A naïve view of Ji Shengli’s photograph “Policemen”

Ji Shengli’s “Policemen” [View the photograph here]
(Cover image of Issue #14 of Cha

-This post by Daniel A. Nicholls was awarded one of the Highly Recommended prizes in the Fine Tea Competition 2011.

Click the image to enlarge

The field is red, which is to say the wall is red. If we are talking about the composition, the looming wall that makes up an easy 3/4 of the picture is a field of colour, deep red, uneven in texture with a few noticeable thin patches on the left. The wall itself runs down to a light-gray marble tiled floor, but the eye is arrested by the orderly row of uniformed policemen and, amid them, a civilian protester bearing a staff, a newly cut mohawk and assless pants. He is barefoot, stands at attention, has a either a phrase or set of pictograms scrawled across the back of his white shirt in red paint, sweating itself out of shape down the fabric. It may take you a while to realize that the ornate figure that crowns his staff is in fact a phallus.

Across the faces of the policemen different emotions churn: amusement, bewilderment, exasperation, offense and perhaps fright. It more neatly bifurcates between those who are amused and those who are not. You can even count it off, starting with the bored-looking officer on the far left: 1-2-2-1-2. Three smiles, or suppressed smiles, and five steely, unmoved lips; one pair of butt cheeks clenched together in protest of… something or other.

I say “protestor,” but I admit I am guiding you with an uninformed and, moreover, American eye. It could as well be the result of a dare or of hazing or of a man’s formerly quiet descent into a madness that now dictates these clothes, this statement. But the officers are not moving; they’re aware of being taunted, of being part of a show. They by and large stick to their official posture, and are not yet about to scuff their shoes responding to the provocation. My mind drifts back to the stolid police officers that line the roving protests of San Francisco, studiously impartial or showing the mildest emotions to protesters, counter-protesters and gawking non-demonstrators alike. Perhaps “demonstrator” is a better word for this man—no matter what his message, his demonstration is clear.

What in the world is his message, though? Is this the Chinese sexual revolution? Does it demand social, absurd statements of sexuality instead of just private liaisons? Well, maybe it does; America’s did. Sex was social but not often talked about (so goes the standard account), therefore Americans were loud and public; maybe in China it’s not just social but martial, and begs a revolutionary guard armed with a penile halberd and bare buttocks. Who am I to say? I’ve never been to China at all, and my only friend with more experience there than a glorified field trip is a Western businessman whose tales, despite his obvious curiosity about and knowledge of the culture, mostly have to do with brothels and corporate intrigue.

But then, note the demonstrator’s workmanlike clothing. The shirt is a plain white tee, short-sleeved and unadorned except for his writing. The pants he’s cut up are similarly plain, if soft-looking and perhaps sturdy. The wooden staff he holds could as well be a long broom handle as anything else. He is, again, shoeless, denoting poverty. Is this the Chinese male worker desexed and attempting to reassert his sexual identity—or one in service of a state whose power is predicated on the rape (economic or worse) of its own people, who in turn lend their strength to the state’s predation by their own labour?

Or is this is a simple case of absurdist humour at the service, or not, of a general anti-authoritarian impulse, of an art student who thought it would be a funny thing to do? Perhaps. This does not discard the previous possibilities, however. Duchamp was being funny when he put a urinal in an art gallery, but he was also saying something particular about art.

So we’re back to the field of red, the spiky intrusion of black and blue and silver and an exclamation mark of bright white and flesh in the middle of them, ending at last against the light tiled floor. We’re back to the picket fence of men standing shoulder-to-shoulder, the steady rhythm of silver buttons and the bouncing Vs of spread feet in shiny black shoes. We’re back to the disruption of uniform that is the demonstrator’s getup. We’re back to visuals. And it’s true, whatever the ultimate meaning of the piece, that this is a striking image, shape and colour ahead of meaning—but highlighting it, or its potential. The photographer must manipulate a hundred things: questions of framing, exposure, timing. Sometimes more, for though this looks like journalistic photography, journalistic photography has not been above staging a scene. But in the end it comes down to a capturing of what is out there, whether it’s absurd or profound or misguided while sincere or, perhaps, all of these things at once.


Having intentionally written the above without curing my ignorance with research, it’s interesting to see how things shake out now that I’ve done some cursory googling. I was not familiar with Ji Shengli’s work, otherwise I would have noticed at once that it is the artist standing in the picture, and this is a photo of an “art performance” of his. He is a man much enamoured with buttocks, and trots his own out into the public for no doubt artistic reasons.

I’m not sure I can enlighten the reader about his intentions much beyond what’s written above except to say that, having seen the other photos in this series (it is a series), he seems to be on an often light-hearted mission to juxtapose his society’s strengths, traditions and decay or destruction (as well as, in one notable instance, some lightweight Japanese sumo wrestlers) with his bare behind. I can say little more, knowing as little as I do about the aforementioned—which is less, at this point, it should be said, than about his buttocks.

In a subsequent photo, the officers have gathered around the artist, apparently in conversation. One officer looks directly into the camera, and smiles.


Ji Shengli 1967 – Born in Xining, Qinghai province 1989 – Graduated from Qinghai Pedagogic College 1991 – Yuan Ming Yuan art activities Beijing 2000 – Immigrated to Japan 2004 – Worked on artistic projects in New York 2005 – Settled in Beijing, China 

2 Responses to “A naïve view of Ji Shengli’s photograph “Policemen””

  1. yamabuki Says:

    Using Google I too found
    additional material
    On 39 year old
    Beijing based
    Ji Shengli.
    One thing that struck me
    Beyond the obvious issue
    Of punishment by authority
    (The artist is said to pose
    In front of authority figures
    And spank himself
    To show that he reserves
    The right to punish himself
    See http://bit.ly/nLALT0 )
    Is the overlooked
    Yet rather common pants
    Many parents in China use
    To dress their children
    Open rear end pants
    To make it easy
    For the children
    to use the toilet
    Or the ground
    Or which ever other
    Convenient place
    They can find
    To relieve themselves
    This could be seen
    As a kind of reversion
    To a more natural life
    Freed from society’s rules
    Or a return to the playfulness
    Of artists and children
    Another point of interest
    Is the name he gives himself:
    Hei Yue’ (Black Moon)
    Which seems to imply
    A moon that gives no light
    That shows a darker side
    Differing from the world it orbits
    Perhaps deeper unconscious contents
    That seek to be known.
    It seems to me there is something of
    Ai WeiWei’s attitude
    In the thumb your nose
    Or in this case buttocks
    At authority.

  2. Daniel A. Nicholls (@nomopoetry) Says:

    Having been pointed back to this, I want to make sure I say thank you to Yamabuki for the elucidating comment. I’ve been meaning to now for three years!

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