“Like all Fillyjonks, she was also surrounded by quite a lot of trinkets. Small mirrors and family photos in velvet and shell frame, china kittens and Hemulens on lace tablecloths, golden sayings embroidered with beautiful silk or silver, tiny goblets and charming teapot caps – yes, all kind of things that make life easier, less dangerous and less depressing.”
Tove Jansson: “The Fillyjonk who believed in disasters” (in Det osynliga barnet och andra berättelser, 1962)
Beijing photographers 黄庆军 Huáng Qìngjūn (1971) and 马宏杰 Mă Hóngjié (1963) have been roaming about all China for years by trying to persuade a family in each province – it’s not easy, they say – to put off all their stuff in front of the house, and to sit down between them, so the photographers could take a group image of them.
I do not know whether they also tell them how to arrange their objects. If not, then it is remarkable how similar patterns are followed in the display of things from the Inner Mongolian steppe to the Miao villages and from the mountains of Sichuan to the Yangtze estuary. They arrange them in one single broad line, to make visible the most possible items, provided that they fit into one line, but usually they do. Normally they do not pile them up, but exhibit them one by one, just like they acquired them. The family is almost always sitting or standing in the middle, and even in the two or three exceptions they are shifted towards the house as a center. Wherever they have food reserves, rice sacks, corn pipes, they put them in the forefront as the symbol of abundance. As well as the animals.
Looking at the pictures, our first impression is “this much, then”. Here we have together all the objects which are touched by a person from his birth to his death, which are always waiting for this touch on the usual place in the background, scattered in and around the house, so that the weight of their joint presence, like that of an additional family member, is perceived in such a compulsive way only at the time of moving to a new house, or when one is turned out to the street from the old one.
The second impression is: “this much only”? Is it possible to live a whole life with so few things? While not so long ago a peasant household had about five hundred objects, most of which were used in daily activities, in an industrialized culture we are surrounded by even a hundred times more things per household. No matter how much we want to live a simple life and try to eliminate the unnecessary frippery around ourselves, a set of everyday objects reduced to this extreme implies poverty to us even without considering the condition of the houses.
However, the two photographers stress in the accompanying text what an incredible step forward and wealth it is for the vast majority of Chinese families to possess so many objects. For them, they say, this exposition is a symbol of the boundless opportunities and progress brought to them by the Party after so many decades of promises. We often forget about how great differences can be between our perspectives.