Lisa Ross has been photographing the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of Northwest China for a decade. Earlier works focused on the burial mounds of certain Muslim Uyghurs who are considered as saints. The graves are marked by long, thin branches and cribs to which brightly colored flags are tied. The images in “After Night,” Ross’s current exhibition at Asya Geisberg, are equally solemn as the artist moves from the grave to the bed in eleven large photographs (all 2011).
Once again, there are no people, only objects that register bodily presence. The setting is similar: a beige desert terrain punctuated by a few trees. The bed’s placement in this open landscape is a peculiar sight. It alludes to the nomadic life of a laborer. But these aren’t sleeping bags or portable furniture. They are the beds that farmers tending to harvest sleep on at night, too cumbersome to carry around, but thin enough to suggest temporality. There are no mattresses atop the wood or metal frames. Sometimes the frames are completely bare; others are accompanied with pillows and bedspreads whose bright patterns contrast with the surroundings.
Ross seems tentative in her approach to the subject. Her vantage point places the beds in a middle ground, at a remove from the viewer. They are often seen in profile like an uppercased “I” turned on its side, the rectangle of the picture mirroring the bed’s orientation and accentuating its distance. In Turpan, a pale-blue bed frame sits on a dirt road that recedes quickly into a blurred horizon. As in the other photographs, the bed is rendered more thing-like, a scrawling horizontal figure that seems both anonymous and remarkably personal.
Xinjiang, a vast, thinly populated region of China that neighbors eight nations including Russia, Afghanistan and India, has recently been the site of conflict between the Uyghurs and the Han, with the former resisting government-enforced economic changes and urbanization. Oddly, none of this upheaval is addressed by the gallery press release, though it is palpable in the photographs. The absence of the farmers and the mostly bare landscape suggest something is amiss. A closer look reveals that what appears to be soil is in fact debris. Very few crops are seen; what harvest are the farmers tending to, then, in this wind-scattered land? This is just one among many questions that complicate the viewing. Ross leaves it up for the viewer to undertake his or her own discovery of Xinjiang and its present condition. This can feel like a difficult awakening from the aesthetic dreams she depicts.