CHINESE CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHY
From its inception, Chinese contemporary artists took a radical new position towards the representation of individual, the self, experience and history that stood in sharp contrast to the decades of aggrandized, heroicized and generic narratives that had historically been propounded by the state-sponsored art and propaganda.
The foregrounding of body and the individual, often coupled with explorations of the abject and mortality, were not by any means limited to painting, as with the works of Zhang Xiaogang or the Cynical Realists, but were common across almost all genres, including and especially photography and performance-based photography.
In the selection of works featured here, we see the variety of ways Chinese artists enlisted photography as a medium of historical documentation and intervention, as well as just one the long inquiry into the relationship between the individual, the collective, and history.
Song Dong's iconic 36 piece installation documenting his 1996 performance, Stamping the Water (Lot 285), captures him in the grueling, Sisyphean task of attempting to imprint a giant "chop" on the surface of the flowing Lhasa River, a metaphor for the futility of individual striving against the flow of time. Similarly, Zhang Huan, in his performance-based photos, demonstrates a long interest in the nature of identity and its metonymic representation, especially in cross-cultural contexts (Lot 287).
In the small collection offered together as a group (Lot 286), artists like Zhuang Hui, Xing Danwen, Hai Bo, Huang Yan, and Wang Jinsong each revisit the place of the individual and his or her relationship to collective narratives of history, from Wang's empathetic portraits of aging couples to Hai's nostalgic updating of a portrait of "Three Sisters", both humbly inserting individual stories as compelling, unsung aspects of history. Huang's Chinese Landscape series shows the individual disappearing entirely beneath a conventional representation of Chinese classicism.
As suggested by Huang and Zhang's work, Chinese artists working in photography demonstrate not only an awareness of their own histories of representation, but of photography as a means to identify shifting cultural mores. Other artists take further, looking not to the past but to the present and future. Wang Qingsong often delves into the ironies of consumerism, as with his Incarnation (Lot 288), offering three figures of newly gilded gods, seemingly the ironic next step for a nation seeking to reincarnate itself into a bright new future.
Breathtaking in scope and imagination, never limited to simple photography as a medium per se, but to addressing the spiritual needs of a nation, its unsung histories and its future concerns, as it passes through an unprecedented period of change and into the 21st Century.