Black Garden (an offering)
Unrevealed, Site 4 (Colored “Cribs”), 2009
Unrevealed, Site 3 (Ladder), 2009
Unrevealed, Site 2 (Red Masthead), 2009
Unrevealed, Site 3 (Footprints), 2009
Though the Xinjiang region of Western China is a cultural crossroads of historic importance, scholars and journalists have often been denied access to the area since it was annexed by China in 1949. It is with great care, luck and determination that Lisa Ross was able to return numerous times and photograph its holy sites over ten years, the results of which are collected in the monograph Living Shrines of Uyghur China (Monacelli Press), and an exhibition of photographs and video at Harvard University in the Center for Government and International Studies, February 5 through April 5, 2015.
Ross’ photographs document the shrines created for and during pilgrimages by the Islamic people of Western China, many of which have been maintained over several centuries. Adorned with small devotional offerings that mark a prayer or visit, the shrines are a space where the sacred and profane connect, in the process becoming deeply felt reminders of collective memory and a peaceful faith. Despite vulnerability to the elements, the natural forces of the sand, heat, and winds that whip through the province, the shrines endure and become all the more beautiful for the way in which the temporal is transformed into a timeless marker of all those have come before.
It is in this way that Ross’ photographs echo the nature of the shrine itself, as the images become portals by which we transport ourselves to her side, along the desert floor, and we though can feel the elements all around us, we are safe in the care of the spirit world. The photographs embody the energy of the shrines, becoming an oasis, a place of protection, and an intermediary between two worlds. The images are powerful in their simplicity; the starkness of the shrines set against the harsh landscape becomes a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and its submission to the higher power that guides our steps.
Speaking of her early years in photography, Ross recalls, “I was 12 years old the first time I held an SLR. My mother placed it there; she was a painter and would make black-and-white photographs to work from. It was a Konica, large in my hands and completely manual. I’ll never forget that day as I thought to myself, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I found my thing.’ I had been looking for a form of expression early on. I dropped acting and guitar lessons. This art form, that for me was so solitary, came to fit my life.
“From the beginning I understood photography as an art form. I am not sure how or why and cannot remember my exposure to it at that early age. I do remember taking it seriously, and never thinking of the snapshot aesthetic. I bought darkroom equipment with babysitting money and set up shop in the basement bathroom.
“At 13, I made a series of portraits of seniors living at a hotel on the boardwalk in Long Beach, New York, where I grew up. I entered a B’nai B’rith photo contest and won but then lost the prize due to the fact that my synagogue had never paid their dues to B’nai B’rith. I was heartbroken as the kid who won entered with store processed 4x6 prints from his trip to Israel.
“I was clear I wanted to be an artist. After that, every decision I made supported it. I pioneered a photo and video program in 1989 for LGBTQ youth at the Harvey Milk School and Hetrick-Martin Institute and taught photography there for ten years. We also had a monthly TV show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network called ‘Bent TV’. It was written, edited and performed by LGBTQ youth. I organized student exhibitions annually finding support in artists such as Nan Goldin and Rober Gober. We held exhibitions at interesting venues such as Dance Theater Workshop, The Walter Reade Theater gallery, Seagrams Gallery and had a big fundraiser in the ‘90s at the Morris-Healy Gallery in Chelsea in which we brought student work together with some of the most interesting contemporary artists of the time. Everyone wanted to donate to help make the program a success.
“Although I love teaching I spent the following decade focusing on my own work and found I needed to leave teaching in order to really focus on my own work. That is when I made the Living Shrines work. In this very interesting way, all of the work around gender and sexuality I was doing in the 1980s and ‘90s influenced this new work that is not at all obvious. Ultimately it is about intimacy and the way in which the body relates to landscape. The landscape began to take on all of these qualities in the work that had a powerful relation to my body and the people I was interacting with. The people slowly worked themselves out of the images in any literal or figurative way.
“I was very interested learning about Islam. I was raised in a mostly secular Jewish home, though I went to temple and had a Bas Mitzvah. Islam was something I had little knowledge of growing up and a good deal of misinformation. As soon as I left home I made Egyptian and Lebanese friends who were Muslim. In 1999 I saw Shirin Neshat’s Rapture installed at D’Amelio Terras. This early work was so new fresh and inspiring to me. I was on my way to Morocco, which is where she made this piece. My own work at the time was black and white silver gelatin Mural prints on a matte paper and had been developing into more of an iconic vision. The grain structure of silver gelatin when a 35 mm negative is blown up to a mural print was an important aesthetic in the work, offering a sense of materiality.
“When I went to China, (my friend was the line producer on Kill Bill, which brought me there) I read about western China, The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, and recognized it as a potential site to continue developing the work I had been making. I read ‘ancient city ruins in the desert landscape’ and hopped on a four-day train out west. Now you can get there on a high-speed train much quicker. But the politics in the region have changed so much that I do not believe I could make this work today.
“I knew nothing about the Uyghur people at the time. As this work I made brought me back to the region eight times over a decade, I learned a great deal and the majority of the work came to be made in collaboration with a Uyghur scholar who is now a dear friend and her students as I would travel either with her or one of her students each time I went. Alexandre Papas is a French historian of Central Asian Islam and I traveled with him as well. Without the two of them this work never could have been made so I see it largely as collaborative.
“In my view, art is created in a spiritual dimension, where the artist is a channel. In a culture where there are Saints and shamans, and saints are believed to live eternally, and where ties between the living and the dead are strong, there is a lot of energy present. The energy is visible in the objects created to honor the Saints and those who have passed. You can see it in the markers for prayers and wishes as catalysts of healing.
“When I make my images I hope to convey the depth of that spirit which becomes visible through both the fragility and strength of the spiritual architecture. Faith is fragile. It ebbs and flows. It’s easier to have when things are going well. Faith is invisible yet I see the photographs I make as manifestations of it.”
Art too, requires a leap of faith, a willingness to trust in the ineffable as the spirit of the artist and the subject are conveyed through the medium itself. As viewers, we bare witness it its effect, becoming one with the energy as it transposes shape. It begins in the mind of the artist as it travels through their eye to their hand and into the object itself. When we stand before the object, we open ourselves to this spirit, that same spirit that exists in the shrines themselves. Like the photograph, the shrines are inanimate yet living things, in that they are able to transport this energy to all whom wish to share in the experience.
It is in this way that the photograph finds its place, whether it hangs on the wall of the museum or is held, bound in pages between the hard covers of the book. As Ross notes, “ The exhibition prints have a direct relationship to the body. Standing in front of them, the viewer has a direct point of entry. This can be felt quite strongly with certain images—a ladder leading up and into a bursting array of colored flags and wood branches, the desert sand surrounding it. The prints are made, in a sense, to create access for the viewer. Their surface is soft. There is no glass. There are no people. They are ephemeral portraits of the landscape, humbly inviting you in.
Ross observes, “Using the camera was a form of meditation and every visit to a site a creative pilgrimage of my own. There is a sense of looking and rhythm and repetition in photographing, which in the silence brings me closer and closer to what I see. And I think somewhere I am translating what is in the landscape into an image that will move the viewer to experience the way I feel while actually being there. Much ‘travel photography’ brings a sense of awe to the viewer and ‘I wish I can go’. I wanted rather to create a sense of intimacy so the experience of looking and being with the work in itself would be generous.
“The book has a different kind of relationship to the body as you hold it in your hands. I think of it at times as a prayer book. There is an intentional rhythm and sequencing of images and text. The book has more images than an exhibition can have so it takes you to more places. The journey has an order, and the essays are meant to enhance the experience. The book further describes the research that went into creating this body of work. You can put it down and pick it up. To quote Alexandre Papas, one of the scholars I collaborated with on this project, ‘This book is a narrative of the discovery of holiness.’ In both the book and the prints I believe the art takes the viewer gently into the spirit world."
With Ross as our guide through this historic and mystical land, we are both witness and pilgrim of a sort. The very nature of the shrines reminds us that (wo)man is more alike than different, no matter where or when s/he walks the earth. We look at the shrines with a reverential awe, an unconscious knowingness that is part of the Universal Soul. We become one with the heavens and the earth, whether we stand before the shrine itself or Ross’ mystical manifestations of the spirit as it appears in her photographs. We too are out on the limbs of branches now bare but for colored pieces of cloth that mark the landscape as one of timeless cycle of life and death.
Black Garden (Tandem), 2009
Black Garden (Crib with Door), 2009
Unrevealed, Site 3 (Footprints), 2009
Unrevealed, Site 18 (Remembrance), 2009
Unrevealed, Site 5 (Four Branches)