A journey into Diana Lui’s Cities of the Immortals


    Ten years ago I walked into a gallery inside the Hilton Hotel of Singapore and saw the name Diana Lui for the first time.  I was struck by the association of Diana the “divine Goddess Huntress” and an Asian sounding “Lui” which in French happens to stand for “him” - making the name feminine and masculine at the same time. I liked so much one of the photographs showing the face and hands of an Asian woman sticking out amidst piles of round ceramics, that I bought it on the spot. Today the photo is still hanging on the wall of my living room. In 2003 I walked into the old local products warehouse of the Pingyao Festival and came face to face with a series of large format nude portraits, with captions mentioning mixed race nationalities, in front of them a crowd of local folks was pushing and shoving, farmers and soldiers, aunties and grand-pa’s, they were mesmerized by this enlarged display of naked bodies and the novelty of the art. They have never seen something like that, and neither have I. That was my second encounter with Diana Lui. And this time, the name “Diana” made me think of Diane Arbus and the “LUI” resonates like the “Other”, as in the relationship between the photographer and the models.
    Does Diana the Huntress photograph the “Others” as they are? Behind the innocent poses, the impressive series of portraits betrays a decade of relentless hunting, capturing and collecting of photographed subjects like trophies. These portraits of “immortals”, fully clothed individuals, or totally naked, or posing as trees, are  in a dramatic way, and in all the imaginable cities of the world what she took times to accumulate inside her “black box” . This accumulation resembles an act of feeding one’s self with the identity, the self, the personal story of the others, nourishing her own nomadic life with the personal certainties, or the existential anxieties of other nomads. Are they actually them-“selves”? What makes them immortals? Or are they disguised as another Diana Lui a la Cindy Sherman? Are they the mirror or more exactly fragments of a mirror in which Diana Lui searches for her true reflection? What’s most accurate would be to describe it as a “Search for the lost time”, filling her own memories with the souvenirs of the others. Like Marcel Proust, Diana Lui reinvents her memories with these sepia-tone photographs that are telling us to stop “wasting time” and to cherish the beauty of the present moments, the beauty of the others we come to encounter, the life we are living, instead of pursuing what is futile and painful: immortality.
    And she does it with respect and tenderness. To the difference of a 35mm camera, that allows to “steal images” on the run or on the fly a la Cartier-Bresson, a bulky view camera on tripod forces a face to face with the subject. And when the photographer disappears behind the black veil, what she sees is an upside down reflection of the other. The photographer can take it as an act of introspection - or as a salutation both towards the other and towards one’s inner self.
    The process of “capturing” the memories of individuals and trees is far from a gratuitous act. The subjects have to give away not just his or her clothing but the most intimate part of their transient life experiences. Diane Arbus wrote in her diaries in the 1960’s: “I think it does, a little, hurt to be photographed” (in Diane Arbus “Revelations” 2003), the equivalent can be found in what Roland Barthes called “punctum” in his “Chambre Claire” (1980); that could mean details or postures that reveal surprise, desire, fantasy, unknown secrets, fears, even death and other projections. We can pretend to exclude those trees and these mental patients, supposedly without “feelings”, although we may never know, for we have no idea of the potential sufferings or “scars” they are inflicted upon before, during and after the photographic session: just imagine the pain from the tattooing “John loves Mary” onto the “skin” of the very tree.  Diana Lui’s trees are undeniably inhabited, she even gives them names. CG Jung said in Africa trees are associated with spirits, tree can play a decisive role in the life of a primitive bushman, it can be the depository of his soul or of his voice, man and tree’s destiny and fate are thus inseparably sealed. Tree appears also as a powerful symbol in Christianity through its association with the crucifixion of Jesus. And in the Chinese ancestral custom people used to worship the Earth God by building a shrine at the foot of a big tree; this shrine is nothing but a symbol of the “Self”. (CG Jung: “Man and his symbols” - Robert Laffont 1990).
    The revealing theme Diana Lui borrows from one of Borges’ short stories “City of the Immortals” (1949) extends beyond the simple evocation of “freezing the moment”, or “stopping the time”, “immortalizing the instant” or rewinding the “what has been”. There is a fine line between exploration of the other’s memories and stage setting of the conflicts inhabiting “desires” and “taboos”, when the photographer herself is affected by the unspeakable secrets of the “Other”. (1) Suffice to look closer into the eyes of most of Diana Lui’s “immortals”. It simply is scary enough just to mutter “there is a secret behind the image” than really trying to know what terrible secret that implies. And reading between the lines through the intriguing captions is not enough neither.
    In the end, the power and magic of Diana Lui’s photographs lie indeed in their depiction of our quest of “origins” (or “roots” in Diana Lui’s language, where we come from), in the sense that the only experience we human beings missed in our life time is the indispensable moment when we were conceived by our genitors. In Diana’s nude portraits there is the belly button that links us all each other to One and Other, this universal scar testifies that we are not alone in this existence. Thus Diana’s work and her striking “verticality” in her photographs (most models are standing, like trees) lead us into a reflection on our own mortality, and what explains our frantic struggle to attain immortality through memory storage and through reproduction and succession of generations that are only made possible through desire and through sexuality.
    “The Monkey wrestled down a good man, tore off his clothes, discovered the way of dressing himself up and thus equipped set upon to wander through boroughs and towns, markets and bazaars, imitating the manners and the speech of man. For at the time, his whole being was geared towards one single goal: to discover the Immortals and to learn from them the secret of eternal youth.” (2).


Jean Loh
Guest curator

(1) The Mystery of Camera Lucida: photography and unconscious by Serge Tisseron - Ed. Belles Lettres 1996.
(2) Le Singe Pèlerin (Monkey) by Wu Cheng En - English translation by Arthur Waley, French version by George Deniker Ed Payot 1951


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