Li Xu: Curatorial Essay, Shanghai Art Museum

Cao Fei

Beautiful Dog Brows

Published in the Zooming into Focus exhibition catalog, 2005


Photography came into contemporary art together with photographic technology. When recognizing and expressing themselves, artists apply photograph, video, movie, animation and other new media that are closely related to the changes of images in our comtemporary life.

The emergence of conceptual photography can be traced back to the years before World War II. At that time, photographers participated in photography with pure Pharisaic experiments and independent artistic concepts, and created visual art using the methods of the camera and the darkroom. Today, conceptual photography has become one of the integral schools, represented in all major Western art exhibitions. Many works have been collected by various museums. After the 1990s, conceptual photographic works became even more popular in the art market. In the 1960s, video art emerged and grew in the 1990s, which brought us Nam June Paik, Gary Hill, Bill Viola, Matthew Barney, Mariko Mori (these two have been presented in the Shanghai Art Museum in 2000) and other masters.

Along with the active interaction between Chinese and international contemporary art circles, as well as the movements of family video equipment from professional areas towards daily life since the mid-1990s, there have been more and more energetic experimental activities in video art which has emerged as the basic language of Chinese artists. Nowadays, the works of those contemporary Chinese video artists have been presented and highly commented on at the Venice Biennial, Sao Paulo Biennial, Documenta and other major international exhibitions. Some of the works have created explosive outcomes and won many awards. However, due to the relatively delayed promotion, these dynamic works have been quite far away from domestic visitors in a fairly long period and there are few centralized introductions in featured exhibitions. However, this exhibitions "Zooming into Focus" explains the importance of re-acknowledging and re-evaluating this hot spot of contemporary art.

From the very beginning, contemporary Chinese photography has been closely related to the daily lives of Chinese people. The quickly growing and changing social environment has focused on the created objects of the artists. From these vivid and graphical works, we can witness the exciting pulse of this age, experience the active interaction between art and society, and understand the new and unique exploration of these pioneers.

Shanghai has always been the essential window to contemporary Western cultural patterns. From oil painting to photography, from industrial design to video art, Shanghai plays a critical role during this process of communication and incorporation. Therefore, the opening this exhibition, which is a preliminary review of Chinese contemporary photography and video, is not only an occasion of chance but a necessary consequence of history. The importance of the exhibition is in no doubt: it showed some truth of Chinese contemporary art to the public and to the cultural circle, and it prodded the Chinese art museum circle to start collecting contemporary video and photography works.

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