Xiangdong Li. Born in Shenzhen, China in 1999. After receiving his BA in Photography from the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts, he is now pursuing an MA in Photography at the Royal College of Art in the UK.
Spectres of Wuhan
To this day, the ghost of Wuhan still hovers over me.
I have found many documents and photographs of the last century in Wuhan. These documents and photographs all point to a time and space that I was unaware of. These negatives were lost to their owners, the carriers of these memories lost in memory. I try to peel back these dusty memories, they are interconnected with my feelings about Wuhan, and I long to find some memories on the edge of oblivion in these tattered films.
These old negatives are fragile, and the images attached to them are also extremely fragile, like a bubble that has been flying for a long time, it is bound to break, but before it does it is extremely beautiful. I rescue these images like an archaeologist, peeling them back, cleaning them, separating them, maybe they will fade away in the next moment, maybe they will become phantoms of the past. These images need no embellishment, they are beautiful in their own right and haunt me like ghosts. I carefully go about stripping out these ghostly images and scrubbing the film with them over and over again until the film returns to its original form - a transparent film, where everything that was left behind fades away, leaving only the traces of existence and the ghosts left on the photographic paper. I then mix the fragments of these films with the developer, and after a certain mix of proportions they can leave a unique trace on the photographic paper.
While collecting the film, I also collected a lot of letters with references to Wuhan. In the midst of this, I found a 13-letter-long love story of a relationship that I could only imagine through one-sided letters. The words reorganised in my mind with the images I had collected, finding some sense of resonance between the images and the words. I tried to extract some lines from the single letters and reorder them to form several love poems. In these poems, I gradually overlap and separate from the past until it is impossible to distinguish between the real and the fake, leaving only the words that can be read.
In this process, truth and fiction mix and I engage in a collaboration with the past that spans time and space, the words becoming an unrecognisable collection of truth and fiction. Then in the darkroom I wrote the phrases found in the letters, over and over again, on photographic paper, the washed out images faded away but they formed new words. In this process I tried to peel back the dusty memories that had contributed to my emotional connection to Wuhan. I want to freeze this fragile moment again and again, the repetition of the writing is a process of getting closer and closer to that fictional time and space. I close my eyes and imagine those moments and statements, and in the process I finish writing. I want to freeze this fragile moment again and again, to write repeatedly as a process of getting closer and closer to that fictional space and time, until it is impossible to separate the "you" from the "I".
I started back with a newspaper from my childhood to trace my geographical perception of Shenzhen. At the beginning of the project, I could not project the concept of hometown on this emerging immigrant city. At the same time, I did not see the city as a spiritual object to be anchored in. In my identity, my hometown was a vague and ambiguous place, it could be the birthplace of my father or mother, or even the city where I was attending university.
I was forced to stay in the city for a while when the epidemic broke out in early 2020. I began to think about my relationship with the city, which was my physical home, but which did not fully play the role of a 'homeland' in the spiritual sense.With these questions in mind, I began to explore the city, following the personalized clues left by my predecessors, such as oral narratives, old photographs, documents, etc. I photographed some of the landscape of Shenzhen and visited my peers who also lacked an identity, and in the process of asking questions about the city and exploring it with images, I slowly found my missing identity.
I was born in this city, but I always leave the city to go back home during New Year's. The people there always speak a dialect I do not understand.But I can't see this city as my spiritual hometown, it doesn't have a rich cultural heritage, nor does it have its own dialect. If this was home, then what was the distant village that I went back to every year for New Year's Eve?
With these questions in mind, I set out to do some research on Shenzhen, first visiting some of the immigrants who had arrived earlier in the city, some from the north of Shenzhen, some from the south and some from the north-east.I collected from them many photographs and documents about the early days of Shenzhen and heard a lot about the history of the city, ranging from government policies to folklore to stories of spirits.These old photographs are more than mere images, they are objects that have been used, preserved and viewed, and these warm images transport me to a time and place before I was born.The identity information carried by the people in the photographs has been deliberately erased to create an effect that seems to glow.I wanted the viewer to be less attracted to the expressions or the looks of the people and more to focus on the context of the photograph and the fact that 'the subject is in a certain field'.With these clues in mind, I began to wander the streets of Shenzhen, a city where, if you walk south, you encounter a tangible borderline that stretches from the suburbs to the city and back again.
As you begin to photograph along the border, you will find many conflicting ideologies, such as the use of traditional and simplified Chinese characters, changes in architectural styles and the emergence of border industries.For example, taxi drivers travelling between Hong Kong and Shenzhen often have two sets of licences, one black and one blue, but these conflicts are again tacitly accepted in our ideology.As I walked along the border, I was told that Shenzhen once had a 'second line gate', the first line gate being the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, while the second line gate was a physical border that separated Shenzhen from its neighbours when it was first established, with the same long stretches of barbed wire and kiosks as the first line gate, and twelve border checkpoints where people had to take identification to enter and leave. The border checkpoints were set up in the same way as the first line.
These border posts were slowly abandoned after I was born, the former patrol road became a greenway, the posts became gazebos and the border checkpoints became bus stops. The borderline has disappeared, but the landscape that remains reminds me that a physical border once existed.As I walked around the city and continued to search for my 'roots' in Shenzhen, I visited many of my elders who were related to me, trying to find out why I existed here.They were all happy to talk about their early experiences in Shenzhen, but they always mentioned their hometowns with excitement, and even after decades of living in Shenzhen, their 'nostalgia' always belonged to a distant place.
But what about my nostalgia?
At the same time, I visited some of my peers who were born in Shenzhen, like me, and shared with them their common confusion and asked them to write some self-reports about their identity.Some of them thought that Shenzhen was not their hometown, while others thought that they had two hometowns and Shenzhen was only one of them. In the process of collecting old photographs, the 'Window of the World' appeared frequently in the albums of various families. I tried to find out what they had to say about Shenzhen.I tried to understand their stories about Shenzhen and the area in which they lived, and chose some representative locations to take environmental portraits of them.In the process of collecting old photographs, the 'Window of the World' appeared frequently in the albums of various families, and in the beginning of Shenzhen's development, the only major recreational attraction in the city was the Window of the World, a park with famous sites from all over China and the world. It was a miniature size, but that didn't stop people from taking photos with them.
I followed my collection of photographs to this one of the only early entertainment attractions in Shenzhen, and I walked through them as if they still held remnants of the past century.I tried to use photography as a medium to solve my perplexing problems, but photography is not deceptive, and at the same time it is the most deceptive of all.I can only get to know the distant past through old photographs and documents, and look for those sparse clues in the present.As the project progresses, I learn about Shenzhen's past, present and future, and the identity that comes with a sense of belonging gradually takes shape, and I slowly find the missing part of my own 'nostalgia'.