A loss and a win for an artist in isolation.
One evening some of Liu Xia’s friends snuck into her yard and, seeing her silhouette in the window, took her picture from below. It’s only a shadow, but one can easily recognize her bald head and slim upper body. The image is a bit unreal, like a leaf trembling in the wind. How does this woman survive a Robinson Crusoe-style isolation, living without connection to the outside world among Beijing’s 20 million population. She has neither phone nor Internet nor visitors nor family. Her only company are the security police. But she has not broken the law or committed any wrongdoings; the only reason for her confinement is that her husband is a political prisoner who has been granted the Nobel Peace Prize.
Liu Xia is a poet and photographer. She married Liu Xiaobo when he was thrown in jail for the third time in 1996. Afterwards they were separated for three years while he served at the re-education camp until 1999. Currently, however, they endure a longer separation. Liu Xiaobo was an initiator and promoter of Charter 08, a document describing how China could change into a democratic society. As such he has been sentenced to 11 years imprisonment for “inciting subversion to state power.” He will not be released until 2020.
Liu Xia does not know that her photos have been exhibited in Berlin as a highlight of the Berlin Literature Festival (Sept 4-15). But Liu Xia’s pictures, with dolls as their central subjects, have attracted the interest and attention of the public.
In the photographs we see an allegorical rendition of the couple’s daily lives: Liu Xiaobo, fighting fiercely with his words against a repressive regime that stifles political and artistic freedom; the sensitive Liu Xia documenting the spiritual condition of an artist inside the big prison called China. The photos are set inside tall walls, behind sturdy iron bars, on gigantic cliff sides, amid ominous men in shadows, and in the middle of desolate wilderness. The subjects that populate them are not humans, but dolls, which are hidden nervously behind and among piles of books, perched alone on the edge of a steep cliff, locked inside a cage, or squelched by a merciless hand. With Liu Xia’s photographs these lifeless toys become alive, sharing their stories of dismay, pain, solitude, defiance, and resilience with the outside world.
Ironically, the photos, taken by Liu Xia years before, offer a prescient glimpse of her present life. The Chinese authorities have imprisoned her husband since December 2008 (the fifth time he has been held in custody) and his incarceration led to Liu Xia’s house arrest, possibly a more torturous form of punishment. At this very moment, Liu Xia is living under 24-hour surveillance, conducted by the public security police—a group of faceless men lurking around her apartment like shadows. While her husband might have the companionship of fellow inmates, Liu Xia is alone. Her contact with the outside world—with her friends or relatives or the media—is completely cut off.
For Liu Xia, police threats and imprisonment are nothing new. Over the years, as her husband went in and out of jail, Liu Xia defiantly faced the constant police harassment and loneliness. There is no doubt that these living circumstances cast a strong influence over her photographic works. There is a popular Chinese saying: “The loss for the state is a win for the poet.” The agony and sorrow the couple has endured have shaped their work, making them truly exceptional artists of our time.
Updated on September 8, 2020
Liu Xiaobo should be released from the jail on June 21, 2020. Yet he did not survive of this day of freedom, Liu died of liver cancer on July 13, 2017 in his imprisonment. The Xi Jinping government has stage-managed a farce, it published a photo of the skeleton-like Xiaobo with his wife Liu Xia at the hospital. After his death, the authority cremated him and scatted the ashes to the sea. Liu Xia was allowed to leave China and come to Germany one year later on July 10, 2018. Today she lives in Berlin, she is free, but still willingly or not lives in an self-made isolation.
First published at Sampsoniaway.org on September 26,2012