Lyon-based photographer Pierre Sage set out to China to impose his universe of charm and sensuality upon a country that remains closed off to such issues. And successfully so, judging from his photos.
“The nude body is sincerity – honesty that everyone can have”, once stated Spanish author Jacinto Benavente. That may be so in France and beyond the Alps but not in all countries and much less in China, where the nude body remains taboo in everyday life. Such is life in the land of the red dragon. Even art, often used to break chains, runs up against the restrictions imposed by President Xi Jinping. In 2011, the artist Ai Weiwei had tried in vain to defy such limitations.
Six years later, the flame burns on. Through French eyes, Pierre Sage, with his voluptuously fragrant photographic culture, arrived in China in late 2017. “While exhibiting my work at the European Festival of Nude Photography at Arles in 2014, I was spotted by a Chinese association promoting artistic and cultural exchanges between France and China”, he recalls. “They then contacted me again in November 2016”.
His sensual and seductive stage wooed the organizers of the prestigious international fair Beijing Photos, though not without its fair share of censorship and reticence. “The exhibit photos underwent a drastic selection process” he admitted. “What was found disturbing wasn’t so much the nudity per se but rather the eroticism and sexuality portrayed in the models’ looks and attitudes, something that remains rather unfitting in China”.
In a society which attests a certain frustration, Pierre Sage’s work inspires fascination and envy, captivating and bewitching all at once.
“Many Chinese think I naturally sleep with my models”
Art and practice, quite a story. “The Chinese love it. Their passion for photography goes far beyond ours – steeped in their traditions and the culture of the image. They’re quite fond of unfamiliar approaches and new ways of working, which they have a hard time revealing freely. I really felt though that they’d like to be able to express themselves with total freedom”.
And so, fantasies are lived out in the shots of Sage’s not so well-behaved universe, driven by a compelling desire to shoot in the city of eternal springtime. Uniting undressed bodies proves however quite a risky bet in chastity-promoting China, but there’s reason to believe that French charm is not simply a utopia of explorations. Where others have suffered the wrath of politicians, Pierre Sage succeeds with elegance and (im)pertinence – and some adjustments, for where full nudity remains impossible, charm and sensuality step in to voluptuously adjust what’s in front of the lens. “We could not have stripped the bodies any more lightly”, he insists. “We were in a studio full of collaborators and photographers who had come for the occasion. It was extremely complicated”.
The result is stunning – and all in spite of the capricious planning and its many imponderables. “Date aside, the shooting – place, length, models, equipment availability – all of it was entirely improvised”, he concludes. Beautiful tales are woven with their fair share of twists, and those of Pierre Sage have just barely begun.