Living Otherwise: Buddhist Photography on the New Silk Road

Living Otherwise: Conclusions

Despite systemic blockages from the state and misrecognition from his viewers, Tian Lin’s life work continues. No matter what sort of urban cleansing projects are deployed, Tian Lin feels as though the state cannot extirpate “the people, the objects, and feelings of a place” which sprout up like blades of grass in zones of exclusion.[1] When he began the project “the city was very close,” Tian Lin wrote, “Within ten minutes you can go down the mountain to a main road where huge billboards kept out the hillside: beautiful women, sofas, cell phones, tires, children’s clothes… a wall of giant signs stretched out from the city to cover up its embarrassment” (2011). Obfuscated in the winter by industrial pollution and in the summer by a wall of commercial billboards, the slums on the hills were lacunae in the cityscape. Lacking natal home relations and tacit knowledge of cosmopolitan manners, formal business acumen, and the passwords necessary to access capital, the slum population proliferated, cloaked by “the great fogs” on the margins of the city.  It was only with a major shock to the integrity of the system that those imbricated in the institutions down below were compelled to target the settlements beyond the reach of the city.[2] And then, it was only with the intention of violently unsettling the slum population: “returning” them to the rationality of the city, incarcerating them under the discipline of the prison state, or exiling them to the poverty from which they came.

If Tian Lin’s work of rendering the invisible visible still allows for a misrecognition of the stranger, at least in his melancholic work there is also a minor politics built out of love, generosity and precarity. Although sharing a view of the world from the position of Xinjiang-specific “blind wanderer” or “vagabond” does not necessarily produce a recognized form of political rights to the city, it frames a view of ordinary life as lived in the midst of precariousness and that is already an opening to a new form of political feeling. Adding to this, Tian Lin's growing appreciation for Buddhist moral philosophy and the social justice impulses of documentary photography gave him another means through which to reframe and publicize his encounter with Uyghur migrant life.

There is a strange optimism in Tian Lin’s work. He is not trying to produce a form of liberal humanism in which the minority-other is included in the mainstream without the member of the majority losing something. Instead he is attempting to lose parts of his own social potential, by amplifying the voices of the other. By living-with the other, he stays "wise" to what is at stake in being different. He is more than an Uyghur ally, instead he has become an accomplice in their pain.

By entering into an intimate minor politics with Uyghur migrants Tian Lin has found a measure of repair in his own life. He has found ways to give up on the obligations to normalcy that have been placed on him by his family, the state and mainstream society. He has found a way to step out of normal life and share a life with the placeless. Lauren Berlant (1997) writes about such a strategy as a way of being “proximate” to politics without reducing intersubjective relationships to normative claims-making. Rather than being part of an official “ethnic solidarity” team sponsored by the state to bring minorities into predetermined categories of control, Tian Lin has set out on his own to find resonances between his own life and the lives of those on the margins. In doing so he is introducing a new specificity to the problem at hand, and through this, a strategic reassembling of the terms with which Uyghur wanderers are regarded by themselves, by other Han artists and by art viewers. Uyghur viewers of his work view it as “almost good enough” and for Tian Lin that is enough to continue to live otherwise.

[1] Here I am reminded of the way grass sprouts in the thinnest of soil between stones and across wide steppes of open ground. As Henry Miller put it so nicely: “Grass only exists between the great non-cultivated spaces. It fills in the voids. It grows between -- among the other things. The flower is beautiful, the cabbage is useful, the poppy makes you crazy. But grass is overflowing, it is a lesson in morality” (in Deleuze 1987:30). 
[2] Often the complexity of a social system is only revealed when it is “blown apart” by a trauma, what follows then in a milieu of security is “a process of ‘spacing out’ of generating, enfolding, and extending space in which mapping is always behind, struggling to ‘catch up’” (Simone 2003: 26). Here we can think of the problematic mappings of the War on Terror that followed the trauma of 9-11. Such traumas are, as Walter Benjamin predicted, becoming the norm rather than the exception.

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