Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Photography at “Useful Life 2010”

Stephanie Hsu

Contemporary Art and New Media in China


Photography at “Useful Life 2010”

ShanghART H-Space at 50 Moganshan Road in Shanghai is currently presenting “Useful Life 2010,” a mixed media exhibition by Yang Fudong, Yang Zhenzhong, and MadeIn, an art collaborative founded by Xu Zhen. Following up “Useful Life 2000,” the exhibition that launched the three artists’ careers a decade ago, “Useful Life 2010” claims to be “more a challenge rather than a continuation,” as stated by the text on the introductory wall panel. The text continues: “The art environment, artists’ creative concepts, their ways of expression, even their identities, all changed. How to face a new context, how to find one’s place?” During my time in the gallery space, I felt most engaged with these questions while viewing the exhibition’s two photography series, “International Hotel” by Yang Fudong and an untitled work by Yang Zhenzhong.

As I looked at “International Hotel,” the series of five photographs by Yang Fudong, I thought about the exhibition’s concern with the process of re-contextualizing identity over the course of time. To me, the black and white photographs of young Chinese women posing by a swimming pool were reminiscent of the “modeng nüxing,” or “modern girl” of the pre-World War II era, whose stylish, sexualized image in cigarette advertisements and film posters came to represent the liberation of women from long-standing social and cultural customs. The photographs strongly conveyed the strong male gaze of the photographer, with the bright flash capturing the women smiling and seeming to respond coyishly to an unseen subject behind the camera.

Yang Zhenzhong’s untitled series of 25 portraits also implicated the strong presence of the photographer. The portraits depicted 25 subjects, who all seemed to be of Chinese descent, but varying in age and gender. The subjects were all smiling widely and appearing to be inspired or amused by their interaction with someone behind the camera. While most of the subjects seemed genuine in their expression when I observed them individually, I found that as I scanned the portraits one after another, the series quickly revealed its artificiality. The bright flash of the camera, the studio setting, the hardened expressions of a few subjects, and the sheer intensity of having 25 of these 100 x 100 cm portraits placed in succession all pointed towards the series’ attempt to contrive feeling and sentiment through performance. A large, plastic red star, resting flimsily in the corner opposite of the portraits, seemed to give context to the series as a sardonic commentary on the artificiality and constructed-ness of nationalistic feeling during the Cultural Revolution. Thinking about propaganda and performance, I was reminded of film stills of the Yang Ban Xi, many of which depict the staged, exaggerated expressions of the opera’s protagonists. Like Yang Fudong’s “International Hotel,” Yang Zhenzhong’s series seemed to grapple with historical memory by contextualizing the past in the present.

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