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Robert L. Pincus: Focus on China

Published in The San Diego Union Tribune, November 2003

It’s a salutary sign of the times: You know artistic freedom is palpable in China when its artists can toy with culture’s icons. That’s surely the case with Zhao Bandi’s photograph of himself in a tux, his face tense and his hand on the paw of a panda (of the stuffed animal variety), sporting a bridal veil. Bubble caption-style text floats above the bear’s head, in Chinese and English, and the words declare: “I don’t think we really love each other.”

The picture itself is a visual one-liner, but a revealing one. The humor clicks but it’s also brittle. The panda functions as an emblem of mainstream China and suggests unease with the freedom of the culture has given its artists. But such distrust of the artist is at least as old as Plato’s Republic.

As for the artists themselves – the dushi yidai or, translated, new urban generation – they have embraced this latitude for self-expression with exuberance. The evidence is wide in Zooming into Focus: Contemporary Chinese Photography from the Haudenchild Collection on view at the SDSU’s University Art Gallery.

The show includes 13 photographers from Beijing, Ghuangzhou and Shanghai, and is the first of a two-part showcase; Chinese video will follow from January 31 through April 21.

All of the work has been acquired by local patrons and collectors Chris and Eloisa Haudenschild, whose collection in this area continues to grow SDSU. Gallery director Tina Yapelli accompanied Eloisa Haudenschild on some of those trips to studios and showcases of the artists and co-curated the exhibition. The Haudenschild family believe in the importance of this emergent Chinese art scene, funding the exhibition and an exhibition catalog as well as residencies by two artists. One of these, Yang Zhenzhong from Shanghai, will premiere a new work taped in San Diego at the Museum of Photographic Arts on January 31.

Zhao Bandi isn’t the only artist among this group to put his tongue in his cheek. Another is Hong Hao who envisions himself in the role of capitalist mogul. The big color image from 2001 looks much like an ad, with the artist seated poolside and a waiter (butler?) about to serve him a tall cocktail. There’s text filling the space above the pool in English and Chinese “Mr. Hong Usually Wait Under the Arch Roof for the Sunshine.”

In Beautiful Dog Brows (2001), Cao Fei puts herself on a fictional cover of Elle in triplicate with face painted canine-style. The biggest type trumpeted “Sex Dog.”

There is no missing the cynicism in these pictures. Hong Hao casts a jaundiced eye at the privileged, of whatever ideological persuasion. Cao Fei thumbs her nose at the glorification of glamour.

The exhibited selections also display an awareness of the rise of the conceptual, staged and digitally manipulated image in Europe and the United Stated during the past 30 years. Wu Hung’s short essay in the handsome catalog confirms this impression, explaining that photography among young artists is intimately linked to video, performance and other experimental work.

Shi Yong, who created a performance during his residency, offers a panoramic picture Forever (2002) containing dozens of figures standing in an exhibition space that could be either a gallery or a museum. But there’s one proviso: Everyone is him. Is he musing on the collectivism of the old guard China? Is he poking fun at the necessary narcissism of the artistic process? Or is the picture about something else although? You decide. The image itself has a finely tuned ambiguity to it.

With the rise of a free market and the accompanying frenzy of urban development in the big cities, there is another shared theme: artists feel uneasy about the implications of rapid change. And surely, they muse embody the sentiments of non-artists in China too.

Yang Fudong expresses this anxiety in a comic sequence of pictures called The First Intellectual (2000). The guy in his pictures acts the distraught, perhaps deranged, businessman walking down the middle of the street carrying a brick he threatens to toss the viewer’s way. It’s a still-image performance.

Weng Fen raise the image of change in a more meditative way in On the Wall: Shen Zhen I (2002) part of a larger series, a young girl sits on an aged wall. The urban skyline stands in the distance but the buildings look as if they are marching forward, ready to invade her space – and in the larger scene, they will. In an increasingly urbanizing society, few remain apart from it. Fen’s pictures are programmatic, probably to a fault, but they are poignant too. And we in post-industrial America can surely relate to the issues he suggests.

The upcoming video exhibition will surely amplify our understanding of the photographs. Yang Fudong’s short films, like his images, are about the white collar worker in contemporary China. The rooster, hen and chick which eerily expressive faces that fill Yang Zhenzhong’s Lucky Family photographs relate to his video work 922 Rice Corns. which as describe wounds as if it contain the same droll wit as his images.

In a world of increasingly global markets art too is increasingly international. There are many distinctly Chinese elements to these photographs but in equal measure they are cosmopolitan – both in style and chose of subject. No interpretation is needed to comprehend Feng Mengbo’s Shot 0075 photographs for example in which he’s firing fantastical weapons in quasi-medieval rooms. Its as if he’s landed in the middle of a video game. Virtual reality knows no national boundaries.