Fotograf Magazine

On Chinese Photography

It has to be emphasized (as the texts in the catalogue do) that the domestication of photographic seeing took place in China only very slowly (from the point of view of contemporary theories about the origins of photography by authors such as Crary or Batchen we could say that Chinese society did not in fact need photography) and that China missed both the already existing classical photographic modernism and its ensuing invasion into the mass consciousness, as well as the reaction to this, the post-war movement of “creative photography”. The concept of photography in China is in a simplified yet apt way explained in Susan Sontag’s On Photography, where she uses the example of the response to Antonioni’s documentary Chung Kuo (China) in the country of its origin. She explains the Chinese understanding of photography as the gaze of a single ideal eye that moves in the genre of a reverential (or worshipping) documentarism. In such an environment, any fragmentization of reality is considered disrespectful, or even subversive. Sontag in fact states a simplified analogy between the politics and visual culture of totalitarianism and late-stage capitalism.

For the reasons stated above, a significant number of the photographs on exhibit are conceived in a way that is close to 19th century photography. Landscapes or groups of personages are shot in a kind of “theatrical” composition, without any stronger formal accent (it is interesting to note how popular this approach is within Western conceptual photography). There are frequent references to classical Chinese art – quotations both of subject matter and of form. From the point of view of themes, there is a strikingly strong emphasis on the relationship between the individual and society, and the search for a new anchoring of this relationship within the framework of a fast developing Chinese society. In the work on exhibit we can thus observe a gradual establishment of the “homo politicus” such as we know the concept on our side of the globe – we see the inevitable and chaotic transformation of the Chinese pseudoegalitarian society into a society that is far more diversified. Similarly, the true opposition of citizen and state is gradually emerging. The question of social change and the role of the individual that constitutes an indivisible part of it, is however in the works presented often geared towards Euro-Atlantic art audiences, towards those countries who export “globalization” and thus also determine the character of “global art”.

In my opinion, and with regard to what has already been said, the Achilles Heel of the curator’s concept is its very definition: if the catalogue speaks about the participating photographers, this delineation is disrespectful to those who work more on the level of conceptual art. To organize genre-based exhibitions today is in my opinion a bit outdated, although on the other hand one can understand the effort to introduce some basic criteria of selection into a territory so rich and chaotic as contemporary Chinese art. However, the question remains as to whether these criteria were not erroneous from the outset, whether we are not dealing on the one hand with an omission of the historical discontinuity in the field of Chinese “photography”, and on the other with an effort to employ exotica as the primary quality. (But can you remember anything Chinese in your home?). In spite of the above mentioned reservations, one must – it has already become a minor tradition – admit that both curators at Galerie Rudolfinum have made a daring and patient effort in discovering new horizons, unknown to the European viewer. An even larger mention is deserved by the traditionally extremely rich, colorful and erudite accompanying program of lectures, screenings, concerts and other events.

As we all know well, no rope has only one end. We can thus expect that
just as Chinese art will move closer towards a Euro-American model both in form and subject matter, a similar process will occur in the opposite direction. Technological, economic and ideological conditions in China are gradually approaching those we are familiar with. Thus we have a unique chance to encounter Chinese art at that moment when it still looks towards us from such an enormous distance that it requires us to come closer and ask what is (and what is not) photography, and what is (or what is not) Chinese photography in particular. And that is a truly fascinating question.

Pavel Vančát