Privacy, as it is conventionally understood in the west, is a relatively new concept, dating back just a century and half or so. In classical Greek and Roman times and in the later medieval period there was no Latin word equivalent to ‘privacy’. For most people bathing, dressing, and even sex, were undertaken in the presence of family and friends with no sense of shame. It was usual, given the enormous cost of a bed, for the whole family and any visiting guests to sleep together. Indeed, up until the mid-seventeenth century, anyone seeking privacy was viewed with deep suspicion – what exactly was it they sought to hide? Attitudes began to change rapidly with industrialisation, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and developments in building techniques, concepts of hygiene, and notions of social and moral propriety. Even so, it was as late as 1890 that the editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post was to declare that “privacy is a distinctly modern product”.
In the 1960s, issues of privacy became entangled with those of self-determination, of the right to shape how one is perceived. Meanwhile, technology began to blur the line between public and private. The Walkman, when first introduced, was noted for the way it allowed an individual to enjoy a private experience while in public. Later, the internet created a paradoxical blending of public and private, as netizens shared their most intimate thoughts and images on the world’s most public platform. At the same time, rapidly rising property prices have meant that many young adults live communally in shared housing, with little privacy and more relaxed attitudes to nakedness and sexuality. Although the penetration of data-scraping technology into every aspect of our lives is anxiously discussed in public, in cyberspace behaviours continue to demonstrate little restraint as the drive to self-determinacy manifests in the performance-of-self online.
The photographs of the Chinese artist Lin Zhipeng (aka No.223) arise from within this milieu of open intimacy. His images are performative yet unstaged, as youthful Asian women and men engage in the conscious but unselfconscious presentation of self. His work has been associated with the recent art-phenomenon of so-called ‘private photography’. But these are not really private images made public. They are co-created in the knowledge that they are to be shared, that they will become part of a pictorial polylogue that interconnects a generation on a global scale. At a time when, in a number of contemporary cultures, traditional notions of modesty and privacy are being codified and enforced as forms of subjugation, these images raise an interesting question about the underlying nature of privacy as a concept: is it a function of liberty or an instrument of control? Although the bitter irony is that those who most vigorously demand that others keep themselves private are also the ones who most often invade that privacy through surveillance.
Read the full interview with Lin Zhipeng (aka No.223) by Alasdair Foster at Talking Pictures