Artist Talk by Lu Guang

June 21, 2015

Lu Guang’s The Price of Neglect exhibition is making quite an impact. I’ve had friends raving about it, posting their own photos of his photos  on Facebook.

No surprise, then, that his talk had a pretty big turnout. I turned up five minutes early and ended up with a balcony seat with an obstructed view. >:(

But it was kind of OK, really, because he was showing us slides of horribly depressing things that he'd . The HIV villages of Henan, the SARS outbreak in Beijing, the gold rush in Tibet, the earthquake in Sichuan, the drought in Yunnan (where there were never droughts until 2011, and now there's a drought every year), desertification, children with birth defects, landmine injuries, drug addiction (one man’s arm was so purple and carbuncled it looked like a chunk of amethyst), oil dumping in Dalian, cancer epidemics in Inner Mongolia...

And everything was accompanied by peaceful Zen bamboo flute music. Perverse, I tell you.

In Guiyu, Guangdong province, the rivers and reservoirs have been contaminated, the villager is doing her washing in this seriously polluted pond. November 25, 2005

LG: In China, people will usually say that I take photos only of social issues. But no, I also takes photos of the brighter side of things.

Seriously? I mean, I guess he did take a few shots of the Beijing Olympics, and he didn't even talk about the untold cost in terms of migrant workers' human rights.

LG: The Beijing Olympics influenced life a lot. Before the Olympics, people usually did not queue, but afterwards, we started queueing. Not like in Singapore, where people queue up for everything.

Er... thanks?


But I do want to reiterate, this guy is a champ. His photos managed to get gold mining in Tibet stopped by the government. After he told the story of Madam Yuan Lihai, who adopted scores of disabled kids, the government built a whole new fricking orphanage for them. He faces down beatings, car chases, and attempts by local governments to meet with him and give him "gifts" of appreciation, i.e. bribes. He just tells them he's in another city and he doesn't know when he'll next be in town, which is very often true.

And yet he feels he's on good terms with the central government, which does ultimately order reforms to be made. He even tells us things aren't that bad:

LG: The situation in China is not that serious – these are only pockets of problems that are visible. So when it’s like a healthy person, you may be very healthy in your whole body but you may have a sore on your leg. So what I do is I expose that sore. Because if the sore is not exposed and something is not done about it, the situation may get bad and you may have to amputate your leg.

It's odd how this statement runs completely counter to the subliminal message of the show, which is that things in China are screwed up beyond all recognition, and we should all just throw in the towel and let the cockroaches have the planet instead. Very dangerous emotion, despair.

Wuhai City, Inner Mongolia.  April 10, 2005. Workers in the factories have no immunity defenses. They get ill after one or two years on the job.

So yes, he's ultimately patriotic - both pro-nation and pro-government. Which resulted in an interesting exchange when an audience member asked if he was thinking of addressing the issue of the pollution that China exports to Africa. Maybe he could team up with an African photographer to document it, she said.

His reply was that he has enough problems to take care of in China, and that local photographers should worry about Africa - though this was not so different from what the audience member had propsoed in the first place. 

He simply could not digest the idea that Chinese corporations' pollution in Africa should somehow be his nation's, or his, responsibility. Not because of a language barrier, either - the question was asked in Chinese, and it went back and forth for a time.

Maybe he's being disingenuous. Probably the safest thing to do.

Yangtze River, Maanshan, Anhu Province

None of that changes the fact that he's a hero, and his photos are heart-stopping works of documentary art.

The show's at the DECK until 4 July. Go catch it if you can!

  • 2015