Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography @China Institute

JTF (just the facts): A total of 100 photographs, mostly black and white, framed in blond wood and matted, and hung on grey walls in two separate galleries. The rooms are densely hung with pictures, often in double (or even triple) rows; each room also has a room divider, with images hung on both sides. The images were taken between 1951 and 2003, and while some photographers are represented by more than one image, the vast majority have only one picture included (therefore the number of photographers on view almost equals the number of images on view). The show is a subset of a larger show of approximately 600 works by 270 photographers shown at the Guangdong Museum of Art (here). A thin volume detailing the project (with background essays and a checklist) is available from the Institute bookstore for $15. (The China Institute does not allow photography in the galleries, so no installation shots are available for this show. Individual images have been taken from the China Institute website.)

Comments/Context: Ever since the bold emergence of Chinese contemporary photography in the US art world about five years ago, we have been trying to get our arms around the context for this new work and to understand its origins and influences. And while we have spent some time familiarizing ourselves with some of the bold face names of the current generation (Liu Zheng here, Wang Qingsong here, and Zhang Huan here), coming to grips with the larger historical picture has been elusive (here).
The broad show of humanist photography now on view at the China Institute does an excellent job of filling in some major gaps. Whether these images came out of photojournalistic or purely artistic traditions doesn’t matter much in my view; what I can see for the first time is an obvious tie back to the rest of the history of photography. Most of the images are from the 1980s and 1990s (coincident with the time when China began to open up more widely), and collectively they create a much more diverse picture of China than the usual clichés might suggest. These are not heroic propaganda shots or staged scenes of happy workers; for the most part, the images are small vignettes of ordinary everyday life, caught with documentary precision, artistic attention to composition, and intimate tenderness. There are markets and construction sites, people bathing in the street, crowds of bicycles, farm workers and the repeated clashing of generations. These are the stories of the unidealized masses, full of life, humor, imperfection, and reality.
A few of the highlights from the show:
  • Li Nan’s startling images from orphanages, where children have been tied to their chairs, due to lack of staff to care for them.
  • Xu Peiwu’s images of migrants in urban areas. I enjoyed the twisting arcs of rebar in Large scale demolition of temporary urban housing, 1999 (at right, bottom) and his poignant image of people up in a dark tree watching fireworks over an industrial area.
  • Yang Xiaobing’s image of students perilously crossing a broken slat bridge to get to school each day.
  • Wang Shilong’s almost Modernist picture of dark figures sweeping the streets against the backdrop of a bright white wall (Responding to the call for a patriotic hygienic movement, citizens come forth to sweep the streets, 1958, at right, middle).
  • Hei Ming’s crazy patterns of rice bowls, hung outside a storefront (Iron Rice Bowl Workers’ dining hall, 2000, at right, top).
  • Liu Yiwei’s silhouetted construction worker, walking on the bare spikes of steel of an incomplete overpass, with the traffic rushing by underneath.

Overall, this is a diverse gathering of high quality work, full of juxtapositions of new and old, urban and rural. The dramatic change we have come to associate with China is seen for the first time on the micro level, where anonymous people confront the transformations on a personal basis. While not every image in this show rises to the level of documentary art (and the installation often feels overcrowded), I think this is an important exhibit that merits an investment of time; this is some of the Chinese photography the West has been missing, so make a detour to fill in some gaps in your education.

Collector’s POV: Given the way this exhibit was designed and hung, the photographers seem to be pushed to the background; the pictures are in the front, who made them hasn’t been highlighted. As such, it is extremely hard to get a feel for the broader artistic differences between the photographers who have been included. While there are certainly images we found memorable (some of which we alluded to above), it seems like this show might best be thought of as an introduction: now at least, we have a list of names to follow up.
The problem is, of course, how to do this. I have no idea where the work of any of these photographers might be available in the US; perhaps it is only available in China. Please do add information to the comments section if you can provide useful pointers to where interested collectors can potentially follow-up.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here).
Transit Hub:
  • Additional exhibit related resources (here)
  • Reviews: WSJ (here)
Through December 13th
125 East 65th Street
New York, NY 10065

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Milda Books (here). Silk-screen printed clothbound softcover with end-flaps and open spine Swiss binding, 170 x 240 mm, 304 pages, with 244 ... Read on.

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