“Letter From Richmond, VA: ‘The Silent Strength of Liu Xia: Photographs’”

March 21st, 2013  |  Published in March 2013

Letter From Richmond, VA:
‘The Silent Strength of Liu Xia:  Photographs’”

Amanda Dalla Villa Adams

People recognize the name Ai Weiwei. From major museum retrospectives, such as Ai Weiwei:  According to What? at the Hirshhorn, pop cultural asides, including Anish Kapoor’s mass staging of Gangam Style in support of Weiwei, and global media coverage, Weiwei has become the Chinese dissident artist.  As a progressive artist, Weiwei adeptly undermines and highlights the corrupt Chinese government to bring worldwide attention to his mistreatment.  But what about the lesser artists associated with the Chinese dissident movement?  What about those voices that are not as prominent, or perhaps more reserved?  Who speaks for them?

Such is the beginning premise for the exhibit, “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia:  Photographs,” at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia.  Organized by co-curators Guy Sorman, a French economist, and A.D. Coleman, a photography historian, the show attempts to bring attention to the photography and work of Liu Xia, an artist who has been living under house arrest in Beijing for the past two years.  Although she has committed no crime, Liu Xia remains in isolation since the imprisonment of her husband, Nobel-Peace-Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.  Prior to her isolation, Sorman smuggled the photographs one-by-one out of China; although Liu Xia knows the work is circulating, she is unaware of where or when.

Originally displayed in Boulogne-Billancourt, France, the photographs have also been shown in New York, Hong Kong, Taipei, Berlin, and Madrid.  For the opening in Richmond, Sorman gave a brief presentation followed by a keynote lecture by Coleman about the twenty-six black and white photographs made from 1996-1999 during Liu Xiaobo’s first internment in prison.  Liu Xia sent the images to her husband to avoid censorship; Coleman suggested that we might understand these images as akin to former Czech dissident Vaclav Havel’s prisoner letters.  After a lively panel discussion given by former Ambassador and current President of the First Freedom Center, Randolph Bell, and Associate Dean and Professor of Political Science, Vincent Wang, along with the two earlier speakers, our group headed to the exhibition.

In the exhibition, a narrow corridor leading to the gallery space featured two desktop computers, each screening recent videos taken illegally of Liu Xia under house arrest by activists who broke into her apartment. The photographs, hung at eye-level around the perimeter of the room, filled the small space reserved for the exhibit.  In the images, Liu Xia visited recurring subject matter, including:  dolls, faceless figures, cloth forms, calligraphy, cages, pairs, and books.  Arranged in interior, exterior, and unknown dark spaces, the figures in the photographs, what Liu Xia has dubbed “ugly babies,” have been analyzed to represent Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo.  The doll with the wide-open mouth, always yelling, stands in for Liu Xiaobo while several different female dolls seem to represent Liu Xia.  Some photographs show the two together, others with one in isolation, while still others feature the two separated by a wall, space, or words.  Entrapment recurs often.  Dolls are shown:  standing in cages, violently forced between two objects, covered by cellophane, bound by cords, trapped behind glass, and perched precariously onto dangerous precipices.

Although many of the photographs feature signs of landscape or domesticity, Liu Xia never identifies any sites explicitly.  These dolls and objects exist instead within site-less environments, tied to no specific period or place.  In fact, the only things, besides the objects themselves, that are explicit is the Chinese language and one image featuring Liu Xiaobo.  Therefore, I want to suggest that we might see these environments as what Michel Foucault calls heterotopias.  Heterotopias, or placeless places, exist as sites with no real site.   Foucault describes them as counter sites that act as a mirror onto reality to make the present environment both real and unreal.  If we consider the photographs as heterotopias, it becomes apparent that Liu Xia is attempting to create a counter-site for the couple’s context.  Under the Chinese government’s disregard for human rights, Liu Xia offers an alternative reality for the dissident movement, the Chinese people, and especially her own situation.  No longer tied to the harsh context of her personal environment, Liu Xia’s images allow for and present the real possibility of redemption and alternative solutions.


“The Silent Strength of Liu Xia:  Photographs,” is on view at the University of Richmond’s Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature through April 28, 2013.  The exhibition is sponsored and presented in Richmond, VA by the University of Richmond, The First Freedom Center, and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Comments are closed.