Friday, 26 June 2015

The Chinese Photobook, The Photographers’ Gallery, London

China is a large country with a complex history, so it is not surprising that photography produced there should reflect that complexity.  The Chinese Photobook, a small exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, is a welcome, if cramped, opportunity to examine its photobook production over the last century.  Some of images, for example from the Cultural Revolution, will have an air of familiarity, but there are many that will be new to the non-specialist, making it a valuable peek into a world little known to most in the West, or known largely through the prism of clichĂ©.

The exhibition is co-produced by the Aperture Foundation and Les Rencontres d’Arles.  It is curated by Martin Parr and the Dutch duo WassinkLundgren (Thijs groot Wassink and Ruben Lundgren), Parr’s involvement originating from an interest in propaganda and Socialist Realist photography.  Most of the books the three have collected were purchased either from flea markets or online.  The exhibition is partially supported by the soft-power China Art Foundation, which shows that current political interests cannot be disentangled from aesthetic and historical issues.  A chunkily handsome but rather expensive illustrated coffee table book, The Chinese Photobook: From the 1900s to the Present, has been published by Aperture to accompany it.

Covering the period from 1900 to the present day, the images chart in a condensed form the trajectory of China from an agrarian feudal society to the second largest economy in the world.  In addition to display cases and framed sheets, there are videos showing someone flipping through photobooks, giving the viewer the opportunity to see how the pages relate to each other.  These were fascinating, but clumsily turned, and a better method would have been to have scanned the pages and shown them as a slide show.  At least there is more to see than in static volumes under glass.

The exhibition is divided into six sections: ‘From Empire to the People’s Republic of China (1900-1949)’; ‘Manchuria and the Sino-Japanese War’ (1931-1947)’; ‘The Image of a New China (1945-1966)’; ‘State Publishing: The Cultural Revolution and Beyond (1966-present)’; ‘The Renaissance of Chinese Photography’ (1979-present)’; and ‘Global Perspectives on China’ (1949-present).

The years 1900-49 were hugely eventful, beginning with European photographic pioneers taking advantage of the commercial and military penetration of the country.  Photography soon caught on among affluent Chinese, and amateur photography flourished.  In a period that began with a rigid imperial regime and ended with the establishment of a rigid Communist state, it was inevitable that photography would serve many purposes, not least pornographic, as the country struggled to establish a new identity.  In this the growth of mass media and improved printing techniques assisted the dissemination of photography, which both reflected and shaped the discourse of nationhood in a changing world, while acknowledging China’s rich artistic heritage.

‘Manchuria and the Sino-Japanese War’ focuses on photobooks published by both the Chinese and Japanese, including in the puppet state of Manchukuo, featuring competing narratives of the war and its legitimacy.  Japanese products were often designed to spin a story to its own citizens and those of its occupied territories in which conquest was depicted as harmonious cooperation and the Japanese presence benign.  Naturally the Chinese themselves had a different perspective on the Japanese invaders, highlighting the brutality and despoliation.

Pictorial Review of the Sino-Japanese Conflict in Shanghai, 1932

The next section covers the defeat of Japan, the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and the development of Mao’s personality cult.  Photography played a vital role in propaganda, uniting people and party in a common effort within the ruling ideology to present a positive image both domestically and internationally.  As that programme suggests, the photographs (government managed rather than privately made) tended to be carefully composed and lacking spontaneity, in order to show the heroic strides the country was making in leaving its troubled past behind and forging a new social order, symbolised by the Great Leap Forward from 1958.  Bright cheerful groups gather to praise the wisdom of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung thought and denounce the imperialist machinations of the running dogs of the fascist bourgeoisie.

1966 was a key turning point, with the institution of the Cultural Revolution which had such a devastating effect on the lives of ordinary people.  State control over publishing, both text and images, was centralised and guidelines were rigorously enforced.  Possession of unauthorised material was an offence.  As in the Soviet Union individuals fell out of favour, and publications featuring them had to be retrospectively censored.  One of the most fascinating displays is a number of books which have had pictures of unpersons (often the disgraced Lin Biao) scored out by their owners.  A change came with Mao’s death in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping’s liberalising influence, China beginning to look outwards more as it sought to become a major player on the world stage, projecting a modern technological image.

Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in Our Hearts, 1967

Socially, massaged optimism was replaced by a sense of realism, and photography followed suit.  As part of this change there was toleration of more diverse expressions of individual views.  From the late 1970s publishing outside the official structures occurred, such as photobooks documenting protests following the death of Zhou Enlai in 1976.  Individualism crept in as the country progressed economically and there were increasing opportunities for free expression (though as Tiananmen Square – still taboo – attests, there are limits).  It comes as a surprise to see openly gay photographs, and these are an indication that however clandestine, and however far it still needs to go, there is now an element of liberalism in China unknown in previous decades.

As a consequence, photographers were able to engage in a more spontaneous, and often critical, depiction of their lives, and as well as sharing these with fellow citizens were also able to present them outside China through international distribution channels, helping to integrate Chinese photography into the global art trade.  Chinese travellers turned their lenses on the rest of the world; at the same time foreigners scrutinised China, seeing the country with fresh eyes, just as those European pioneers had at the start of the twentieth century.  China is still far from being an open democracy, but it has come a long way from its previous insularity.  There is even space for out and out weirdness, notably The Hairy People of China (1982), which balances, not very well, cool scientific scrutiny with idle voyeurism.

Wasskink, Lundgren and Parr have done a valuable job in collecting and publicising the wealth of photography in China, undoubtedly acting as a stimulus for further research, but overall the displays feel like a taster for the exhibition book.  This is a show that could have justified the use of another floor of the gallery, and the contrast between the expansiveness of China and the smallness of the allotted space is very evident.

The exhibition is at the Photographers’ Gallery from 17 April to 5 July 2015.