Barbara Pollack: Chinese Photography – Beyond Stereotypes

Shi Yong

Tonight Moon

Published at, February 2004


With the introduction of digital photography and high-tech printing facilities in China in the 1990s, a new generation of artists immediately embraced photo-based media as the perfect means for expressing the changes taking place around them.

The face of the new China is not the medical masks spawned by the SARS outbreak or the bubble- headed visor of the country's first astronaut. Rather, it is the image of a lone young businessman howling in the middle of an empty highway, having just been hit in the head with a brick. This photograph, The First Intellectual (2000), by Shanghai artist Yang Fudong, captures the anxiety of life in a society undergoing rapid industrialization. And like its subject, the artist himself has been struck by an onslaught of international attention. His work, which sells for around $2,000 to $7,000 for photographs and $6,000 to $10,000 for videos, was featured at the Pompidou Center, the 50th Venice Biennale, Documenta 11, the Fourth Shanghai Biennial, and the First Guangzhou Biennial-all in the last two years. Yang, 32, describes his film Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest (2003), which he showed at the Venice Biennale, as one of his favorites. "I have only finished the first part," he explains. "The whole work will have five parts and should be completed in two years." The work reflects his early idealism as well as the disillusionment of his generation. "When I was younger, I was very idealistic and had some very pure dreams- deep beliefs that I wished to express," he says. "The expectation in school when I was growing up was that we'd be inspired to be idealistic and pure and always pursue what we believe. Basically, the beliefs haven't changed. Yes, school was under the Party," he continues, "but you also learn to apply these lessons in your own life."

The current international wave of shows focusing on China's burgeoning photography and video scene are certain to draw ever larger American and European audiences to artists like Yang. This past summer, the Pompidou Center in Paris opened "Alors le Chine?" (What About China?), an exhibition of contemporary art from China, in conjunction with a cultural-exchange program, L'Annacute de la Chine en France, sponsored by China and France. And through April 21, part two of Zooming into Focus: Contemporary Chinese Photography from the Haudenschild Collection is on view at the art gallery of San Diego State University. The Denver Art Museum is showing, through May 9, Over One Billion Served: Conceptual Photography from the People's Republic of China Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, curated by Julie Segraves of the Denver-based Asian Art Coordinating Council. Also, this month New York's Museum of Modern Art has scheduled China Now, a survey of recent video works by 18 Chinese artists, including Yang, organized by film and video curator Barbara London. But the most extensive show is expected to be New Photography from China, a joint effort of the International Center of Photography (ICP) and the University of Chicago's Smart Museum of Art, organized by ICP curator Christopher Phillips and Wu Hung, professor of Asian art at the University of Chicago and consulting curator to the Smart Museum. On view at the ICP and the Asia Society in New York from June through September, the show will include some 100 works by 45 artists.

While the global art world has arrived on China's shores-including biennials in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and the annual Pingyoa Photography Festival- contemporary artists in China are still relatively isolated, by language and geography, from Western influences. "For the moment," says Phillips, "Chinese artists are paying attention mostly to their own country and their own context, and that has given recent Chinese art a very interesting and individual stance."

Phillips notes how "industrialization, urbanization, dislocation of enormous populations from the countryside - the social conditions that spurred an enormous artistic response in the West between 1880 and 1920 - are happening and will continue to happen in China." But certainly the images he and other curators are finding are a far cry from the pathos-filled village scenes Henri Cartier-Bresson portrayed in 1948 or the nostalgic temples that Lynn Davis created as recently as last year. Today photographers in China are being driven in large part by the swift development of Chinese cities and the introduction of a market economy, just at a time when "globalization" has become the hot topic at international biennials.

Weng Fen, 42, who shows with Courtyard Gallery in Beijing, has created a haunting series of images, which include Sitting on the Wall-Guangzhou No. 2 (2001), and Bird's Eye View-Shenzhen (2001), in which two schoolgirls in uniform, backs to the camera, look toward the skyline of their once-rural hometown, now populated by skyscrapers. Yang Zhenzhong, 35, represented by ShanghART in Shanghai, will present his videos in the MoMA program, but he has also worked extensively in digital photography. His photo series Light and Easy (2002) shows him walking in city streets, balancing towering office buildings in the palm of his hand (an optical illusion generated in Photoshop), as if urbanization were merely another juggling act. His works sell for around $1,000 to $3,000 (photos) and $5,000 to $10,000 (videos). By contrast, Chen Shaoxiong, 41, favors lower-tech manipulation. This artist takes cutouts of street scenes in China that he had shot just a few years before and holds them up in front of the same, but newly developed, locations today. In the resulting photographs, such as Street-Haizu Square (1999), the juxtapositions of the old and new-bicycles vs. sports cars, kiosks vs. billboards-are disconcerting but beguiling.

Photography is a recent development in China's relatively young contemporary-art history, which in itself is a post-cultural revolution phenomenon, emerging in the late 1970s with the relaxation of Communist controls, in force since 1949. But while an earlier generation of artists-many featured in the Inside Out exhibition (in New York at the Asia Society and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in 1998)-was described as post- Mao, the younger generation is clearly post-Tiananmen Square, reflecting the modernization that has taken place since that event in 1989 and the adoption of a market economy in the late '90s, when galleries began to open and foreigners provided a fledgling collector base.

The world learned about Tiananmen Square instantly through a photograph, headlined "Man Blocks Line of Tanks, Tiananmen Square, Beijing," taken by AP photographer Jeff Widener. It was transmitted by the protesting students instantly over the Internet, documenting not only the event but also the ways in which technology was already transforming the country. In 1995, with the introduction of digital photography and high-tech printing facilities, a new generation of artists, though trained in traditional painting and sculpture at art academies, immediately embraced photo-based media as the perfect means for expressing the changes taking place around them. "When you speak to artists in China, they say that you can take a photo today and get it developed before tomorrow," explains Melissa Chiu, curator of contemporary art at the Asia Society. "Photography represents an immediacy that allows them to record the changes going on in China as they are happening."

Though all of the works discussed here were made in China, they avoid stereotypes of Chinese art-traditional scroll paintings and calligraphy and the Socialist Realism of the cultural revolution. "The biggest mistake that people make when looking at contemporary art from China, is either they look for Western references that are totally irrelevant or they look for very simplistic icons, like Mao," says Meg Maggio, an American and longtime resident of Beijing, where she is director of the Courtyard Gallery. Maggio notes that the first Chinese contemporary artists to gain recognition in the United States and Europe in the mid-1990s capitalized on this "mistake," working in the style of Political Pop, a blend of cultural-revolution icons with American Pop art. Though most of these artists are painters, there are a few photographers who continue to mine this vein. The Luo Brothers seamlessly insert Coca-Cola and McDonald's logos into happy-faced scenes from cultural-revolution posters. And Zhao Bandi, 40, represented by Ethan Cohen Fine Arts in New York, is accompanied by a panda in his digital self-portraits, carrying on humorous dialogues (through cartoon-strip-style bubbles) with this symbol of Chinese kitsch. His photographs sell for $600 to $25,000.

But the University of Chicago's professor Wu traces the various movements in contemporary photography in China to Beijing East in the early 1990s. This fringe neighborhood on the outskirts of the city was a convergence point for the most experimental artists in China at a time when arrests and government closures of exhibitions were still rampant; it spawned the first wave of art photographers. Rong Rong, who photographed the street life and happenings in this fragile bohemia and showed recently at Chambers Fine Art in New York, is often described as the black-and- white Nan Goldin. He cofounded the first avant-garde photography magazine, New Photo, in 1996 with Liu Zheng, another photographer engaged in capturing China's transvestites and sick and homeless people, but in a style more akin to August Sander and Diane Arbus.

By contrast, performance artists such as Zhang Huan, 38, Ma Liuming, 34, and Zhu Ming, 31, among the first to gain gallery representation in New York and Europe, used photography to document their events, but those images often superseded the performances themselves. Photographs of Zhang's works, such as To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond (1997), in which people stood naked in a pond of turquoise blue water, conveyed the quiet revolution taking place in China and became symbols of the avant-garde.

"I think it is impossible not to call it 'Chinese,' because that is the cultural context it came from," says Chiu, "but at the same time, the kind of imagery that is being produced has an international relevance and is speaking about more universal issues." Indeed, if there is anything unique about the situation of artists working in photography and video in China, it is the fact that they are working in a culture that intentionally separated itself from the modernist photography movements of the 20th century. Under Mao, photography was a propaganda tool, and during the cultural revolution, it could be downright dangerous, especially in family albums. "Chinese traditional history is very well recorded, more than that of any other civilization," says Maggio, "so for a people who have always had an official record of history to suddenly have that ruptured in the 20th century, well, now everyone is hunting for their own take on history."

Photography has become a means for reconstructing an erased past-or for underscoring the ways in which it cannot be eradicated. Hai Bo, 41, another Courtyard Gallery artist included in many shows, spent several years tracking down individuals whose anonymous faces he'd found in family photographs from the 1930s. He restaged the pictures with the people in the exact poses of the original snapshots and then exhibited the pairs of images, old and new, as individual artworks with titles such as The Three Sisters or Middle School. (Those now dead or missing are represented by an empty space in the newer grouping, a reminder of the casualties of political upheavals.) Similarly, the couple Shao Yinong and Mu Chen have photographed former Communist Party meeting halls, now reception halls, movie theaters, and senior centers. Again, the juxtaposition of old and new in these not-quite-renovated interiors demonstrates photography's ability to wait out and to outweigh history.

Other photographers are going back further, to the iconography of Chinese scroll painting and the literati tradition, to find ways to incorporate their 3,000-year-old cultural history into contemporary art. Xiang Liqing, 31, who studied oil painting at the China Academy of Fine Art, has digitally manipulated views of China's gaudy new apartment buildings into grids that resemble ancient calligraphy in his series Rock Never (2002). His images are priced between $800 and $4,000. On a much grander scale, Wang Qingsong, 37, is staging tableaux involving as many as 30 people, in ways that might be compared with Gregory Crewdson or Jeff Wall.

Wang, who is having his first solo show in the United States at New York's Salon 94 in May, co-organized by Jeannie Greenberg and the Courtyard Gallery's Maggio, says, "My works are looking at the changes in China in the last two decades and from before I first came to the U.S., in 1999. I thought these changes meant that China was becoming Westernized. But, then I came to the U.S. I found that so many of these changes were not exactly what the U.S. or other foreign countries are like." They were something entirely new, he says. "The modernization China is undergoing," he observes, "is a very backward kind of modernization, such as destroying all the ancient architecture in the cities. In the U.S.," by contrast, he notes, "there is so much concern about preservation." Although the photographs, he explains, "let people from outside learn about China, when I create the work, I don't think how it would be accepted or not outside of China." While Crewdson and Wall may allude to European history painting, Wang appropriates the elongated format of Chinese narrative paintings. His work Night Revels of Lao Li (2000) imitates the arrangement of figures in a 10th-century Song dynasty painting, Night Revel of Han Xizai by Gu Hongzhong, drawing parallels between the voyeuristic role of the painter in the emperor's court and Wang's own position as a successful artist in relationship to the contemporary-art scene in China.

But even as all this art represents a leap forward for China culturally, remnants of the past linger. Despite Mao's famous adage that "women hold up half the sky," women are still admitted to art academies at a lower rate than men, and fewer have garnered international attention. One exception is Lin Tianmiao, 42, who originally created installations, like Go? (2001), commissioned by Cleveland's Museum of Contemporary Art, in which she wrapped once popular but now discarded objects, such as bicycles, in white thread and then placed them in front of photographic murals. Lin has since shifted her attention from issues of industrialization to more personal statements about the body, especially in Plait/Braid, shown at the Guangzhou Biennial in 2002. In this piece the artist, who trained as a textile designer, projects a monumental self-portrait in which her head is shaved, onto a white cloth; from behind, streams of white thread sprout from the fabric, falling to the floor behind the image, an exploration of female identity. In collaboration with her husband, Wang Qingxin, she has also been making videos. Several other women photographers surfacing in international exhibitions are Cao Fei, Liang Yue, and Danwen Xing, whose 2002-3 disCONNEXION series of images of electronic detritus was one of the highlights of the Whitney Museum of American Art's "The American Effect" last year.

Censorship is another lingering concern, though government intervention has subsided since the 1990s. "At this point, in terms of visual art, as long as the artists don't verbalize the meaning, they can get away with the depictions," says Segraves. Professor Wu sees the situation as being far more complicated. "When you try to avoid censorship, it may become self-censorship, which is even more dangerous," he says. "The artists now know the system so well and want to be part of shows that the government is sponsoring or supporting, and they may be becoming less radical." Government officials still make the rounds before the opening of large exhibitions and biennials, which has a chilling effect. One incident occurred during the 2000 Shanghai Biennial, when a spin-off exhibition titled "Fuck Off" included photographs of performance artist Zhu Yu reportedly eating a dead baby. The work was singled out as a "social evil" by conservative delegates to the 2001 National People's Congress. But, as Shanghai-born Zhou Tiehai made abundantly clear with his digital portrait of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani weighted to the floor by two lumps of elephant dung (also in "The American Effect"), the threat of censorship is not restricted to China.

As there are no constitutional guarantees for free expression in China, artists, dealers, and curators must feel their way, on a case-by-case basis. When asked if censorship is a concern, Lorenz Helbling of ShanghART Gallery replied, "There has never been a show that I knew for certain would not be closed." But for most contemporary-art dealers in China working with new-media and photo-based artists, the primary concern is not avoiding censorship but finding buyers. "For several years, even at sophisticated places like Art Basel, we showed Yang Fudong and others-no reaction," says Helbling. "These works do not shout 'Chinese,' so people did not know how to respond." While many collectors of contemporary photography are adding this work to their collections in anticipation of the upcoming shows, few can match the depth of San Francisco and Vail, Colorado, collectors Kent and Vicki Logan's holdings in contemporary art from China. Eloisa Haudenschild, president of inSITE in San Diego, the collaborative exhibition program between Mexico and the United States, has also assembled a major trove, specifically concentrating on photo-based works created in the past three years. "These artists are good enough without being too Chinese-y," she explains. "I stay away from works that are directly political or exploit any kind of exoticism."

Yet even as these artists gain recognition in the United States and Europe, many New York dealers who worked extensively with Chinese artists in the mid-1990s have concerns. Zhang, like other Chinese artists today - Xu Bing, Cai Guo-Qiang, Chen Zhen - is "independent," after having had one-shot solo shows with Max Protetch Gallery, Deitch Projects, and Luhring Augustine Gallery. Dealers, both in China and in the West, say they have found that many of these artists are unfamiliar with the gallery system and the politics of "exclusive representation." Curators confirm that even when they are working through a gallery, the artist often approaches them directly, offering works on the side. Max Protetch, who still works with painters Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang, stressed the importance of avoiding generalizations but noted that it takes a number of years to develop the artists' trust. "With Chinese artists, I felt that I had to buy the work in order to get them to save it for a show," he explains. "With artists from Europe or even Mexico, I could take things on consignment with no difficulty. After all, this is a very well known gallery."

Ethan Cohen explains the current status and the reasons for it: "Ten years ago, people would say that there was only enough room for one or maybe two Chinese artists in the contemporary-art market. Today we are seeing that more and more Chinese artists have become powerful forces in that market. Everyone thought this was going to be a short trend, the way it was with the Russian artists, but an abundance of fresh material keeps coming out." Cohen sees great talent in China-"their refinement, innovation, and seriousness is simply outstanding," he says. "The art schools there are so good and so selective that even before the artists enter, many have been recognized as virtuosos. These artists worked very hard, and as they became more exposed to the West, they worked at becoming more sophisticated."

Recently, Zhu Ming, who is represented by Cohen's gallery, performed his Bubble Man, naked on the beach at Art Basel Miami. He comments on censorship and body art: "I don't believe that the government clampdown in the early 1990s had any effect on my work, but I felt it always in my bones. I feel more liberated these days, but my mind has never been free, ever since I went to prison in 1994 for three months. From that moment, I have always been terrified, in my body, in my human core, and I have never done a performance in China without feeling scared that a policeman would come and arrest me." Photographs of Zhou's performances sell for $2,000 to $20,000.

He found this, his first performance outside China, liberating. But then Cohen interjects, "I felt like he feels in China, worrying about the police, whether the nudity would be permitted. I was haunted by the shadow of Giuliani, or maybe the mayor of Miami."


Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews


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