Chinese artist strips in public to critique society

GUANGZHOU • Setting up a camera in a public place, Ou Zhihang hastily removes his clothes, then with just one bottom-exposing press-up - his work is done.

The artist has taken more than 700 photos capturing his nude exercises on streets in China and sometimes abroad - a body of work unmatched in the contemporary art world.

But the locations he chooses - sites of government abuses, protests and disaster - show there is more to his work than just cheek.

"My aim isn't to get people to look at my press-ups, but to use a method to get society to think," said Ou, 46, clothed in a white polo shirt and jeans in his hometown of Guangzhou.

Taken as a whole, his work presents an alternative history of China's last decade - highlighting "sensitive" events that the communist authorities would rather play down.

One 2008 photo shows him naked opposite the grey office of a milk powder company at the heart of a scandal which sickened some 300,000 babies that year. Pedestrians walk by apparently oblivious.

Three years later, he stripped at a patch of scrubland near the village of Wukan in southern China, where villagers had risen up against local officials in protest against land grabs.

He has exposed himself at the site of China's deadliest high-speed rail crash in 2011, anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong in 2014 and chemical explosions in Tianjin last year.

All the events were covered by China's state-run media, but in a heavily censored form which shifted blame away from central authorities.

"The aim is to make the public remember these incidents," he said. "People know, if there is a place where something happens, I should make an appearance there."

The TV producer started experimenting with naked photography on work trips to foreign hotels "as a way of reliving stress", before his first outdoor shot on China's Great Wall in 2005.

As a method of physical exercise, the press-ups are meant to symbolise "building social strength".

Perhaps surprisingly, despite its sensitivity, Ou has been able to distribute his work on China's closely controlled Internet and its oblique nature has enabled it to be featured in China's tightly censored domestic press.

He has been chased by dogs and had run-ins with local police - who on several occasions have detained him and told him to delete photographs.

He credits the survival of his work to his avoidance of explicit verbal criticism of the authorities and letting his photos speak for themselves with simple titles stating their location and the incident in question.

Straddling art and journalism - winning a commendation at the World Press Photo Awards in 2010 - his work was the subject of a major exhibition in Venice last year.

The artist has not had a large-scale exhibition on the mainland, saying he prefers to distribute his work online.

He updates an account on social media service WeChat with his thoughts on China's latest scandals - from the death of an academic in police custody to the 50th anniversary of the destructive Cultural Revolution. Most are accompanied by an image from his collection, picked to match the topic. His posts are often deleted, but the account has remained operational.

"I care more about having an impact on society than holding exhibitions for academics," he said, contrasting himself with high-profile artist Ai Weiwei, who is rarely displayed in China.

"Many people in the West think that Ai Weiwei's work is great, but over here it's not shown," he said. "A lot of his thoughts cannot be exchanged with the masses."

Ultimately, though, Ou would prefer it if there was no need for him to bare his flesh.

"I hope that China will stop having the kinds of incidents which need my involvement," he added. "That way, I can live quietly".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 06, 2016, with the headline 'Chinese artist strips in public to critique society'. Print Edition | Subscribe