Past, Present, and Future: Contemporary Chinese Photography and Identity

Weng Fen, Sitting On The Wall - Shenzhen (1), 2002-2003, photography

Weng Fen, Sitting On The Wall – Shenzhen (1), 2002-2003, photography

The following extract is taken from my thesis, submitted in partial requirement for the degree of  Bachelor of Philosophy with Honours in Art History and Curatorship in the School of Cultural Inquiry, Australian National University in 2011, and achieved a High Distinction. The full text is currently not available online. 

Photography has emerged as one of the most diverse and “fertile fields” of Chinese contemporary art since the 1990s.[1] Its increasing popularity echoes the pre-eminence of the medium in the international art scene, while its evocative power reflects the unique cultural and social conditions of the nation. Chinese artists are engaging with photography in creative and imaginative ways, combining tradition and innovation, documentation and artifice, to “create previously undreamt of visions” that capture the paradoxical character of society.[2] One of the central concerns that artists in China question through the medium is identity, and what it means to exist in a transforming world. Photography, by virtue of its close relationship to the material world, is highly suited to questions about identity in a changing reality. In the increasingly globalised and capitalist ‘new’ China, it is a means to reconnect with personal heritage and cultural history, but also a way for artists to examine the anxieties of the nation as it moves into an unknown future. In this manner, photography is used as a tool to reconstruct, deconstruct, and construct realities and ‘truths’, thereby demonstrating the essentially interpretative nature of identity.

The importance of identity in Chinese photography and contemporary art more broadly must be understood in terms of the transformations affecting the nation. China is changing rapidly; after years of repression and containment during the Cultural Revolution, the country is experiencing vast political, economic and cultural reforms on an unprecedented scale. While many of these changes are also happening in other parts of the world, what is particular about China is the rapid rate at which this is occurring.[3] The China of today is a vastly different world from the China of thirty years ago; new skyscrapers and city towers emerge as fast as old neighbourhoods are destroyed, while brand-new millionaires are discovering the joys of “unbridled capitalism.”[4] The nation, however, is still a place marked by paradox; although the country is currently one of the world’s largest economic powers, it is still a single-party state where wealth does not necessarily give way to personal freedom. It is in these tensions and contradictions that contemporary Chinese artists find their critical voice.

This thesis will focus on a number of Chinese artists who address the issue of identity through photography. Photography is a unique form of image-production that has fundamentally transformed visual culture since its invention in 1839. Early discussions in the 19th century focused on the mechanical aspects of the medium and its cultural significance. Baudelaire was amongst those who dismissed it as a purely technical process, whose “true duty” is “in short, [to] be the secretary and record-keeper of whomever needs absolute material accuracy for professional reasons.”[5] These ideas about the medium’s visual veracity continued to inform discussion into the 20th century, with scholars such as André Bazin who stressed the inherent ontological relationship of photography to “our obsession with realism.”[6] Other scholars like Walter Benjamin focused on photography’s function as a populist mode of communication and dissemination. In his seminal essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), Walter considered how reproducible technologies have led to a loss of artistic “aura.”[7] In this regard, photography came to be a “major carrier and shaper of modernism,” which sought to move away from past traditions and hierarchies.[8]

The rise of postmodern and poststructuralist theories in the 1970s and 1980s undermined the “great modern indexical promises of photography.”[9] No longer accepted as an authentic record, the medium became viewed increasingly as a “linguistic system and the product of an artificial creative process.”[10] Kendall Walton reminds us that it is an “expressive medium,”[11] and is “inevitably coloured by the photographer’s personal interests, attitudes, and prejudices.”[12] Other scholars have focused on photography’s close connection to mass media, and its ability to bridge the “distinct categories as mass culture and high art, technology and culture – in order to contest the notion of the autonomous art object.”[13] In this respect, many theorists came to distinguish postmodern art photography from fine-art photography. Abigail Solomon-Godeau considers this to be the “former’s potential for institutional and/or representational critique, analysis, or address, and the latter’s deep-seated inability to acknowledge any need to think about such matters.”[14]

More recent debates about photography as an art form have been greatly influenced by the conditions of contemporary culture and digital technologies. Photography, as an “all-inclusive intermedia field of operations with no single underlying basis,”[15] is “perhaps the quintessential medium of expression in terms of a contemporary mediation between global hegemony and local identity.”[16] These expressions are significant in contemporary art because, as Terry Smith writes in What is Contemporary Art (2009), “artists these days cannot turn away from the fact that they make art within cultures that are predominantly visual, that are driven by image, spectacle, attraction, celebrity.”[17] For Smith, we are living in an age of “contemporaneity,” which implies a “multiplicity of relationships between being and time.”[18] The resurging trend for portraiture in recent decades has also demonstrated this growing interest in the multiplicity of identity theory, with exhibitions and scholarly publications dedicated to the topic. Digital technologies have also greatly changed the way that photographs are ‘read’. For José van Dijck, photography no longer acts as “a memory intended to safeguard a family’s pictorial heritage,” but is instead “increasingly becoming a tool for an individual’s identity formation and communication.”[19]

Although the diversity of photography has ensured its pre-eminence as a contemporary art form, there still remains to be a cohesive description of its “independent identity beyond its purely functional roles.”[20] For photographer John Stathatos, this identity stems from the medium’s “unique relationship with reality, a relationship which has little to do with ‘truth’, visual or otherwise, but everything to do with the emotional charge generated by the photograph’s operation as a memory trace.”[21] In spite of “post-modernism or the recent explosion of digital imaging techniques,” Stathatos maintains that “photography remains essentially concerned with returning a reflection of the world if not as it is, then as we believe it to be.”[22] Bernd Stiegler presents a similar view, stating that “photographs construct forms of reality, an accepted truth of the visible; they are constructions of reality by means of a medium.”[23]

The emergence of photography in China is related to these larger developments, but its unique character is also symptomatic of the country’s history.[24] Photography was introduced to China in the mid-19th century through colonial powers, and enjoyed a brief success until the Communist Party rose to power. During this time, it became tightly regulated as a tool of state propaganda, manipulated in order to represent a “shining vision of new China and its people.”[25] The ‘second life’ of the medium started in the post-Mao era. The cultural re-opening introduced Western art to China for the first time in decades, and the 1970s and 1980s became a time of “vibrant experimentation and great enthusiasm.”[26] The first ‘unofficial’ exhibition of photographs was organised in 1979 by the April Photo society. The success of this show paved the way for more exhibitions and publications, leading to the ‘Photographic New Wave’ movement of the 1980s. For most of this period, documentary style was predominant, capturing the social changes as well as the artistic activities happening at the time. Although photography was widely viewed, it was “not a work of art; it was just a picture.”[27] This position was not to change until the mid-1990s, when the medium became one of the most popular forms of Chinese experimental art.

This slow acceptance of photography as an independent medium is demonstrated in the literature. Although numerous scholarly publications have been written since the 1990s about Chinese contemporary art, early attention tended to focus on painting movements like Political Pop and Cynical Realism. Photography in China is a burgeoning field, and has only received critical attention in recent times. Karen Smith’s essay Zero to Infinity: The Nascence of Photography in Contemporary Chinese Art of the 1990s (2002) traces its development as an “independent element of the contemporary art scene.”[28] She identifies the “sudden explosion in the medium” as a result of photography’s ability to convey the “socio-political, economic and cultural environment in a direct, contemporary way.”[29] Other scholars like Richard Vine have also considered the medium’s ability to reflect broader issues. For Vine, “photographic truth in China today is as fluid and contradictory as the vast, ancient and ambitious country itself,”[30] and it confirms the postmodern principle that “all truth is interpretative.”[31]

Much of the literature about Chinese contemporary photography is found in catalogues from international exhibitions, which provide a survey of the field. Exhibitions such as Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China,[32] and A Strange Heaven: Contemporary Chinese Photography,[33] have demonstrated the medium’s dynamism and diversity, while shows like Body Language: contemporary Chinese photography[34] turn to the importance of the “corporeal to create a visual language that explores individual and communal identity in a time of great social change.”[35] Increasing attention has also been given to the new generation of artists born in the 1970s and 1980s. John Millichap’s 3030: New Photography in China offers a survey of thirty artists under the age of thirty whose works “highlight the possibilities and anxieties of life in modern China.”[36] This generation of artists come from a world where the burden of politics and the Cultural Revolution are increasingly forgotten, replaced instead by “life experiences, values and behaviour” based “on consumer ideology.”[37]

This thesis follows on from these discussions, and considers how identity emerges as a central theme in a number of works. I will answer two questions: firstly, why is identity so important in Chinese contemporary art, and secondly, why does photography appeal to these artists as the ideal medium to address the issue? My goal is not to provide a complete survey of Chinese photography; instead, I will address some gaps in the existing literature by considering how questions about identity inform and shape developments in the field. The works discussed in this thesis are all created by artists working in China, and date from the 1990s to the present day. The last two decades have been a fertile time for artists to consider identity, as the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests created a rupture with historical ideology and changed the perception of artists from working as “soldiers in a heroic struggle into lone individuals facing an alien world.”[38] Although not strictly portraiture, all of the works discussed feature the human body. The bodies and faces of the subjects becomes a vessel through which identity is constructed, but also ultimately challenged. Even if the subject is not physically there, their presence is implicit in the absence.

Identity is a significant theme in Chinese contemporary art because of the fractures occurring within society, which leads to a destabilised sense of self. This thesis will examine three different types of identity that affect Chinese artists. Chapter 1 discusses artists Yin Xiuzhen, Hai Bo, and Sheng Qi, who use photography to connect with their personal histories. The medium becomes a way to reconstruct memories, and demonstrates how present notions of personal identity are informed by this past. The artists in Chapter 2, Zhao Shaoruo, Mu Chen and Shao Yinong, Huang Yan and Wang Qingsong, continue to explore these ideas about memory, but consider it in terms of cultural identity. Photography acts as a means to deconstruct tradition, providing not only as a historical link but also a critical dialogue with the presence of tradition in contemporary society. While Chapter 1 and 2 focus on the relationship between the present and the past, Chapter 3 turns to the uncertain future. The artists in this chapter, Rong Rong and inri, Weng Fen and Cao Fei, use photography to capture the urban transformations affecting their lives and construct new visions for society. The themes discussed in this chapter reflect broader global sentiments, particularly about the role of an individual in a “post-cultural” world.[39]

Regardless of the type of identity explored, the artists discussed use photography because it is closely connected to life experience. As a medium whose existence is dependent upon reality, photography is highly suited to questions about identity in a changing society. It offers an immediate way to raise concerns about the world, and acts as a means for Chinese artists to engage with culture and society, both as observers but also as active participants. Photography does not merely record reality, but also demonstrates the artist’s response to societal changes. The works in this thesis demonstrate the “simultaneity of past, present and future” which affect the consciousness of modern China today.[40] Even if the photographs are not neutral representations because they bear the particular ‘gaze’ of the artist, they still retain this basic visual contact with the world.

[1] Zhang Zongren, Petr Nedoma, and Susan Acret, A Strange Heaven: Contemporary Chinese Photography (Hong Kong: Asia Art Archive, 2003), 14.

[2] Richard Vine, “Post-Mao Photo Lessons,” Art in America 99, no. 4 (2011), 110.

[3] For instance, China has seen the fastest economic growth in the world, increasing at a rate of about 10% per annum since 1978.

[4] Filippo Maggia and Francesca Lazzarini, ed., Contemporary Photography from the Far East: Asian Dub Photography (Milano: Skira, 2009), 13.

[5] Charles Baudelaire, Selected Writings on Art and Artists, trans. P. E. Charvet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 297.

[6] Andre Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in What Is Cinema?: Essays, ed. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 12−13.

[7] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, ed. Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World 1968), 219−253.

[8] Liz Wells, ed., Photography: A Critical Introduction (London: Routledge, 2009), 19.

[9] Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson, ed., The Meaning of Photography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), xxii.

[10] Peter Weiermair, Prospect: Photography in Contemporary Art (Kilchberg/Zurich: Edition Stemmle, 1996), 10.

[11] Kendall L. Walton, “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism,” Critical Inquiry 11, no. 2 (1984), 247.

[12] Ibid., 262.

[13] John G. Hanhardt and Nancy Spector, Moving Pictures: Contemporary Photography and Video from the Guggenheim Museum Collections (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), 9.

[14] Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Photography after Art Photography,” in Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: The New York Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 85.

[15] Alexandra Moschovi, “Changing Places: The Rebranding of Photography as Contemporary Art,” in Photography between Poetry and Politics: The Critical Position of the Photographic Medium in Contemporary Art, ed. Hilde van Gelder and Helen Westgeest (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2008), 149.

[16] Frederick Gross, “Contemporary Photography: Between the Global and the Local,” in Global and Local Art Histories, ed. Celina Jeffery and Gregory Minissale (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2007), 57.

[17] Terry Smith, What Is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 246.

[18] Ibid., 4.

[19] José van Dijck, “Digital Photography: Communication, Identity, Memory,” Visual Communication 7, no. 57 (2008), 57.

[20][20] John Stathatos, “Images for the End of Time,” (1999) accessed 1 September, 2011,

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Bernd Stiegler, “Photography as the Medium of Reflection,” in Photography between Poetry and Politics: The Critical Position of the Photographic Medium in Contemporary Art, ed. Hilde van Gelder and Helen Westgeest (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2008), 194.

[24] For a more detailed analysis of this history, refer to Appendix 1: Photography in China in this thesis, pages 86–95.

[25] Wu Hung, Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China (Göttingen: Steidl, 2004), 41.

[26] Michel Nuridsany, China Art Now (Paris: Flammarion, 2004), 11.

[27] Alice Schmatzberge, “How Three Begets Many Things: Rongrong & Inri and the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre,” Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art 10, no. 1 (2011), 71.

[28] Karen Smith, “Zero to Infinity: The Nascence of Photography in Contemporary Chinese Art of the 1990s,” in Reinterpretation: A Decade of Experimental Chinese Art (1990-2000), ed. Wu Hung (Guangzhou: Guangdong Museum of Art, 2002), 35.

[29] Ibid., 42.

[30] Vine, “Post-Mao Photo Lessons,” 117.

[31] Ibid., 112.

[32] Held at the International Photo Centre, New York in 2004

[33] Held at the Galerie Rudolfinum, Prague, in 2003

[34] Held at the National Gallery Victoria, Melbourne, in 2008.

[35] Isobel Crombie, Body Language: Contemporary Chinese Photography (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2007), 4.

[36] John Millichap, ed., 3030: New Photography in China (Shanghai: 3030 Press, 2006), 1.

[37] Ibid., 14.

[38] Wu Hung, “A Case of Being ‘Contemporary’: Conditions, Spheres and Narratives of Contemporary Chinese Art,” in Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity, ed. Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, and Nancy Condee (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 295.

[39] Paul Serfaty, “New Generations in Chinese Photography,” Asian Art News 16, no. 3(2006), 86.

[40] Sue Smith, Other Dimensions: Contemporary Photomedia from Australia, China and Japan (Rockhampton: Rockhampton Art Gallery, 2006), 5.


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