PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF BARON AND BARONESS GUY AND MYRIAM ULLENS DE SCHOOTEN
The Ullens Collection is the foremost pioneer of collecting contemporary Chinese art, encapsulating many important works that are of tremendous art historical value. Similarly, their collection of photography is also considered to be exceptionally diverse and eclectic. Sotheby’s is pleased to be entrusted by the Ullens to present their extremely rare photography collection (Lot 983 – 1019), fully showcasing the development of Chinese contemporary photography from performance art documentation to conceptual photography. This not only allows us to rediscover the history of Chinese photography since 1990s, taking a glimpse into the ways through which artists respond to their era and environment, but more importantly, allow us to witness the societal changes of China in the past two decades.
In the decade following the 1989 Grand Exhibition of Art, Chinese avant-garde art became even more active. The introduction of Western modernist ideas had a tremendous impact on Chinese aesthetic thought and art practice. Artists no longer restricted their activities to the art academies, and experimental artists from all over the country flooded into Beijing, turning it into the undisputed national center for experimental art. For creative, economical, and other reasons, these experimentalists tended to live together in villages away from the city center, one of which was Dongcun. Unlike the artists in the Yuanmingyuan commune, the Dongcun experimentalists, such as Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming, Cang Xin, and Zhu Ming, were mostly performance artists, and they collaborated with each other very closely. From 1992 to 1994, the artist Rong Rong documented in photographs their daily life and work—work regarded at the time as rebellious and even insane. By June, 1996, Dongcun had ceased to exist due to governmental intervention, and these photographs became precious historical material. Moreover, the recognition that Rong Rong has received as an artist in his own right—and his photographs themselves as art—points to important intellectual issues about the relationship between documentary photography and art photography.
Beginnings in Dongcun
In Rong Rong’s Dongcun, the art historian Wu Hung comments on Rong Rong’s photographs: “The significance of these photographs is in fostering communication: they connected some of the artists in the big villa (Dongcun) and gave them confidence. In fact, before these artists earned the acceptance of the outside world, they confirmed their identity as ‘experimental artists’ through their images in photographs” (p. 71, 2014). It is not difficult to recognize the mutual stimulation and influence between artists and photographers, who developed a collaborative relationship. Zhang Huan’s 65 Kilogramsand 12 Square Meters, Ma Liuming’s Fen-Ma Liuming series, Cang Xin’s Trample the Face, and the communal effort Original Sounds—all these were representative works of an era. The artist-photographer’s contribution here was not only documentary or personal, but also in transforming the artists’ conception of art through the photographic medium. Some artists began purposefully to use photography as their primary medium. It is no exaggeration to say that some even created work specifically for the camera. The special historical context gave contemporary Chinese photography a unique status. Contemporary Chinese art was not a result of a gradual progression from the modern to the contemporary, but was rather generated by a relatively short-term concentration of influences and interactions. The relationship between photography and performance art was an example of this. Beyond the Dongcun community, artists like Song Dong, Yin Xiuzhen, and Zhu Fadong all documented their performances in photography in the mid- and late-90’s. Since most of us were not present at the performances themselves, these photographs not only inform but substantially form our understanding of this history.
The transformations of an individual artist’s documentary and artistic uses of photography can shed light on photography’s more general intellectual transformations in contemporary Chinese art. In the early 1990’s, when exhibitions opportunities were few, photographs often became substitutes for performance art and installations. This was precisely the situation that drove Qiu Zhijie to adopt photography early in his career. But when he later presented a performance piece in his photographic work Rainbow, the “reality” of the performance came to be questioned by “real” performance artists. This case illustrates an important dilemma: should an artist exploit the photographic medium’s inherent visual power, or should he or she simply use it as documentation? After the 1990’s, as the art market developed, artists’ economic conditions improved, and they had more and more opportunities to exhibit their work. They no longer had to use photography as a compromise, or merely as a substitute for performance and installation. Consequently, they became interested and able to investigate and explore photography on its own terms. Thus enriched and energised, contemporary Chinese photography developed in different new directions and acquired its independence identity as an artistic medium. This has been reflected in its introduction as a discipline in China’s art academies.
Narratives of Urban Life
Around 2000, China’s rapid and dazzling urban development became a major concern among many artists. For artists who experienced first-hand the drastic transformations of the cities and found them alienating, photography was attractive as a direct and instantaneous way to inspect the environment around them, as well as a means to project their own ideas. Many photographic works from this period are marked by a strong sense of narrative: images often do not enter the photographic frame naturally, but are rather planned or fabricated by the artists. Yang Fudong’s The First Intellectual is a good example. Here everything from the background to the human subject is marked by the artist’s manipulation. Although the image appears static, a drama is unfolding therein. The subject’s dress, his blank expression, the wound on his head, and the brick he holds in his hand—all these reflect Yang’s own understanding and imagination of who an “intellectual” is.
Materialism had an enormous impact on the Chinese at this time. Witnessing the awe-inspiring prosperity of entire cities and riches of particular individuals, artists profoundly felt their country’s socioeconomic, political, and cultural transformations. Wang Qingsong’s dazzling and luxurious photographic images confronted this new social reality by exaggerating it to the point of absurdity. Such satiric absurdism was a common language among many contemporary Chinese works of art. Hong Hao consciously imitated Western advertisements in his photographs, in which he dons a suit and surrounds himself with the trappings of “modern” life. The notion of “conceptual photography” arose, although for a time it was almost completely identified with arranged photography. Other artists chose more socially engaged ways to reflect reality. In 1997, posters appeared that showed Zhao Bandi embracing a “panda,” appropriating and parodying various kinds of governmental ordinances. Zhao, who has a solid academic foundation in painting, abandoned this medium in favour of performance and photography, doubtlessly because of his interest in the role of mass media in contemporary life.
A Return to Lost Traditions
Post-coloniality is a constant and inescapable background in any consideration of contemporary Chinese art, as if all of it began life as a foreign import. Yet artists have never given up trying to connect with the native cultural traditions from which modern China has become estranged. Some do so by referencing ancient history (e.g., Hong Lei and Huang Yan), others through nostalgic retrospection on the recent past (e.g., Hai Bo). It is hard to deny the relationship between their photographic practices and “new” China, since photography is a recent arrival compared to painting, which has a much longer and complex history of viewing and appreciation. Photography’s emergence precisely touches on and makes manifest the tensions between the traditional and the contemporary, the native and the foreign.
Of course, contemporary Chinese photography has never developed in a linear manner, and every individual artist has his or her own philosophy and perspective. Moreover, it is hardly possible to determine the myriad forms of entanglements and mutual influence between photography and other artistic mediums. An issue has haunted contemporary Chinese photography for its entire history: for both galleries and collectors, photography remains a medium relatively friendly to display and commercial transaction, which must affect the artists in some way. Every artist has to decide on a certain relationship with the market and collecting system, whether it is rejection, cooperation, participation, or even exploitation. These relationships are by now thoroughly internalised by the artists themselves. As the market and collecting system entice and constrain the artists, they participate in and shape contemporary art.
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