The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Window Suddenly Opened: New Photography in China

Chu Haina, 隐秘的风景1号 (Hidden Landscape No.1) 2006
 43cm x 30cm*3. Photograph| Digital printing
Image reproduced with permission of the artist

To coin a phrase: "What is it about contemporary photography in China that makes it so different, so revealing?"

 I have been reading a fascinating article in 'Glass' (the Autumn 2012 Asian edition about all things stylish, arty and Chinese) about the genesis of contemporary photographic practice in China. And musing over my meeting at Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing this month where I asked some hard questions of  International Programs Director, Jillian Schultz, about how female photographers are positioned in the Chinese artworld, and about how collectors and serious art buyers see photography in an art market still very much dominated by painting (more on this meeting later.) 

Photographic practice now in China is a vital, continually evolving and often a sensational and provocative art form. Since the emergence of contemporary Chinese art as we know it in the 1990s, in the experimental art communities such as Beijing's 'East Village', painting, sculpture, performance, installation and photography have merged and blurred, often in the practice of individual artists such as Hu Jieming or Wang Jianwei. Younger artists such as Huang Xu and Chen Hangfeng also exhibit this willingness to blend photographic practice with a range of other expressive forms in order to communicate particular ideas. 

Huang Xu, 'Fragment: Plastic Bag No 31',
 image reproduced with the permission of the artist and China Art Projects
Chen Hangfeng, 'Where the Wind Comes From
image reproduced with permission of the artist
See the link to the video by clicking on the title above
In 1996 photographer Rong Rong (who established Three Shadows with his Japanese artist/photographer wife, Inri) wrote an introduction to the third issue of avant-garde journal 'New Photo': "When CONCEPT enters Chinese photography, it is as if a window suddenly opens in a room which has been sealed for years. We can now breathe comfortably, and we now reach a new meaning of 'new photography.' " The metaphor of the window suddenly opening could be applied to all avant-garde art, blossoming after years of repression, but most particularly applies to photography.

Some historical background

Contemporary photography in China emerged from the tight control of its use as a propaganda tool between 1949 and Mao's death in 1976, and achieved a dramatic Renaissance in the 90s which culminated in the important 2004 exhibition at the International Center for Photography in New York, "Between Past and Future"

An interesting historical perspective is revealed in Peter Yeoh's 'Glass' article. William Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre developed the photographic process in the same year that the First Opium War erupted, which led to the British control of Hong Kong. The first British Governor of Hong Kong presented a photographic portrait of himself and his family to the Guangdong Governor General, Qi Ying, who then requested a reciprocal photographic portrait from the Emperor. This is the earliest evidence of official Chinese contact with photography. By 1846 foreigners had set up photographic studios in Hong Kong and in the 1870s Chinese owned and operated studios opened in treaty ports such as Shanghai, but were suppressed by the Qing government who saw them as spreading Western culture. Later, in Shanghai, there were photographic studios owned by European Jewish refugees. In fact one was recently rediscovered in the lead-up to the Shanghai Biennale, with a stock of old photographs and negatives intact. The story of one such studio (the most successful in Shanghai in the 1920s, with 4 branches, run by a Jewish immigrant who gave himself the new name and identity 'Sam Sanzetti') can be read on 'American Photomag'. When 'Sanzetti'  left China in the 1950s he took with him 20,000 photographs. I recently met a woman in Sydney whose father, a White Russian, owned a photographic studio in Harbin in the 30s and 40s, photographing local identities both Chinese and European. 

1920s Studio Portrait from the Shanghai studio of Sam Sanzetti

And now?

Yeoh says that "contemporary Chinese photography can be confounding to viewers in the West." Certainly it is necessary to know the points of reference, whether that be a reinterpretation of the tropes of literati painting, historical events from the Imperial or revolutionary past, references to the Cultural Revolution or to more recent events in Chinese history. Staged photographs such as Wang Qingsong's iconic tableaux are popular with artists intending to comment on the extraordinarily rapid pace of change in Chinese society.

Wang Qingsong Can I cooperate with you, 120x200cm, 2000
 Sometimes the reference points are elusive. I recently saw works by Birdhead, the Shanghai duo who document their city and its inhabitants in black and white images, in the 2012 MOMA New Photography show as well as the Shanghai Biennale, and found the works difficult to engage with. Works by Liu Xiaofang, on the other hand, with her dreamy and evocative 'I Remember' series featuring a small girl in a white dress with a red Pioneer scarf are much easier to like. Yao Lu makes works that initially look like traditional misty ink paintings featuring mountains, lakes and waterfalls, which on closer inspection reveal themselves to be constructions entirely made up of garbage such as discarded plastic bags. He is working in a well-mined idiom very popular in Chinese art. 
Yao Lu, New landscape part I – Ancient Spring Time Fey, 2006
Courtesy of 798 Photo Gallery, Beijing
The artist photographs mounds of garbage covered in green protective nets which he reworks and digitally manipulates to create images of mountain landscapes shrouded in the mist inspired by traditional Chinese paintings. "Lying somewhere between painting and photography, between the past and the present, Yao Lu’s work speaks of the radical mutations affecting nature in China as is it subjected to rampant urbanization and the ecological threats that endanger the environment." (eflux)

Another photographic artist who has used the 'moon window' as a device to suggest links to the classical past and to the iconography of the garden in all its complex layering of meanings, as well as to traditions of ink painting, is Han Lei. Other aspects of this artist's practice, such as the photographs of large fleshy naked women wearing bunny ears and furry bunny rabbit slippers, are another matter entirely!
Han Lei, Yellow Mountain 15, Lambda Colour Photograph

Huang Xu, Fragment, Plastic Bag No. 30
Image reproduced courtesy of the artist and China Art Projects
Likewise Huang Xu's photographs of plastic bags, arranged and lit so they become objects of great beauty, taking on the appearance of the 'scholar rocks' found in Chinese classical gardens.He has exhibited his photographic work (he also works as a sculptor and a painter) in Beijing, London and in Australia, presenting ethereal large scale C-prints exploring "the fragile nature of the contemporary global economy." (  Tattered plastic bags, seen everywhere floating in the air and lying on the ground in Chinese cities, towns and villages, were collected and digitally remodelled, sometimes by using 3D scanners. They evoke the sublime, but they are also suggestive of the decay and destruction inherent in the transformation of today's China. Luminous and beautiful, dramatically lit to recall the chiaroscuro and billowing drapery of Baroque paintings, it has been said that they also resemble the fine silks of imperial China, recalling trade links between East and West. 
Huang Xu, Fragment No 26, C-Print, shown October Gallery London 2009,
reproduced courtesy of the artist and China Art Projects
"Using artifice to reconfigure traditional paintings of landscapes into hyper-modern expressions is also a central approach in contemporary Chinese photography" says Yeoh. And not only in photography - Chen Hangfeng has done something similar in video, with his 'Where the wind comes from', as has Taiwanese artist Chen Chun- Hao with his “Imitating Fan Kuan’s ‘Travelled Among Mountain and Streams from the Song Dynasty” which appears at first to be a lyrical, misty landscape painted in ink. On closer inspection, however, one sees it is made entirely with headless steel pins punched through the work with a nail gun - 750,000 of them. In reviewing this and other works shown in 'Down the Rabbit Hole' at the White Rabbit Gallery for 'The Art Life' I wrote, "Beauty and tranquillity on the surface, but with an underlying reminder of mechanical ‘fakery’. In Chinese tradition, the copying of historical paintings is an act required of the scholar. This artist, however, reinvents and subverts the act in a similar manner to Xu Bing’s ‘Background Story series, where apparent ink paintings, re-creating old masters from the Song Dynasty, are constructed with rubbish and debris, back lit behind a screen."
Xu Bing, 'Background Story', shown in 'Dead and Alive' at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, 2010
One of my favourite Chinese photographers is Chen Jiagang, whose work I first encountered at 'Contemporary by Angela Li' Gallery in Hong Kong in 2009. It was a revelation to me. Melancholy, beautiful, elegiac, romantic yet cynical - the works have so many of the features that I associate with contemporary China and its art and literature. Chen uses specially created negatives and a large format film camera to create these staged images.

The Great Third Front-66, Chen Jiagang, 2008
Power Station, Galeries Paris-Beijing
Chen Jiagang, Wharf in Old Chongqing, from the 'Smog City' series
Artist's web site:
Emerging Beijing photographer Chu Haina lives and works in Caochangdi and uses her camera to record images which have the fleeting and melancholic beauty that she seeks, as well as a puzzling and intriguing ambiguity. She principally  uses black and white film, and works with minimal digital manipulation. We met in early December at a gallery and at her tiny one-room apartment in Caochangdi, and spoke at length about her practice. At Egg Gallery her work was showing in a group exhibition called 'Light Sensation', which had the somewhat bizarre tag line,"The classical aesthetics give the feeling of being more familiar and friendly" which gives you some idea of the generally mystifying and appalling quality of the art writing found in many Chinese gallery publications, catalogue essays and wall texts. In conversation she revealed that her favourite photographers are Diane Arbus, (no suprises there - how many young photographers have been inspired to take up a camera after seeing her work for the first time?) Bernard Faucon and the Taiwanese Juan I-Jong, whose photographic theory books had a profound impact on her and "touched the road I started as a photographer".

 Influential Chinese practitioners of the pioneering generation include Han Lei and Wang Ningde well as Wang Qingsong. More and more young artists are choosing photography as their medium, she believes, because it is both more "mobile and more direct". There are many 'salon photographers' and mutually supportive photographers' groups in Beijing. and the support and recognition from institutions such as Three Shadows Gallery (and, in particular, 'Caochangdi Photospring' each year) encourages more Chinese artists to work in this medium.
Wang Ningde, image from the 'Some Days' series
Wang Ningde, image from the 'Some Days' series

Wang Ningde, image from the 'Some Days' series

The lyrical black and white melancholy found in Wang Ningde's works finds its echo in Chu Haina's approach to her work - she believes it is what she can see through her viewfinder, rather than how she can manipulate it later, that is the important thing. Chu tells me that she found Hiroshi Sugimoto's, exhibition at Pace Beijing in July of 2012 hugely influential. The work of this artist, which she had admired since first seeing it in 2002, made her realise to what extent photographic works can contain within them layers of meaning and a deep philosophical intent. She is careful to avoid explaining too much about her works - and even adroitly evades my direct questions about the subjects of some of the more ambiguous images. "I want my photographs to trigger a feeling, or maybe a memory", she says.

Chu Haina隐秘的风景3号, Hidden Landscape No.3, 80cm x 50cm
Photograph| Digital printing,  2004
Chu Haina with her work at Egg Gallery, photograph Luise Guest, reproduced with the permission of the artist
Chu Haina, Extension, Digital C Print, 80 x 120, 2003, image reproduced courtesy of the artist and Redgate Gallery
In my conversation with Jillian Schultz at Three Shadows Gallery, she is rueful about the fact that there is as yet no national photography collection, and still as yet little strong scholarship or connoisseurship in China regarding photomedia. But local interest and awareness is growing, in large part due to the work of Rong Rong and Inri at Three Shadows, with its clearly stated mission to promote and discuss contemporary Chinese photography. "What makes Chinese photography different?" I ask her. She tells me that there is now a strong interest in alternative processing, 'low-fi' techniques such as i-phone photography, and the production of independent artists' photo-books,as well as a shift away from digital manipulation of images. When I say that it seems to me that those are aspects of photographic practice which are engaging artists internationally, she thinks for a  moment and then tells me that the newest and most interesting aspect of current practice in China is that it is becoming far more nuanced and subtle "capable of saying lots without saying much at all", by which she means that meanings are layered and artists are representing and critiquing aspects of their changing society in much less obvious ways than in the past. 

As an example, she introduces me to the work of Wang Lin, who won the Shiseido Prize in Caochangdi Photospring this year. Formerly a flight attendant on a regional airline, she documented the life of her peers in documentary black and white images which together form a compelling narrative. She was dismissed from the airline after someone anonymously posted her photographs on the internet. In 'Dreams of a Stewardess' she shows us not the supposedly glamorous life of these independent women, but the tedium and loneliness, the hectic schedules, as well as the intimacy of a life shared with other women crammed into dormitories not unlike those of the much despised migrant workers in southern China. "Her subjects can surrender totally in her presence, oblivious to the presence of her camera. This fusion of the photographer with her subjects gives us a unique window into an un-suspected micro-universe." (Jean Loh, Trans Asia Photography Review)
Wang Lin, “From the window of the dormitory at Tianjin airport”,
Heaven & Earth series, 2009, 50x40cm.
Wang Lin, “Resting and reading papers on board flight Changsha-Kunming”,
Heaven & Earth series, 2007, 50x40cm.
Wang Lin, “Waiting for passengers to board the flight from Tianjin-Changsha”,
Heaven & Earthseries, 2008, 40x50cm.
Wang has been compared to Nan Goldin in her use of unsentimental, everyday imagery. Like many young photographers (and artists) in China today she is unencumbered by memories of the Cultural Revolution or the 'June 4th' Tiananmen movement and its aftermath of cynicism and wariness. Both materially and conceptually there are significant changes occurring in the practice, and the identity, of a younger generation of emerging artists. Schultz told me that the change she would most like to see (apart from a willingness on the part of collectors to buy photographic works) is a shift in thinking to embrace scholarly research and criticality. This, she believes, would give the work of many young photographers a greater conceptual depth. It is beginning to happen now.

And finally?

Photographic practice in China, as with artists working in every other medium you can think of, is vital, energetic and dynamic. There may be opportunities for young artists (and for women artists) in photography that are harder to come by in other forms. It is not so long ago that a gallery director infamously told Liang Yuanwei that she should try photography as "there are already too many female painters"! As Peter Yeoh concludes in his 'Glass' article, the reinvention of photography in China continues, but now many artists are taking the time to reflect more deeply on their practice and consider how it can develop in new and unexpected directions. He is a bit gloomy about what he sees as the loss of a willingness to experiment and combine genres and influences in 'mash-ups' creating bizarrely wonderful hybrid forms. However I am sure that Chinese photography will continue to possess the inventiveness, the playfulness and the imaginative freedom that has distinguished it to this point.

Chu Haina自然世界4号 Hidden Landscape No. 4, 80cm x 50cm
Photograph| digital printing, 2006
Image reproduced with permission of the artist