RongRong’s Photo Spring

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

BEIJING - It is no secret that Chinese photographic art is relatively “undervalued” in today’s art market when compared with its Chinese oil and ink painting siblings and with its Western counterparts. In the past few years as Chinese collectors have warmed up to contemporary Chinese art, the top brass of oil painting and ink painting have achieved record-breaking prices despite the 2007 financial crisis. While lately living Chinese painters often populated the top selling lists based on auction prices, no photograph by a Chinese artist has graced the Pendar list of 20 highest priced photographic works. I recently revisited Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing, founded by artist RongRong (b. 1968) and his wife Inri (b. 1973) to promote photographic art in China, and chatted with RongRong about the future of Chinese photographic art and his own artistic endeavors.

Myself, with RongRong, amidst the Ai Weiwei-designed Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing.

When I was a Wall Street lawyer, I helped Three Shadows set up a non-profit entity that will permit it to raise money in the United States. With the financial crisis of 2007, Three Shadows has not systematically targeted US-based donors. Despite the challenging economic environment, Three Shadows stays at the forefront of the Chinese photographic art scene. “Many collectors have yet to discover the vitality of China’s photographic art because there are very few meaningful channels to engage them. Had China’s photographic world been supported by an established and sympathetic structure, I would have probably not taken this on,” RongRong said, by way of explaining his role as a museum organizer and a curator, in addition to being an artist.

RongRong & Inri’s Caochangdi No. 5, 2008.

I first knew RongRong through his seminal works about Beijing’s art enclave East Village in the 1990s. One of the few photographic artists who combine contemporary social commentary with classical Chinese lyricism, RongRong still makes his own prints without resorting to commercial printing services. I own an edition of his Beijing No. 1 (1997) from his “Ruins” series, which contrasts a farmer at loss among rubble and solitary walls, leveled to make way for new structures, with a poster of a glamorous movie star from a bygone era.

RongRong’s Beijing No. 1, 1997.

It comes as no surprise that RongRong and I would hit it off. Keeping a ponytail longer than mine, RongRong grew up in a city 350 kilometers from my ancestor home in the same province. He is married to Japanese photographic artist Inri, while I used to be married to a German; therefore, we are both in tune with the travails and rewards of negotiating with multicultural identities.

In 2000 he started collaborating with Inri, using their bodies as vehicles to discover and explore the landscape around them, as seen in the “Fujisan” (2001) and “Liulitun” (2003) series. Their recent works include on-going annual portraits of their evolving family of a pseudo-antique glory in hand-dyed silver gelatin, as seen in their “Cao Changdi” series (2008- ).

RongRong & Inri’s In Fujisan, Japan No. 1, 2001.

Every time when I visited Three Shadows, including its annual photography festival, I felt like I had stepped into a sanctuary that combines education, research and cultural exchange. During this visit, the Centre was exhibiting works by 28 finalists from the 2013 Three Shadows Photography Award.  Du Yanfang (b. 1984), winner of the Shiseido Woman Photographer Award, revisited scenes from her childhood by combining the visual vocabularies of Chinese ink painting, contemporary photography and surrealist collage, as shown in her Flying a Kite (2012). Li Jun (b. 1977), winner of the 2013 Award, draws our view to quotidian objects that are not visible to the camera eye but for the contours and traces defined by the dust surrounding their absence (or, better stated, missing presence), as seen in his Kitchen Knife (2013).

Du Yanfang’s Flying a Kite, 2012.

Concurrently with Art Basel Hong Kong 2013, RongRong curated “New Framework: Chinese Avant-garde Photography 1980s-90s,” shown at the Blindspot Gallery and Annex in Hong Kong. In RongRong’s curatorial statement, he chronicled the progression of photography as an art form in contemporary China and asked: “How could photographs be recognized for their value of independent expression?”

Lamenting that photography played a subordinate role in China’s avant-garde and experimental art movements, he hypothesized that photography has not been viewed as an independent art form as a result of a long-standing distrust of the role of photography: “When photography becomes a means of political propaganda for the authority, its artistic value is lost.”

For RongRong, the works featured in this exhibition reflect the transformation of Chinese society in the past twenty plus years. “These memories may be muddled, rebellious, or scattered . . . yet photography has given a real framework to these slides.”

Essential Impressions: The 2013 Three Shadows Photography Award

Project Directors: RongRong & Inri

Curator: Mao Weidong

Three Shadows Photography Art Centre
115A Caochangdi, Chaoyang District
Beijing, China
April 13, 2013 - June 9, 2013

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

Curator: RongRong
Blindspot Gallery & Blindspot Annex
Hong Kong
May 12, 2013 – June 22, 2013

Chiu-Ti Jansen is a TV presenter, a publisher and a writer based in New York City with a pulse on China. 

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