m part of the action, part of the composition. I’m not just standing on the sidelines waiting for the moment to happen. I’m participating. I’m present.
Can you give an example?
Look at ‘Metropolitan Skin’… [below left] When Fujie came to visit me from Hangzhou it was the second time I had taken pictures of him. He was in the bathtub, and I had the idea of pouring a bottle of red wine we had into the water around him. His body was so soft and still, it was like looking at a foetus floating in the womb.
[Left] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Metropolitan Skin’ 2017
[Right] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Ming’ 2016
Are you photographing a counterculture?
Maybe so. There are always maverick niche groups in mass society. When social norms get too dull, there are always people that do something different. I think intimacy is normal. I also think sex is normal. There are basic everyday needs that we all seek to meet, like eating, walking, shopping. Sex is just one of them. Everyone needs sex, everyone needs intimacy, and we should be able to talk about it without feeling uncomfortable or ashamed. It’s just that traditional social norms tell us that we are not free to put nudity and sex on display and that these things can only happen behind closed doors. But if they are things that happen to everyone, why can’t we just be open about them?
[Left] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Breath’ 2012
[Right] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Dan’s Tattoos’ 2014
China is a relatively conservative society and has become more so in recent years. Has this affected your ability to make and present your work?
I consider myself lucky that I can do what I want. Nobody has interfered in my artmaking. I can show gay and lesbian couples in China. I can post online that I’m searching for couples and people will respond and I travel to their cities to photograph them. A lot of my projects involve nudity and I’m lucky that I get to make them, although it’s pretty difficult to show them in art institutions in China. The last time I had a photo displayed in a museum here it was censored.
There are still some private galleries in China that are happy to show my work, but most of my exhibitions are presented in Europe, America, or Japan. It’s weird, because I can show my pictures on the internet without being censored, yet it’s almost impossible to find a place to exhibit them in my own country. I hate it when you’re expressing reality in a serious artistic way and the censors think it’s pornography. It’s so stupid!
[Left] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Kiss on a Flower Bed’ 2011 from the book ‘Flowers and Fruits’
[Right] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Mood Light in Dali’ 2011 from the book ‘Flowers and Fruits’
You started out presenting your work in an online blog and later in artist-made books and ’zines. What did you learn in the process?
I like to show my work through different forms of presentation. I like to share my work on social media, it breaks through the geographical limitation and allows my work to be distributed more widely. Seeing the various reactions people have to my pictures – from those who love them to those who hate them – I think it becomes a way of talking with the public through my images.
A blog is another kind of platform, so is photobook, so is an exhibition. Each presents the work in a different form and context. A gallery or art-museum exhibition provides direct contact with the viewer, while I guess a photobook can be seen as a kind of exhibition on the page. And, because I love prints myself, I have been working hard on publishing.
[Left] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Grace’s Wound’ 2008
[Right] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Leaves Alienation’ 2010
While you show your work online, you shoot on film. Why do you choose analogue rather than digital?
I love the texture of film. It has its own distinctive colour, grain, its way of capturing light and shade… And film responds to physical effects such as temperature and humidity. All those things are unpredictable – you’re never sure what a film image will look like until it is developed and printed. I like that kind of fun!
There is more of a ritual to shooting on film. There is a cost incurred with every shot. Unlike digital, you can’t shoot in a frenzy, clicking a hundred shots just to select the one you’re happy with. Film makes the act of taking a picture more considered, and the final work more respected. I hardly ever use post-production on my pictures because an image on film is already complete in itself and, even if there is an accidental light leak or underexposure, that just makes it special.
With a few exceptions, your images function collectively as one large archive rather than separate and distinct thematic series.
Yes, my creative genre is very diffuse. I rarely do project-based work, it’s mostly everyday improvised shots. So, when I am preparing an exhibition or publication, the images themselves are already made. The exhibitions and publications start with a theme, and then the work is selected from my archive and arranged according to that theme. It’s a bit like the operation of a magazine, where a theme is decided and then the pictures are sourced and edited.
[Left] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Grand Amour, Hijiri Endo and Guo Wei’ 2018 from the series ‘Grand Amour’
[Right] © Lin Zhipeng / No.223 ‘Grand Amour, Meimei’s Flight’ 2018 from the series ‘Grand Amour’
An exception is ‘Grand Amour’, which was shot in Paris over a short space of time. How did that project come about?
‘Grand Amour’ was curated by Anna Mistal and me. She found the Grand Amour Hotel in Paris and we really just wanted to do a very relaxed and casual shoot, like I usually do. I put out a call for Asian models through social media and went to Paris for the casting. Then, over the course of three days, the people we selected came one by one and asked me to photograph them. A month later there was an exhibition and a party in the hotel. Really, the plan was just to have a bit of fun in the name of Art! [laughs]
What have you learned about yourself through making this work?
I don’t know, I just love taking pictures… I think photography has taught me to be more sensitive to the world.
Lin Zhipeng (aka No.223) was born in Guangdong, China, in 1979. He graduated from Guangdong University of Foreign Studies majoring in financial English. In 2003 he created the blog North Latitude 23 featuring his distinctive imagery and short texts, which quickly built a large online audience. His work has featured in nineteen solo and seventy group exhibitions across Asia, Europe, Oceania, and North and South America, with venues including The Delaware Contemporary (USA); De Sarthe Gallery, Beijing (China); M97 Gallery, Shanghai (China); Stieglitz19 Gallery, Antwerp (Belgium); and The Walther Collection, Neu-Ulm (Germany).
There are thirteen monographic books and ’zines of his work including ‘Satellite of Love’ (Guangming Daily Press, Beijing 2012); ‘No.223’ (Revolution-star, Taiwan 2012); ‘In Our Secret Life’ (Hunan Literature & Art Press 2016); ‘Hidden Track’ (Editions Bessard Press, France 2016); ‘Sour Strawberries’ (Editions Bessard Press, France 2018); ‘Flowers and Fruits’ (T&M Projects, Japan 2019); ‘Grand Amour’ (Witty Books, Italy 2020); ‘123 Polaroids’ (Super Labo, Japan 2021); along with ‘Versatile’ #1 and #2 (2012, 2014) and ‘My Private Broadway’ #1, #2, and #3 (2005, 2006, 2011) which were all self-published. He lives and works in Shanghai.
Work by Lin Zhipeng / No.223 is currently on show at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in the exhibition ‘I have not loved (enough or worked)’, through to 23 April 2023.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.