The title from documentary photographer Louise Grayson’s exhibition Releasing Dragons echoes her strong interest in international politics and the impact of political policy upon society and its individuals.
The concepts of how western ideology and cultural imperialism has infiltrated lifestyles of Chinese women since the “opening up” of China in the 1970’s is embraced in this exhibition. Presented as a row of life-sized murals, Grayson reveals the contents of handbags belonging to women from across China and Inner Mongolia.
The murals are displayed “real size” and the contents of the handbags are artefacts to give an insight into the lives of these women. The murals capture a cross-section of female participants from various socio-economic backgrounds and environments to give the audience a clear view into their lifestyle and culture. It is through the metaphoric examination of the contents of these womens' handbags - traditionally a very secretive environment - aspects of a gender-based economic and social transition in contemporary China are investigated.
An interesting aspect in the murals is the change from a handbag being purely functional, to being fashionable. In some socio-economic areas the handbag is still purely functional where as in other areas it is a fashion statement. A young woman living in Beijing has fur-line gloves and a Snoopy key ring in her handbag. In contrast, an elderly woman from Inner Mongolia keeps a ball of string and scissors in her bag. This reflects the transition from a political ideological society to one of capitalist influences.
The oscillation between the public and private life is also investigated. It is the contents of a woman's handbag that helps prepare the face they present to the world. However, those contents are rarely exposed to the outside world. For Eastern women to share with a western woman these items is analogous to the opening up to the West by the East. Make-up and lipstick - items that were frowned upon during the socialist regime - are now present in many murals.
Measurement codes below the murals reflect the concept and tradition of the artefact already introduced in the framing within the murals that is clearly defined. Didactic panels in the form of ID cards link the subjects to their contents whilst also embracing the idea of the previous Chinese law of identity cards that were carried by the population. The forms of identification found within the murals reflect new capitalistic influences. Photographic identification is present in many murals in the form of Drivers licences, student cards etc.
Portraits of the subjects in this body of work are lined up across the room from the murals, facing off one another. The portraits are neither improvised nor merely “caught”. The subjects face the camera with interest and patience. They are fully aware of the picture-making process. They collaborate. It is this element of participation, this suggestion of dialogue between the subject and the photographer that gives these pictures their great dignity.
Grayson has consciously attempted not to appear condescending to her subjects but rather emphasises that it is by their own choice that each subject has chosen to be part of this project. She genuinely has a respect for their culture and environment and wants them to have participation in the process, and thereby regain their personal dignity and voice.
The portraits are linked through didactic panels containing an identification number that is then repeated on identity tags attached to the murals across the room
These two forms lead the audience to wander to and fro between the walls matching person to mural. This has addressed the idea of stereotypes and at the same time that inescapable tendency to voyeurism as is an inescapable component of documentary photography - indeed all visual arts.
Releasing Dragons breaks down many preconceived perceptions surrounding the outer self and encourages us to seek a deeper meaning. The audience at this exhibition all wandered back and forth across the floor seeking a face to the artifact, and often exclaiming their surprise.
To achieve this body of work, Grayson travelled with an interpreter throughout China and Inner Mongolia and became involved in the lives of eastern women. Grayson states she asked the women to place the objects from their handbag into the frame themselves - a critical aspect of this collaborative process.
The black and white images reflect Grayson’s interest in how black and white is often perceived to be “truth” more than colour. This is perhaps due to the “realism” of colour on a day to day basis and once “real life” is removed, the audience is left inspecting the image more for content and meaning.
Explaining this concept of “truth”, an over-riding question throughout Grayson’s work is the capacity of photography to authenticate material tendered as evidence. The contents of a woman’s handbag are used as the artifact, and metaphor, to explore the woman’s relationship to her environment, the impact of her society (social and political) upon her and the face she presents to the world. Grayson acknowledges these issues in her work. Her eye as the photographer is dominant and questions the neutrality of these visible records, mocking the often repeated mantra that the photographer is expected to tell the truth with the help of our camera.