An exhibition of contemporary photographs from China, now on in the Capital, explores the relationship between China’s economic growth and its cultural heritage, and the emergence of a new photographic aesthetic.
Organized by the gallery Tasveer, Chinese Photography Now, which started on 20 August, features the work of six photographers—Chu Chu, Ma Kang, Liu Yue, Yan Xinfa, Luo Yongjin and Yang Yongliang. London-based Nathaniel Gaskell, the curator of the show, says in an email interview that “…as photography’s ability to realistically record what’s going on in the world becomes an increasingly anachronistic notion, this does result in artists developing a new and reactionary aesthetic approach.” Edited excerpts from the interview:
What made you choose the work of these six photographers?
We wanted to present the aesthetic variety that exists in contemporary Chinese photography today, while also giving the show a fluid yet cohesive conceptual anchor. We, therefore, chose artists who deploy a range of different strategies ranging from hi-tech digital assemblages to more traditional silver gelatin documentary methods, but who all in their own way are dealing with Chinese culture in the light of industrial and economic transformation.
The exhibition shows that Chinese photography in the 21st century can be defined by its multiplicity of approaches to the medium in hand, whilst holding up a perhaps inescapable mirror to the current cultural condition of the country. The six photographers in this exhibition were chosen because they—either individually or collectively—embody this idea.
Are all these photographers working out of China? Has their work been subjected to censorship?
All the photographs in this exhibition were made whilst the photographers were living and working in China. As the work here is not explicitly critical of China’s politics, one wouldn’t expect these artists to be forced into exile. Indeed, part of the intelligence of the work in this exhibition is its ambiguity, not its criticism of any particular political issue.
None of this work can be considered politically dangerous; the photographs invite some pretty loaded interpretations, such as Ma Kang’s Forbidden City project, whereby notions of censorship come to the fore, but they do not force such ideas. In fact, Ma Kang’s photographs have just as many painterly references as they do political. It is the context that dictates the interpretation.
An earnest attempt to preserve pervades some of the photographs, especially those of Yan Xinfa and Luo Yongjin.
During a time of great change in a country, it is natural that artists will consider the notion of preservation in their work. Similarly, it is natural that an audience will read such interpretations into contemporary art from countries whereby the tensions between modernity and tradition are being constantly debated. This idea gains even more purchase if one is to consider photography’s own cultural identity as being synonymous with notions of memory, history and nostalgia.
Yan Xinfa has spent 30 years travelling through the villages of Henan province and his work is an active attempt to preserve, through photographic documentation, the ancient villages of central China and the people who inhabit them.
In Luo Yongjin’s photographs, this notion of preservation comes through the photographer’s critique of new private houses in the country, which reference external architectural styles rather than China’s own cultural heritage. These photographs highlight an interesting phenomenon in Bric (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries that see pastiches of Western architectural styles reflecting the capitalist aspirations of the given buildings’ inhabitants. In this way, Luo Yongjin is commenting on the inevitable loss of China’s historical architectural identity in the 21st century.
The starkness of the frames is another characteristic of the exhibited work. Does the confrontation of modernity and tradition define the form that the artist chooses to work in, at times almost forcing him to be spare in his art?
One can see a parallel here with the New Topographics in America in the 1970s, who created a sparse and almost minimalist aesthetic in response to the post-industrial American landscape and the inadequacy of picturesque visual language to represent this. In the case of China and its rapid industrialization, it does seem that a new photographic aesthetic, based on a combination of reduction and satirical beautification, is emerging.
With regard to the landscape photography of Liu Yue and Yang Yongliang, the more traditional techniques of landscape photography perhaps fall short when trying to represent the environmentally fraught future of the natural world in countries like China.
In other words, as photography’s ability to realistically record what’s going on in the world becomes an increasingly anachronistic notion, this does result in artists developing a new and reactionary aesthetic approach.
Chinese Photography Now is on till 30 August at the Art Motif Gallery, Lado Sarai, Delhi.
Photographs by © The Artist, Courtesy of OFOTO / Tasveer