in the work of its emerging photographers
UPON ENTERING and facing the first room of Rising Dragon: Contemporary Chinese Photography at the San Jose Museum of Art, a pleasantly puzzling combination of opposites confronts the viewer. Tradition hangs on the left wall, with modernity on the right.
At the rear wall, Wang Jin's 9-foot-high To Marry a Mule features the artist holding a bouquet of flowers next to a mule decked out in lavish wedding attire. In real life, Wang's wife moved from Beijing to the United States, and the Chinese government supposedly denied his application to visit her eight times over, so his performance reflects his nightmarish experience via Dadaist absurdity.
Guest curator Miles Barth organized the original show, which ran last year at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York, in four sections: "Performance and Photography"; "Narratives and Constructed Images"; "Landscapes and Cityscapes"; and "Photojournalism and Documentary Photography."
Most of the photographers in the exhibit were born between 1960 and 1981 and represent an emerging generation of artists who attempted to elevate China onto the world photography stage during the last 12-year astrological cycle. Since 2000 and 2012 were both Dragon years, Rising Dragon became the symbol of the show.
Several motifs emerge in the work, but the overarching theme is that of China's entrance into the mass hysteria of global consumerism and the relationship of that process to traditions that are thousands of years old. Several of the artists photograph their close-knit domestic territory and the changes they see due to the technological and industrial evolution, which is often equated with Westernization.
Li Yu and Liu Bo, working under the creative name Liyu + Liubo, take Chinese tabloid articles from Chutian Golden Paper and Chutian Metropolis Daily for inspiration, fabricating their own satiric photographs using the original headlines and texts as their captions. For example, in Chutian Golden Paper 2007-08-13, An Escapee Being Chased Dropped Through the Top Floor of a Building and Scared Everybody Inside, we see factory workers sitting around a boardroom table while someone's legs come crashing through the ceiling.
Wang Qingsong vamps on imagery of peony flowers, traditional symbols of good luck and prosperity. Red Peony, White Peony and Frosted Peony (2003) consists of three photographs of three traditional Chinese flower arrangements, but with the peonies created from vegetables and raw slices of lamb and beef. In the accompanying text, Wang says the flowers are, "a literal depiction of the transition from prosperity to decay, along with my hope of freezing such materialistic decadence made from fleshy desires."
Landscape photos, including cityscapes, make up other parts of the show, with several artists providing commentary on how much their immediate surroundings have been obliterated by the progress of industry. Wang Wusheng, in particular, provides scenic black-and-white shots of the Huangshan mountain range of Northern China, a.k.a. the Yellow Mountains. Essentially using the mountains as his muse, he says: "This is the homeland of my soul, the thoughts of a dreamland. ... I wanted these photos to remind people which life is better: a modern one or a traditional one?"
Overall, something deeply odd emanates from the way in which the show depicts this particular generation of photographers. The relationship some Westerners might have to Chinese photography remains somewhat screwy, due to decades of communist propaganda imagery. Viewing the show, it's hard to remove that screwy perception from one's mind. It seems as if the artists themselves are grappling with that exact same issue, underneath the surface.
To go even further, it seems that the artists are using the motifs and techniques of the West in order to appeal to the West—but while ridiculing the West at the same time. Hell, if I were them, that's exactly what I would do.
Which means, to me, that Rising Dragon is properly titled. Chinese photography, as a contemporary movement, seems to be in its infancy. It will be an intriguing movement to follow, in that sense. Since we are now officially entering the Year of the Water Snake, a beautifully elusive and mysterious sign, one can only imagine what will transpire next.
RED DRAGON: CONTEMPORARY CHINESE PHOTOGRAPHY
Runs through June 30