Cui Xiuwen’s photos swirl with the circular contemplation of self

Chinese artist’s exhibit Existential Emptiness as heady and befuddling as it sounds

The Asian schoolgirl has been a pop culture bonanza: victim, ass-kicker, sex symbol, fetish object. That tormented schoolgirl is front and center in Existential Emptiness, Chinese artist Cui Xiuwen’s gorgeous, eerie, befuddling photographs on view at Kiang Gallery.

In this selection of 11 images, Cui’s alter ego is a contemplative schoolgirl shown sitting cross-legged, meditating before a snow-capped mountain (“Existential Emptiness #6”) or seeming to succumb to the elements, shoulders-high in snow, her head bowed in frozen sleep (“Existential Emptiness #4”). She is alone in a vast, frozen landscape, save for a creepy doppelganger. Sharing her quarters in the wilderness is a life-size doll with an identical pageboy haircut and porcelain complexion, but the bizarrely elongated body of E.T. At times the doll and girl are equals. In “Existential Emptiness #11,” they drift on an icy lake at opposite ends of a long boat. In other vignettes, the girl pulls her helpless companion by the arms through the snow like a war-weary Marine dragging a buddy to safety. The “real” girl struggles to save the doll girl but at other moments seems resigned to its death and suffering. The doll is clearly a surrogate for the girl, the most vulnerable part of herself projected outward into the world. Female sexuality and identity fascinate Cui. Her most famous work may be her internationally exhibited “Ladies” video, which documents the primping and preening of Chinese sex workers observed via hidden camera in the bathroom mirror at an upscale nightclub.

Cui is unapologetic about the show’s mood — it is titled Existential Emptiness after all. As if we couldn’t guess something psychologically harrowing was going on from these stark blizzard white and inky black photographs of a poor underdressed lass in knee socks and short skirt adrift in an icy sea or laid out like a corpse in the snow. Angst circulates through the images like a spreading cancer.

The images are epic tales of life and death, their grandiosity telegraphed by the stretched, frieze-like images that echo the CinemaScope frame or the traditional Chinese ink scroll. In these tense, survivalist scenarios, our schoolgirl and her double struggle to live or surrender to the inevitable. With their enormous expanses of white and the violent hatch marks of grey tree lines in the distance, the images fluctuate between drawing and photograph, at times looking manufactured and at others convincingly describing some strange alternate reality.

Often reminiscent of Anthony Goicolea’s work, which also uses digitally manipulated photographs of the artist acting out multiple roles, Cui’s photographs bristle with sexual anxiety and focus on the circular contemplation of self. That circularity extends to the show itself, which can often feel like an idea of detachment stated again and again in different guises.

The sense of malaise externalized in that uncanny doll and a physically consuming landscape comes through loud and clear in Cui’s work. But just as much can feel lost in translation, especially the specificity of what the artist is saying about the unique circumstance of being a woman in contemporary China.