The Chinese photographer takes photographs of everything, everywhere. In this way, he retains the power over his archive, in a country where image documentation is largely controlled by the government
It’s December 2019 in Lianzhou, Guangdong Province, China. In a late-night karaoke bar, cigarette smoke hangs in the air. There’s a big red button on the wall that you can press to get more booze. Coca Dai leans his body back, swaying at a precarious angle. His purple hair hangs down to his waist. In one hand he manages to hold a beer and the microphone. His camera, a digital point-and-shoot, is balanced in the other, held aloft. His finger hammers the shutter; Dai, whose family name is Jianyong Dai, is banging off selfies as he blasts his way through a Chinese power ballad. On the floor nearby lies his camera bag, a jumble of batteries, lenses and lights that he carries wherever he goes. For Dai takes photographs of everything, all the time, and mostly on film: from his friends at the karaoke bar, to the jostling street, to his family being cared for. He will photograph a car accident, a person he passes, or a strange object. All of the images he captures, he keeps.
With the help of the respected American curator Holly Roussell, an expert in Chinese photography, Dai has begun the long process of trying to organise this vast archive of his life. “When we started out, it wasn’t a work of art,” he says of the 50,000 or more images he showed Roussell at the beginning of their collaboration. “Now, it’s a work of art.”
More than anything else, Dai takes pictures of his partner, Judy. On a Zoom call earlier this year, Dai recalls, in perfect clarity, the first time he met her. “It was 25 September 2008,” he says via a translator. “We met through friends, and hung out together until six or seven in the morning, and then again the next night… Time together was easy. We felt married from the beginning.” The work is a partnership, the purest of collaborations. For the past 12 years, he has captured raw and intimate moments of his and Judy’s life together. From the days when they themselves were children, the births of their own, their conversion to Catholicism, and on to the present day. Dai started photographing his family as a teenager, so by the time Judy came along, the habit of compulsive documentation was in place.
“I believe Coca Dai’s influence is inscribed in long-term, documentary photographic practices that will take a lifetime to achieve their full purposes. The photographic medium is a technology that allows him to capture fleeting moments. Collecting moments as he lives them is a manner of combating the losses he felt early in life losing his childhood home and it is a form of self-preservation, to avoid being subjected to such a feeling of loss again.”
In 2015, before Dai had ever publicly displayed his images of Judy, he placed them in a book and gave it to her as a gift; a private expression of love and dedication. When he later showed it to Roussell, the curator realised Dai had visualised a remarkable insight into modern Chinese femininity, one created with an advanced visual lexicon, even though he has never studied photography. The book, titled Judy Zhu 2008-2015, was published in 2015, with selected images exhibited at festivals in China, including Lianzhou Foto and Jimei x Arles International Photography Festival. “I believe Coca Dai’s influence is inscribed in long-term, documentary photographic practices that will take a lifetime to achieve their full purposes,” says Roussell. “The photographic medium is a technology that allows him to capture fleeting moments. Collecting moments as he lives them is a manner of combating the losses he felt early in life losing his childhood home and it is a form of self-preservation, to avoid being subjected to such a feeling of loss again.” Roussell calls Dai’s imagery “the work of an archivist of memory… Taking pictures feels synonymous to breathing when you are in his presence.”
For Dai, photography is a form of power – the ability to control how the most precious parts of his life are documented and recorded. More recently, this has also included young men and women living in Shanghai – where he is based – and the underground art and music scenes. “He preserves these moments of vulnerability, hope and exchange as part of his archive,” says Roussell. She adds: “In a culture where historical memory is often controlled by the state, Coca Dai uses the potential of technology to assemble an alternative narrative.”
Dai’s recent work, available to view on Instagram, has taken a different and more performative turn. He learned that some of his followers are willing to travel hundreds of miles in the hope that they might have their picture taken by him. They do and as his new work attests, many are happy to take their clothes off for the occasion. “Judy has given me a lot of latitude,” Dai says. “Not every wife would be happy to [let her husband] photograph young nudes.”
To post work like this on social media can be a daring move in China. Much of the country remains avowedly patriarchal, and authorities are often willing to take more of an issue with sexually explicit photography than politically rebellious work. To a varying but still significant degree, and especially outside of the country’s major cities, unvarnished experiences of Chinese femininity remain determinedly hidden from view. At the Lianzhou Foto Festival exhibition of Judy Zhu 2008-2015, in full view of western journalists during the press view, a plain clothes Chinese official instructed Dai’s curator to remove numerous images of Judy from the show – despite an initial approval from a pre-vetting process. The images censored seemed arbitrarily chosen and pointless in practice. Yet to not comply with the minor official would likely mean the whole exhibition be taken down.
China remains one of the world’s most aggressive jailer of artists, photographers and journalists. Many natives have been exiled, or have left to pursue free speech. Chinese censorship is increasingly also a western preoccupation. Many creatives are educated abroad and then return to their home country. Cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are full of gallery spaces showing art that, 20 years ago, would almost certainly have been closed from view by the government. “You can get away with more [in cities like Shanghai],” Dai says. “Unless someone calls the police.”
There is also the digital space. China’s reaction to the pandemic demonstrates what a technologically advanced country it is, and how much control the government can exert on China’s citizens through their mobile devices. But this does not deter a new wave of artists, such as Dai. The photographer finds innovative ways to publish his new work online that avoids the censorship algorithms. His Instagram images are often maxed out with saturation filters, and can only be viewed by employing additional mobile software. This is not just a way to evade raising red flags amid the Chinese Great Firewall, Dai stresses. “Instagram has its own rules on content,” he says. “This is one of many ways to get around some of the restrictions, on Instagram as well as in China. There are loads of functions on a phone that allow you to decode images. There are lots of ways of disguising images, getting around systems.”
Many of the men and women he photographs are in their twenties, and have no lived experience of China before the 1990s. Their portraits speak to the unique relationship Chinese millennials have with recent history. “We often talk about childhood,” Dai says of capturing these portraits. “How it can carry through into your adult life and the effect it can have as time passes.” For most of the people he photographs, “It’s the first time they’ve had pictures taken in the nude,” he says. “But it’s not a case of getting there and everyone’s clothes come off. It’s a process of talking, of getting comfortable.”
I ask why, after years of photographing more extensively and randomly he has moved towards stylised portraits of flesh. “The people I photograph have something that models, who are used to being in the nude, don’t have,” he says. “There’s a delicacy to them, a warmth. The images imply a process of trust has taken place – that’s what we’re all looking for.”
The work of Dai moves between direct and performative and a mundane, domestic documentary, particularly when considering the images of his wife. In later works, Judy is captured dressed to the nines, highly posed, decorated with all the trappings of high fashion. With these images, and with Dai’s Instagram portraits, we might be inclined to make some comparison with the late Chinese artist Ren Hang or, further back, Nobuyoshi Araki. However, closer comparators could be Nan Goldin or Richard Billingham, with their immediate images of irrepressible youth, often struggling against the demands of mundanity. Whichever connection it is, Dai’s work makes for a candid and intimate story, with all the details of millennial Shanghai life.
Tom Seymour is a Correspondent for The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper*, BBC, The Telegraph, CNN, Independent, Foam, New Statesman, Wired, Vice and The Royal Photographic Society Journal, for whom he won Writer of the Year at the PPA Awards 2020.