Saturday, 27 July 2013

The Pingyao Experience Part I, Enjoy the Chaos

The Pingyao Experience

Part I, Enjoy the Chaos

Pingyao International Photography Festival, Shanxi Province
China, 2010, 2011, 2012 

by John B. Turner 
co-editor PhotoForum (New Zealand)

John B Turner: Pingyao, September 2011. Remnants of previous year's PIP linger until removed at the last moment 

"Expect chaos: milling crowds, posters, exhibitions, cameras everywhere; cafes, shops, pedicab touts, open-air mini-buses, tourist's trinkets, Mao mementos, market stalls, performing monkeys, and umbrellas instantly on sale in case it rains...."

This article is written for foreign and Chinese mainland photographers and anybody contemplating going to the Pingyao International Photography Festival, or wanting to exhibit there. I thoroughly recommend PIP for anybody interested in seeing a huge range of work by Chinese photographers in particular, as well as interesting foreign work, and also the experience of this charming ancient city. 

The sheer number of participants and visitors make PIP a worthwhile venue for showing local and foreign work and thus becoming better known. PIP's English-language outreach publicity has been found wanting so it is nowhere near as well patronised by foreign visitors as it deserves to be. I hope this introduction, which I intend to follow up with more critical review and commentary in future, will help you make up your own mind about visiting this extraordinary annual event. 

All illustrations are by myself  unless otherwise noted. The copyright of photographs depicted reside with their authors. Please notify the writer of any mistaken identities, wrong attributions of works, or other factual mistakes. I cannot read Mandarin, but will make every reasonable effort to keep an accurate record of what I saw and how I interpreted it. The opinions expressed are those of a New Zealand photographer, teacher, editor, and occasional curator with 50 years experience in photography, who has twice presented exhibitions of New Zealand work at PIP. 

It is not possible to list all of the fine work seen, or to mention all of the practitioners whose work impressed me: some because it was the best of its kind, and some for all the wrong reasons - because it seemed so superficial and misguided. In fact, I found that some of the award-winning exhibitions were weak or pretentious compared to some potent but overlooked work. 

I am bemused by the Chinese propensity for grand gestures and the display of official certificates of approval for their work - by government agencies - as if the work can't stand on its own or the audience is not smart enough to see through such humbug. It reminds me a lot of the old New Zealand camera club system which was fixated on gaining personal prestige at the expense of concentrating on honing the content and form of the work and its relevance to life in their times.

I am particularly interested in learning about Chinese photography and found that both young photographers and some of the more established exhibitors seemed hungry for informed critical feedback that is not being provided by their peers. It is not much fun when your work is ignored, so they might appreciate the observation that it is ok to make work that nobody seems to notice, as long as it is an honest expression of the things you value and want to share.  That in the Western liberal art tradition, at least, it is expected that our work is made for ourselves, first and foremost. 

What I think, as a critic, may or may not be relevant or useful to the exhibitors whose work I will discuss, but I would like to remind them that serious criticism and disagreement regarding their intentions and outcomes can be a form of respect, not mere grandstanding or a putdown. Why bother criticising work, as I do here, unless you think the photographer might, however grudgingly, come to appreciate having weaknesses or contradictions pointed out and useful suggestions for improvement? Whether your work is praised, glossed over, or condemned, it is important to ask where the response came from, and why? With luck you might get fresh insights into your own work that help you to progress and better define your target audience.

JBT©20110917-053_Pingyao_day 1 Saturday before Monday opening. Young photographers and exhibition assistants

JBT©20110918-106_Pingyao_Sunday hanging Moment & Eternity A NZ View - Jan Young's work

Being there, and what to expect!

JBT©20120919-0262 PIP FESTIVAL Opening ceremony September 2012

Expect chaos: milling crowds, posters, exhibitions, cameras everywhere; cafes, shops, pedicab touts, open-air mini-buses, tourist's trinkets, Mao mementos, market stalls, performing monkeys, and umbrellas instantly on sale in case it rains. And handsome hotels and temples with a genuine ancient China flavour.

Expect confusion: the free PIP Art Guide, listing where everything is, comes out just in time for the first day of the five-day Festival. Their elaborate catalogues are sometimes late, arriving at a time when you would rather look at the shows than read a little about them to figure out which ones you most want to see. 

At 298 RMB (about $US50), the comprehensive 450-550-page compendiums (for they are not catalogues or strictly yearbooks) are perhaps a little expensive by Chinese standards, but they are indispensable as a taste of each year's offerings. They print only 2,000 copies and it is only on sale at PIP's small bookshop during the Festival. That is one reason why PIP is not better known in China or overseas. Much of the text is only in Mandarin so I find the need to buy a second copy to write down names and details of work that intrigues me. The rush with which the catalogue is put together with the voluntary help of English-language students doing many of the translations results in some amazing Chinglish. The translation of my US friend, Kirk Crippens, for example, came to something like Kirka Curley. I got off lightly with my birthplace given as England instead of New Zealand, and images from my joint show with Julian Ward were not included in the 2012 book. As annoying as such slip-ups might be, seen in the large picture they are small hiccups indeed.

Frankly, the hard-working PIP staff face a seriously daunting task trying to coordinate and document so many exhibitors and exhibitions at short notice. Despite numerous "typos" (typographical mistakes), and issues relating to untranslated and wrongly translated text, the PIP compendiums deserve far wider coverage as a reflection of the state of photography in China, and current foreign offerings. Perhaps a second, post-event edition with full translations, and images of key exhibits would do the trick of reaching out to the world via the web and/or print?

JBT©20120917-0039 PIP FESTIVAL detail

When viewing some shows another point of confusion can arise over labelling or non-labelling, and it is difficult to know when one person's work stops and an adjacent one starts. Quite a few Chinese exhibitors provide ID in English, fortunately, but by no means all, which adds to the confusion for the foreign visitor. I expect that non-Chinese-non-English-speaking viewers would be doubly disadvantaged. It is too much to expect more languages to be included, and it doesn't matter where in the world such a broad-based show is held, this is indicative of how parochial "international" festivals end up in spite of their best intentions. 

The majority of (other) foreigners I have seen at three festivals have been those associated with guest exhibitions as curators or practitioners, and students and teachers.  It has been rare to see foreign business delegates or tourists in Pingyao who are not associated with the September PIP Festival in the streets in this seasonal takeover of the whole town. The foreign groups, I notice, tend to cluster and keep to themselves rather than associate with mainland Chinese photographers and curators - the language barrier again. As unsettling as it can be for us foreign visitors to step out of our comfort zones and get lost in Chinese wanderings, being saturated with so much new work in unfamiliar surroundings tends to be exciting and challenging. As well as being delighted by what you find, you can also expect to be puzzled, annoyed, or utterly bored by some of the exhibitions or activities. 

JBT©20120917-0160 PIP FESTIVAL Student volunteers hanging exhibition late at night without the main electricity supply being connected

JBT©20120920-040 Turner & Ward exhibition gallery from Auckland Festival of Photography gallery, Pingyao PIP 2012

JBT©20120920-099 attendees at John Turner's floor talk about his and Julian Ward's work, Pingyao PIP 2012

 Without being able to read Chinese signs it is easy to mistake things for something else, like when I thought that a little separated exhibition space, with outside signage, was a caretaker's cottage and never investigated the show inside. 

Expect fatigue, and pace your viewing. Few spaces have seats in them. Take a torch - some display places are seriously dark, and if you want a closer look to figure out technical stuff, take a magnifying glass, or make sharp digital closeup to examine at your leisure on your computer. 

There is always far more work than one can possibly see, let alone contemplate. So taking pictures of interesting images or displays, which has become commonplace now with cell phones and other digital cameras, makes a lot of sense. But recording whose work one has copied and crediting them for reference is another issue entirely. (The world's most prolific neglected photographer of all time, Anonymous, is creating more pictures than ever, just to torment librarians and future historians:))  Printing barcode signatures on one's images could be one solution to the problem of identifying our exhibited work when somebody snaps it in a hurry; and our computers could be trained to extricate and list the photographer's name for us. But I'm not convinced that such electronic tags could be made as elegant and integral as the Chinese artist's chop if we signed our work in that way?

JBT©20120921-259 Oh Soon Hwa's (Singapore) floor talk PIP Pingyao 2012
JBT©20120921-189 Kirk Crippen's floor talk PIP Pingyao 2012

If you are fortunate enough to become a PIP guest exhibitor, you can also expect some confusion about exactly where and how your work will be displayed. Exhibition spaces are generally not well marked or signposted, so it could be difficult to find where your work will be. Of necessity, with such a huge balancing act to perform, the decisions are made fairly late, and too late, often, for the inclusion of the location on your poster or publicity. Communications with the organisers can be fraught, like when the slide show I thought was expected from me, was listed as a floor talk instead. But one of the highlights of exhibiting at PIP is to get to know the wonderfully helpful student volunteers who help with everything from interpreting, travel arrangements, accommodation and food, and hanging a show. Most are students or friends of Amy Liu, the diminutive fireball who looks after all of the foreign visitors and does more to make one welcome than any other individual at PIP. It is hard to imagine what PIP would be like if she and her volunteers did not work so hard day and night to solve the myriad of problems that crop up. 
JBT©20120919-0472 PIP FESTIVAL Amy Liu (centre) who coordinates volunteer help for foreign participants, takes a back seat during the opening ceremony, 2012

Because I only managed to get to the last two days of the 2010 PIP Festival, I was surprised on my 2011 visit by the spectacular opening event and its emphasis on welcoming foreign visitors. Shanxi Province is serious about drawing visitors to Pingyao, and generously hosts its foreign exhibitors with a fine banquet after the opening. Don't expect colourful speeches to match the display of pomp and ceremony. But you can expect remarkable tolerance for photographing the opening ceremony, official guests and fellow photographers from every conceivable angle. The welcome is genuinely warm. Foreigners should also be prepared to pose with a bevy of  locals who want to stand next to you, as a total  stranger, and have their photo taken. Especially if you are grey-bearded old man or stylish young blonde. A book or exhibition about this stranger speed-bonding could be interesting. Certainly I would like to know what the pictures are used for? The thought of an attractive woman having a picture of us together on her bedroom wall, or even on her fridge or screensaver leaves much to the imagination. 

Don't expect to see everything or get to all of the talks or seminars that interest you because, as a tiny microcosm of China itself, there is far, far too much going on for any individual to take in.  

Enjoy the chaos - and the friendly atmosphere.

JBT©20120918-0188 PIP FESTIVAL Turner Ward exhibition preparations. My student volunteer team just after midnight in dim lighting


Chapter II: A Kind of Review, will give a background to PIP and deal with my experience of meeting outstanding photographers, curators and teachers, and viewing some of the best and worst shows of 2012 .... 

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic to see that you are now enjoying China. I have been back a few times now - Beijing, Shangahi and my family's area of Canton. There is so much to see and so much to eat. Are you going to Shanghai - the water towns are beautiful.