I managed to make it to the San José Museum of Art just in time to catch Rising Dragon: Contemporary Chinese Photography before it closed. I’m glad I did. It’s extremely easy to put your blinders on and just look at art by people who are from your own culture. I all too rarely go and explore things where I’ve no preconceived notion of what to expect. To have such a show in my backyard is a great thing.
Of course, to go to such a show is to be willing to put up with a higher percentage of misses in order to see the hits. To be clear here, misses are photos which get the, “it’s nice, but doesn’t grab me” kind of boring reaction. There wasn’t much which triggered any immediate ignore reaction.
But there was a decent amount of stuff in this show which just didn’t grab me. Quite a bit of the photography are things which struck me as falling into the clever isn’t good enough bucket to the point where I found myself thinking that I’d probably prefer the show if it were a flickr slideshow. For example, Huang Yan, Maleonn, Li Wei, and Wang Jin are all photos and photographers which I liked but just didn’t strongly respond to. Maybe it’s cultural and I lack the historical references. Or maybe I’m just getting old and am no longer responding to coming-of-age-in-a-more-complicated world problems.
In any case, there were a number of photos which I did really like. In particular, Yao Lu’s garbage landscapes* are fantastic in how they reference, evoke, and subvert traditional forms of landscape depiction. Many of the photos in the show reference myth and legend. Few do it as well as these though where it’s not just a clever idea but is instead executed to perfection.
It’s especially interesting to see the garbage landscapes displayed right next to Wang Wushen’s black and write prints of Mt. Huangshen. Both describe the same landscape tradition with the same mists, peaks, and silhouettes. Both even take the same ancient tradition into modern technology and methods. Yet the results are so different.
There are also a lot of photos which document the changing China. The rate and amount of change in China means that are tons of projects documenting change or capturing what is about to be lost. We’re talking Robert Adams on fast-forward with an additional level of helplessness in the face of massive government power.* Many of the photos capture landscapes as cities sprout skyscrapers over the course of a few years. Others capture people who are about to be displaced and ways of life which are being phased out.
*There are a number of photos from the Three Gorges region which brought to mind Linda Butler’s work.
I particularly liked Adou’s photos as they manage to be both portraits of a person and of an entire culture. And these aren’t human zoo images either. The photos of people manage to convey a sense of cultural pride along with the sense of impending loss.
Like with the landscapes, these portraits manage to strike the delicate balance between being beholden to the past and looking toward the future.
This balance is probably the common thread for the exhibition and is my biggest takeaway from the show.
As a westerner, I find myself looking at China and wondering how they can be so willing to just pave over and destroy centuries-old traditions and structures. Zhang Huan’s Family Tree photo series* suggests where my misunderstanding is based. It’s not about the external traditions and structures. Rather it’s about the internal traditions that are passed down generation to generation.
*Successive self-portraits as more and more of his ancestors’ names are painted on his face.
This isn’t something which we put much stock in in the West where everyone dreams of being rich and reinventing themselves. It seems to be a novel concept to the new generation of Chinese. That much of the art doesn’t grab me could be exactly the point. So much of the dealing with the open-ended freedom of young-adulthood seems familiar because it’s a western thing. To see it so often in contemporary China suggests we’re not as far apart as we think we are.