May 16 - June 21, 2008
Curated by:
Hantao Shi
Gallery 456
Exhibition Statement

Discomforting Anxieties

All four photographers in this exhibition are from Mainland China. Born in Shanghai in the 1960s, Wang Yiqun and Zheng Yaohua were among the first avant-garde photographers and video artists after the country opened up. After immigrating to the U.S., both became independent artists. Miao Jiaxin and Zhang Wu were born in the 1970s. Zhang moved to America at seventeen and grew up in New York’s Chinatown. Soon after he came to the Big Apple, Zhang began to record on camera his impressions and experiences in an unfamiliar city. Miao belongs to the new generation of Chinese photographers. Since arriving in the U.S. two years ago, he has thrown himself into even more radical conceptual photography. All the works in this exhibition were completed in New York.

In Zhang’s work we come across scenes and faces recognizable from daily life. The photographer chose ordinary people and scenes under ordinary weather conditions. There are no sensational narratives or dazzling effects of chiaroscuro. Indeed, many of the subjects’ faces exhibit little emotion except perhaps fatigue. The photographer repeatedly chose the same angles with only a few tilted shots, thus creating a monotonous mood in several of his series, befitting quotidian life itself. In an email Zhang Wu told me that this group of “portraits” was initially intended as a fashion layout for a style magazine, but during the shoot he seemed to have captured the “street”. This interesting evolution seems to hint at a paradox. Fashion is undoubtedly the epitome of popular esthetics whereas the street provides the most immediate avenue not only to engage but also to be critical of society. Many have gone to the street for fashion photography, but in the end for most it is more about fashion than photography. What emerges from Zhang’s work is a different kind of desire to penetrate society. Fashion photography becomes a catalyst. What then about those moments of capturing and scrutinizing style that so inspired the photographer? Perhaps the boredom previously alluded to? In the juxtaposition of a snapshot of three elderly people and a small boy and portraits of a young man and a young woman, there is little to distinguish the subjects except for the modish and outmoded clothes on the young and old people respectively—a depressing thought.

In today’s secularized world consumerism has replaced religious ideals and political ideology as the raison d’être of people’s lives. The industries spawned by the fashion capitals of Paris, Milan, New York, and Hollywood—TV and film, clothing, luxury products, the media—are at the core of this consumerism. Kant asserts that beauty is a symbol of morality. If that is the case, what could the esthetic experience based on global production and consumption bring to our “moral” and “spiritual” planes? Zhang’s “dull fashion” could be viewed as a less than upbeat answer. [Back to top]

In contrast to Zhang’s micro points of view and individual portraitures, Miao presents us with grand narratives with tragic overtones. The Manhattan seen through his lens is no longer daytime’s teeming humanity and dazzling brilliance but the chaos, filth, and desolation after the curtain falls at the end of a show at night. Poets write about women after their makeup has come off in order to get at the essence of beauty or the truth behind the masks, but with Miao’s Manhattan we are not sure which side is more real, the city during the day or at night. Even more provocative to the viewer is the body crawling through the city’s trash heap like a corpse abandoned after a war on a deserted battlefield, shocking yet not unexpected, just as we lament the loss of human dignity but accept the order which perpetuates this loss. The body lies peacefully in a corner of the photograph like a character destined to be in a Manhattan story.

Miao has been exploring urban themes for over a decade. Compared with his past work, we notice a change in the photographer’s relationship with the city in this new series. Take his classic Under Construction or his Sleepwalking series for example. We see Miao training his camera squarely on a diverse array of people and events, judging them even as he records them on film, placing himself in a clear position of strength both toward the city, and toward its people and their relationships. After his arrival in New York, we no longer find the same self-centered judgmental photography, which is to be expected. In the new environment of New York, he has lost the basis and confidence to judge. What is unexpected is a new drastic confrontation that he has constructed between his fragile body and the immense city around him. He placidly assumes the role of victim in this confrontation, perhaps because only by being a victim could he escape being swept away by his opponent’s tidal wave, even though he might still end up being left behind on a deserted beach.

Two additional observations, first, although Miao’s works began after he arrived in New York, his references are not circumscribed by it. Surrounding his collapsed body in the snow are the Art Deco or Art Moderne buildings reminiscent of Shanghai’s Bund area. In the distance are the same kinds of postmodernist glass curtain walls as one finds in Pudong, Shanghai’s brand new financial district across the Huangpu River opposite the Bund. Miao’s theme transcends identity and politics. The person in the photograph clearly has tripped in a city that he created himself, questioning and rejecting the universalized modernity it represents. Or we could say that person is confronting the civilization that he has created. Secondly, there are holes in this series about confrontation. The artist’s body is snow white and delicate, clearly the body of a typical “city boy”. He dazzles in the garbage dump and in the snow, which leads us to question the effectiveness of his confrontation, since what he is confronting is not only a city that he has created himself but also a city that has created him. The two are inseparable. How can he take himself outside the city, i.e., outside of himself, and speak of confrontation? [Back to top]

Contrasted with Miao Jiaxin’s nocturnal and dramatically confrontational images, Zheng Yaohua’s bright daytime photographs seem straightforward indeed. Their captions also seem overly detailed and personal. According to Zheng, his series pointedly imitates Joel Sternfeld’s On this Site, yet clearly the two projects are fundamentally different. Sternfeld’s narratives have to do with collective memory of catastrophic events. Zheng, on the other hand, deals with personal memory of mundane life. The former have clear references in viewers’ minds and exist as fragments of history. The latter are private and effective only in personal terms. In this series, Zheng endeavors to use narrative strategies which we customarily associate with collective history in order to preserve or elevate personal memory. The result is naturally to reveal its unreliability and ineffectiveness.

We find that in Sternfeld’s works meaning is a priori. That is to say, the viewer knows that there existed in the world a series of significant events, which we call history, before even seeing his images. The artist merely serves as a tour guide. When we arrive at these “historic sites”, everything seems bland and unremarkable, History does not reside in the landscape. It can exist independent of reality. In Zheng’s project, however, personal memory is dependent on reality, as the photographer puts it, “like pollen stuck to objects.” What is paradoxical is that while memory represents people’s ultimate ideal of eternity, physical objects are perishable and transient. How could we expect the former to depend on the latter? Perhaps that is the fundamental reason why personal memory as history cannot exist? In the story of Emily Kwong, the photographer even tells a paradoxical story of “a lost pearl”. If the pearl is found, it might seem that one has found the evidence for the validity of one’s memory and carrier of the significance of the event, but by the same token, the pearl would no longer be lost. If one fails to find the pearl, even though this might confirm one’s memory of loss, without the pearl how could one prove one has lost the pearl? Which goes to show the unreliability of individual memory?

To push the argument even further, one might say that even if the photographer points insistently to some of the core objects in his personal life in order to assure us of the truthfulness of the events or memories and the clarity of their meaning, these core objects—a mailbox, a street front, a trash can, etc.—appear insignificant in the images. In fact, they are almost squeezed out of the frames. This is like the stubborn but futile argument of a child, who points out some details that have been ignored by adults as proof for his case. For adults, however, this kind of proof is meaningless and invalid. In the end we realize that the problem does not lie with the evidence. Adults’ discursive hegemony determines that the argument is over before it begins. Perhaps that is why the personal experiences in Zheng’s narratives can never have the historical significance of Sternfeld’s. It all boils down to two competing discursive systems.

From the above we have to admit the fragility of personal meaning, which can be submerged at any moment in collective discourses. People are somehow accustomed to this relationship between the individual and the collective. Many viewers may wonder why the photographer so meticulously documents “trivial” scenes that are without any “esthetic appeal”, which of course reminds us of the given of photography’s role in constructing meaning. [Back to top]

Beside the socially engaged works of the other photographers, Wang Yiqun’s images seem pure esthetic exercises. First of all, he provides us with a surrealist visual experience. At the same time Faceless Beauty proposes a logical dilemma that challenges the viewer’s common sense. Without a face how could one tell that the woman is a beauty? On his Blog the photographer writes of this group of works: “Whether you turn back or not is one thing. Whether you can turn back or not is another thing. Whether you turn back or not is the same thing.” With the first two statements, the author seems to intimate that one can choose in terms of will and capability. With the last statement, however, that capability turns out to be illusory after all. This sounds like an ancient conundrum. What makes the viewer feel uneasy is the logical violence here. Faceless Beauty is the visual manifestation of this abstract violence. It is as if one expectantly rushes toward a beautiful woman’s back only to see a head covered with black hair as she turns her face around. What is even more frightening is the fact that the photographer’s exquisite ability of representation is nowhere more apparent than at this despairing moment.

However, Wang’s original creative impulse was obviously not to stop at this kind of interactive game between logic and esthetics. The awkwardness or sudden rupture of logic conveyed in the game conforms to our common experience in the modern age. That is to say, we find that the world is not really within the firm grasp of our “planned social evolution”. Even as we rejoice, we do not always know which direction to turn next. Science and reason have time and again led humankind to the brink of catastrophe—the shameful record of modern civilization, the two world wars, genocide, the gap between rich and poor, environmental pollution, modern totalitarianism, etc. We find in Kafka’s Metamorphosis or Paul Klee’s Angels the same familiar sense of despair and bewilderment. On this level, the author’s turning of the back is of course a direct quote of the Buddhist sutra, “The sea of bitterness is vast, Turn back and the shore is at hand.” and consistent with Walter Benjamin’s coming of the Messiah from western theology and appeal to redemption and self-redemption.

These are obviously weighty subjects and must await another, more opportune, occasion for further discussion, but if we take a moment to look back at the extension of Zhang Wu’s subject matter to esthetics and ethics, Miao Jiaxin’s performance work and his confrontation with the city and modernity itself, and the possibility of collective history expropriating personal meaning in Zheng Yaohua’s works, we realize that they are manifestations of our anxieties vis-à-vis modernity. With Wang Yiqun, all social significance has been stripped away and the anxieties displaced into an esthetic context. The photographer has played a discomforting joke on the viewer.

May 16th - June 21st, 2008
Opening: Friday, May 16th, 2008
6:00 - 8:00 pm

June 21st, 2:00 - 6:00 pm
For more information, please check 4photoshow.blogspot.com.

Panel Discussion: Up & Coming: New Development of Contemporary Photography (in the U.S. and China).
Saturday | June 21, 2008 | 3:00 pm