Monday, December 28, 2009

China, Lishui part 3. Western photographers

A quick recap: I was invited by The Lishui Photo Festival to participate as a nominating curator. I was specifically contacted by co-producer Yan Li. Yan and her partner, Wang Zheng, had been reviewers with me at Photolucida in Portland, Oregon this year. Wang, in his role as artistic partner, had invited 30 photographers to participate in the festival. I apologize for the tiny photo, but here is his project statement in the only format in which I can show it to you. Many of Wang's choices came from his review sessions in Portland:

The rules for the nominators were simple. We were asked to propose up to 2 exhibitions, each containing 20-30 photos from an individual artist. The proposed exhibitions would be sent as a hi resolution digital file to be printed in China. Additionally, we were invited to bring one of the artists with us. The risks were clear from the start. We would be sending copyrighted work off to people we didn't know in a country famous for pirate copying to be printed without supervision by the artist. On the plus side, any artist exhibited would have their work seen by a huge new audience, an audience that simply would not be accessed without participating in an event like this. (There were clear promises from the Festival organizers that exhibition prints and digital files would be destroyed after the show. While this would be hard to confirm, it seemed clear that edition-quality copies were not being made. Most artists I spoke to at the end of the exhibition were confidant that their editions would not be compromised.)

My artists decided to forge ahead, and, as I found out when I arrived, dozens of others had as well. It was not all smooth sailing. A few days before we arrived, we got an email from Yan telling us that the exhibition prints were of a quality level disastrously lower than the test prints she had approved. The festival was now furiously working to reprint all of the work at an acceptable level before the opening day. Unfortunately this meant that many of the directions the artists had sent for printing would need to be set aside. This was specifically directed at the choice of scale since all of the prints would need to be printed the same size to save on paper and time. While this was not good news, I was impressed by Yan's open and forthright approach to the problem. She could have waited until we arrived to tell us of the problem. Instead, she gave a full account of the problem risking many artists pulling out or asking for their work to be withdrawn. To my knowledge, no one pulled out.

I had no expectation of finding fine-art level prints even before the printing problem surfaced, but now my standard had to be shifted to a simple question: was the artist's message still visible in these prints? The results were mixed. On the high end (which I'm happy to say included my two artists), the answer was yes. While color values were not true and scale was not ideal, the pictorial and philosophical content of the images was there to be seen. One the low end....well, perhaps the less said the better. There were some examples where it was simply impossible to see the intention of the artist. It was very unfortunate. I hope (I'm even confidant) that Lishui Festival will do better in the future.

The Western artists were all shown in a concatenation of exhibition spaces in the Baiyun Forest Park Center. It wasn't clear what the usual use is for these period buildings, but it was an idyllic place to look at art. Some illustrations-
The walk up to the entrance gate on opening day:

The Festival banner at the entrance:

The banner showing the roster of exhibitions and their corresponding exhibit halls(Carol McCusker and Stephen Bulger visible):

Detail of that banner showing my listing in a shameless act of self-promotion:

Banner map showing the layout of the exhibition halls in the park:

Picture of exhibition hall entrance where my artists were on view:

Christian Erroi and me at the entrance to our hall #1 in front of the intro to the exhibition:

Detail of that intro in 2nd act of shameless self-promotion:

Poster for Christian's exhibit:

Christian's work as it was displayed:

Christian's show, jammed at the opening:

Cornelia's wall text:

Cornelia's work as it was displayed:

Cornelia's show, jammed at the opening:

An example of the lovely bucolic setting within the park:

I have spoken about both Cornelia Hediger and Christian Erroi extensively in earlier posts, so, rather than write more here, I will simply invite you to visit their websites which are highlighted and hyperlinked.

Other than my own artists, I had a couple of other favorites. At the top of the list was Dutch artist, Petra Stavast. Ms Stavast's work was unfortunately one of the casualties of the printing debacle. Her salvation was in her nominating curator, Marga Zijvanrotteveel. Ms Zijvanrotteveel's essay on "Libero", the project of Ms Stavast, was so compelling, concise, and thoughtful I knew there was more to the work than what I saw on the wall (look for more from this smart, young, independent curator). Fortunately for me, both Mss Zijvanrotteveel and Stavast were in Lishui so I had the chance to discuss the work and learn more.

"Libero" is a story that starts in a derelict house in Calabria and ends in suburban New Jersey. Ms Stavast found photos and remnants of a rich but abandoned life in Italy and decided to follow that evidence to wherever it took her. She tracked down the descendants of the family that had lived in Calabria and reconstructed a family history in a way that is personal and universal. She made her work into a book which I have to say is one of the most compelling publications I've seen this year. I don't think I've ever seen an artist so successfully weave found , vernacular photos with her own personal work. It is unique. It strikes me as some wonderful union of Leigh Ledare, Miyako Ishiuchi, Erik Kessels, and Joachim Schmid. You can read more about it here and you can order a copy here from Roma Press. Also available at Photo-eye. Highly recommended.

Also high on my list of discoveries was Carol McCusker's nomination of Stephen Berkman for his series called "Predicting the Past". Mr. Berkman works exclusively in antiquarian processes, so digital prints of his work are, I'm sure, a shadow of the real thing. But the wit, intelligence, and perspective were clearly evident even in dodgy digital format. Humor is a high-wire act in art as I've discussed before in work like Thorsten Brinkmann's. But when it works it can be a tour-de-force. I'm eager to see actual prints of Mr. Berkman's tintypes and wet plate collodions. The dialog he creates between antique process, antique portraiture, and contemporary staged photography is well worth a look.
Some examples. The first is titled "Mute Debating Society":

and Ms McCusker's paragraph about the show:

I was also taken with Sarah Wilson's work called "Blind Prom". I had seen the work when she had a show at Michael Foley's gallery earlier this year. I was impressed with it then, and it held up well in a second viewing with less than ideal prints. The history of photography is rich with artists who have used photographing those who can't see both as an ironic device and also as a means to take the self consciousness out of portraiture. Ms Wilson's work seems to be an unsentimental but poignant addition to the canon.

Last, I want to mention Mindaugas Kavaliauskas' series, "52 weeks, 52 self portraits". Neither the artist nor his nominator, Kazimieras Linkevicius were in attendance. I was intrigued by the work and wanted to see the whole series. As I said, humor is a high-wire act. I'm not sure if this one stays on its feet, but I'm sure I want to know more. What I saw suggested a fertile visual imagination and a mordant political wit. So far my online investigations have yielded little more information, mostly in websites in Lithuanian. If anyone has more information about this artist, I'd love to hear. I can't find a website either for the artist or the curator. Here are a few examples from the exhibition:

To briefly sum up, this was a wonderful adventure for me. I'm thrilled that I went even with all the challenges and disappointments. I remain a bit confused as to why all of the Western artists and nominators were brought all the way to China, but I'm glad they did. I hope if we're invited again that there will be much, much more interaction with Chinese artists, curators, art lovers, and gallery owners. It seems a shame to have all these American and European voices in China and not use them to communicate with their Chinese counterparts. On the plus side, thousands of Chinese people saw photography they simply would not have seen any other way, and we saw Chinese art that we can take to new corners of the world. And let's not forget that it took a Chinese festival to introduce me to Western work I had never seen before. All in all, a good experience. I'd go again in a heartbeat.

Next: I head to Shanghai.

China, Lishui 2-A: I forgot to mention....

And one more photographer I forgot. I can't tell you his name, nor the title of the series, nor where to find the work because everything about him was only in Chinese. This was a persistent challenge in the Chinese pavilions. Much of the supplemental text was only in Chinese. It was a particular challenge in this work because there was text printed on the image. Clearly this artist wanted us to have the information. I think it was called "New Family" or "Second Family"...something like that. It showed couples or whole families that had been formed because each spouse had lost their counterpart in the great earthquake. Moved, I suppose, by their shared loss and experience, they sought to find a replacement for the half they lost. Each photo had text written on the photo that described the individual's situation and how the new family came to be formed.

I only had base-level translation for any of this, so I can't vouch for how accurate I'm being about the work. And, as in the post above, context was missing. Was this about loss? About forging into the future despite great setbacks? Were these families "formed" by the government and these photos made against their wishes? I have NO idea. Visually they were strong, and the text seemed moving from what was read to me. I hope at some point I can learn more.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

China, Lisui part 2. Chinese photographers.

I reported in Lishui Part 1 that it seems impossible to summarize or draw conclusions based on a very short visit to a giant country. So I'll proceed here with caution. Even taking into account my restricted, small sampling slice, I'll venture to say that some impressions of general trends peeked through. Though I heartily admit that these observations may be wildly off base, I'm going to just lob them out there anyway. If they spur some heated debate and objections, perhaps it's all to the good.

The Chinese photography I saw on this trip fell into 3 broad categories: classical documentary practice, technically proficient but merely pretty work (calendar art), and work that mimicked Western work in significant ways. I know from experience that there is individual, unique Chinese work out there, but I didn't really see it on this trip. That's not to say that I didn't see very high quality work. I did. But it tended to fall in the documentary category as opposed to highly original art.

Wherever we went during the festival, the Chinese photographers rarely operated outside of a pack. It seemed there was some kind of group pressure to photograph the same thing at the same time. It happened countless times:

The photo above perhaps highlights a differing mindset between the Eastern and Western photographers. This was at Donghu Park. I wrote in the last post about the funny sign that said "Long Term Bosom Understanding".

Well, here's a wider shot of that same scene:

The Chinese photographers are all photographing the the beautiful landscape, and the Americans are photographing a funny sign. Can we draw broad conclusions from this photo? Perhaps not, but it seemed like I could when I was taking the picture.

As I usually do, I'll focus on the work that I liked. There's no need to dwell on the banal or commercial work I saw. The only confusing point was figuring out what was intended to be what. Context and intent were persistent challenges the entire trip from the best work to the worst. Chinese work was displayed in 4 venues: a few of the exhibition halls in the Forest Park (where the Western artists were) were given over to Chinese art, The Oil Pump Factory Buildings, an outdoor makeshift exhibit space near an amusement park, and an outdoor makeshift exhibit that highlighted 2 artists' work from Cuba and Korea. From a contextual point of view, the exhibition space near the amusement park was the most confusing. It was full of really bad, genre, stock image pictures. Was this commercial work? It was displayed as art. Was I confusing a commercial fair section of the festival with other work that was meant to be "gallery" work? I couldn't tell and no one had an answer. I didn't spend much time here.

The best work was at the Oil Pump Factory. I am embarrassed to say that, while I travel the world to look at art, I often miss what is right here in New York City. Two of my Lishui "discoveries" had had major play in New York, and a third had been exhibited internationally as well. I suspect their names will be familiar to many of you even though they were new to me.

The first great work I saw was that of Lu Guang. The fact that he was the winner of the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography just 2 months ago must have bypassed my radar (I was even invited to the award ceremony, for heaven's sake!). Lu Guang is knee deep in a huge project to photograph the seven major rivers of China and the epic-scaled pollution that is happening in all of them. He has completed three of them, and his dangerous, politically charged work continues. A few examples here and then an even more complete portfolio if you click here.

Next up in my walk of ignorance was the work of A Yin. I was impressed with his sensitive and visually dynamic series about nomadic Mongolian peoples. Apparently the Rubin Museum thought so too since they had a solo show for him here in New York 2 years ago.

Perhaps slightly off the beaten track were the diptychs of Hu Li. The artist shows the same coal mine worker once as he emerges from the mines covered in soot against a white backdrop, and again in his street clothes against a propagandist backdrop. To my eyes this work looks like a statement about the dehumanizing effects of working in the mines. It was sometimes literally impossible to tell that it was the same person in both photographs because the soot had so erased the details of his character. But our old friend "context" rears its head again here. Reading the artist statement on his gallery website, the work seems more intended to be a paean to Hard Work and Progress. Is there irony here? Submerged political defiance? I don't know. I liked the work even without a clear decision from me as to the intent of the artist.
Left side detail:

Right side detail:


Context is everything when evaluating (re-evaluating?) the work of photographers who were employed by the Chinese government as propagandists. Discussion is hot right now about how we should view these works. Sha Fei is one photographer that is right in the center of it. There's a show of his work in January at Ohio State University and various symposia have included his example (see my blog from Houston Fotofest about him). Add to this debate the work of Zheng Weihan. In his Scenes From the Past we see overtly staged propaganda images from the Cultural Revolution. With Western eyes, I can see the work through a filter of other staged photography and ironic views of 60s-70s culture. But that doesn't seem to be what's going on here. A quote from his gallery website:

As older generation artists, Zheng and many "revolutionary photographers" from that era, their "staged" works are as truthful. Zheng has his own personal concepts -- only this concept was hatched out of the “Ideology of the Cultural Revolution.” Zheng lost himself in this truthfulness back then, but because of this "loss",it makes his imagery very "contemporary. "

When I asked his gallery rep, from Inter Gallery in Beijing, she said that the work was very popular among young Beijingnese because this represented what really happened during that period. There was no re-examination of the purpose or factuality of the pictures, she claimed. Maybe. I think the pictures are visually arresting and somewhat alarming. Though many different interpretations are possible, I suspect they will take their place with propaganda posters in the art world, but I will leave it to the scholars to sort that out. My fear is that the reality is more on the order of thinking that old pictures reprinted in a large size will sell in a new market. I hope the truth is more layered than that.

I'll go into more Chinese work that I saw in Shanghai in a later post. By some accounts there was more intriguing work to see at the Oil Pump Factory. Unfortunately, the official schedule left us little time to explore. When we went back for a closer look, the exhibition was already coming down. Everybody's loss.

Next: Western work in Lishui.

Monday, December 14, 2009

China, Lishui part 1

As I mentioned in a few earlier posts, I was invited to China to take part in the Lishui Photo Festival. While my trip encompassed other cities in China, I'll focus on my time in Lishui since, of the cities I visited, that's the place that is probably unknown to most readers of this blog. Lishui is a city in the Southeast corner of China. It's a few hours inland by car, a little north of Taiwan and a little south of Japan. It's in a picturesque valley surrounded by rolling hills and low mountains. It's just the sort of landscape you imagine when you see fog-shrouded Chinese watercolors and ink drawings. But this is no rural village. The city population is over 250,000, and the population of the prefecture of Lishui is in the millions. It's a small city sort of Albany-sized - or maybe Akron, Ohio - and similar to Albany in that it's on a river, close to some more famous, bigger cities, but has some character and history of its own. For China, it's notably lowrise, but the downtown is bigger than you might first think when arriving in the city. It's a town but not a village. It's the kind of place you probably have heard of but never had a reason to go.

To my surprise, many Chinese people had not heard of it. Many people I met in China simply had no idea where Lishui was. So I guess it was no surprise that, despite its size, the city was relatively remote (no local airport) and unfamiliar with Western faces. We were told that the Western group brought to the festival was the largest group of non-Chinese to ever be in the city. In fact, Westerners are rarely there at all (never more than 10 English speakers in the area at one time), so we were openly stared and pointed at. We were told that staring in Chinese culture is not the hostile act that it can be in the West, but some were still intimidated being treated so conspicuously as the Other. For myself, I found that a quick "hello" in Chinese and a smile broke the staring barrier. The awkward, silent stare dissolved into a huge grin with a returned "hello" every time. People seemed conspicuously delighted that we were there once the gawking barrier was broken. Schoolchildren, perhaps only knowing this one word in English, would call out "hello!" to us, and squeal with pleasure and delight when we responded back with a hello in either English or Chinese. Many participants were offered free food, free cab rides, and other spontaneous acts of generosity I would never expect in a dense metropolitan environment like this. People were simply friendlier and more innocently welcoming than in any other city I've been in my life. It's not fair or honest to make a generalization based on such a short and limited trip, I know. I was constantly aware that I didn't have enough information to fully understand the context of what I was experiencing. I felt like my eyes were wide open, but in fact I was peering at China through a very narrow slit in the curtains; what seemed to me to be a panoramic view was in fact edited and incomplete. That being said, I have never been more welcomed into a community where I was so conspicuously not of that community.

One example will serve well. I was invited to nominate 2 artists for the exhibition and bring one of them with me. I asked my friend, Christian Erroi, to be my companion (Cornelia Hediger was the other artist in the show. More on that in a future post). Christian is half Swiss and half Italian. We were walking around downtown looking for a bite of lunch when we saw a small line of local men taking away steaming buns from a hole-in-the-wall lunch counter. While we were standing there trying to decide if this would be the place, one of the guys in line said, "Come here! It's good! Come!". We were thrilled to hear even a few words of English hoping that we might actually be able to have an effortless transaction, but it became clear that we had just heard his entire English vocabulary.

Christian, when he's in a situation where there is no chance that the person he's speaking with will understand any language he knows, will lapse into Italian. I guess he thinks if tone, not words, is what is most important, he might as well speak in his most expressive language. So, he starts talking to the guy in Italian.....and the guy answers back in Italian! What are the odds in a city that hardly sees a Caucasian face that we'll meet a guy who speaks Italian? My own Italian is rusty but serviceable and Christian is a native speaker, so we launch into a real discussion with this guy. It turns out he's traveled some and spent time in Italy and studied the language. We ask him about the food, what's good, what's in it. he insists on ordering for us and making sure we have drinks and the next order of buns.

And here's where it really falls off the map in terms of my experience. We reach for our wallets to pay for lunch, and this guys says, "No. it's my treat". What? No, we insist, we can pay. We're happy to pay. "No. You are my guests", he replies. "We are so happy to have you in our city, it is my pleasure to invite you to lunch". We're speechless. Did we really just get treated to lunch by a total stranger who couldn't wait to have us sample his favorite pork buns? In Italian? In all my travels in the US and Europe, this was unique. I was humbled by this simple, unexpected, un-asked for act of generosity. Mind you, the buns were maybe 40 cents each, but that's 40 cents to us. I have no idea what the price of lunch represented to him in a country where one could very well earn $50 a month. Beautiful.

And people didn't just stare. We were endlessly photographed. If I ever wanted to have a taste of what celebrities feel in the face of paparazzi, this was my chance. Folks pointed cameras at us singly:

And in groups:

It seemed like any time I would look up, there was a huge lens pointed right at me:

But as with the stares, a simple "ni hau" would dissolve the moment into smiles and hellos:

We also seemed to be the object of touristic interest. Shortly after our bun experience, we were standing in front of a small shrine. A family group saw us and raced to have their picture taken with us in front of the monument:

More hurried to be part of the shot:


No, the camera guy wanted to be in the shot, too, so he enlisted yet another guy to take the picture:

Now we're ready:

...and the happy picture:

Clearly, Christian knows a thing or two about posing to be a monument. But seriously, this group was just tickled to make this shot and wouldn't let us go until they got it right. We must have been there for 15 minutes. Not a word of English was exchanged, but Christian made himself well-understood in Italian.

The festival organizers made a point of taking us on some field trips to see the surrounding countryside. This was a mixed blessing. While it was a treat to see parts of China I would likely never see again, it took time away from the festival. I ended up not seeing all of the exhibits and failing to meet many of the Chinese artists. Our first trip was to the Zhutan Mountain Scenic Spot.

After seeing Dinghu Peak, I always referred to the day as "Picnic at Penis Rock" (apologies to Peter Weir).

There were no guides so I never learned much about Dinghu Peak, but I decided it probably wasn't Jewish.
Zhutan Park had my favorite "funny sign" of the trip:

But there were more to follow:

As fun as these were (and there were many), I was inspired to imagine what it would be like if the shoe were on the other foot. Can you imagine what a colossal screw-up it would be if the US were required to sign its national parks in Chinese?! Subways? Street signs? We, too, would be treated to the sight of Chinese people doubled over in laughter pointing at some innocuous sign. No question.

This perspective of asking myself what the equivalent experience in the US would be was constantly on my mind. If a busload of Chinese people who didn't speak any English were dropped off in Knoxville, or Boise, or Indianapolis, what reception would they receive? What if they went into a restaurant where there was not a single word on the menu in a language they could understand (as happened to us countless times)? What customs of ours that we take for granted would seem incomprehensibly strange to them? My pessimist side says that they would encounter a cool, suspicious US though, of course, I can never know. It's a hypothetical. Perhaps they wouldn't be treated poorly, but they could not be treated better than we were treated in Lishui. In a place that was as foreign to me as any place I've ever been, I was constantly welcomed and treated well.

As someone pointed out to me, China is a very old, very big, very complicated country. Any attempt to simplify, reduce, or generalize about one's experience is sure to miss the point or, worse, get it completely wrong. All I can say is that I was in one city for one week as an individual, English speaking man. I hope the microscopic sliver of light that I cast on the place illuminates a view that is somehow illustrative and not too off-the-mark in its assumptions. From street markets:

to the daily fish dinner being purchased:

to vistas that confounded my idea of a city:

To markets that were as I've never seen:

Lishui was an adventure I would not have missed for anything. Like my travels to the USSR and Eastern Europe in the late '80s, these are places in such a rapid state of change that if I came back in even a realtively short amount of time I wouldn't find the same place I visited a few weeks ago.

Coming up will be posts on:
Chinese artists exhibited at the Festival
Western artists exhibited at the Festival
Artists and galleries I saw in Shanghai

Stay tuned.....