2019 / 10月
Shen Bo-yi /photos courtesy of Tou Yun-fei /tr. by Brandon Yen
How do we face our future selves? And how does a portrait created in the here and now communicate with future generations? These are questions explored by Tou Yun-fei in his new series of photographs, Ancestral Portraits: The Future, and these are also issues that are becoming increasingly relevant to our society today.
Memento Mori and Ancestral Portraits: The Future
The photographer Tou Yun-fei has an abiding interest in portraiture. His Memento Mori was a widely known series of photographs that captured the looks of stray dogs before they were euthanized. It marked a stylistic shift toward images exuding an austere coldness. Using a quasi-documentary approach, Tou recorded the dogs’ dignified solemnity shortly before they died. In other words, he did not merely produce sentimental portraits invested with human sympathies. Rather, through photography, he perpetuated the transient expressions of living beings facing imminent death.
Tou’s new body of work, Ancestral Portraits: The Future, focuses on second-generation immigrants. The series tackles the complex ramifications of Taiwanese identity in a highly globalized context, but it also presages that a hundred years from now, these mixed-blood children of immigrants will be remembered as ancestors of future Taiwanese people. On the face of it, Tou is recording the various looks of immigrants’ children in the here and now, but in fact he is also creating remarkably elaborate “funeral portraits,” well in advance of his subjects’ deaths. These photographs, when passed down, will help future generations think about the issues with which we are confronted today. Tou’s work responds to the family perpetuation and survival of second-generation immigrants (and future Taiwanese people), as if considering, from a more vital perspective, how perceptions of what it means to be “Taiwanese” will change with time.
Tou’s approach to photography is worth contemplating. Like portraits on ID cards, the images in Ancestral Portraits: The Future place a rigorous emphasis on vertical and horizontal lines, and on symmetry and balance, relying on top-of-the-range photographic equipment. Extremely large prints are then produced for display. That is to say, Tou has been deeply involved in every stage of the process in order to bring out an atmosphere that is of “almost absolute objectivity.”
When it comes to high-quality photographs and prints, we tend to think of those excessively edited portraits that we so often come across nowadays. But Tou goes against that grain in considering how to present “faithful” portraits to his audience. Those who visit his exhibition and gaze on the large-scale portraits may in fact feel a sense of eeriness because the portraits are so real—more real than reality itself in that they show the pores, fine wrinkles, pimples and other defects on the subjects’ skin.
Stepping back: Images and writings
Prior to the exhibition, Tou invited experts from various disciplines and his subjects to write about their reactions to this series of photographs, as well as the issues raised by it. Instead of furnishing his own artist’s statement, he introduced various critical perspectives into the exhibition, including those which contradict each other. He invited his audience to read these writings and to come up with their own interpretations.
Tou takes a step back and breaks away from others not only in his photographic style, but also in the articulation of his artistic concepts. More than creating art, he seems to be compiling an archive for second-generation immigrants. This radical approach has enabled Tou to shape his unique methodology, although in doing so he also risks falling into other clichés, such as an “anti-style” style or a “counter-aesthetic” aesthetic.
Interestingly, if Tou had merely followed Thomas Ruff in creating utterly pure portraits, his work would, in spite of himself, have been regarded as an aesthetic expression. However, by means of the solicited critical writings, he provides full contexts for the portraits and elucidates the issues of nationhood, community and identity that are raised by the portraits themselves. Complementing each other, the writings and the portraits shape the series’ openness and rich meaning.
Projecting “us” into the future
By gathering and arranging the images and writings, Ancestral Portraits: The Future reminds us that the idea of “we” is always in flux. “We” are not defined by nationalism, “we” do not exclude others through pretensions of purity of blood, nor are “we” a product of multicultural policies. In fact, the idea of “we” is full of complex cultural textures, differences and conflicts, and it involves the integration of heterogeneous elements. Like the minute details of skin that Tou reveals to us, and the documentary data he has put together, all of these elements exist unnoticed in our daily lives. Despite the fact that Ancestral Portraits: The Future is displayed in the here and now, the issues implicit within it will project themselves into the future, presaging the changeful countenances of future Taiwanese people.