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    Through Her Lens: China’s Time-traveling Photographer Liu Silin

    Armed with only a phone and a copy of Photoshop, Liu Silin inserts herself into the past.
    Feb 06, 2019#vivid tones

    This article is part of a series on Chinese photographers.

    “I’m absolutely a punk,” the photographer Liu Silin, who also goes by Celine Liu, tells me, with a look of complete confidence. Born in 1990, on any given day you can see Liu flitting about the austere grounds of the Forbidden City with a head of freshly dyed green hair. Her day job involves restoring artifacts at Beijing’s renowned Palace Museum, but she’s open about her struggles connecting with China’s heritage, especially as a millennial who grew up in a globalized world. “This is quite a common phenomenon [among young people in China,]” Liu says. “We don’t fit into the cultural heritage we inherited.”

    Instead, Liu takes a postmodern approach to the past. Armed with an iPhone and Photoshop, Liu plugs herself into history. In her photos, you can see her rubbing shoulders with world-famous politicians, intellectuals, and celebrities. The resulting series — “I’m Everywhere” — plays on a uniquely 21st-century idea: In the age of digital manipulation and social media, someone can be anyone, anywhere, and in any time they want.

    In one photo, the 28-year-old chats with Soong Mei-ling — the influential wife of Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. In another, she’s rolling her eyes next to Princess Diana. She’s posed with Andy Warhol in Tiananmen Square and signed her name in light with Pablo Picasso.

    Given the power of modern technology, this might not seem particularly remarkable, but Liu plans her photos meticulously, going to great lengths to recreate the clothing and hairstyles from the era in which the original photos were taken. She also mimics their atmosphere and lighting.

    For her photo with Andy Warhol, for example, Liu dug through her maternal grandfather’s old Cultural Revolution-era work clothes and used red hair ties to put her hair into pigtails. She then spent time flipping through old family photo albums and practicing her parents’ stiff, awkward on-camera personas.

    It took her two tries to get her photo with Princess Diana right. After adopting a relatively straightforward pose in the first, Liu decided that her staid expression didn’t do justice to the punk energy she associates with the princess, so she instead opted for a more tongue-in-cheek version with her rolling her eyes at the camera.

    Self-portraits with an element of role-play like Liu’s are not unheard of; artists such as Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura have played with this concept before. But Liu claims that she originally wasn’t influenced by anyone; her self-portraits were something she came up with on her own. “[It was] like a game — something I did for fun,” she says.

    Only after she had produced several of these images did she notice their similarities with other artists’ works. But while she and Sherman both work in self-portraiture, Liu argues that what they share isn’t the form, but the subject: Their self-portraits aren’t truly of themselves.

    While working on her series and getting to know her subjects, Liu says she would build relationships with them in her head. In the first of a two-photo series with philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, Liu poses as de Beauvoir’s pupil: Sitting to one side, she holds a book in her hands. In the second, de Beauvoir holds a firearm while Liu instructs her when to pull the trigger. Similarly, in her two photos with the artist Frida Kahlo, Liu progresses from being Kahlo’s attendant to a friend with whom Kahlo speaks on equal terms. But while she interacts with many female trailblazers in her photos, Liu does not explicitly frame her work as feminist. “[That’s something] other people project onto my work,” Liu says. “I’m more concerned with expressing contemporary individualism.”

    When I asked about her choice in subject matter, Liu says she once tried to insert herself into a portrait of her mother as a young woman. She found that audiences had difficulty connecting with the piece, however, so she turned to the more mainstream, easily relatable world of celebrities instead.

    Not everyone’s a fan of Liu’s sometimes flippant approach to historical figures and images. In 2015, at an exhibition in Switzerland, an aged curator told Liu that a photo of her with Winston Churchill was “an affront to Western culture.” The comment stung: She couldn’t fathom how her artistic approach could be perceived as offensive or otherwise disrespectful.

    But as time has passed, such criticisms have grown rarer. Liu attributes the change in attitudes to social media: By revolutionizing the ways people express themselves, it has accustomed them to altered images.

    Perhaps overly so: Some of Liu’s images are so deceptively realistic that they’ve been mistaken for the real thing. In 2015, a debate erupted online as netizens tried to uncover the identity of the mysterious woman standing next to Eileen Chang and Li Xianglan — better known in the West as Shirley Yamaguchi — in Liu’s photo “Eileen Chang, Li Xianglan & Celine Liu.” Fans of Chang’s novels wondered who this person was, and how she was connected with Soong Mei-ling, only to later realize it was a fake. Meanwhile, Liu’s picture with Picasso was once used in a Chinese-language article on Picasso’s life and work.

    These experiences have led Liu to reflect on her work and the power of modern technology, which she views as having created a culture in which information, whatever its veracity, has supplanted truth. “We accept the internet’s definitions of truth,” she says. In a sense, Liu’s works are a kind of experiment to see whether she can get famous by faking fame. As for their potential historical impact, she’s more amused by the idea than worried. “I think that the best possible fate of these images is for them to spread on an equal basis with the originals,” Liu says. Museums and exhibitions are great, she thinks, but in the internet age, a work’s true value is defined by its virality.

    In the meantime, spare a thought for the future historians tasked with identifying the mysterious woman who advised Churchill, studied under Frida, and partied with Diana.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Ming Ye, Lu Hua, and Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: “Grace Kelly & Celine Liu,” 2014. Courtesy of Liu Silin)