Photography, as a tool for representation, is always entangled with time and memory. The figures in a photograph appear before the audience as would actors on a stage; there are roles to be played, all an indication of some absent “other.” In the quiet gap that exists between the space and time at which a photograph was taken and that in which it is viewed, there lies an implicit reminder: the instant the shutter drops, everything in a photograph belongs to the past.
Soon after his mother passed away, Roland Barthes looked through her old photographs and came across a picture of her at five years old. In his last major work, Camera Lucida (1981), Barthes writes, “I could pick her out from amidst a crowd of thousands of women, but I have no way of making her ‘return.’” It was the simultaneity of the familiar and the unfamiliar— both alive in this family photo— that lead Barthes to consider the cracks of history, and the function of image as index— a repeated phenomenological model of individual memory.
“Someday” is extremely similar to a family photo album. Among the photographs on view in Wang Ningde’s exhibition at m97 Gallery, one will discover a group photo of tottering children, a bridal photo of a mother with a bouquet in her arms, a meticulously glossed-over family portrait— these are images that transport the viewer back to his first time traveling by train, to drifting in a boat on a placid lake in the park, or to witnessing family members’ sorrow over a close relative’s departure. But the works in “Someday” are as private and intimate as they are alienating and odd; their content and composition evoke déjà vu while imposing a nearly unbearable absurdity. It is an experience truly similar to the one Barthes had as he stared at the childhood face of his mother and became aware that one could look back upon flow of time through a photograph. Temporality blurs and stagnates; it takes only one singular flash— captured in moving time— to render photographed objects already obsolete.
Going through family photos is an unnerving experience; ordinary and commonplace, they are both proof of a prior existence and a testament to its status as forgotten. It is almost as if it will be forever impossible to remember accurately the actual moment when a picture was taken. This is just what Wang Ningde proclaims with his exhibition title: “Someday” is an all-purpose historical juncture, one that can serve as an absent past or as an indefinite future.
Looking through old photographs can be a traumatic experience. Freud, in his essay “The Uncanny,” writes that the sensation of uncanniness originates out of the defamiliarization of oncefamiliar objects. For Barthes, old family photo albums were a reminder of the reality of death; though the familiar features of his relatives had been meticulously preserved through image, these were people that had since vanished from the mortal world. A photo is a reference to a previously existing truth, a spatio-temporal realm that once was. Perhaps it is only coincidence that after Wang Ningde’s father passed away in 2004, the “paternal” element in his work began to occupy a place of increasing prominence. From 2005 onwards, he recommenced work on the “Someday” series, following a several-year long standstill. Personal trauma (the death of loved ones), collective trauma (the Cultural Revolution), and temporal trauma (inherent in the medium of photography itself) all coincide here. The absurdity of memory is intentionally amplified by the artist; all of Wang’s subjects in “Someday” are heavily made-up, eyes tightly shut— a true embodiment of the role of the photographed figure as an actor, forever stationed “some day” in the past. Tang Lingjie (Translated by Katy Pinke)