Ahorizontally extended picture that is part of the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum’s travelling exhibition, now showing at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Bangalore, depicts a high-profile do with beautiful people in attendance. Men and women are looking at each other furtively, assessing each others’ worth.
The accompanying note explains that the image is a 20th century take on what happened in China in the ninth century. Back then, a Chinese king asked a famous artist to infiltrate parties being thrown by the reformist court minister, Han Xizai and paint what he saw there. The painting, titled Night Banquet of HanXiZai, became an iconic work in Chinese cultural history, and is regarded as an enduring sign of the curtailed freedom of the Chinese people.
Is the Party happy? Night Revels of Lao Li by Wang Qingsong.
The photograph hanging at NGMA, taken by Chinese photographer Wang Qingsong, is titled Night Revels of Lao Li. It depicts the fortunes of Li Xianting, a premier art critic in the 1980s who promoted new and experimental artists taking on the taboos in Chinese society and who was barred by the Chinese establishment from airing his views on art. “I re-enacted the old painting into a modern version, trying to say the same story: Over the centuries, the destiny of intellectuals who were very eager to cultivate their countries into a stronger nation, can seldom fulfil their ambitions and dreams. They were suspected and not trusted,” Wang said over email from Fuzhou in China.
Wang’s picture is among 40 works by photographers from across the world; these include photos as well as photo-based artworks. But China comes in for some more critique. In Yang Huang’s photo, a Chinese woman has trees and plums painted on her face, in what is a dig at the Chinese scholastic tradition emphasizing proximity to nature. In Yang’s view, the exhortation to a good Chinese citizen to be close to nature means that it is practically thrust on one’s countenance.
“The recent popularity of photography within contemporary art can be understood by looking at several interrelated changes in the field,” explains Martin Barnes, senior curator at V&A Museum. “Practitioners increasingly have understood, with growing sophistication, their position in the history of the medium. Their works have become aligned with the concerns of contemporary fine art practice, focusing more on the illustration of an idea rather than on demonstrations of skill or mere aesthetic pleasure.”
This explains the title of the show, Something that I’ll Never Really See. As the noted South African photographer Roger Ballen said over the phone from Johannesburg about his abstract work depicting rural South Africa: “I want to get a reaction out of the audience. Whether it is positive or negative, the picture needs to evoke a response.”
Something that I’ll Never Really See is on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore, until 27 February.