Ones to Watch 2019: Shuwei Liu

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Fearing he was going blind, Shuwei Liu felt compelled to make life-affirming work based around the colour blue

Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of 19 emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 750 nominations. Collectively, they provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate made by our global network of experts. Every weekend throughout May, BJP-online is sharing profiles of the 19 photographers, originally published in the magazine.

British film-maker Derek Jarman was losing his sight from Aids-related complications when in 1993 he released his last film, Blue, a 79-minute static shot of a saturated blue screen with an accompanying soundtrack that reflected on his words, “Blue is darkness made visible”.

Berlin-based Chinese photographer Shuwei Liu recalled Jarman’s words when he looked in the mirror and found “four moon-like crescents” at the base of his cornea. The palpable anxiety at the thought of going blind led him to create a series of photographic works – his Blue Trilogy, the final part of which is still in the making.

The second chapter, titled Visible Darkness is his most recent project, and features street scenes: a futuristic road tunnel with the ghostly trace of a passing vehicle, the silhouette of a man sitting on a bench, dream-like landscapes, and architecture interspersed with abstracts. Crucially, the colour blue is a constant throughout.

© Shuwei Liu.
© Shuwei Liu.

In the trilogy’s first part, Into the Blue, the content is lighter, with more human subjects and buildings, and people presented with a formality that produces a sense of detachment. The photographs are prefaced by a quote, this time from American writer Rebecca Solnit: “Blue is the colour of longing for the distance you never arrive in, for the blue world.” This goes some way to explaining the difference in the two completed projects.

Liu’s pictures at first seem starkly at odds with each other, but are perhaps a consequence of his creative process. “Mostly I don’t research,” he says, adding about the quotes, “When I’m just living my life, reading, or finishing my series, I run into those sparkling sentences.”

Another project, Friendship and the Pink Triangle, is accompanied by a quotation from Michel Foucault. Childhood Revisited is prefaced with lines from Gaston Bachelard, a French philosopher, and Belgian novelist Franz Hellens. It was this latter project that caught the eye of Maria Teresa Salvati, editor-in-chief of Slideluck Editorial, at the Vintage Photo Festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

“He’s managed to develop a solid visual language that carries all his intimate thoughts, life experiences and intellectual references,” she says. “Looking at his photographs, it’s like a dive into his profound and sophisticated thinking, given back in the form of very poetic and powerful visual stories.”

Liu is an engineer by training, but was more interested in photographing people, hoping that their warmth could help him “escape from the coldness and strictness of machines”. Yet as he began working on his blue projects, he found himself reluctant to photograph human subjects for a few years. It was Visible Darkness, he says, “that repaired my relationship with the world”. Liu has since learned to embrace his engineering background, nding his skills useful in creating immersive light boxes, huge glass screens, and “alien-shaped installations”.

This article was originally published in issue #7884 of the British Journal of Photography magazine. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.