Lot 236
  • 236

Xing Danwen

15,000 - 25,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Xing Danwen
  • Born with the Cultural Revolution
  • each signed and numbered 3/10; each signed, titled in English, dated 1995, and numbered 3/10 with a seal of the artist on the reverse

  • silver gelatin print

  • Overall: 19 7/8 by 65 in. 50.4 by 165.1 cm.


Private Collection, New York


Other examples exhibited:
New York, International Center of Photography and Asia Society; Chicago, Smart Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art; Seattle Art Museum; London, Victoria & Albert Museum, Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China, 2004-2006, no. 30, p. 80, illustrated
Chicago, David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art; Eugene, University of Oregan Museum of Art; Hanover, Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century, 1999, plate 4, p.48, illustrated

Catalogue Note

Since the late 1970s the Chinese have foregone the public photography associated with the cult of Mao during the Cultural Revolution.  As scholar and curator Wu Hung points out in “Between Past and Future: A Brief History of Contemporary Chinese Photography,” once the first photography club and exhibition were organized in Beijing in 1979, there came an onslaught of similar clubs and shows.  Also influential were the publications that disseminated information on Western photographic movements and styles during the next two decades.

At the same time, particularly in the 1990s, there sprang up a period of experimentation in the arts; some of the most interesting works of this period were photographs taken of performances by artists such as Zhang Huan and Ma Liuming.  Zhang Huan’s famous image of workers staring at the viewer/camera while chest deep in a pond (To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond) speaks to the condition of migratory laborers in China, but other of his performances of the period were more radical and aggressive.  A later work by Zhang Huan (Lot 243), in which Zhang’s body, covered with Chinese characters, is enveloped with the rib cage of a cow, gives a sense of equally visceral and even more unusual performances documented by the lens in the mid 1990s. 

These documentary images took on importance in their own right, fueling further experimentation, in which the photographers set about recording some of the momentous changes occurring in Chinese society.  Xing Danwen’s Born with the Cultural Revolution 1995, Lot 236) declares an awareness of the changes she documented at the time, casting her sense of history’s events in the private language of a new generation’s birth. 

In the late 1990s and after 2000, in response to more information about American conceptual photography, some artists began to mimic the methods, if not the subject matter, of the Western avant-garde; Zhang Dali, for example (Lots 278-281), made himself known as a conceptual artist of note by photographing a simple caricature of his face, either sprayed onto half-demolished walls or cut out from the masonry itself.  His images celebrate the artist’s place in a damaged landscape as they document the process of modernization.

Hong Lei’s 1997 Autumn in the Forbidden City, East Veranda (Lot 276), posits a dead bird decorated with blue beads in what is best described as a traditionally sacred site; the theme of death carries, by implication, a reading of cultural and political pessimism:  the Old China is gone.  Rong Rong’s romanticism (Lot 277) also is tinged with nostalgia to the point of decadence; his various series of himself and his collaborating partner inri are exquisite images that offer nothing more than what they are—a kind of ecstatic, apocalyptic treatment of the male-female connection.  Sheng Qi’s mutilated hand (Lot 248)—a protest against the repression of Tiananmen Square—is reproduced in three images, in which he separately holds pictures of his father, his mother, and himself as a child; the images form an origins myth that incorporates contemporary history.  And one might say the same of Wang Jinsong’s meditations on China’s one child policy in a large body of work on the Standard Family (Lots 262-264). 

The documentation of China remains an important part of the Chinese photographic vocabulary.  Liu Heung Shing is represented with four striking images taken in the early 1980s (Lot 237):  students studying at night in Tiananmen Square; a row of women having their hair done with old-fashioned electric curlers; three young toughs in identical dress; and the inevitable picture of five workers with a picture of Mao looming in the background.  In Weng Fen’s work (Lot 260), one finds a beautifully poetic linking of past, present, and future in a body of work that is now internationally familiar, speaking as it does to the transformation of urban space in contemporary China. 

But just as easily may an artist transform traditional materials into a contemporary idiom.  Miao Xiaochun’s theatrical works (Lot 283) habitually show the past lingering on in the present in the form of an ancient sage, a sort of conscience of history that seems radically out of place in his contemporary settings.  By contrast Huang Yan (Lots 246 and 247) paints the faces of four Chinese people with pictures of plum blossoms, orchids, bamboo, and chrysanthemums on a background of white, with the features of each person cleverly incorporated into the imagery portrayed.  One of an extensive series of similar works, the effect is exquisite, and Huang’s works rank among the most widely-reproduced of recent Chinese contemporary art. 

Another strand of performative work is represented by Qiu Zhijie, who wrote the Chinese characters for the word “present” some 607 times in the course of 24 hours in September 2005 (Lot 256).  The photographs capture Qiu’s characters, written with a flashlight, against the wall of the Beijing Film Studio, where the artist completed this physical and mental feat.  Ritual plays a large part in Song Dong’s performance, too (Lot 258), in which he writes the character for “time” on a table with brush and water instead of ink; of course, the characters never appear because they are composed of water, a fluid, transparent medium.  Here the viewer sees time, an abstract notion, deliberately rendered meaningless by the artist’s activity, which, even so, suggests a certain comfort in the reiteration of a physical action rendered as ‘present’ in a photograph 96 times.

Wang Qingsong is an artist of a different nature, given to humor as a way of interpreting contemporary life – and art.  His brilliant panoramic photograph titled the Night Revels of Lau Li (2001, Lot 252) shows the venerable art critic Li Xianting entertained by beautiful, half-dressed women.  For all its humor, the composition offers a classical serenity, suggesting the pleasures of a life devoted entirely to the pursuit of aesthetic delight (and, indeed, there is a well-known historical source for the composition).  Such reflections upon the past and the present are characteristic of Wang’s work and embodied on monumental scale in Past, Present, Future (2001, Lot 251).  But it is the present and the future that Wang looks to most, and his preparedness for it – represented by his Billboard (2004, Lot 250) –is another tongue-in-cheek inside joke that we can happily interpret.

Billboard consists of a huge red plastic sheet with Chinese characters in white and English words in black, both of which announce “Artworks of Wang Qingsong.”  The sheer size of the billboard is underscored by the people assembled at the bottom of the composition, who are dwarfed by this grand advertisement of the increasingly famous artist’s ego!  Both honest self-parody and pointed social critique, it is a brilliant work that captures the spirit of the present and points the way toward the future.