New Framework: Chinese Avant-garde Photography 1980s-90s

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Blindspot Annex and Blindspot Gallery Until Jun 22

Curated by renowned contemporary Chinese photographer RongRong, New Framework: Chinese Avant-garde Photography 1980s-90s is an ambitious exhibition that sheds light on the much disregarded photography scene of the 80s and 90s in China. Shown across Blindspot Gallery in Central and its annex space in Wong Chuk Hang, the works on view by 12 leading contemporary Chinese artists such as Zhang Haier, Liu Zheng, Qiu Zhijie and RongRong himself can be interpreted as intertwining chapters that look into motifs of individual identity, social condition and, more subtly, collective resistance against the traditional portraiture form of the photographic medium heavily employed by Chinese political officials since 1949.

While some of the works chosen are well-recognised, such as Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) and Study of Perspective: Tiananmen (1994), as well as RongRong’s East Village 1994 No. 19 (1994), and documentation of artist Zhang Huan’s performance in the East Village, the major selection of works in the exhibition remains an intimate body that successfully reflects on the dynamic, often absurd relationships in Chinese society during the post-Cultural Revolution period. Most notably, Jiang Zhi’s Sucker (1997), a set of 16 works, presents an extreme end to this spectrum, with his creation of the sucker population, a new kind of human that interacts simply by utilising the act of sucking. While the photographs depict the visual imagery of the anonymous ‘suckers’, whose only difference from a real person is the appearance of a protruding straw, it is the accompanying national flag and lyrics of the national anthem that allow the work to mockingly encapsulate the spirit of this fictive nation and, more importantly, the fabric of Chinese society.

The dichotomy between the real and unreal as epitomised in Jiang’s work has long been the subject of exploration in experimental and conceptual photography by other artists such as Qiu Zhijie, Zheng Guogu and Hong Lei. The placement of these three artists’ works in the annex space especially heightens the tension between portraiture and pseudo-documentation. While Qiu’s Fine (1997) showcases models, including the artist himself, standing in front of a photo-shooting studio backdrop in rigid postures, Zheng’s The Vagarious Life of Yangjiang Youth (1996) has moved away from the standard portraiture taking and instead captures the fleeting moments of a performance. Pushing along this verge is Hong’s Scene with Green Bird & Red Snake (1997), which replaces the subject of portraiture with splendid compositions of animals, objects and lighting.

Considering his own living experience and friendships with the many artists involved, the exhibition’s focus might well be regarded as RongRong’s first-hand view of Chinese photography in the latter half of the 20th century. However, upon closer examination, this eclectic body of works does certainly reveal something more: the co-existing strand that subtly bridges and pulls the scattered pillars of the photographic medium together.

Piper Koh

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