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Skerrett, Kathleen R. (English)

Kathleen Roberts Skerrett

Kathleen Roberts Skerrett

On the Photographs of Liu Xia

Kathleen Roberts Skerrett, Dean, School of Arts and Sciences, University of Richmond

The photographs in this exhibition reverse engineer the process by which repressive force deprives a human being of her freedom. If the end of repressive force is to turn a human being into a thing, the end of Liu Xia’s photographs is to turn small things into expressions of humanity at the limit of freedom.

The photographer Liu Xia has described herself as apolitical. The introverted artist married Liu Xiaobo — co-author of Charter 08 that promotes democratic rights in China — so she could visit him in the reeducation camp where he was incarcerated. But after Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, Liu Xia was placed under house arrest and constant surveillance. Her freedom is severely constricted hour by hour, day after day, month after month, without any foreseeable end — as is her husband’s freedom and many of their colleagues.

The ultimate reach of repressive force is, in any historical vector, to turn its object into a thing. But a human soul resists this process with horrible tenacity and anguish. Long after she might want to accept her fate, the soul goes on longing to recreate the world in which she could move and make and love. Such incurable longing is neither liberal nor romantic: It is the torment of slaves and prisoners anywhere.

Therefore, there is something universally arresting in the inconsolable animation of the dolls in Liu Xia’s black and white photographs. They are so simple and still, yet their expressions penetrate the viewer. The dolls are things — inexpensive and unbeautiful material objects — whose arrangement and expression nonetheless witness to damage and distress. None of us knows what it costs Liu Xia to capture in her negatives the soul’s bitter protest against its reduction to a thing. To make such negatives does not arrest the artist’s ongoing reduction or her anguish but the dolls tell the world in her photographs.

In a pamphlet published in 1940 (under a pseudonym), the political philosopher Simone Weil wrote about the effects of force on a human being. She observed that, even in its desolation, the soul sometimes grasps moments of self-possession in which there only remains room for courage or love. Liu Xia’s photographs bear the impress of such fugitive moments. These may be felt as the monotonous loneliness of missing another soul without any near purpose but to endure the psychic clamor of going on missing him. Thus, it has been suggested that Liu Xia’s “ugly babies” represent her dissident husband Liu Xiaobo.

At the limit of freedom what stands between the soul and its reduction to a thing may be some inconsolable animation of the other within. Yet such animation is also neither liberal nor romantic: It is the inner tumult of democrats everywhere.

We are honored to welcome Liu Xia’s photographs to the University of Richmond.

Kathleen Roberts Skerrett is the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, University of Richmond, Virginia. Prior to assuming that position, she served as associate dean and professor of religious studies at Grinnell College, Iowa. She had been a member of Grinnell’s faculty since 1998, and became associate dean there in 2007. Skerrett previously taught at McGill University in Montreal, after earning her Ph.D. in theology and the modern West from Harvard University in 1993.

A native of Toronto, Canada, Skerrett entered Mount Allison University, a premier Canadian undergraduate university, at age 16. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she earned a law degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and passed the bar in Toronto. She returned to graduate school at Harvard to pursue the interdisciplinary studies that continue to motivate her work.

Skerrett’s scholarly research has focused on Christian tradition, contemporary religious thought and gender studies, and political theory. She has published more than a dozen scholarly articles and 30 conference papers on related topics. Skerrett is a frequently invited lecturer at institutions and organizations including the University of Chicago, New York University, King’s College (Halifax, N.S.) and Atlantic School of Theology (Halifax, N.S.), among many others.

Her awards include a Faith and Life Sabbatical Award from the Louisville Institute, an appointment as a visiting fellow at NYU’s Center for Religion and the Media, and a Royal Bank Teaching Innovation Award. She was appointed by her Grinnell College colleagues as an Interdisciplinary Studies Fellow to further collaborative teaching and learning there.

Skerrett publishes regularly in her blog, The Contemporary Condition. For a longer version of this essay, posted there, click on the preceding link.

(This essay was written especially for the catalogue of the 2013 Richmond, VA showing of the exhibition “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia” at the Lora Robins Gallery of the University of Richmond Museums. Text copyright © 2013 by Kathleen Roberts Skerrett. All rights reserved.)

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