While Chinese artist Cao Fei stole the recent spotlight for summer exhibitions at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, an unexpected addition to summer shows which will shortly all come to a close, is Deng Tai, Shadow. Originally curated for exhibition space Telescope in Beijing, the New York iteration was made possible by James Elaine, Founder of Telescope and MoMA PS1 Director, Klaus Biesenbach. Tai, who passed away in 2012 at the young age of twenty-four, was ‘discovered’ by Elaine who is an American curator living in China and passionate about bringing exposure to young Chinese artists. There is something about viewing the work of an artist who died before getting to fully realize his or her career to the fullest. This is specifically true when it comes to photography and in Shadow, photographs are indeed the focus. Tai was interested in documenting his world, while also lending his own body and the body of others to the environment putting forth a performative gesture. The works on view are phantasmagoric, before even fully realizing that their author is deceased, they express a particular spatial and emotional vibrancy.
Tucked away on the first floor of the museum across from the café, Shadow could be easily overlooked and regrettably so. Bringing to mind the eerie self-portraits by Francesca Woodman but with a palette aesthetically specific to China, Deng Tai captured a particular fluidity with the ease of documentation similar to Larry Clark and Dash Snow, yet specificity cemented by performance captured through the lens. The work is installed on a dove grey wall and particular colors, such as a very definitive red, bounce from frame to frame. The visual dialogue between the works, along with the punctuation of a life ended too soon will leave the visitor wanting more and curious as to how this artist died. As with many of life’s unknowns, this inquiry may remain unanswered however, the exhibition gave those temporarily present a glimpse at frames now forever frozen, captured by a young man who shared his vision through the click of a button. Life is about negotiation as is death, as stated by Laura Mulvey in “Death 24x a Second, Stillness and the Moving Image” (Reaktion Books Ltd, 2006),
“There is the difficulty of conceptualizing fully the inhumane nature of the camera machine and its ability to hold time, but there is also the resonance of death that culture and human imagination have associated with photographic images. From this perspective, the slippage of language is a symptom of the presence of death and its inevitability.”
His first exhibition in New York, the artist’s works silently burned, hanging in a gallery desperate for consumption. In her book, Mulvey also quotes Roland Barthes from his Camera Lucida (published in 1980), where he stated,
“All those young photographers who are at work in the world, determined upon the capture of actuality, do not know that they are agents in the capture of death…for my part I should prefer that instead of constantly relocating the advent of photography in its social and economic context, we should inquire as to the anthropological place of death and the new image. For death must be somewhere in society; if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces death while also trying to preserve life.”
It is here we are left with the conundrum of photography, its supposed immediacy, truth and evidence of life. With all the sexy nuances of representation, in each practicing instance we are revisiting the past through contemporary eyes. There is in fact truth in death, truth in moments passed, and truth in the honesty of an artist’s intention. Deng Tai was a shadow, created by a fading light, now remaining in the glossy prints, gingerly archived and shared occasionally framed and in some cases directly tacked to the wall.
The exhibition Deng Tai: Shadow was on view from June 19th through August 28th, 2016 at MoMA PS1 in New York.
Katy Diamond Hamer is the founding editor of Eyes Towards the Dove. She is a regular contributor to this and other publications with a focus on global contemporary art. For more visit her Instagram account @katyhamer