Living Shrines of Uyghur China: Between Art and Document (part II)

Continued from the previous post: Living Shrines of Uyghur China: Between Spirit and Politics

“I wanted the viewer to be the believer, to stand in front of this marker imbued with so much faith and have an intimate experience”—Lisa Ross, Photographer

Image from Exhibition
Unrevealed, Site 4 (Colored “Cribs”), 2009

Art or Document?

This quote points to the need to consider the very medium of Lisa Ross’s Living Shrines exhibition: photography. Hanging on the walls of the Rubin, or bound in a sleek coffee table-style book, Ross’s images are presented to the world as art, yet the exhibition’s commentators stress the photographs’ documentary function in the midst of the shrines’ uncertain future. As documents, the photographs take on an instructive, classifying power. While certain aspects of the book work to ward against this sense—such as the decoupling of the photographs from their captions, or the absence of the term “catalogue”— the inclusion of others, such as a “Glossary of Uyghur Terms,” contribute to it.

In her book essay, Citron makes the case that Ross’s “honesty” allows viewers to “explore the aesthetics of these mazârs without an Orientalizing gaze.” Perhaps this is true of Ross’s photographs, however the context provided for them actively encourages one, as it describes an isolated, largely inaccessible land, rarely visited by outsiders, of which the images promise to give an extraordinary glimpse. Additionally, re-contextualizing the shrines and offering them up as aesthetic pieces for consumption—especially when Uyghurs themselves do not understand them to be art—introduces a degree of objectification and commodification.

Image from Exhibition
Unrevealed, Site 12 (Four Branches), 2009

Ross intentionally avoided capturing pilgrims in her images, but allowed the human element to remain perceptible through the objects and offerings left at the sites. In excluding the human figure, she has protected “the Uyghurs” from becoming an object to be looked at by viewers, denying the documentary or Orientalizing gaze some of its power. Their absence also helps protect the shrines themselves from this reductive gaze: “I did not want the viewer to look at a person looking at a thing,” Ross says.

As “art,” the images are indeed honest: the classification immediately admits their constructedness. It is their inevitable slide into a documentary function in which they become precarious. “In Ms. Ross’s photographs [the shrines] remain what they were meant to be,” writes Holland Cotter of the New York Times. “Ross has captured something that will endure: the spirit of a place,” writes Clare O’Neill for NPR. In these statements lies the presumption that the shrines possess a particular truth to begin with, and that Ross’s images recreate for the viewer a similar encounter to that which the believer experiences when standing in front of the real thing. This idea of the photograph as a means of accessing the reality of the shrines, or as “ontologically connected to the real world” as Roland Barthes puts it, “allows it to be treated as a piece of the real world, then as a substitute for it.”

If Dawut is correct that “Years from now, [Ross’s images] will help us [Uyghurs] find our road…We will look at these photos, and understand our history,” then the imperative is even greater to consider the prevailing cultural ideas through which the images have been filtered, and to remember that the photographic eye is not natural or universal, but tutored.