Thomas Sauvin: Great Leaps Forward

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“…the word ‘image’ embodies a number of distinct phenomena. On an existential level, it articulates the impression we project onto others and ourselves—self image, body image, public image. But in a traditional art historical context, it alludes to the visual representation of someone or something in a work of art”.

by Cat Lachowskyj

    In the English language, the word ‘image’ embodies a number of distinct phenomena. On an existential level, it articulates the impression we project onto others and ourselves—self image, body image, public image. But in a traditional art historical context, it alludes to the visual representation of someone or something in a work of art. Specifically, in photography, ‘image’ refers to the picture we see when we look at a photograph. It’s not the photograph itself—the object we hold in our hands, inspecting its roughed up edges, creases and finger smudges. Rather, it’s the subjects—it’s what they’re doing, wearing, where they are, and who they’re with.   One of the most pervasive marvels in photography is the conflation of these two meanings, when an impression becomes symbiotic with a picture, so that one does not exist without the other. These hybrid-images always start out as merely visual: a surly black-and-white print of Che Guevara; any bearded, pointy-chinned photo of Lenin; the stoic, saluting presence of Kim Jong Il; or the boundless stream of Donald Trump’s yelling face, his mouth a black hole of rambling bullshit. Over time, these photographs detach from their original makers, and the pictures become something more: symbols or referents that materialize in our minds whenever we utter their subjects’ names.

Perhaps no image is as saturated in symbolism than the portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong, leader of the Communist Party of China from its establishment in 1949 until his death in 1976. Mao understood the power of his image, both visually and ephemerally, and used it to construct his own cult of personality. Strangely, over time, the impression of his legacy has faded; while his face might effortlessly flash in our mind’s eye, many don’t understand the intricacies of his history and actions. Today, his portrait floats across the world as its own entity, dominating shiny realms of pop culture as a commodity – ironically – rather than an emblem of assimilation. But what exactly came before this detached, floating head?

 

 

At first, Mao’s vision for a new China was as progressive as it gets: direct opposition of right-wing values, the collapse of imperialism, and the establishment of modernization. But in retrospect, his regime is largely qualified as an autocratic and totalitarian dictatorship. Mao’s political strategy led to, among many other atrocities, the largest famine in human history. From 1958 to 1962, he implemented a plan called the Great Leap Forward, an economic campaign defined by absurd targets in both agricultural and industrial production. At a rapid rate, China’s countryside was drained of grain, which was sent to the Soviet Union as premature debt repayment, leaving millions of Chinese farmers to starve to death. What’s more: many of Mao’s political contemporaries were afraid to challenge him on his impossible demands, fearing for their lives. It is estimated that 45 million people died during the Great Leap Forward, including the torture and slaughter of roughly 2.5 million. In short, Mao’s predilection for international optics completely obliterated what was happening on the ground in his own country.

 

“Mao’s political strategy led to, among many other atrocities, the largest famine in human history. From 1958 to 1962, he implemented a plan called the Great Leap Forward, an economic campaign defined by absurd targets in both agricultural and industrial production. At a rapid rate, China’s countryside was drained of grain, which was sent to the Soviet Union as premature debt repayment, leaving millions of Chinese farmers to starve to death”.

 

Almost sixty years after its official conclusion, much has been written about the Great Leap Forward. But at a time when both amateur and professional photography was booming in many parts of the world, there is a marked lack of visuals depicting the everyday life of China’s citizens between 1958 and 1962. In fact, if we are able to call any image to mind, it’s often that pervasive symbol of Mao’s face.

 

 

That portrait, and the popular market for it, is a phenomenon that contemporary archival artist Thomas Sauvin has learned to dodge in every corner of his collecting network. As a specialist in Chinese photography, Sauvin is often presented with prints of Mao and other stereotypical shots of the Cultural Revolution by various sellers, who have long associated mass popularity with monetary worth. But if you know Sauvin’s work, you know that he’s not particularly interested in static historical illustrations. One day, in September 2016, he paid a visit to the Panjiayuan Antique Market in Beijing, where some sellers had set a few items aside for him to browse.

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“It usually starts the same way each time,” he explains. “On this particular day, they put on white gloves and started showing me an album about the Cultural Revolution, and a set of large gelatin silver prints of Mao. It’s always a bit awkward at first, because I have to patiently go through them and pretend I am slightly interested, until I can finally ask: ‘What else do you have?’”   Usually the flea market vendors toss aside an array of other materials they’ve deemed unworthy of collecting, which are the very objects Sauvin devours—sometimes albums, sometimes other forms of vernacular prints. But this time, the seller pointed towards a tightly-sealed plastic bag covered in a thick layer of dust. Through the grit and grime, Sauvin could see that the bag was filled with brown envelopes, and when he picked it up, it was heavier than he expected. He asked the vendor if he could take a look inside. “He was a bit disappointed that I didn’t go for the more expensive stuff, and told me it was just a bunch of sports-related photographs—nothing special.”

Over the past decade, Sauvin has made a name for himself as the operator of Beijing Silvermine, an archive containing over half a million negatives salvaged from a recycling plant on the outskirts of Beijing. Sauvin scans these negatives, uploading their positive inversions on an Instagram account that has accumulated over one hundred thousand followers. Since he started the archive, his collection has expanded to include other peculiar findings, such as the album used to create No More, No Less, his collaboration with artist Kensuke Koike, as well as various research institute archives, botanical and architectural studies, family albums and a large collection of hand-coloured prints. Sauvin isn’t necessarily attracted to the stuff that defines the established narrative of regulated art collecting. He’s drawn to the objects we can’t quite place, devoid of their original context, opening up new pockets of creative possibility. Rather than hiding these treasures away, he resurrects discarded memories by lacing them with his own interpretations, engaging them in a state of play that’s often as shadowy as it is humorous.

 

 

During this particular trip to the flea market, Sauvin persuaded the vendor to sell him the entire bag of photographs for 50 euros. It was a swift and unremarkable exchange for the seller, who didn’t want to go through the trouble of selling each envelope individually. “When I got back to my studio and opened it, I realized he wasn’t lying: it was a bag full of sports photographs,” Sauvin laughs. “I’m not a sports person myself, but there was something I liked about them. They didn’t look like anything I had ever seen before.” Each small envelope contained a stack of anywhere from ten to sixty prints, and when he laid the photographs out, each stack formed a sequence. “I immediately sensed a cinematic quality in them—they almost looked like film stills. But in each of the sequences, I also noticed this relationship between people and gravity. The sets begin with individuals laying on the ground, and then they start jumping to their feet, taking off in various ways. When I first saw them, I found them quite poetic and whimsical.”

“Sauvin persuaded the vendor to sell him the entire bag of photographs for 50 euros. It was a swift and unremarkable exchange for the seller, who didn’t want to go through the trouble of selling each envelope individually. “When I got back to my studio and opened it, I realized he wasn’t lying: it was a bag full of sports photographs,”

 

 

Like most images that Sauvin deals with, the photographs were completely decontextualized, and he wanted to find out more: where were the pictures taken, and what were they about? He started reading through the inscriptions on the envelopes, which listed the number of photographs contained within, the size of the prints (6 x 6 inches), the names of each sport, and a filing number. But then Sauvin noticed something interesting: “Each envelope had the same date written on it, which was the 15th of September, 1960. When I took the prints out of the envelopes, they were also stamped by the Xi’an Meteorological University with a different date: February 9th, 1961.” Additionally, each stack of photographs included a 6 x 6 contact print of hand-written calligraphy, acting as a photographic title card for the different sports series. The cards listed the name of the depicted sport, followed by, “Xi’an Physical Education Institute, Department of Photography, Visual Aids Workshop, Import Goods Factory.” Inscribed on these calligraphy prints, Sauvin encountered a third referent: June 1960.

Based on these three dates, Sauvin believes the photos were originally taken in June 1960, and that the negatives were used by the Xi’an Physical Education Institute to produce a number of sets for distribution to other institutions. In particular, Sauvin’s collection was likely printed in September 1960, and acquired by the Xi’an Meteorological University in 1961.   Despite these distinctions, one thing was clear: all of the dates were smack in the middle of the Great Leap Forward. In the middle of a famine. In the middle of the extreme imbalance between export versus internal stability. In the middle of Mao as the image, here, in Sauvin’s hands, were photographs of muscled athletes jumping, twirling – leaping – into the air.

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Between 1958 and 1962, photography was highly regulated across China, especially the production of photobooks. In Martin Parr and WassinkLungdren’s The Chinese Photobook: From the 1900s to the Present, scholar Gu Zheng contends that, following the establishment of the Communist Party of China in 1949, “the state became both publisher and author of the photobook, which was made a tool for propaganda and the dissemination of information.” After 1949, all publishers were gradually placed under Party or government management, and Mao’s face regularly appears at the start of not only photobooks, but all publications from this time. Zheng also explains that the individual pursuit of photographing didn’t really resume en masse until the 1980s.

 

 

Here, Sauvin was met with a new challenge. While many of the existing images in Beijing Silvermine deal with the performance of material happiness, posed memories and social celebration between the years of 1985 and 2005, these sports photographs were a different type of construction. The artist was instead faced with minimalist monochrome Communist aesthetics, defined by nondescript backdrops and intentional distancing from the everyday, individual experience. They were, in some way or another, original propaganda prints. The world of Beijing Silvermine shifted from colourful, mundane imperfections to the time that came before, when individuals were methodically anonymized through photography.   The more he looked into it, the more Sauvin realized that photographs taken during the Great Leap Forward, especially those existing outside of government collections, were few and far between. He was reminded of a time in 2011 when a journalist approached him about putting together a documentary on the Great Leap Forward, asking for photographs to use alongside his footage. “After three days of searching, I realized that, despite the millions of images I had collected, I didn’t have any material from that time period.”

For years, Sauvin put the sports prints away in a drawer and tried to forget about them. But try as he might, he couldn’t get them out of his head. “That’s usually when I realize that I need to do something with the work—it’s a good sign,” he explains. Finally, in July 2018, two years after he acquired the envelopes, Sauvin reached out to French designer Erwan Lhuissier at Studio Julia. “I knew that I wanted to bring the work together into a book, and I knew it needed to be a simple design created with a high level of technical skill,” Sauvin explains. “We needed to find a way to make it feel very contemporary, otherwise it would just look like a record of an old collection of photographs”—a crutch that many other archival works fall back on.

 

“I knew that I wanted to bring the work together into a book, and I knew it needed to be a simple design created with a high level of technical skill,”

 

Speaking of, when it comes to archival photography, there’s an elephant in the room that needs to be addressed: it’s trendy as hell. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, old stuff looks cool, and it automatically touches on themes of nostalgia, memory and materiality without requiring us to delve deep into explanations. Creators can remain elusive because the information we want isn’t always there, and since the artists using the material didn’t make the photographs themselves, they have room to evade questions about context and intention. But the major distinction between impactful archival projects and fleeting aesthetic presentations is the intelligent layering that goes into reactivating the work. In Great Leaps Forward, Sauvin finds a sweet spot that plays with history while simultaneously breathing new life into it. He has a knack for staging a playful present while acknowledging a dark past, removing the subjects from anonymization and transforming them into whimsical characters living and breathing in a new setting. In Sauvin’s hands, the posing athletes shift from their original fate as mass symbolic representation to individuals who are pretty damn good at defying gravity.

 

 

A lot of that transformation has to do with the book’s design and sequencing. “The thing I found most difficult to deal with was the square photos. Designing with square images is incredibly awkward, but eventually we decided to try out the dimensions of a perfect square. You can’t tell the book is a square until it’s open, which also allowed us to play with this unique, long shape that the object takes on when it is closed.” Using this square format as a guide, Sauvin sequenced the images in a way that pays homage to their original narratives, showing anywhere between two and four shots on a given spread, stacking them in alternating patterns that keep his reader’s eyes bouncing with his subjects. “I wanted to convey the fact that it is a collection, while also playing with that initial cinematic feeling I had when I first spread the photographs out in front of me.”

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The cover is paper-bag brown, a nod to the envelopes that make up the original material, and the entire book slides into a bright orange dust jacket—another subtle nod to the original source material. “It needed to appear as something meant to protect the book, rather than a design element,” Sauvin explains. “While this work is sombre in a way, the orange allowed me to explore my love for making colourful objects. Unlike my other books, it’s not too flashy, but it can be tied back into the greater output of Beijing Silvermine.”   One remarkable feature of the book, for which no justice can be done through digital files on a screen, is the printing technique used on the full-bleed images, which appear intermittently throughout the pages. While the smaller photographs are fascinating in their own right, printed with a sharp clarity that pays homage to every fleck of dust and ethereal chemical degradation, the large images contain an antique metallic sheen, adding an incredible layer of depth to the original photographs. The reflective silver-gold ink makes the magic of the gelatin silver printing process tangible, while also paying homage to the archive’s namesake: Beijing Silvermine.

Many old gelatin silver prints and negatives that haven’t been properly fixed by their original makers experience a lifetime of what conservators call ‘silvering out’—the continued oxidization of remaining silver compounds suspended in photographic paper. It’s interesting to think of a photograph staying alive, continuing its transformation well after the subjects it depicts are gone. In Sauvin’s large metallic reproductions, the mobile individuals, winding their legs and torsos in the air, almost appear three-dimensional, drawing us into the fluid clarity of their movements. The athletes are animated with a kinetic warmth that both highlights and subverts the limitations of the photographic medium as an immortalizing tool, which is perhaps the most moving form of resurrection that Beijing Silvermine has ever practiced. Sauvin also produced a special edition of the book, which includes an actual gelatin silver print fashioned from negatives created from  inverse scans of a few of the original prints.

 

“In Sauvin’s large metallic reproductions, the mobile individuals, winding their legs and torsos in the air, almost appear three-dimensional, drawing us into the fluid clarity of their movements”

 

For Sauvin, the layers that go into making his work don’t just start and stop with sequencing and design. Titles are crucial to his message, as demonstrated in Until Death Do Us Part, a replica of a pack of cigarettes containing celebratory images of smokers at weddings. Here too Sauvin combines light and darkness: jovial ceremonies mixed with fatal habits, the title alluding to both death and new beginnings. “When I started working with the images for Great Leaps Forward, I kept coming back to this initial reaction I had to the individuals defying gravity, and I started thinking about the metaphorical connection between those depictions and what was actually going on in the country at the time.” While the Great Leap Forward is now infamously intertwined with mass fatalities at the hands of the government, there was a positive quality to Sauvin’s images that needed elevation. Once again, the project’s title is his work’s binding force, acknowledging contextual history while alluding to the leapers’ new territory, sprawled across the pages of their Silvermine habitat.

In short, Great Leaps Forward provides a subversive representation of this catastrophic time in Chinese history, with the image of Mao’s face nowhere to be seen.   While this latest project was a creative risk for Sauvin, the book also feels like a necessary new chapter in his work. It demonstrates his ability to stay true to his foundational methods of play, and how his ability to conflate, replicate and resurrect narratives can be used across all types of photographs. “I like the idea of dealing with something that was meant to disappear or that was on the threshold of destruction, and instead find ways to reorganize it, reprint it, multiply it and send it all over the world,” he reflects. “This specific book was a strange experience for me, because the images weren’t necessarily vernacular; they were made by an anonymous professional photographer. When you make a book, there’s always a balance you have to consider between the design, the photographs, the objects and the content. In comparison to the other books I’ve made, with Great Leaps Forward I wanted to give the images centre stage, and that’s a new exercise for me. I hope that I conveyed the beauty and strangeness of this collection, and that the images themselves help guide readers through their historical context.”

 

Thomas Sauvin 

Great Leaps Forward

Silvermine

(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Cat Lachowskyj. Images @ Thomas sauvin.)

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