In 1990s China, avant-garde artists started to experiment with the photographic medium, veering away from the officially accepted documentary and socialist style to embrace photography as a channel for artistic self-expression. The New Photography movement saw artists explore issues of self, personal and collective memory, history and tradition and modernity in a country traumatised by rapid development. This legacy continues, and we give you ten of the best photography practitioners in China today.
Wang Qingsong (b. 1966, Heilongjiang Province - based in Beijing), trained in painting, creates digitally enhanced photographs based on surrealistic, staged scenes that comment on universal social conflicts. Wang has observed his country morph from an insular, rural nation to an economic giant, living through events that shook the country like the Cultural Revolution. A witness to such shifts, the explained that 'it is very meaningless if an artist only creates art for art's sake', as the dramatic transformations in China have created social contradictions, huge constant construction sites and hard life scenarios. 'I think it would be absurd for an artist to ignore what's going on in society' he says. Wang's photographs depict vice, ironicise religion and the idolatry of status symbols or of consumerism. One of his most conceptually complex works, 'Night Revels of Lao Li', is based on Gu Hongzhong's scroll painting 'Night Revels of Han Xizai' (ca. 970). In his 31-foot-long reinterpretation, Wang comments on the marginalisation of intellectuals in modern society and presents hedonism as both a form of protest and the best available consolation for the powerless.
Rong Rong and Inri
Rong Rong (b. 1968, Fujian Province, China) and Inri (b. 1973, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan) are a husband and wife artist duo whose practice centres around photography with a performative element. They started collaborating when they met in 2000 in China. Their trademark photographic style depicts the artist duo, their bodies naked in extreme, stunning environments, like deserted landscapes, ruins and vast empty expanses. The duo is renowned for the poignancy and lyricism of their work, which poses questions and explores the relationship between the human body and the environment, be it natural or urban. Among their most well-known series are Mt. Fuji, In Nature and Liulitun. The latter documented the couple's life in Liulitun Village, near Beijing, and a symbolic, silent funeral they held for their habitat, which was slated to be demolished like the East Village. In 2007, Rong Rong and Inri founded the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, the first Chinese art space dedicated exclusively to photographic and video art.
Wang Guofeng (b. 1967, Liaoning Province, China) creates monumental photographs with minute details sharply visible in the vast subjects he depicts, influenced by his training in painting. Wang's series of photographs of socialist buildings and architecture in Russia, China and Germany explore the ideology they represent, their common inspiration and the national histories that illustrate their symbolic power. Ideality, his series of public monumental architecture in China from the 1950s combining traditional Chinese architecture with Western styles and Soviet Communist models, reflect some of the contradictions of modern China. They include both the collective mentality of the Chinese intelligentsia as well as nationalistic consciousness and socialist ideals. Often devoid of people except for himself in Maoist attire, Wang's photographs are not retouched but composed of multiple shots stitched together to give a panoramic view of the subject.
Shao Yinong and Mu Chen
Shao Yinong (b. 1961, Liaoning) and Mu Chen (b. 1970, Qinghai) are ahusband 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 (2005) 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.
Previously a news journalist, in the 1990s Liu Zheng (b. 1969, Wuqiang Hsien, Hebei Province, China) started to experiment and veer away from the official documentary style, embarking on an analysis of culture through a broad range of imagery that wasn't restricted to a socialist aesthetic and ideology. Addressing Chinese society and culture and the variety of issues surrounding them, Liu's works are based on his profound impressions of his country's 5000-year-long history. His works expose links between photography, memory and reality. Liu portrays China and Chinese culture, probing into their history, their remains, their influences, their transformations. His series The Chinese depicts people from all walks of contemporary society, including himself, convicts, monks, workers, villagers, artists and Beijing opera singers. The subjects pose maliciously, awkwardly portraying an absurd and yet recognisable reality, where fantasy, romanticism and realism become inseparable.
Weng Fen (b. Weng Peijun, 1961, Hainan) is inspired by the transitions and transformations that have taken place in China since its opening up in the 1980s. His earlier works, such as the series Sitting on a Walland Bird's Eye View,feature lyrical images of epic landscapes that bring into focus the rise of urbanism and modernisation in Chinese cities. First he positions his subjects as outsiders gazing and observing these changes with curiosity; Weng then shifts inwards, towards a more emotional response or reaction. In many of his series, Weng portrays people with their back turned to the camera, usually schoolchildren in uniform, staring in the distance, still, such as in Staring at the Lake(2007). The children represent a new beginning in the search for that utopia, which might exist, still, beyond that silent body of water. Constantly evolving, Weng addresses issues of travelling, migration and globalisation affecting China and its people.
Cui Xiuwen (b. 1970, Harbin, Heilongjiang) is a photography and video artist who made headlines in China's contemporary art world 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 shows footage of hookers counting money and preparing for the next client. Since the beginning of her career, Cui has focused on taboo issues of sexuality, feminism and gender roles in China, and explores the struggles of young women growing up in big cities and the harsh life that women take up in China's mad economic growth. Somehow the artist reflects on the situation of young women in China through a subtle self-portraiture. In her latest work Existential Emptiness (2009), the artist poses with an artificial alter ego in the snowy landscapes of Northern China, putting in contrast the Western concept of existential emptiness, a void to be dreaded, and Eastern philosophy's emptiness as finding one's origins and becoming one with nature, achieving a higher plane of consciousness.
Li Wei (b. 1970, Hubei) creates photographs based on his performances often depicting him in gravity defying situations that pose him and other in threatening and dangerous scenarios. His photographs are not the result of digital manipulation, but are produced with acrobatics and the aid of props such as scaffolding, mirrors and metal wires. Li came to prominence with his performance Falls, in which he stuck himself through a group like a missile, wanting to portray the modern man's desire to hide from daily problems. His series Fall (2002) portrays him falling into the ground, a body of water or a car, head first with his legs and feet sticking up at unnatural angles. Li references the malaise of finding oneself in situations that are out of one's control, driven by higher, more powerful forces, such as politics, economy and social pressure. Li describes it thus: '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.'
Hong Lei (b. 1960, Chaozhou, Jiangsu) describes his practice as roaming 'within 5,000 years of civilization, dreaming a sad dream so that I can escape the turmoil of reality. I hereby proclaim that I am terrified of globalisation and abhor it.' Hong's images subvert reality and create surreal, anachronistic scenes that weave reality, imagination, traditional and contemporary imagery together, commenting on the traumatic changes of modern China. 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, he drew the attention of critics for a photo of his installation Chinese Box, in which a dead bird lay in a jewellery box filled with pearls, gems and other precious treasures. Hong then started photographing classical Chinese works of art to express anxiety about the conflicts between tradition and modernity. In his series Forbidden City, Hong took photographs of a dead bird in the imperial palace grounds, evoking the past grandeur and present weakness of traditional culture over its 5000 years of history. Hong said: 'Over time, I have come to see the dead bird as the embodiment of my own self.'