A photograph’s worth may be measured by whether its subjects’ eyes are open or closed. When someone’s eyes are closed, the consensus often follows to retake the shot.
That’s not so in the world of Chinese photographer Wang Ningde, whose first U.S. solo exhibition, “Some Days,” is on display at SF Camerawork through Aug. 25 in a presentation co-sponsored by the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco.
Here, everyone’s eyes are closed. It’s a simple notion, but one that blankets Wang’s body of work with a curious beauty that poses many questions and answers none.
“We tend to forget that there are many important moments when our eyes are closed; refusal, thinking, imagining, dreaming, sex,” Wang says.
In one work, a man dressed in a Mao uniform lies on a rustic bed, while petals from a bunch of flowers that juts through an open window above sprinkle across the bedspread.
Whether he is dreaming or dead is anyone’s guess. That’s fine with Wang, who says he is also commenting on China’s law that forbids photographing the dead, except Mao, whose body is preserved and displayed in a transparent casket.
Politics come into play as well for Wang, 35, who, despite missing the brunt of Mao’s government-issued Cultural Revolution, experienced its aftershock.
A photograph of four little girls standing in a line holding sunflowers and a little boy at the line’s front holding a white balloon tied to a stick is inspired by one of Wang’s grade-school memories; his teacher told the students that Mao was the sun and they were all sunflowers who would follow the leader wherever he went.
Many works in “Some Days” are snapshots of Wang’s memories, which accounts for the collection’s dreamlike absurdity.
“I’m not duplicating a scene,” he says. “I’m duplicating a memory.”
In doing so, Wang gives viewers scenes that are staged, and in which everyone photographed is a hired actor.
Two men in Mao uniforms set against a backdrop of intentionally fake-looking clouds wear heavy makeup and have cigarettes dangling from their mouths. The effect is cartoonish, but scathing as well.
Other works raise intense questions about sexuality, family and tradition. In one photograph, Wang reconstructs the traditional family portrait. Mom and dad sitstatuesque in chairs. The “son” stands in the background behind mom and “daughter” sits naked at her father’s feet.
Wang’s work amazes in that it captures the past without being nostalgic. There is no longing — just stated fact and some reflection on what that means for the future.
“I’m trying to say goodbye to [the past], not embrace it,” he says.
Where: SF Camerawork, 657 Mission St., Second Floor, San Francisco
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; show closes Aug. 25
Admission: $2 to $5 suggested donation
Contact: (415) 512-2020 or www.sfcamerawork.org