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Guangdong TV presenter Ou Zhihang is a man on a mission, highlighting issues in Hong Kong and the mainland one naked press-up at a time. Hannah Xu reports

 

Hong Kong's streets are littered with debris; plastic bags, newspapers and tree branches are being flung through the air as Typhoon Vicente batters the city.

Outside Kowloon Tong's Baptist University, Ou Zhihang is on a mission. He finds what he's looking for on Junction Road, picking a spot near a big fallen tree, facing Shaw Tower, the university's administration building.

He erects a tripod nearby and has trouble setting his camera as the light comes and goes with the downpours. Holding an umbrella, he stands behind the camera, waiting for the rain to become lighter. Waiting has never been a big deal for Ou.

Forty minutes pass.

Finally, the moment he has been waiting for arrives. He presses down the camera's shutter button, takes off all of his clothes, runs in a crouch to his chosen spot and does a single press-up.

Click! Another part of China's history has been documented in Ou's inimitable style.

GUANGZHOU-BASED OU had been planning to visit Hong Kong since late last year, when debate over the city's adoption of a national education curriculum began in earnest. In April, when the arguments began to get heated (on May 7, even the People's Daily in Beijing ran an article that used the word "brainwashing" in connection with the curriculum), Ou was certain the trip would be made soon.

If anything, Vicente helped Ou. Although it had kept him cooped up in a Canton Road hotel room for longer than he would have liked, it also ensured the streets around the university were mostly deserted when he did finally get there. Perhaps more importantly for the artist, it gave him meaning.

"The fallen tree and the black hole it makes are a metaphor in the photo," he says, a week after Vicente has blown through, in his Guangzhou studio. "You can see the storm as one from the natural world or a social storm. It leaves you to ponder the meaning of controversy.

"When I perform a naked press-up here, I hope to bring the debate to the attention of more people, who can assist in the quest for the naked truth," he says.

The 53-year-old has been practising his unusual art - performing naked press-ups at scenes that have made the news - since 2003, when he did his first outside the seven-storey Red Mansion, built by Lai Changxing, in Xiamen. Lai's smuggling ring, when uncovered in the late 1990s, was believed to be the mainland's biggest in terms of money and the number of high-ranking officials involved. Lai was sentenced to life imprisonment in May on charges of smuggling and bribery.

"I seldom rush to the scene when a news story first breaks," says Ou. "I'm not here for news photography. I often wait and see how the event evolves. When it escalates into something really significant, I'll go to do it."

While in Hong Kong, Ou did three other naked press-ups; outside the Dolce & Gabbana store in Tsim Sha Tsui that sparked a protest in January when a local photographer was prohibited from taking a picture of the storefront; outside the York Road residence of Henry Tang Ying-yen, the leading candidate in this year's chief executive election until an illegal basement was discovered under the family property; and at City Garden, the private housing estate in North Point where ex-secretary for development Mak Chai-kwong owned/rented prop-erties involved in the abuse of a civil-service rent-reimbursement scheme in the 80s.

This is not the first time Ou has practised his art in Hong Kong. In 2007, he stripped off and pressed-up to remember the July 1, 2003 march, when an estimated 500,000 people protested against the passage of a controversial national security law.

"History is made up of major events," he says. "I hope my naked press-ups can help to prolong people's remembrance of an event. News events can be short-lived but my art is ever-lasting."

The youngest of five children, Ou says his passion for photography started in his early years. Many of his family's photographs were destroyed by his father, out of fear, during the Cultural Revolution, but the ones that survived captivated him. Looking at these yellowing pictures - especially the photo of his parents' wedding in 1948, in which his mother is wearing a stunningly beautiful bridal gown - he asked himself why this New China was supposed to be so much better than the old one.

His school years coincided with the Cultural Revolution. His father, who had worked as an intelligence officer for the Kuomintang army, was sent to a remote part of Guangdong province to build railways. Ou's mother had to borrow money to make ends meet.

In 1976, after high school, Ou was sent to Sanshui county, in central Guangdong, as an "educated youth", under a scheme introduced by Mao Zedong to give urbanites a taste of life as a peasant. A year later, he failed the newly resumed national university entrance exam. He tried again the following year, this time aiming to secure a place at the Guangzhou Design Institute. He achieved a high score but was rejected because they thought he was too old.

His love of art seemed to be getting him nowhere. In 1978, at the suggestion of his family, he enrolled in a tertiary school to specialise in business management and two years later he was assigned a government job in the price control department. He was in charge of fixing fruit prices.

In 1981, he applied to study at the South China Teachers College. Eventually, he was accepted as a part-time student by the department of political science. He says he believes his five years there shaped him and his outlook on history.

"For the first time, I learnt that there was a big discrepancy between propaganda and history," he says. "Anything built on distortion and lies will not last."

In 1985, he became a member of the Communist Party. Today, he sees his art as being in line with the mission of the party, which was established 91 years ago as an "avant-garde" group striving for social justice and the interests of the common people.

"My avant-garde art implies the demand of the people for the naked truth," he says. "It sits well with the core values of the Party."

In 1987, Ou began taking acting lessons at Guangdong TV, where a big production of television drama PR Lady was in the pipeline. Ou discovered he was not cut out to be an actor - he blushed and was nervous - but he did enjoy the posture course. After an internship, he was offered a job as a presenter at the broadcaster. He would have preferred to have been a current affairs reporter but, in the ensuing years, he has hosted a variety of programmes, ranging from those about travel and family life to shows on law enforcement.

The media environment nurtured his long inhibited interest in photography, in particular that of the human form.

"My attraction to the human body was inborn," he says. "To me, it is the most powerful medium."

In 1994, a year after his first marriage ended, Ou started Vogue Express, one of the first fashion-focused TV programmes in the mainland. The show proved popular and with it, Ou began travelling to events held at top-class hotels. During one such trip, he says, he was alone in his hotel room, getting out of the shower, when he gazed at his naked body in the mirror and hit upon the idea of self-portraits.

It didn't take long, however, before he grew tired of photographing the human body for the sake of it. Having experimented with all sorts of poses and positions - including press-ups - he discovered that when his naked body was by a window or on a balcony and became part of the city scene, it fascinated him.

"This was a creative transformation," said Li Xianting, an art critic widely regarded as the godfather of China's contemporary avant-garde art, in a dialogue with Ou last year in Beijing.

Ou started The Moment series - performing naked press-ups at the location of major news events.

"When everybody is wearing clothes, a naked body implies unconventional, critique, questions, fight and defence," he says.

His is an approach to art that comes with a certain amount of risk, especially if a chosen site is linked to a scandal. In 2005, when he did a naked press-up outside the Huangcun police station in Guangzhou, marking the death of Sun Zhigang, he was taken away for questioning by the police.

Sun, a university graduate from Wuhan, had been detained for failing to produce a residence permit and identity card and was beaten to death at the police station.

Ou has had similar experiences in Henan and Tibet, "but every time they let me go when I tell them I'm an artist", he says. "It's the soft power of art, like water."

Nowadays, whenever he visits a sensitive location, Ou takes copies of media coverage of his work, to prove he's an artist. When he's planning to visit places of real danger, he drafts text messages to friends on his mobile phone to be sent if there is trouble.

However, the trickiest part of his work does not concern his safety, Ou says, but how to locate the exact spot of a sensitive event: local governments, especially those away from the eastern seaboard, will do their utmost to hide details of scandals and censor media coverage.

"Few people in the local area know exactly what happens and where it happens," Ou says. "You have to ask around carefully, without disclosing your intentions.

"It's so hard. In some difficult situations, after I perform a naked press-up, I find my eyes wet with tears and ask myself whether anybody has forced me to do this."

Hong Kong, by comparison, is a piece of cake. Ahead of his Baptist University press-up, for example, he first found his way to the university's Advanced Institute for Contemporary China Studies, where a "China Model" booklet for the national education curriculum had been drafted. As is his habit when he arrives at a location, the first thing he did was check whether it matched the research he had done at home - he often carries downloaded photos of the place in question. After taking snapshots outside the institute, he began looking for his spot.

The day after Ou returned from Hong Kong, he posted the photo on his Sina Weibo account. The post did not generate much discussion, with only a few comments and a few dozen of retweets. Earlier that day, 90,000 people had taken to the streets of Hong Kong to protest against national education. In the relayed TVB Jade and ATV news casts, which have a large following in the southern provinces, footage of the day's demonstration was censored, viewers instead being treated to 10 minutes of public-service announcements.

"Not every mainlander is interested in what's happening in Hong Kong," says Ou. "But if they are, the censored contents, especially at the start of a news segment, make them more curious - and later they will find out what's happening on the internet."

For Ou, who has been a Guangzhou resident all his life, it's natural to follow what's happening on the other side of the Luohu port.

"The two places have close ties with each other," he says. "In my photo, there is no maliciousness, just a sincere hope for the best for Hong Kong."

Many of his relatives live in the city and his maternal grandparents are buried here. His 87-year-old mother still sometimes hums the song of her high school on Broadwood Road, Happy Valley, which she attended in the 40s. Ou has also travelled to Hong Kong on numerous occasions in his capacity as a presenter on Guangdong TV, a job he still has. During these trips, he has become aware of a level of ignorance in Hong Kong, too, recalling that a Hong Kong presenter he worked with once claimed Guangzhou was a province, which shocked him.

"Hong Kong needs a national education programme, but which kind of national education is the best? We all need to have a good hard think," he says.

Ou tried without success to buy a copy of the national curriculum booklet when he was here, "but from the media reports I read about the curriculum, I think the authors of the booklet were naive in saying which system is superior in terms of democracy".

Ou is never in a rush to let the public see his artwork; he prefers to wait and pick a suitable time to post it online - at anniversaries of important events, for example, after a long wait in which the government has failed to produce a valid explanation for an event or when a public event is followed by an unexpected twist.

Before 2007, Ou largely kept his press-ups to himself, partly due to the objections of his second wife. That marriage dissolved in the summer of that year. Feeling liberated, he took part in the Body Media Modern Art Exhibition in Guangzhou, which also featured works by controversial artist Ai Weiwei.

"The provocation that Ou mounts is a highly oblique one that - unlike the work of Ai Weiwei - does not draw direct attention to issues of political/historical sensitivity," writes Paul Gladston, associate professor in the Department of Culture, Film and Media and director of the Centre for Contemporary East-Asian Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham, in Britain, in an e-mail interview with Post Magazine. "Nevertheless, it is possible to interpret Ou's actions as a modern-day reworking of the supplicant petitioning that has characterised China's authoritarian political life over many centuries as well as the physical endurance associated with the Chinese literati tradition of withdrawal into asceticism as a sign of political discontent."

Ou's art has raised quite a few eyebrows among those of a less academic persuasion. His 2006 naked press-up at the "Bird's Nest" stadium, before the Beijing Olympics, was derided as blatant self-promotion and having been in bad taste. Around the same time, the term "press-up" acquired a dark connotation on the internet after the alleged murder of a girl in Wengan, Guizhou province. One of the suspects told investigators he had been doing press-ups on the bridge when the girl jumped into the river of her own volition. The family believed the girl had been raped and murdered by the son of a prominent official and another man, and her death led to a massive riot. Ou later did a press-up on the bridge.

In December 2009, Ou won the bronze award at the Fifth Lianzhou International Photo Festival in Guangdong. Less than two months later, The Moment, comprising 12 pieces, earned an honourable mention from the jury of the 2010 World Press Photo contest.

"People like to ask why my works of public nudity are able to circulate in the mainland," says Ou. "Having worked in media for so long, I know where the line lies. If I exposed my private parts in a public space, I'm sure I'd be censored immediately in the name of harmony."

Last year, he did naked press-ups at the locations of 52 public disturbances. In May, he was lauded by Southern Weekly, one of the most influential liberal newspapers in the mainland.

To date, Ou has performed 300 naked press-ups, all self-funded, travelling 200,000 kilometres in the process.

"Public disturbances increase by 20 per cent every year," he says. "This indicates the presence of intensified social problems as well as the awakening of civil society and an expanding online community.

"I have kept my weight at 75kg for 20 years," the 1.76-metre-tall Ou says with pride. "I attribute it to my good habits: no smoking, no drinking, a healthy diet and cold showers - and, of course, my optimism.

"I hope to continue my press-ups - naked - well into my 80s."

 

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