Bearing Testimony To Chinese Contemporary History Through Nude Push-ups

(World Press Photo)

2010 Contemporary Issues: Stories, Honorable Mention, Ou Zhihang for <The Moment>

CCTV office building was burned out after a fire was set off by illegal fireworks

Yunnan detention centre in the "Elude the Cat" incident

The Xiongfeng Guest House where service work Deng Yujiao stabbed a government official to death

The Weng'an Hotel where the death of the cook led to a mass incident

The collapsed apartment building in Shanghai

The labor dispute at Tonghua Steel/Iron Factory led to the beating death of the general manager

Three Yangtze University students died while saving two drowning youths

(Beijing Youth Weekend)  "I use 'nude push-ups' to record history"  By Ma Jun.  March 4, 2010.

On February 12, the results of the World Press Photo (WPP) competition (also known simply as the "Holland competition") was announced in Amsterdram.  There were 586 entries (either singles or series) from China, of which two series won prizes.  One of these winning series was from the Guangzhou artist Ou Zhihang.  For his <The Moment> based upon his "nude push-ups", he won an Honorable Mention in the Contemporary Issues category.

Ou Zhihang is presently the executive producer/host for the Guangdong TV show <Fashion news>.  He said that he submitted the series of photos to the officially designated WPP website at the end of last year.  The series consisted of 12 photos which included the major social events such as the CCTV building fire, the "Elude the Cat" incident in Yunnan, the Shanghai "illegal taxi entrapment" case, the "Guangzhou Panyu garbage incinerator" protests, etc.  These photos are merely a selection from a larger series which Ou Zhihang has been filming since 2000.

How did Ou Zhihang manage to accomplish the seemingly impossible tasks of entering these sensitive (even sealed off) areas, taking off his clothes and filming?  Ou Zhihang told our reporter that it is never straightforward due to the pressure from people, sometimes even threatening his personal safety.

In 2007, the Shanxi illegal brick kiln story was sensational at the time.  In 2009, Ou Zhihang checked the information and found out that this illegal brick kiln was located in the Caosheng village 15 kilometers north of Hongdong county.  Before setting off, he knew that this case was still sensitive even though the event took place two years ago.  If he went there on his own, then his outside accent and clothes will expose him to assault by the locals.  There was going to be hidden dangers in his remote village.

Ou Zhihang decided to play things as he saw it.  After arriving in Hongdong village, he called a taxi.  On the taxi, he chatted with the driver.  The driver is a local Hongdong resident and looked trustworthy.  Ou Zhihang decided to hire his car to go to Caosheng village where the illegal brick kiln was located.

But he did not tell the taxi driver about his intention.  He only said that he was an artist who wanted to take some photos of the environment.  Since he did not know the place or its people well, he had to be cautious.

Ou Zhihang had read that the illegal brick kiln was all the way inside Caosheng village next to a mountain.  It is also close to the home of the kiln owner's father, who is the party secretary.  Ou Zhihang made his way down based upon this cue.

Of course, he did not mention the illegal brick kiln to anyone.  He only asked the locals where Secretary Wang's house was.  A villager gave him the directions.  To be on the safe side, Ou Zhihang asked a few more villagers.

"It must be taken at the original location where the news story took place.  It would be meaningless just to use any brick kiln around here."  Ou Zhihang said.

Finally, the abandoned brick kiln showed up in front of his eyes.  Ou Zhihang knew that this photography session must be done solo.  Therefore, he asked the taxi driver to go back to the village entrance to wait for him.

After sending the taxi driver off, Ou Zhihang set up the camera, adjusted the focus, speed and lighting, took off his clothes quicky, put himself in front of the camera and completed <This Moment: the Shanxi illegal brick kiln>.

After finishing the filming, Ou Zhihang quickly left the scene as always.

When he came back to Shanxi the next time to do "coal mine reforms," he used the same taxi driver.  But this time, he did not sent the driver away while filming.  Instead, he got out of the car, took off his clothes and filmed immediately.

Ou Zhihang told our reporter that in spite of so-many nude push-up photographs so far, he is still psychologically inhibited.  He feels embarrassed to go nude in front of others.

Therefore, he will ordinarily choose to film in conditions where no one else is around, such as early in the morning.  He especially wants to avoid the presence of women and children "because nudity implies a form of harassment."

Ou Zhihang said that even in the relatively open western world, it is still a basic rule not to go nude in pubilc.  But many of his filming locations such as the new CCTV office building, Bird's Nest, the Shanghai Bund, etc are major sighteeing sights in bustling cities where someone is always around.  Therefore he has to wait for as few people as possible and try not to draw attention.  Sometimes, he may have to wait three to four hours to take just one photograph.

When he was going to film the Shanxi coal coal reform, the male driver kept looking at him but Ou Zhihang did not pay too much attention because he needed to finish his filming as quickly as possible.  When he got back into the taxi, he was surprised to hear the driver say, "I know you!"

It seemed that the driver had read about Ou Zhihang in the news, and also seen his photos.  Although he did not recognize Ou Zhihang's face, he recognized him immediately as soon as he did his nude push-up.

Interestingly, the driver did not deplore Ou Zhihang for his nude push-ups.  On the contrarry, he was glad to have the acquaintence of a "celebrity."  When Ou Zhihang went back to Shanxi to film at the Hukou Falls, he employed this same driver.

In 2003, the sensational case of Sun Zhigang took place in Guangzhou.  On a certain day in 2009, Ou Zhihang went to the police station where Sun Zhigang died.  Ou Zhihang quickly did his nude push-up and filmed it while no one was around.  But as soon as he finished, a police officer showed up.

The police officer was suspicious when he saw Ou Zhihang with a camera in front of the police station.  He asked him what he was doing.

Ou Zhihang alertly said that he was taking art photos.  He knew that he must not mention the Sun Zhigang case.  Although the case took place a long time ago, the name Sun Zhigang must still be sensitive at this police station.

The police officer examined Ou Zhihang's camera.  When he saw the nude push-up photo, he asked what it was.  Ou Zhihang explained that this was part of his art for which the purpose was to show the human body and the scene.

The police officer wanted to take Ou Zhihang into the station to see the director.  But Ou Zhihang said that he was busy and didn't want to go.  "If I walk into the police station, there could be big trouble."

Since Ou Zhihang did not look like a "bad guy," the police officer made a concession: "Either you come down to the station with me or you delete this photo."

So Ou Zhihang deleted the photo and got away.  The photo <The Moment: The Sun Zhigang case> that is being shown now is a photo that he took later on.

Similar things have happened many times.  When he filmed the matter of Wang Qing demanding transparent government information in Nanyang, Henan province, he was also interrogted by the police.  When he went to film in front of the Nanyang city party committee office building, there was a group of petitioners by chance.  So he found an isolated corner and took the photo while nobody was watching.

But just as Ou Zhihang was about to leave, a plainclothes policeman came up and asked him what he was doing.  As always, Ou Zhihang said that he was doing artistic creation.

Actually Ou Zhihang had nothing to do with the petitioners in front of the building, but this policeman thought that he might have come for them.  So he made Ou Zhihang "go with him."

Based upon past experience, Ou Zhihang knew that these people only didn't want him to leave with any photos.  So he let the police officer check his camera and delete the photo.

Of course, Ou Zhihang was not going home empty-handed.  Eventually, Ou Zhihang finished his photo but the locale was the city government office instead.

A more dangerous situation occurred when he filmed inside the Ramoche Temple in Lhasa, Tibet.  He was intercepted by five plainclothesmen.  As before, he was forced to delete his photos before he was allowed to leave.

The 12 photos that Ou Zhihang submitted to the Holland competition were about social incidents that took place in recent years.  Apart from the case of Sun Zhigang, there was alway the Yunnan "elude the cat" incident, the case of Yang Jia attacking the Shanghai police, the collapsed apartment building in Shanghai, the case of Deng Yujiao, etc.

"These 12 photos can be said to be destructive or negative incidents.  These photos were chosen so that they form a series with a theme.  But these photos are just a small part of my complete works.  Actually, many of my works are not just about being negative.  I also do some constructive positive incidents."

In 2009, the Chinese navy ships provided escort off Somalia, and this drew Ou Zhihang's attention.

On April 28, 2009, the "Wuhan" guided missle destroyer and the "Haikou" guided missle destroyer returned to port in Sanya, Hainan after completing their first tour.

For Ou Zhihang, the Chinese navy has been in decline ever since Zheng Huo's fleet traveled south during the Ming Dynasty.  This new mission showed that the Chinese navy has become strong and is providing protection for Chinese as well as foreign vessels.  This was a landmark event which Ou Zhihang was determined to record.

Based upon media reports, Ou Zhihang flew out to Sanya, Hainan.  He knew that he could not go near the military port.  So he chose a spot nearby where he did not violate any regulations but still had a view of the returning navy vessels.

So this was how two originally unrelated factors -- nude push-up and the return of navy vessels -- appeared in the photo of Ou Zhihang.

Ou Zhihang's <The Moment> series covers a broad geographical scope: from Hainan to Heilongjiang, from Shanghai to Tibet.  He paid his own way on all the trips.  He has used every transportation mode, including airplanes, trains, buses, even "illegal taxi cabs."

Before he actually films, he does a lot of research and he cases out the scene, just a detective would.  He is basically fighting by himself.  His speed of stripping his clothes off is very quick -- usually models take 20 seconds to change clothes but he can strip/film in 8 seconds: he hits the shutter, strips, races to the spot and holds the push-up position.  The photo at the Sun Yat-sen Hall was taken at 3pm in the afternoon where there were many people around, but fortunately no one noticed.

Before choosing the push-up, Ou Zhihang had actually tried other positions, including squatting, sleeping, crawling, standing, jumping, running, etc.  But in the end he chose to do push-ups.  

"Because it is nude without exhibiting, it is healthy, it is active, it is powerful and it is sincere.  When the photos are viewed by the public, some of them may misunderstand or argue, but almost nobody doubts the level of difficulty of the work or the sincerity of the creator.  This is the major reason why I chose to do push-up's in my work."  Ou Zhihang said.

A netizen asked: "Why not do sit-ups instead?"  Ou Zhihang replied: "If I do sit-ups, someone might ask me why I don't do push-ups."

Ou Zhihang said that he started his personal nude photography more than a decade ago.  His first series <Scenery:View> was taken at national-level cultural sceneries such as the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, etc whereas the later series <The Moment> was for locations where major news stories occurred.

In <Scenery: View>, people see the naked man and the sceneries at the Great Wall, Pudong Shanghai, Beijing Temple of Heaven, even Tiananmen Square.  In busy places like the Shanghai Bund or the Hong Kong Golden Bauhinia Square, there were also cars, morning exercisers and workers moving around oblivious to their surroundings in those photos.

His many years of experience in photography allows Ou Zhihang to be precise and quick in timing the observations and the creative moment.  The Shanghai Bund photo was his most unforgettable experience.  The Shanghai Bund has the landmark buildings, but it is also a favorite sightseeing spot twenty-four hours a day.  So it was a major task trying to scout for the right angle and moment.  Finally, the best location turned out to be the roof of a building.  So Ou Zhihang was really proud in telling about how this photo got to be taken.

On a certain day in July 2008, Ou Zhihang received a call from a media reporter looking for an interiew about his series <Scenery:View>  Ou Zhihang found out that after the Weng'an mass incident on June 28, his <Scenery: View> series was widely circulated around the Internet under the title <Famous TV host "uses his body as strength" to do nude push-ups in front of the Bird's Nest>.

The "push-ups" in his photographs over the past few years coincided with the "push-ups" in the Weng'an incident and therefore he became very well-known.  "At the time, 'push-up' was a hot Internet term.  My series of photos that brought together nude push-ups with the most important cultural landmarks in the most influential cities of China naturally became the focus of attentoin as well."  Ou Zhihang recalled.

Some Internet forums carried discussions about his photos.  It seemed that most people objected to them and/or failed to understand him.  <Nude push-up photos of TV host is popular on the Internet -- Art or show-off?> -- a title like that reveals the skepticism about the "performance+photograph" art of Ou Zhihang.

In the summer of 2008, Ou Zhihang posted <Going beyond 'doing nude push-ups' at scenic sites> on his blog.  In this blog post, he claimed that "when I first began exhibiting these photos, I had some concerns.  I was even prepared to be fired from my job as a Guangdong TV host.  But the Guangzhou media and people calmly accepted me.  I also received accolades and encouragements to continue."

In the blog post, Ou Zhihang evaluates his own work as: "I love my motherland and I also love my body.  I want to use my body and actions as public tools.  I want to use the push-up that is an active, healthy and sincere sports in the context of the Chinese cultural landmark scenes that are have often been called 'miraculous' and 'best in the world" to conduct a dialogue.  I want to use a trivial individual to bring out the grand significance."

Ou Zhihang emphasized particularly: "My push-ups have a completely different meaning from the popular Internet term 'push-ups'.  I want everybody to do the Ou-style push-ups -- that is, to actively care and think about our country and our society."

After <Scenery:View> drew public attention in 2008, Ou Zhihang has turned his attention to record major news stories.  This is the award-winning <The Moment> in the Holland compeition.

At first blush, <The Moment> is very similar to <Scenery:View> with nude push-ups in both series.  But the biggest difference is that <The Moment> no longer takes place in the famous cultural scenes at the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, the Bird's Nest or the Shanghai Bund.  Instead the scenes are the locations where major news stories that drew broad attention.  Examples are the locations of the 1999 Yuanhua (Xiamen) case, the 2003 Sun Zhigang incident, the Number 8 People's Hospital in Guangzhou during the 2003 SARS episode, the 2007 "illegal brick kiln" in Hongdong (Shanxi) and more recently the series of suicides at the Zhuhai Bridge in Guangzhou, the Yunnan "Elude the Cat" incident and the Yangzi University students rescuing people ...

"It was a lot harder to do this series!"  By comparison, the <Scenery:View> series may have been taken in public locations but they were not sensitive.  As long as he uses his rapid stripping/filming act, he can usually get it done.

But <The Moment> was more complicated.  As the various experiences that Ou Zhihang told the reporter show, these news stories drew public attention and therefore they become sensitive as certain authorities were affected ...

"But many people support me."  Ou Zhihang said that on the way to the location of the Deng Yujiao affair, he met a female worker girl on the long-distance bus.  Upon learning that he uses art to present major news stories, she helped him along the way and even took him to the location of the incident.

Ou Zhihang said that he will continue with <The Moment>.  There will be more news stories each year and he will go to take a nude push-up photo whenever something "significant" happens.

For example, when the China Football Association's Nan Yong got into trouble, he came to Beijing and took photos in front of the Football Association office building.