In August 1982, Xu Lei was in Fuzhou, and He Bo was in Urumqi.
In an unexpected turn of events, two pen pals who had never met found themselves connected through a photography magazine. Ever since then, they started exchanging self-portraits and engaged in genuine discussions about their insights and experiences of self-portraits through accompanying letters. Upon opening the envelopes, the enthusiasm for the unknown transformed into shared joys and sorrows, embodied in silver salt and ink.
In August 2016, Xu Lei was in Fuzhou, and He Bo was in Beijing.
Curator He Yining’s “matchmaking” brought together two strangers and initiated a discussion on how to have an interesting collaboration without knowing each other beforehand. They wondered if they could gradually get to know each other through the collaboration itself, and contemplated the creative potential of their shared interest in “old photographs.” Writing letters, making photos, posting letters, and sharing images, apart from saying “The package is on the way,” the two artists had no idea about the specific contents they had each created. Opening the package and the digitally compressed files, their unknown expectations transformed into inspiration for the next “chapter” in each other’s work.
From August to December 1982, five to six years after the downfall of the “Gang of Four” and the reform and opening-up policy, Xu Lei, a university professor, and He Bo, military personnel specialized in artistic pursuits at the border, were eagerly practicing the novel photographic technique of “self-portrait ” in the respective contexts of life and work. This technique was not only new to them but also to all the Chinese people at that time—it was not merely a mechanical act, but a new way of connecting with the emerging world. Xu Lei captured precious moments of himself at famous tourist attractions in Fuzhou, preserving at the same time his deep affection for his family in the photographs. He Bo documented, snapped, and directed the minute details of his military service with his comrades, celebrating the bonds of friendship while lamenting lost love.
From August to December 2016, Xu Lei and He Bo, avid explorers of photography history and culture, recreated some staged group portraits from the 1970s and 1980s. They crudely superimposed their faces onto the faces in the original photographs. These forged images and textual evidence were later presented in exhibitions over the next few years, mostly taking the form of archival documents. They were replete with traces of contradictions or deliberate falsifications of historical facts. Through this project, they aspired to draw people’s attention to the conspiracy of photographs and words in the act of storytelling, as well as the delicate relationship between the visual aura of “evidence” given by old photographs and letters and the notion of “true history.” Many of the old photographs used by Xu Lei were sourced from the collection of Xu Xijing, a scholar of the history of photography, while He Bo obtained material from photos taken during his father’s military service.
In December 1982, Xu Lei and He Bo met in Fuzhou at the end of the year and took a self-portrait together, fulfilling their promise made in the last letter.
In November 2016, Xu Lei and He Bo met in Xiamen.
In the summer of 2023, the photo book “Selfiers: Sealed with Images” is published. Xu Lei is in the Philippines, and He Bo is in the Netherlands. Since their meeting in Xiamen, they never met again.
He Bo, born in 1989 in Sichuan Province, is a practitioner of photographic image-based art, writer, educator and curator.
His past artistic practice mainly revolves around the re-creation of ready-made images and their theories, the narrative relationship between images and texts, the barriers to communication in the context of war, disaster and violence, the fictionality of archives and memory, and the function and effect of photographic images in the construction of history and the operation of power. Collaboration with others and audiance participation are vital aspects of He’s practice. Currently, He is engaged in exploring the themes of memory, post-memory, trauma and aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
He Bo’s works have been exhibited in Amsterdam, The Hague, New York, London, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Locarno, Islamabad, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, as well as at Lianzhou Foto Festival and Jimei×Arles International Photo Festival, among many other places in China.