Hitting the Senses 春宫男图

August 4, 2022 2022年8月4日

What do carnal desire and artistic expression have in common? To Beijing-based photographer Shengzhe, everything. Both can arouse strong feelings in people, often sensations of the flesh that make no sense if put into words. “Maybe art is something with a strong sense of form, something that makes people feel. But if we have to explain it, it’s nonsense,” he says.

These powerful yet undefinable feelings are what prompted Shengzhe to create his erotic photographic series of attractive young men with their nude bodies on view and engaging in a variety of sexual fantasies. Through these photographs, he wants to break with the still prevailing old-fashioned morality and show people that sexuality is something as natural as breathing. Shengzhe’s photos blur the lines between what’s artistically pleasing and sensually arousing—and they most definitely hit the senses hard.



Shengzhe only photographs men. Single or coupled, his models appear fully undressed, involved in erotic narratives. However, we rarely see their sexual parts fully exposed in the photographs. Shengzhe covers them with props during shooting or, in post-editing, with image cutouts that vary from flower stems to snakes that wrap around their groins. Still, he leaves their pubic hair suggestively exposed and reveals parts of the male genitalia.

Both the sculptural nudity of Shengzhe’s works and their youthful quality remind of the photographs of late Chinese artist Ren Hang. Likewise, Shengzhe’s work sometimes also bears the same provocative quality as the photography of Nobuyoshi Araki, mainly because of its recurrent bondage elements, the flowers he uses as props, and the tatami rooms settings.



Japanese motifs are recurrent in Shengzhe’s oeuvre. In Welcome to Tokyo, an anthology of Japanese-themed works, we see many cultural nods such as Noh masks and katanas, as well as architectural features like tatami mats and shoji screens composing the mise-en-scène. Still, his scope of references goes beyond the obvious: Shengzhe also overlays images of ancient poems and shunga, Japanese erotic art, into some of his photographs. He is drawn to Japanese art as a whole, particularly vintage films, animes, and photography—and he’s especially thrilled when he finds sexual innuendos hidden in them. “Metaphorical sexual desire emerging from a strict cold shell fascinates me,” he says.


Naturally, Shengzhe maximizes any sexually suggestive marker in his work almost to a full extent. One of his most luscious series is “Spring Dream,” which is part of Welcome to Tokyo. In it, he presents a narrative about a boy who has an erotic dream about a flower stem he keeps at home. In the dream, the flower transmutes into a magical being with a male body: the flower God. What ensues is that both of them engage in a theatrical sexual fable, trying several positions in a tatami room. The boy appears with his eyes closed in every photo, and it looks as though he’s still asleep throughout the entire act, even when he bends forward or sits on top of his partner. The latter is very awake—in every sense of the word.


The allegory of the flower relates directly to the shunga images he superimposes on some photos in this series. Meaning “spring pictures” in Japanese, shunga books, handscrolls, and prints were very popular, and even mainstream, during the Edo period in Japan, between 1603 and 1867. They were illustrations of highly explicit sexual scenes depicted unashamedly, portraying sex as something normal, inseparable from life. These illustrations often included group and homosexual sex, and some depict men dressed as geishas having sex with other men.

Despite the common belief that humanity has grown less conservative over time, during this period at least, Japanese society seemed to have had a much more uninhibited attitude towards sex; shunga was even a common gift to exchange amongst the upper classes.

Social inhibition regarding sex is what Shengzhe aims to change with his work. He wants to expand the boundaries in people’s minds, normalize discussions, and break the taboos that modern life has attached to sexuality. “Sexual innuendoes are very true to life, ordinary intentions,” he says. “Ironically, the scientific and technological progress we’ve seen through time is far greater than the actual progress of our ways of thinking and attitudes,” he adds.


尽管大众普遍认为,随着时代的推进,人类的价值观变得更加开放。但江户时代的日本社会对性的态度,和今昔比起来,反倒是有过之而无不及——“春画” 在当时甚至一度成为上流人士间的互赠礼品。


Still, there’s yet another reason Shengzhe juxtaposes shunga imagery—and poems, for that matter—with his erotic photographs. It’s something he borrows from his idol, film director Peter Greenaway, and more precisely from Greenaway’s 1996 visually striking erotic drama, The Pillow Book.

The inherent foreignness and exoticism of the film is something that fascinates Shengzhe. Unlike many people, he actually appreciates when oriental themes are represented through Western gazes in cinema. He says there’s always a certain strangeness that occurs without conscious intent—and that’s what he finds appealing.

Greenaway is known for betting on the power of images and sound to tell stories, often to the detriment of a more elaborate or even gripping narrative. His work is influenced by Baroque, Renaissance, and Flemish paintings, and his films often resemble compositions from such periods. More than entertaining, Greenaway’s films have the power to move people and make them feel things—sometimes things they can’t describe. “After watching [The Pillow Book], I felt something wonderful, strange, and unreal. I was deeply fascinated by it,” Shengzhe says.

His fascination with the film led him to create a homonymous series composed of his own short film and several photographs. It’s an homage to Greenaway’s masterpiece, a personal rendition where he reclaims many of the director’s trademark elements. For instance, Shengzhe’s film begins with a dramatic voice-over narration reciting the same monologue that echoes throughout the film in various scenes. Also, such as Greenaway, Shengzhe uses overlapping images that play simultaneously. They’re both a stylistic device and a means to add extra layers of meaning to the story. Other stylistic devices he borrows are the combination of black and white with color and retro effects.

除此之外,圣喆的创作灵感还有一部分来源于英国导演彼得·格林纳威(Peter Greenaway)。更准确地说,是这位导演在 1996 年拍摄完成的电影《枕边书》(The Pillow Book)。影片探讨了同性以及两性关系中的权力失衡问题。片中的人物以人体为纸稿进行书写,在当时极具视觉冲击力。




Shengzhe even acknowledges Greenaway’s painterly influences with a beautiful montage of cutouts from classical artworks that correlates to the opening monologue in his film. Shenzgzhe’s version, however, is entirely constructed through a male homoerotic gaze. He even makes a cameo appearance, as he sometimes does in his work, writing ancient Chinese poems with ink on his models’ naked bodies. He dedicates one model and one poem to each of his chapters, or “books,” mirroring how Greenaway’s story unfolds.

The power imbalance in the original story is also brilliantly represented by Shengzhe, albeit more visually: he ties and blindfolds one of his models with a red satin ribbon and photographs him vulnerable on the floor, with his naked body covered in poems. Something similar occurs when a gang of Hong Kong teens abducts the Japanese photographer in Greenaway’s movie. It’s only a rapid moment in the film that can almost go unnoticed, but one that Shengzhe magnified and transformed into a central theme in his series.



Born in 1995 in the Northeastern Chinese province of Jilin, Shengzhe began photographing the world around him with his smartphone while still in high school. He only shifted to a proper camera in his second year of university when he bought a Minolta X-700, aspiring for a vintage feel in his work. When he first began photographing erotic content, he invited his friends to model for him, but as his popularity grew on social media, more and more boys approached him, wanting to pose for his camera.

Shengzhe’s university graduation project was to create a photo book, a concept he took with him and developed further after leaving university. “I can’t be idle. After I graduated, I wanted to find a medium or platform where I could continue my ideas,” he says. The book idea developed into an annual magazine: in 2019, he published the first issue of Millennium Magazine.

圣喆于 1995 年出生于东北吉林。他从高中时期便开始用智能手机拍摄周围世界。大二那年,他买下一台美能达 X-700 相机,希望拍一些复古风的作品。圣喆第一次拍情色照片,当时的模特还是他身边的朋友。后来,随着在社交媒体上人气增长,越来越多男孩主动找他,想要出现在他的镜头下。


Millennium’s first issue was “Human Fireworks,” a direct allusion to sexual orgasm. The theme explores fantasies related to the climax of a sexual encounter or, as Shengzhe refers to it, “the best part of sex.” The magazine collected people’s ideas around the open-ended theme with text or imagery. It did so sensually and lightheartedly, without the intention of becoming political or a vehicle for activism. “We’re not talking about sexual rights and freedom here; we’re just talking about what it’s like to have an orgasm,” he says. “After reading the magazine, I hope people will feel that sex is just a very ordinary thing, worthy of enjoyment.”

He also hopes for the magazine to have an educational value, bridging light into topics that people don’t fully understand because of the lack of information. The third issue of Millennium was meant to feature the theme of BDSM, something he thinks is particularly misunderstood in China. The content is ready, but the magazine never went to print. “We could not produce it because of a higher force,” Shengzhe laughs.

第一期杂志被定名为《人间烟火》(Human Fireworks),隐喻性的高潮,探讨与性高潮有关的许多幻想。用圣喆的话说,性高潮是“性中最美好的部分”。《人间烟火》以一种感性、轻松的方式进行叙事和刻画,表达人们关于性高潮时的想法,丝毫没有触及政治或激进的意图。圣喆说:“我们在这里不谈性权利和自由,我们只想谈论高潮是一种什么样的感觉。我希望人们看完这本杂志后发觉,性只是一件很普通的事情,值得去享受。”

圣喆还希望他的杂志具有教育意义,在观众面前揭开禁忌的面纱。《千禧》杂志第三期的主题是 BDSM,一个在圣喆看来被中国人严重误解的议题。然而,杂志却迟迟没能印刷出来。圣喆笑着说:“因为上面的压力,我们没法印。”

Like any artist who works on a similar subject, Shengzhe finds publishing his erotic material at home a challenge. The difficulties were such that the Millennium project came to a halt. “The LGBTQIA+ community has many difficulties to overcome in China, but this is also a driving force for me to explore and create. I hope I can maintain this curiosity and enthusiasm,” he says, adding that he’s still eager to publish Millennium and is open to collaborations outside China.

Shengzhe realizes that his subject matter is controversial and has different effects on people. “Anyone who sees my work will feel something. My style and expression are extreme. People either like it or hate it,” he says. Like Greenaway, Shengzhe doesn’t aim to entertain or amuse with his work. Instead, his goal is to beat faux morality and expand people’s boundaries by playing with their senses. Love or hate, in the end, what matters is that they feel something.

和其他类似题材的艺术家一样,圣喆发现在国内发行情色作品的挑战性很大,这也导致《千禧》杂志被迫中止。圣喆说:“LGBTQIA+ 群体在中国需要克服很多,但这也是我探索和创作的动力。我希望我能坚守这份好奇和热情。”圣喆还说,他仍希望继续出版《千禧》,并对海外合作保持开放态度。


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Contributors: Tomas Pinheiro, Lucas Tinoco
Chinese Translation: Yang Young

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Instagram: @shengzhe__


供稿人: Tomas Pinheiro, Lucas Tinoco
英译中: Yang Young