Like so much else in recent China, the great boom in Chinese contemporary art has happened too fast for complete analysis. There are fixed points, however, on the way to understanding. One of them is that in China, as everywhere else, photography has been a central element of contemporary art.
Political expressions that could not have been made in words were made visible in photography. The harshly suppressed mass mourning for Premier Zhou Enlai (he died in 1976), which became known as the April Fifth Movement, was given its main expression through photography. It became the first time since Mao that anything identifiable as political opposition had made itself felt.
That in turn spawned the fundamental series of exhibitions of the early 1980s, Nature, Society and Man. These, while not photographically very radical (nor even particularly daring) by western standards, were a quantum leap in personal photography in China.
More recently, the dislocations triggered by whole populations moving into the cities, and by whole cities being remodelled to house them, have been expressed most visibly in photographs. It is fair (if simplistic) to say that between those three great impulses – political opposition, the rise of individualism, and concern at the rates of ecological and environmental change – the great welling-up of contemporary Chinese art took its direction.
Another fixed point is that in China the very thought of photography as a means of expression for the photographer is new. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, photography was either official or it was completely private. We know now that a few brave souls such as Li Zhensheng – whose heroic secret documenting of the Cultural Revolution ferment has now been circulated in Europe (including in the recent Everything Was Moving exhibition at the Barbican in London) – tried to keep a record for posterity of unimaginably troubled times.
Nevertheless, it was only in the 1980s that camera associations and private photography journals began to proliferate. Before that, photography had been controlled by the state, and not only in terms of outlets. Film and cameras were scarce and access to them was restricted; that was in itself a form of state regulation as effective as any censorship.
The canonical texts on this background – at least for anglophone readers – are the two essays in the Smart Museum of Art (Chicago)/International Center of Photography catalogue for the exhibition Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China, which came to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 2004 – quite a long while ago and an aeon by the speed at which China changes. A good new overview was due, and has now been furnished in the shape of Claire Roberts’ Photography and China, the latest in the Reaktion Books series putting photography into its proper contexts.
Roberts’ span is the whole history of photography following its arrival in China soon after its declared invention in 1839. Such early photography of China is hardly a clichéd field. Odd pieces appear from time to time in salesrooms, and a few European pioneers (John Thomson, Felice Beato) are well known. But the real history is not yet familiar. As European founders of photographic establishments moved away, their businesses were often taken over by Chinese owners and curious blends of style and presentation began to appear. Portraits, for example, had to show no shadow to succeed in China, since shadow was not a part of the human face and therefore should not appear.
But photography took hold in China far less vigorously than, for example, in the consistently progressive Meiji period (the latter half of the 19th century) in Japan. Photography spread well in the treaty ports, but mainly only there at first. As an English-language press grew up, so did markets in portraiture and cultural tourism. Photography, in other words, although vigorously in touch with local conditions and influenced by them, grew dependent upon a version of the export market.
And that, surprisingly, is the third fixed point to consider in the recent explosion of photography in China. A good proportion of the best-known work by artists working with photography has been made not with Chinese antecedents in mind, but with western ones. It is as though they have created Chinese “export art” analogous to that export porcelain that used to be made for the great trading carracks to ship to Europe. When it arrived, it looked Chinese. But it was made to order, and what the buyers didn’t realise was that as it left the Chinese ports, it looked to its makers like nothing so much as European pottery.
At the high level of the global artists, those whose work you can find anywhere on the international gallery circuit, in Los Angeles or London as well as at home, it is very clear that this has been a deliberate selling strategy. Take Wang Qingsong, for example. Again and again, his very Chinese-seeming pieces are powerfully redolent of European antecedents. “The Night Revels of Lao Li” (2000) is a very westernised nod to Chinese sources; the 42-metre long frieze-photograph “The History of Monuments” (2010) is a scatter-gun targeting of dozens of western ones. “His Dormitory” (2005) was a tough look at the changing living conditions in Chinese cities, and the changing morals that came in their train, couched in easily recognisable references from western art history.
In the same way, when Ai Weiwei published his influential White Cover, Grey Cover and Black Cover books in the mid-1990s, they were full of references to artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Jenny Holzer and Jeff Koons. It may be merely my European prejudice coming through, but the urban pieces of Zhang Dali (they often show a graffitied head, a cipher for the artist himself, carved on to walls, and sometimes outlining a hole through which the glories of past architecture are seen to be threatened) seem more closely derived from artists such as Georges Rousse or Gordon Matta-Clark than from anything Chinese.
The explosion has now happened. China is filling up with photographic festivals, and gallery activity is increasing all the time. Western gallerists and curators travelling to China don’t think of themselves as “pioneering” any more – just going about their business. But Chinese art – and photography most particularly – still falls into two very distinct categories. Either it asks for a lot of exegesis before western audiences can “get” it; or it is so squarely aimed at western cultural understanding as to seem only thinly Chinese at all.
In that context, a good new history book is very welcome. When Chinese artists are quite confident that outsiders are prepared to understand in Chinese terms much of what they make, they will be free at last from the obligation to make things on the terms of foreign customers. It is happening at breathtaking speed.
‘Photography and China’ by Claire Roberts is published by Reaktion Books. www.reaktionbooks.co.uk