Contemporary Chinese photography has only truly emerged in the past twenty plus years. The reasons are not hard to comprehend; they can be divided into several key stages, and interpreted against the people, objects and events that were born out of the social environments in the respective periods.
From 1949 onwards, photography was simply a means of political propaganda for the authority. This period lasted for a long time.
It was not until 1979 when the community took the initiative and held the April Photo Society exhibition in Beijing. With the theme of "Nature, Society, Human", the show marked a significant shift in photography in China, as the art form was no longer a mere political vehicle.
In the early 1980s, different ideologies emerged amid the country's opening. Zhang Haier from the South is a representative artist of this period. Zhang mostly lives and works in Guangzhou, and his notable works include the Bad Girl series. There is a deep ambiguity to the identities conveyed in these images, since the portrayals of the subjects are both realistic and dramatic. Other works present a different perspective: Night Scene with the Photographer’s Left Hand and the self-portrait of himself screaming in front of the mirror. Zhang is an artist of "self-awakening", as his acts are an alien voice piercing through a tedious system.
The cry finds its echoes in Mo Yi from the North. Through the days he shuttled across public transport and the streets of Tianjin. His self-portraits are muted and rich in metaphoric meaning, in which the surroundings and faces of the mass spell an underlining tension. During this period, Gu Zheng was an active presence in Shanghai where the North River League (Beihemeng) was founded. Gu was a key participant in the group. His early works from this period are fleeting, silvery glimpses of the city, where the photographer goes on an anxious and relentless quest.
Han Lei is the odd man out for his unknown identity. Han worked at the Modern Photography magazine in Shenzhen. After leaving his job, the artist became a drifter without a regular dwelling. His works illuminate the margins of the society, and the alienation of the artist in this society.
As I see it, Han Lei is truly "on the road".
The next phase unveiled in the historic 1989. The “China/ Avant-Garde Art Exhibition” opened at the National Art Gallery in Beijing, featuring installation, performance and video works. The shooting incident on the show's opening day stunned the world, and modernism in China halted in the moment. Four months later, the Tiananmen incident happened.
Just as Chinese photography was to reach an important turn, it came to a standstill that lasted a long time.
In 1992, Deng Xiaoping took his southern tour, which led to the phenomenon of people starting their own businesses all over China.
In the same year I left the South and came to Beijing with my camera, and my dream of the arts. There were many who shared the same dream, as young people from all around the country voyaged to the political and cultural centre of Beijing.
What was the gap between ideal and reality?
The two documentaries by Zhao Liang featured in this show, Paper Airplane and Farewell, Yuanmingyuan, are testimonies. The documentaries depict the difficult living conditions of those who wanted to be independent artists. Zhao graduated from the LuXun Academy of Fine Arts and studied at the Beijing Film Academy in the early 1990s, and later frequented the Yuanmingyuan art village. His documentaries encapsulate the real lives of young people in all their despair and joy. Zhao 's persistence is a wake-up call: How far is the "Paradise of Arts" away from us?
"Beijing drifters" and "aimless migrants" were the norm of our generation. Two decades ago, it was a just pipe dream if anyone gave up their stable job to pursue the arts. The art villages in Beijing were paradises for those who went on this "self-imposed exile", the home bases for young people and their dreams.
The East Village was a sharp contrast to the Yuanmingyuan art village (commonly called the "West Village"). In its early days, the West Village was home to emerging artists such as Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Yang Shaobin. It was the period when "professional artists" came into existence. Founded in 1993, the East Village was situated in a small village (now Beijing Chaoyang Park) outside of 3rd Ring Road, Chaoyang District. It was the hub of workers from other provinces, and young people who could afford the modest rents of the village. Shortly after their graduation from the art academies, Zhang Huan and Ma Liuming joined the commune; rock 'n' roll lover Zuoxiao Zuzhou left Nanjing and relocated to the village. I had moved a few times after living in Beijing for less than a year. Finally I moved into the village and became part of the community. My fellow artists appealed to me, probably because I had failed to enroll in an arts academy in my earlier years. The main difference between us was that they painted and I photographed.
In 1993, Ai Wei Wei returned to Beijing from New York. Soon he connected with us, the group of artists at the East Village. His presence was a breath of fresh air. The Black Book, a collaboration between Ai Wei Wei, Feng Boyi and other artists, was a unique and meaningful work. The artists' concepts, planning and execution were illuminated on the pages, with photography taking up most of the content.
Featured in this exhibition, 1994.6, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn and Study of Perspective were also published in The Black Book.
Ai Wei Wei is a distinctive artist with profound wisdom. He works with a wide range of medium from architecture, documentary, large-scale installation to activism and blogging in recent times. All current topics are re-invented in unique vocabulary in his work. Photography has always played a key part in Ai's artistic career.
In the summer of 1994, a number of performance art events were held at the East Village, including 65KG and 12 Square Metres by Zhang Huan and Fen-Ma Liuming's Lunch by Ma Liuming. The events were the target of police action and many artists were arrested. Ma Liuming and Zhu Ming were detained in jail afterwards.
From the establishment to the closure of East Village, I was involved in the movement with my camera. This was also one of the major trends in contemporary photography. At the time, most artists in China created with the canvas, installation, mixed media and video. Photography was overlooked as an art form. The art movements in the past few decades, such as the “Stars Art exhibition” in 1979, the 85 New Wave Movement, and the “China/Avant-Garde Art Exhibition” at the National Art Gallery in 1989 were all resonant with the avant-garde and experimental spirit. However, photography had no place in this artistic realm. How could photographs be recognized for their value of independent expression?
What propels the development of contemporary photography?
When photography becomes a means of political propaganda for the authority, its artistic value is lost.
The East Village was closed, and the Yuanmingyuan artists were expelled from their home shortly after. Many young people had indulged in this Bohemian lifestyle; they lost their home overnight and fell into the abyss again.
We were overwhelmed by idleness, suppression, confusion and other emotional crises. Where were our voices? How could contemporary arts live in our national art galleries, when there was not even one art gallery in Beijing? What would nurture the young talents? When we could only give an underground performance in our rented home, everything vanished and became impossible. Our hearts were shattered.
The difficult circumstances were morphing into a different kind of voice.
In 1996, Liu Zheng and I founded the New Photo magazine. It had no ISBN and only a crude format. We put our money together and copied the photographic works of our friends on the photocopiers in the shops. We took the copies home and hand stitched the booklets. There were 20 to 30 copies of each issue; they were alive in this simple and direct format. We released four issues from 1996 to 1998; most artists had their first publications in our magazine. Looking back, it is a wonder how we managed to distribute the magazine. We believe it was precisely this simple expression that led us to our distinct attitudes and stance towards photography.
Liu Zheng worked at the Workers Daily. The Chinese was created around 1995, at a time when Liu's mindset was quickly changing. Shortly after, he quit his journalist job and devoted himself to his art. The Chinese series presents absurd scenarios in square compositions, where each protagonist is highly expressive in images that reflect the varied facets and emotions of life. The series was published in the first issue of New Photo. The Chinese unveiled a new era in documentary photography, since it was a marked departure from the photographic subjects that were popular in China at the time.
For Hong Lei from Changzhou, his creative work reached a turning point in 1996. Hong studied oil painting at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts. After wandering in Beijing for years, he grew disillusioned and returned to his hometown. He started to paint on his photographs. Hong had his first publications, Dead Bird and Autumn in the Forbidden City in New Photo, and his work soon came to wider attention.
Other notable series featured in this show include The Vagarious Life of Yangjiang Youth by Zheng Guogu; Fine by Qiu Zhijie; Sucker by Jiang Zhi, and others.
This exhibition is titled "New Framework" as it is a retrospective on the vitality and creativity of Chinese photography that has flourished in the past twenty plus years. It stands out as a major revolution in the history of photography.
In recent years, Chinese avant-garde photography has been acclaimed in international exhibitions and museums. Be it galleries, critics or collectors, all have been captivated by the creativity of Chinese avant-garde photography.
A notable exhibition was “Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China” curated by Wu Hung and Christopher Phillips. The exhibition toured a number of renowned museums around the world from 2004 to 2007.
The works featured in this exhibition reflect the transformation of Chinese society in the past twenty plus years. These memories may be muddled, rebellious, or scattered...yet photography has given a real framework to these slides.
I would like to thank Blindspot Gallery director Mimi Gradel for presenting this exhibition in Hong Kong, where this remarkable period of history behind "New Framework" will reach the local audience and beyond. Thank you!