The Extending Punctums 延伸的刺点 (2013-2015)
‘A photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).’ – Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
Shot in almost full length, we see a portrait of an unidentified middle-aged man standing in front of a field of flowers. He is crossing the arms and looking at the viewer with a subtle smile upon his face. This very portrait has then been covered with inscriptions in different languages. The variety of handwriting reveals several persons have scribbled the enigmatic sentences such as, ‘A man missing his wife’, ‘It looks Photoshopped’ or ‘Under Mao’s leadership, he was perhaps a qualified worker.’ At this point, an immediate question comes to mind: are we looking at a historical photograph or a contemporary work? Such a contradictory impression is triggered by He Bo’s images from his series The Extending Punctums. Created between 2013 and 2015, the series consists of 11 triptychs, blending an archival approach with an artistic sensibility to reveal the conflation of image and text.
What is poignant about this series is not the photos themselves but rather the process through which they have been conceived. ‘I want to emphasize that viewers are so important to complete one photo,’ explains He Bo. The process is threefold. First, he selects a picture from his own collection of so-called ‘vernacular photos’, the types of domestic and utilitarian records made or bought by everyday folk. Each picture for him triggers what the French philosopher Roland Barthes called a ‘punctum’, this detail in a photo that immediately catches our attention. Second, he asks his friends to write their own views of the photos, which are then directly added onto the picture’s surface. Third, he compiles a mosaic of images. This is based on the visual content of the original image as well as his friends’ thoughts and words. It results in compelling triptychs in which images comes alive through words, and vice versa. Going beyond mere contemplation, He Bo’s approach reflects an analytic attitude towards the photographic image by ‘showing the effect that the punctums put on the viewer’.
Photography here is turned into a composite medium that intertwines different voices. The text-image relationship is a way of gathering a variety of languages around photos, while simultaneously reframing them in a contemporary context. Because He Bo believes the ‘viewer's activeness should be fully valued’, he connects the pictorial space to the concrete world of the beholder. And by giving a physical and spatial existence to his friends’ words, he grants the image an illusion of a temporal continuum. Unidentified vernacular photos become then containers of information about both the past and the present.
He Bo’s reuse of old vernacular photos is also telling. In doing so, he sheds light on the precarious state of photographic archives in China. We should remember that photographic archives in China have suffered from massive destructions that occurred throughout the twentieth century. This is especially true of the period during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s when people were forced to destroy family records. Nowadays, nearly a century of photographic history has been erased or scattered around the world.
He Bo’s re-appropriation of vernacular photos is neither myth nor reality, neither fiction nor truth. It reifies the extent to which photographic representations are not simply about the past but more importantly about continuity. He ultimately created a temporally and spatiality discursive alternative realm, a ‘mythscape’ to use Duncan Bell’s term, a space in which the myths of a historical imagination are constantly forged, transmitted, and reconstructed.
Ultimately this series attests to the increasing significance given to the archive as a means by which methods of remembrance and historical knowledge are recovered and transformed in contemporary China.
More information: hebo.photography