First commissioned by The Art Newspaper for May 2011 print edition.
Follow Me, Wang Qingsong, 120x300cm, 2003
Since the propagandistically-charged photographs of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese photography has come a long way. International Center of Photography’s (ICP) choice of a contemporary Chinese artist for a solo show, Wang Qingsong : When Worlds Collide, is a huge statement. In the last 6 months, at least 3 important museums have featured Chinese contemporary photography in group exhibitions : J. Paul Getty Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art (Kunsthaus Zurich till 15 May, 2011). Getty Museum’s first major acquisition of contemporary Chinese photography of works of Wang Qingsong and Hai Bo in 2009 and MoMA’s purchase of 28 photographs by 11 artists such as Ai Weiwei, Rong Rong, Huang Yan and Sheng Qi in 2008 further affirms the growing recognition of photography as a vital part of contemporary artistic practice.
Key appointments in museums, like that of Judith Keller, Senior Curator of Photographs of Getty last year, also speak of an augmenting Asian focus in acquisitions in this medium. Judith, in her interview with Los Angeles Times, stated that she was looking “to increase images from Japan, China and Korea”, to broaden the scope of Getty’s photography collection and “build up their contemporary works”. A quick check on the curriculum vitae of contemporary Chinese artists working in the photographic medium indicate that such acquisitions have indeed been taking place in major museums around the world --- including the Tate and the Pompidou. Wang’s works, for example, are held in collections of more than 30 museums internationally. Its ascension onto the world stage did not happen overnight. Its evolution and several reincarnations within China had intrinsic connections with avant-garde artists, the experimental media and conceptual art : from April Photo society in the late 70s to the New Wave Movement and the participation of Zhang Haier and 4 other Chinese artists’ participation in the 1988 Arles Photography Festival in France, and the collaborations of photographers with.
Contemporary photography really only entered the consciousness of international collectors at ICP’s 2004 landmark exhibition, Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China. Curated by Wu Hung and Christopher Phillips, works by up to 60 contemporary Chinese artists travelled to various parts of United States, Berlin as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The 224-page catalogue that accompanied the show comprehensively explained the historical context of Chinese contemporary photography to an international audience and became the de facto shopping catalogue of collectors.
“What is interesting in the world of contemporary Chinese art are works on video, photography and new media, “ said Sylvain Levy of DSL collection, a collection of works by 110 leading contemporary avant-garde artists. “It is here we see Chinese artists at their best – rigorous educational foundation in fine arts at renowned Chinese art institutions, strong understanding of and attachment to their roots and the innovative use of technology, especially amongst the young.“
Today, international buyers in auctions dominate two parts to one, and interest from Asian buyers is mounting. “Those who used to buy photographic works of Western origins are now more open to shifting their budgets to contemporary photography from Asia. New collectors find the price level and collection knowledge less demanding,“ says Gladys Chung, who specialises in Chinese 20th Century Art and Asian Contemporary Art at Christie’s.
Burgeoning demand is also evident in the increasing number of lots being offered for sale. “In Fall 2008, Christie’s had 5 Chinese photographic works on offer; the figure grew to 23 lots in Fall 2010. New names like Tienzheng and Yang Yongliang are also surfacing. While collections of Chinese conceptual and action photographic art were previously confined to names like Zhang Huan, support is strengthening for artists like Zhang Dali, Hong Lei and Hong Hao,” she added.
As support for this medium gains popularity, has conservation issues that are specific to China surfaced ? Christopher Phillips, curator of ICP admitted,“The oldest Chinese photographic works in our collection are merely 10 to 15 years of age. Give it another 10 years. So far there has been no issue whatsoever. But issues of conservation do not just apply to photographic prints, but to the whole range of contemporary works.” For Wang, the longevity of the medium is a practical thing that he gets involved in -- he has been personally “training” 2 photographic reproduction laboratories in Beijing. “Labs in China are used to handling huge amounts of reproductions for personal and commercial usage. In the beginning, I had to teach them the basics of how to handle prints as artworks – reminding them to be careful to rinse off the chemicals thoroughly and handle the prints with new gloves. I tell them, the print has to last more than 200 years!” Still, standard clauses embedded in artist contracts guaranteeing fresh reproductions for photographic deteriorations lower the risks for collectors.
Given the interest, there is still a general perception amongst collectors and Chinese artists that contemporary Chinese photography is still underrepresented internationally, though dealers like Meg Maggio (Beijing) and Michael Hoppen (London) beg to differ. “There are so many galleries representing Chinese contemporary art/ photography, I am not sure we would add anything unless we find someone outstanding we could work with,” says Michael Hoppen, who is hoping to expand into Asia, given the right partner and space. Since 2005, international galleries like Urs Meile and Pace, have opened branches in Beijing to have first choice of talent pool and a piece of the action. For many dealers, the dampener seems to be direct studio sales that are practised by segments of the artistic community. However, this is slowly changing as the more experienced ones are buying into the benefits of having dealers look into commercial aspects of sales so they can better concentrate on their productions and work towards having a foot into collections of the best museums in the world.
Of all the developments in Chinese contemporary photography, the most promising is also the most organic : PhotoSpring Caochangdi (May 31), an annual event in Beijing held in partnership with Les Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival, the most important international event on the photography calendar. It is in and through events like this that content and competency in this medium will continue to be sharpened, talent can be continually be scouted and that the medium will find an unlimited source of fresh expressions.