by Scott Creley
All female militia squad in Huteng Forestry Center. Feb 16th, 1976
In the photo the women are crossing a winter clearing, their steps retracing a knee-deep furrow in the snow where the point-woman walked. It must be nearly nightfall, the shadows razored across the white forest floor like slashes of unfurling black silk. The first three women have broken into a run, their rifles clutched mid-barrel like dance batons, held casually and not at all like implements for killing. One girl in particular, the second in the skirmish line, her left foot is leaving the ground in the beginning of a skip, her smile just a tiny crescent of teeth as brilliant and white as the snow at her feet. The women in the corner of the photo do not break rank, they hold their rifles at the shoulder, forever stern and ready to fire for Mao. There is a lens flare between the two groups, a spiritual dividing line captured as a flaw in lighting or focus.
Irrigation work camp on the Chaoyang commune, Heilongjiang province. Dec. 17th, 1974
Hundreds of peasants and students are digging, so many that the photos are in triptych. The canal winds across all three, an impossible greyscale scar running from vanishing point to foreground. The hole is so deep that it is never entirely out of view, it carves a tiny chunk from the horizon, a fingernail’s-width of the print which must mean miles in reality. The absence, this is the subtracted mass of the earth added to that of the sky, a conservation of matter. There is a balance achieved in visual terms, an equality that all these blistered palms and carts full of broken rock will never gain.
There are no mountains, no clouds – the dividing line between earth and sky is just a variation in the gradient, recognizable only in the irregularity provided by the canal. A single loudspeaker is mounted on a post, almost out of frame. The voice behind it organized all this. It is the sole point of order for all the raw nothingness. There are tire tracks winding into the horizon too, already faint. When all these people in the photo are dead, this dry canal will only just have begun to fill. When I am dead, it will have just begun to claim back snippets of the sky.
Tienamen Square under review by Chairman Mao. Oct. 18th, 1966
This girl in the photo is dancing the loyalty dance. She is beaming, her hands and fingers touching the frame of the photograph, impossible to contain. Behind her there are a hundred dancers doing the same, a thousand people past them, clapping all in unison. There are so many people that it should be stunning, overwhelming – this is not so. In the photo, in perspective, it all comes down to this girl in her soldiering uniform. She is a giant to the others, towering over the swarm of her cohorts with her face upturned and catching the light of the sun, her enraptured smile glistening under the cloudless sky. Her arms are thrown up so joyously to Mao, encircling the entire scene as if to say “Look what I have done for you.”
Self portrait of the artist in a workcamp. Undated
Li Zhensheng is leaning against a tree and smiling at his illegal camera. His coat and gloves look fine, clean even, not at all like what they might give you in a prison camp. There is the little red book of Mao sayings in his breast pocket, just over his heart. The camera is set on the ground, tilted upward so it might only look as if he were smiling, might be an illusion of perspective – a natural function of light and shadow inverted first by his lens and then later by my optic nerve. History reversed and reversed again.