Pt. 2, Thoughts on Chinese Photography (and other thoughts)

It’s simply a fact–there are only a few images left.

When I look out here I see everything is cluttered up. There are hardly any images to be found. One has to dig deep down, like an archeologist; one has to search through this violated landscape to find something. Naturally, there is a risk involved, one that I wouldn’t avoid. I see only a few people who take risks in order to change this misery–the misery of having no images left, none that are adequate. We desperately need images, those images that are relevant and adequate to our level of civilization–ones that correspond to those deep inside ourselves.–Werner Herzog, from Tokyo-Ga, a film by Wim Wenders, 1984.

i’ve been sitting on these thoughts of mine a good long while, waiting to see if they would turn and change into something else, have something more to say than just this. i saw the chinese photography exhibit at ICP while there a couple weeks back. i was greatly looking forward to it, and forward to it openly, meaning: i had no context for an expectation. i thought that this meant that i had no expectations, but, one finds, one always has expectations. the exhibit would be the first exposure i had had to contemporary chinese photography on any scale, and i was interested in what artists of the same generation as me had to say about the very different world they experienced from mine. what was it like to be a member of the largest nation in the world? what was it like to be living during a time in which long-held cultural norms were having to be redefined to fit in with a sometimes contradictory desire for cultural change? what about growing up as the first generation post-chinese cultural revolution? as the inheritors of that psychic pain? how would concerns of modern day china be addressed? what were the concerns of modern day china?

it began on a promising note. one of the first works you see at the ICP location (half of the multi-themed exhibit is being shown at the asia society) is this one by lian tianmaio:


it is an immense and quiet piece, with threads piercing the self-portrait of the artist in the face, and coming out of the back to form one impossibly large braid, which then fizzles out to be wound as a single thread around a spool. much is made on the wall blurbs of the chinese penchant for large and monumental art, a graphic loved left-over from a life built up around oversized socialist art murals and public sculptures. but this is one of the few pieces in the show which manages to successfully weave the personal and the cultural aesthetic (if it can be called such), and to gracefully nod to a chinese tradition of intense and intricate craft. a self portrait that, in the pure sense of the term, actually reveals something of the maker. which to me is a kind of risk, that by extension, is inherent in any definition of mine concerning art. something which risks one’s vulnerability accomplishes this.

others not so much. others to which, in fact, i roll my eyes long and high towards the ceiling, imagining the first-friday cocktail conversations had in front of “the work.”


(i tried here to imagine that conversation, but it was immediately so insipid i had to throw cheap champagne in viewer 1 and viewer 2’s face.)

part of what annoyed me with this work was that it seemed so obvious and easy of how this got into this show, and why this artist is popular with curators and those who write about art. exhibitionists almost always make good copy, or at least good gossip, and it helps too if the artist-as-model has a “startlingly stunning androgynous body” (an actual quote from a recent review of this show in this issue of Asia Pacific Quarterly–in what other context than one gay man talking about another gay man could this sentence even find its way into print in a serious review? can you imagine this same being said about an exhibiting female artist?). i am reminded of advice given to an attractive, charismatic colleague of mine in grad school that was having early success with his work, “the only thing that could make you more successful at this point and get you more high level recognition is if you were to come out and announce that you were gay.” (he wasn’t, and while it’s a cheap shot, it’s oftner than most would admit to a truer generalization than others.) another thing that bothered me was that it was so obvious. man walking naked along the great wall of china. and there’s an accompanying video of “the event.” what does it mean to walk naked along the wall? does it mean that a curator is happy his show is balanced because he got to include a “reinterpretation of a major historical site” (quote from the catalog)? if it is a reinterpretation, is liuming “reowning” the wall for his own personal use, or is he commenting upon the individual finally surmounting (and thus conquering) the political? i could go on and on, but i don’t believe for a second that it is any one of these off-the-cuff critical tropes. i think these are merely self indulgent self portraits that happen to include the great wall of china. it says nothing; it risks nothing; it is one of the many pieces of visual clutter that herzog spoke of in that quote.

another piece that baffled me was this one by artist (cum-masochist?) sheng qi:


the image by itself isn’t so disturbing (except that it is, but the fact of it being so isn’t what i mean here). i had the reaction to this piece that i did to many in this show, in which i may have responded more positively to it if i had completely ignored any corresponding information that provided context, and merely let myself project meaning and intention onto it. without reading the text on the wall, i had looked at this image and assumed something unfortunate and horrible had happened to the artist who holds a picture of a young boy in his chinese cultural revolution outfit. maybe the terrible thing, one reasonably begins to assume, that happened was in fact the chinese cultural revolution. well, in this case that assumption is wrong. the terrible thing that happened to this artist was the artist to himself. with very little reason why, we are told that the artist, upon leaving china for where we are not told, presumably here, he severs his pinky finger and plants it into the bottom of a flower pot. and then takes this picture (and probably others, i mean, if you’re going to start severing body parts, you might as well go for a whole series). i’m not totally adverse to the idea of body-as-stage, i mean, i’m with orlan or chris burden, but this? was this worth a finger? if there was a point, or a deeper meaning, could it not have been conveyed somehow? what is the point that i am supposed to get? is this just throwing the assumption of the limits of cultural understanding in the viewer’s face? am i terribly declass√© if i admit my defeat and say what the fuck?

i suppose what was the most disheartning was the lack of attention to any of the questions i would have thought that contemporary chinese artists might have been addressing (see: expectations and assumptions always raise their head). that is not to say that they are not being addressed at all, but that they are not in this show, and not (with little exception) by these artists. divided into four “themes” that could be the theme of any show at any time in any gallery in new york, themes of “history and memory”; “people and place”; “performing the self”; and “reimagining the body”, what i gleaned was that perhaps china has learned too much from the west already, and perhaps all of it bad. our way of curating, marketing and exhibiting art is not the only way to do things, and i would be delighted to have our sterile and commodity-oriented manner of considering art to be challenged by something thoughtful and new, instead of something emulating something that pretends to be the ideal.

2 thoughts on “Pt. 2, Thoughts on Chinese Photography (and other thoughts)

  1. It’s often difficult for me to distinguish when artists are merely copying versus artists who aggressively innovate. At the same time however, I have to remind myself that I am often guilty of measuring something through western standards. The cultural revolution has done massive damage to the advancement of the chinese. I myself wonder what happened to the rich tradition of drunken chinese monks who carve poetry in beautiful calligraphy on mountainsides. What would have evolved from such a culture of beauty and creativity? It’s akin to people who bemoan the burning of the library of alexandria. i sometimes feel a group of people are brutally honest when it comes to critiquing works from people of their own nationality is the way we should all be when it comes to viewing art. there seems to be a cultural etiquette post-PC era that dictates people shouldn’t go overboard when commenting on works by another race. most people have graciously adopted this practice (not counting the british of course). i think it’s a disservice. everyone should be critical, skeptical and continually ask questions. at the same time, there are those who think it is chic to be dismissive of everything. that’s not what i’m talking about here. they should realize that each artist has a right to his or her own vision. of course, an artist who is secure (and there are very few, but that’s not our problem) can take it or leave it. it’s the process of evolution and growing. something that was stunted by the cultural revolution.

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