Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China
by Robert C. Morgan and Nick Stillman
In the catalogue essay for Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China, Wu Hung begins with the claim that over the past twenty-five years "Chinese artists have reinvented photography as an art form." In the context of recent Chinese history, Wu’s statement is accurate in the sense that China has made extraordinary leaps away from the representational oppression of their recent past, as evidenced in the work of major artists in the current exhibition. Still, many of the ideas utilized by these artists have strong affinities with other cultural traditions in the West, specifically in relation to the work of conceptual artists a generation earlier. But ideas or styles can be quite meaningless in themselves, unless one takes into account the traditions motivating their appropriation. What ultimately matters in art is the syntactical uniqueness that emerges from a cultural heritage that speaks to those feelings that bind us together within the human condition.
In the current exhibition, we see how photography and video are made specifically in response to the accelerating changes present in the urban Chinese environment today. Whether looking at Zhang Dali’s "Demolition: Forbidden City, Beijing" (1998), Luo Yongjun’s grid-based montage, entitled "Lotus Block" (1998/2002), or Li Tianyuan’s conceptually refined triptych, "Tianyuan Space Station, 12 December 2000," we are given immediate access to an environment that is in perpetual transition, an urban culture that is fast forwarding from the ancient ruins of the past into the future. In the process, we begin to feel how these combined messages transmit a very different perspective on a world that suddenly became postmodern before it ever had a chance to realize itself as modern. We see the performance photography of Rong Rong and Xing Danwen from Beijing’s East Village in the 90's (approximately a decade after New York’s East Village), in which startling images are revealed of performative moments in the works of Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming, Cang Xin, and Zhu Ming. Each of these artists plays heavily on allegories of the recent past in relation to the distortions and disorientations enabling the present. Whether androgynous, as in the work of Ma Liuming, or fiercely meditative, as in the body works of Zhuan Huan, or ritualistic, like the dramas staged by Cang Xin and Zhu Ming, these artists play at the forefront of the current avant-garde in China—and photography is the means that preserves them, fixes their intensity in time and space.
Wu emphasizes what happened in 1979, a key turning-point. Unofficial photographers living in Beijing refused to conform to the kind of image propaganda made available during the Cultural Revolution and began holding regular meetings and mounting exhibitions of their work. In one important exhibition, Nature, Society, and Man, a new kind of realism became evident in their photographs; a realism that had not been publicly seen since Mao Zedong transformed the social and political structure in 1948. As the concept of liberation was ignited through their work, these unofficial photographers became known as the New Wave (sheying xinchao). Throughout the eighties, the New Wave experimented with new forms of documentation, which eventually transformed photography from a medium subservient to the ideology of a collective consciousness to a medium of individual expression. Their photographs revealed highly sophisticated proto-conceptual ideas through combined applications of irony and poetry.
By June 4, 1989, the date of the Tianamen Square massacre, photography was ready to take a major step forward. The sentiments of the Chinese students in resisting the tyranny of the past incited a new beginning and a new cultural reality. Through their example—as seen in Song Dong’s two-panel documentation, entitled "Breathing" (1996)—photography left behind recalcitrant forms of conventional documentation and became a medium for artists, a medium by which to transform old realities and confront the broader issues of globalization. As Liu Zheng and Rong Rong, the editors of New Photo (xin sheying) stated this same year: "When CONCEPT enters Chinese photography, it is as if a window suddenly opens in a room that has been sealed for years. We can now breathe comfortably, and we now reach a new meaning of "new photography." This statement might well serve as the motivation—indeed the talisman—behind the concurrent exhibitions, at the International Center for Photography and the Asia Society, through the extraordinary curatorial efforts of Professor Wu and Christopher Phillips.
In relation to Between Past and Future, works in three separate exhibitions devoted to new photography by Chinese artists in New York provide an interesting contrast. Works such as a four-paneled chromogenic tour de force by Liu Zheng, entitled "Four Beauties" (2004), shown at Chambers Fine Arts, seem to offer a lesson to Western viewers to avoid getting too embroiled in the theoretical construct that limits one’s subjective impulse in sensing the power of this work. That is the real text of liberation in this art, albeit historical, legendary, and culturally specific in its references, as acknowledged by Professor Wu who also curated this exhibition under the rather academic title of Intersections: Contemporary Oil Painting and Photograph. Liu Zheng, who has been a critical figure in promoting China’s New Photography, hired professional actors and models in order to stage these photographs—each of which is based on a woman of nobility who scarified herself in order to save her country. There are many important details and effects in this work, such as portraits of older Chinese women shown nude, which fly in the face of current mores rigorously enforced by the government.
The exhibition by Jian-Jun Zhang at the Dance Theater Workshop, entitled Time Chapter: Chelsea, features the artist’s projected architectural ruminations on what may happen to the neighborhood in the future. Each photograph includes a subtle invention in which Zhang has painted a biomorphic shape, suggesting a kind of pod or virus taking effect. The implication is that over time the pod will grow, expand, and develop, erasing the presence of the buildings as we know them today. Zhang’s work is conceptual and deals with time, specifically with slow time, with the evolution of forms gradually transmuting what we know and believe is real today. Given the history of a country such as China, the long view (which includes a human quality known as patience) is close to Zhang’s aesthetic and perhaps embedded with his consciousness.
A remarkable exhibition by the Chinese photographer DoDo Jin Ming at the Laurence Miller Gallery, titled Water Fire Earth Air, presents a photographer who has been working in the wilds of nature for many years. Trained as a classical musician, she made the conscious decision several years ago to become visual artist. Her new tones would be light and dark, her new tempo would be the instant of time in which nature speaks to the human soul allowing entry into nature rather than separation apart from it. "Free Element: Plate 30" is a gelatin silver print of waves breaking on an unknown deserted coastal area, bathed in shallow light. The affect of this image is so auspicious, so haunting, so unrelenting that I found it difficult to move away from it. I felt connected to its spirituality in the way that one might feel connected to a Rothko or a Goya. All the forces seemed to combine in that instant, all the elements that signify meaning on some strange, yet comforting pre-linguistic level, some unknown sign within the tempest, ululating gently through time and the little we know of history.
-Robert C. Morganerrata:In “Portraits in Richmond” by Robert C. Morgan (the Rail, June 2004), Gregory Gillespie’s wife’s name was incorrect. Her name was Fran, not Dorothy as stated in the article. Dorothy Gillespie is also a painter, but not related to Gregory. Apologies to all concerned.
ContributorsRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.Nick Stillman