In 1990s China, avant-garde artists began to experiment with the boundaries of photography. Departing from the region’s officially accepted ‘documentary’ style, a new wave of creative thinkers embraced the medium as a channel of artistic self-expression. Chinese artists delved into definitions and challenges of the ‘self’, personal versus collective memory, and tradition juxtaposed with modernity, all within the context of a country traumatized by rapid and often controversial development. The legacy of those artistic pioneers lives on; we profile the contemporary Chinese photographers you need to know.
Born in Heilongjiang Province and based in Beijing, Wang Qingsong trained in painting, but went on to specialize in staged photography. His surreal, digitally-enhanced photographs comment on universal social conflicts, possessing a striking visual quality. Wang has observed his home country morph from an insular, rural nation into an economic giant, and has experienced large-scale transformations such as the Cultural Revolution first-hand. Thus, the artist has commented that art for art’s sake is ‘meaningless’; rather, the artist’s job is to actively engage with, comment on, and challenge the powers that be.
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Born in 1971 in Beijing, Yang Fudong is a photographer and video artist whose works expose the contradictions of modern Chinese society. His photographs take on a multi-faceted perspective of contemporary Chinese life to investigate the structure and formation of identity through myth, personal memory, and lived experiences. Yang focuses on the portrayal of China’s youth culture, which exists in a seemingly liminal state between well-worn traditions and the promises of modernity. While his work is set against the backdrop of urban China, his portraits recall the composition of classical literati paintings. In an early work, titled The First Intellectual (2000), Yang explores the “psychological confusion” of a country influenced by an extreme consumer culture, and the plight of the individual lost in a sea of cohabitants in a large urban space.
Best-known for his monumental photographs intricately laced with minute details, Wang Guofeng‘s work explores themes of national history and symbolic power. In his photographic series titled Ideality, Wang examines the aesthetic and symbolism of socialist architecture, combining Western ideals with Soviet Communist models to reflect the contradictory nature of life in modern-day China. Wang’s photographs incorporate the collectivist mindset of the Chinese intelligentsia, as well as nationalistic consciousness alongside Socialist ideals. Often devoid of people, Wang’s photographs are not retouched; rather they’re composed of multiple shots stitched together to offer an almost surrealist, panoramic view of his subject.
Shao Yinong and Mu Chen
Shao Yinong and Mu Chen are a husband and wife artist duo based in Beijing. who create photographs referencing the different facets and functions of memory. Their eerie images of the interior of buildings now in ruins portray the effects of the transformation of China from an agrarian society to the rapidly modernised, urbanised and consumerist environment it is today. The series entitled Assembly Halls is a poignant example of these transitions and depicts various empty halls renovated or still in degradation that were annexed for official political meetings during the Cultural Revolution. The abandoned and rehabilitated structures somehow symbolise and mirror the individuals who have experienced the changes through extreme political turmoil and rapid modernisation. All portrayed in emptiness, devoid of human presence, they are ghostly depictions of the affect of history and the powerful presence of memory. Representing both personal and collective memory, these images are nostalgic and charged with historical intensity.
Liu Zheng was a news journalist before the 1990s when he embarked on an expansive cultural analysis through creative imagery that departed from China’s strict documentary aesthetic. Addressing the nuances of and issues surrounding Chinese society and culture, Liu’s works are steeped in his profound impressions of the country’s 5000 year history. His works run fluidly between the physical medium of photography and the conceptual inspiration of memory and reality. From daily life to historical remains, influences, and transformations, Liu’s work documents China’s people from all walks of life. His series titled The Chinese depicts contemporary society and the people who inhabit it, including himself, convicts, monks, workers, villagers, artists, opera singers, and more. The subjects pose maliciously, awkwardly portraying an absurd and yet recognizable reality, where fantasy, romanticism, and realism are inseparable.
Inspired by transitions and transformations, Weng Fen keeps an eye on China’s social, economic, and cultural shifts. His earlier series, such as Sitting on the Wall and Bird’s Eye View, feature figures looking out over epic urban landscapes. His subjects are positioned as outsiders, photographed only from the back, and many are young schoolchildren who serve as symbols of China’s next generation. Constantly evolving, Weng addresses issues of travel, migration, and globalization.
Photographer and video artist Cui Xiuwen made headlines when her installation, Lady’s Room (2000), provoked the first lawsuit in the history of Chinese contemporary art. The work consisted of a video taken with a hidden camera in the lady’s restroom of a Beijing nightclub, and showcases footage of hookers counting money and preparing for the next client. Since the beginning of her career, Cui has focused on taboo themes of sexuality, feminism, and gender roles in China, exploring the struggles of young women growing up in large urban spaces. Her work is notably subtle; in her photographic series titled Existential Emptiness, she poses with an artificial alter ego in the snowy landscapes of Northern China to evoke a sense of the Western void in stark contrast to the Eastern philosophies of solitude, reflection, and quiet consciousness.
Li Wei’s photographs are an extension of his performance pieces. The multimedia artist often depicts himself in gravity-defying situations that both threaten and endanger him. His photographs are not the result of digital manipulation, but are rather produced via acrobatic stunts with the aid of props such as scaffolding, mirrors, and metal wires. Li rose to prominence with his performance series titled Falls, in which he forced himself, like a fallen missile, into the ground, into a body of water, and through a car head first, with only his legs and feet protruding at an uncomfortable, unnatural angle. In describing the conceptual nature of this series, Li references the malaise of finding oneself in uncontrollable situations, driven by stronger forces such as politics, the economy, and social pressure. ‘This feeling of having fallen headfirst into something and of having nothing firm under the feet is familiar to everyone. One doesn’t have to fall from another planet to feel it,’ the artist explains.
‘I hereby proclaim that I am terrified of globalization and I abhor it.’ Hong Lei’s work is heavily reflective of this statement; his images subvert reality and create surreal, anachronistic scenes that weave imagination, alongside traditional and contemporary imagery, into an enhanced reality. A commentary on the trauma of modern Chinese life, Hong’s compositions are inspired by his training in classical Chinese paintings and literary works, such as The Dream of the Red Mansions and The Gold Plum Vase. In 1996, Hong garnered critical acclaim for his installation titled Chinese Box, in which a dead bird lay in a jewelry box filled with pearls, gems, and other precious treasures. Hong went on to photograph classical Chinese artworks to express his anxiety about the tension between past and present, tradition and modernity. In a later series titled Forbidden City, Hong photographed a dead bird on the imperial palace grounds, juxtaposing historic grandeur with weakness, morality, and loss. Of this recurring theme in his work, Hong explains, ‘Over time, I have come to see the dead bird as the embodiment of my own self.’
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