He Yining (HYN) and Ruben Lundgren (RL) meet in Beijing. They look back on the process of the production of the exhibition ‘China Imagined’ and reflect the current state of art and photography in China
Photographer vs Artist
RL: I’ve brought some catalogues with me from previous exhibitions that gave an overview of Chinese contemporary photography till about 2010. There is a lot to talk about, but lets start with a simple question: What are those photographers doing now? In the selection we made looking at projects from the last decade not many of them showed up on our radar, how come?
HYN: First reason might probably be that many of them take on another career in their 30’s or 40’s. Look at Rongrong and Inri for example. They have been very active photographers but changed position to help new young photographers with their Three Shadows Photography centre. Another reason is our focus on story telling photographers, more than contemporary art. Curators like Wu Hung and Karin Smith for example come from the art world, while both of us are active in the photography world. They look at the work as objects, we tend to look at the narrative and how to tell the story of contemporary China. That’s a different approach. Photographers like Zhang Kechun for example have an editorial background and use a documentary way to look at the country. Just a few of the photographers we show in Breda are represented by an art gallery and most consider themselves photographers instead of artist. There are exceptions like Chen Zhe. She successfully managed to move her photography works into a more contemporary art practise, but I think when it comes to art exhibition, it is still hard for the audience to connect with her recent photographic works.
RL: To be honest, I have problems to connect to some of those contemporary art works as well. Obviously, I also come from an editorial photography background that might be a reason. But when things turn very abstract and arty I disconnect because of the overwhelming pretentiousness. Sometimes I barely understand the exhibition texts. I think that’s not just me, it’s a problem that many people within a general audience experience. Also the classic idea that art goes where the money flows is good to keep in mind. I remember in 2007 when I started my MA photography in Beijing, just a few years before the Chinese photography bubble bursted. There were collectors buying series of prints from my classmates who literally graduated the day before. Crazy if you think about it, specially 10 years later when you can see that many of those photoshopped fantasies didn’t age well. The moment I graduated in 2011 this hype faded away. Most of the photographers we show in Breda made their career after the burst of the bubble. How do you think these two things relate to each other?
Print vs Online publications
HYN: Looking back on that crisis period, you see that it offered opportunities for photo festivals to show projects that did not necessarily fit in the art world the years before. Photographers were not necessarily selling their works, but they did get the opportunity to show it. The last decade we have seen a rising industry of festivals, fairs, photography centers and publishers. One example is Jiazazhi press who started around that time as well. Also online platforms like douban.com and WeChat where people post their pictures and gradually get to know each-other creating small networks. I met with Zhang Wenxin and some other photographers through that way as well. Liu tao is another example, as he got his large fan base from his posts on Weibo and rolled into the photography scene that way.
RL: This new way of showing and publishing works in a smaller, less commercial way is more organic in a way. For individual photographers, because of the accessibility of the internet, it has become so much easier to create your own store, do the design, handle the printing etc. It is a great stimulator to publish your work in a book. Having said that, not all materials in China are allowed to be published though.
HYN: In the very beginning of the selection process, we also intended to look for works dealing with political issues. While the first generation of artist and photographers during the opening up era in the 1980s over related to these issues, the contemporary photographers in recent years don’t seem to care much about it. Why do you think that’s the case?
RL: It does make sense actually. The age plays a big role I think. Growing up in the 70s or in the 90s makes a huge difference. The backdrop of their youth is completely different. In that sense it’s a logical outcome of the quick developments this country went through. But obviously, critical thinkers in the West or lets say in the Netherlands will say, listen, that’s also because its not possible in authoritarian China of today to do this, you will get in trouble and they will lock you up. And yes, you have to be brave to throw yourself into an area giving shitloads of pressure. In that way it is definitely related. On the other hand, in my experience I seldom see an interest to deal with it at all. Ren Hang was confronted with it as his interest in the naked body lead him there. In our search for projects to show in Breda we kept our eyes open and try to give a reflection of the things we see around us in the church. We did come up with some sharp edges but it lacks true outspoken political criticism. I know the Dutch audience is interested in how this mechanism works.
Art vs Political and Rebel work
HYN: Last year when I visited Musée de l’Élysée, a well known photography museum in Europe last year, they showed some works from Liu Bolin “The invisible man” using chameleon-like methods to immerse himself in environments. The curator told me it’s a very political work eye-catching to the audience. But I felt it was a bit boring really. It was one idea repeated many times. Personally I don’t really like that kind of work, but the audience seem to like the “rebel” work very much.
RL: That’s a very good point, it feels like that’s exactly the thing we have to deal with. There is a contradiction there. I feel like a western audience find it hard to process that young photographers or artists can say they are not interested in politics. They associate an artists as an outsider, a rebel, basically the Van Gogh type. The assumption is that they just say that to avoid problems but don’t actually mean it. But in my practical experience spending time with photographers, talking about their works and get drunk together they honestly lack interest in it. The only exception would be nudity. We’ve included some examples of those in the show as well. But the appetite for the sensitive type of project is barely present. That doesn’t mean however, that there isn’t a vast range of subjects worthy of looking at. Making a show like this makes me realise this more and more. Especially in a polarised world, its more important for a foreign audience to have acess to and get informed by in-depth documentary projects from China. Besides, I also feel that the speed of social and economic change over the last decades is so unprecedented that it naturally creates a delay for a foreigner to catch up. I feel like the image of China outside the country is changing, also rapidly, just not as fast as the country is reinventing itself. Maybe that’s exactly the function or theme of this exhibition. I’ve limited experiences as a curator, especially on this scale of show. But in the main text you mentioned our approach is actually not themed based. Is that a common way to make a show?
Central theme vs intuition
HYN: It’s a different situation. We are not showing how Chinese photography developed, or a best of selection. Some photographers have established names, others are young upcoming talents. Our ideas have basically driven us to show contemporary China society in different perspectives. That’s the main structure and purpose. There are certain projects that you or I personally would not have included at the start, but agree within the structure we came up with. That is quit interesting. Basically we build up an analogue space to have our dialogue for people to visit.
RL: I agree, the selection has been very instinctually from the start and clarified in time around the idea of narratives that often include a twist upon viewing contemporary China. That different view upon the country from photographers who sometimes spend years on their projects can give such great layered input of how the country is functioning. It is not an artistic statement, I really feel it has a clear function to the audience besides for example photojournalism or historic research. HYN: Yes, and talking about historic research, difficult to write a contemporary history. One big difference from previous histories for example, is that we don’t have a couple of major figures. The landscape has been splintered. That’s a huge difference to the previous descriptions of art history. It used to be History with a capital H, now its histories with and s at the end. From History to histories. Its become more complicated for art historians in a way.
Education vs Reputation
HYN: There is one group within this young generation of photographers who belong to the beneficial class of society, basically their parents support for their studies and beyond. They have the ability to create works without finding a job. But that’s just one group. Remember, many photographers unlike many painters for example, have the opportunity to find commercial work within their own profession. They do advertisement or fashion shoots to pay the bills.
RL: Another question would be education. We included quite some photographers that either studied in the UK, USA or have been abroad for a period of time. Pixy, Daniel Traub, Xu Xiaoxiao and Thomas Sauvin for example. At the start of the selection process I had a discussion with the main curator of the festival who was not sure if we should include foreign photographers or those who have been living abroad for a long time. Personally I care more about the meaning of a project then the person who made it. In the end it usually boils down to authentic ideas at the right time more than the school you graduated from or place you live. The idea that you are as good as the academy you graduated from seem to matter less and less.
HYN: Yes, I think the way photographers or freshly graduates have been looking for networks has dramatically changed over the last 10 years. Also with Chinese graduates coming back or showing their works within China. It’s no longer, listen to your “master” and you will be fine.
RL: That’s nice right? Look at Hua Weicheng’s work. It’s not his connections that push him up the ladder, it’s his ideas, his dedication and the way he executes them. That’s such a positive conclusion. The splintered landscape of photography offers a lot of opportunities for young photographers to be seen. The discovery award at Three Shadows, but also the exhibitions at the Lianzhou photo-festival and photography museum. It’s a comparative playing field, just like the international one, it doesn’t offer room for mediocre or lazy work. I see it as a positive development that the entry level has become much easier in recent years. It is hard to get your voice heard, but especially as a curator or anyone who enjoys good photography, competition in the end is a good thing