Kathleen Roberts Skerrett
Dean, School of Arts and Sciences
University of Richmond
At the end of February, a small exhibition of photographs by the Chinese poet and visual artist Liu Xia opens at the University of Richmond in Virgina. The artist is unable to publish or exhibit her work in China. The photographs are on exhibit at Richmond because the French scholar Guy Sorman arranged for their removal from Beijing, enabling them to be shown abroad with the artist’s consent.
Liu Xia has lived under house arrest in her apartment in Beijing since October 2010. She has never been charged or convicted of any crime. But her association and marriage to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo has had a vast impact on her life and work.
Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace prize in 2010 for his decades of work as a pacifist and human rights activist in China. At the time he became a Nobel Laureate, he had already begun his eleven-year sentence in prison following conviction for his contributions to the creation of Charter 08.
This petition, signed by more than 300 Chinese intellectuals and activists, calls for a new constitutional regime in China that would advance democratic rights and freedoms in that great country. After Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Prize, his wife Liu Xia was placed under house arrest.
Liu Xia married her activist husband during his prior three-year sentence to a reeducation labour camp in 1996. The introverted artist describes herself as apolitical; she married Liu Xiaobo so that she could legally visit him during his incarceration. While under house arrest, Liu Xia is prohibited all contact with anyone but her parents, and a security detail is constantly on guard. Her freedom is severely constricted hour by hour, day after day, month after month--without any foreseeable end.
In a pamphlet published in 1940 (under a pseudonym), the French political philosopher Simone Weil described the effects of repressive political force on a human soul. The furthest end of force is, in any historical or cultural vector, to turn its object into a thing. But a human soul resists this process with horrible tenacity and anguish. Long after she might want to accept her fate, the soul goes on longing to recreate the world in which she could move and make and love. Such incurable longing is neither liberal nor romantic: It is the torment of slaves and prisoners anywhere.
In late December 2012, several friends surprised and overtook the security detail that guards Liu Xia’s apartment and gained entry. Her friends filmed the brief minutes of their visit, and the footage shows Liu Xia at once elated and distressed by their presence. She immediately begged them to leave of their own accord for fear of retaliation against her family. Yet the vivid emotions that crossed her face remain indelible on the film--like the expressions of the dolls that are the theme of Liu Xia’s photographs.
In the Lora Robins Gallery of the University of Richmond, the public can view Liu Xia’s photographs. The prints are black and white, about 18 x 18, depicting inexpensive and unbeautiful dolls in simple scenes—standing between stacks of books, or wedged between two flat stones, or perched on rough wooden boards. Typically, there is high contrast between light and darkness in the images so that the dolls’ faces become the foci of the scenes.
The dolls are placed in postures of constraint—propped in a birdcage or behind the slats of a chair’s back or wrapped beneath cellophane or crushed by a human hand. Amidst the silent shadows, the dolls’ luminous faces express the anguish of freedom lost: A small furrow in the brow, the open mouth wrenched to the side, the downcast head, the restless, staring eyes—these small arrangements of the face become acutely expressive. The dolls appear simultaneously defenseless and indefatigable.
Liu Xia’s photographs reverse engineer the process of repression. If the furthest end of repressive force is to turn the person into a thing, the furthest aim of the photographs is to turn things into images of benighted souls at the limit of freedom. An act of creative imagination projects that condition onto the inanimate dolls.
At his conviction in December 2009, Liu Xiaobo observed that his only permissible public statements since 1989 have been before the courts that have sentenced him three times for speech crimes. In his last statement before beginning his eleven-year sentence, he thanked the officials, including those who interrogated, prosecuted, and convicted him, for their professionalism and good faith. Indeed, he praises a particular warden for the humane management of detainees, observing that such practical respect for dignity is the basis for human rights: Liu Xiaobo avows no enmity to anyone, while he continues to aver that he has committed no crime and that he does not accept restrictions on his right to free speech. Liu Xiaobo’s statement concludes with a message for and about his wife Liu Xia:
"Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window… filling every minute of my time in prison with meaning. My love for you, on the other hand, is so full of remorse and regret that it at times make me stagger under its weight. I am an insensate stone in the wilderness…Even if I were crushed into powder, I would still use my ashes to embrace you."In her 1940 pamphlet Simone Weil observed that, even in its desolation, the soul sometimes grasps moments of self-possession in which there only remains room for courage or love. Liu Xia’s photographs bear the impress of such fugitive moments. No one can say what this costs her. Perhaps such moments are felt as the monotonous loneliness of missing another soul without any near purpose but to endure the psychic clamor of going on missing him. Thus, it has been suggested that Liu Xia’s “ugly babies” represent her husband Liu Xiaobo. In one of her most accessible images, a doll perches like some defiant child-like familiar on the shoulder of a gentle man.
At the limit of freedom, what stands between the person and her reduction to a thing may be the inconsolable animation of the other within. The soul averts its loss of self-possession to force through another prior dispossession to the beloved, whose interior occupation proves the incontestable reality of love. This is also neither liberal nor romantic: It is the inner tumult of democrats everywhere.
The moral objects of freedom are not universal; they are the individuals and ideals one uniquely loves. But the moral subject of freedom—the soul who suffers affliction under the effects of repressive force—is universal. Thus, Liu Xia’s “ugly babies” make their appeal to the world.