Tuesday, 18 July 2017

A Day at Beijing's Three Shadows for the Photography Award Exhibition and talks, 2017


2017 THREE SHADOWS PHOTOGRAPHY AWARD and International Jury Talk Series, 16 April. Exhibition closed 21 May, 2017

Rong Rong welcoming guests to the Three Shadows Photography Award, Caochangdi, Beijing

A Day at Three Shadows

Every year I look forward to Beijing’s Three Shadows Photography Award Exhibition which, as I commented in my 2016 blog, is presented to a high level and deserves to be widely seen internationally because it is hard to imagine seeing a better range of work to reflect what is happening in contemporary Chinese photography. This year I had some books to sell as well.

I woke at 5am, couldn’t go back to sleep, so sorted a range of recent New Zealand books to take to Three Shadows. One free copy of Tom Hutchins Seen in China 1956 and one of New Zealand Chinese in Historical Images for the Three Shadows'library and one of each to give to the Tate Modern’s photography curator, Simon Baker, if I could get to talk to him. I set aside a copy of the Hutchins book promised to my French friend Michel Genie, first met at Pingyao three years ago. I packed another dozen copies of the A5 Hutchins book and 6 more of the A4 NZ Chinese book; three bags full, to lug around, including some copies of my Pingyao show catalogues to give away, and paper to write on. My iPhone will have to suffice as my camera.

New Zealand Chinese in Historical Images
Tom Hutchins: Seen in China 1956

The Three Shadows Photography Art Centre at Caochangdi in the Chaoyang District is an hour’s drive from where we live in Changping District and instead of taking a taxi, my wife and I were driven there by our nephew in our own car (at 73, I’m too old to drive legally in China). We stopped to get petrol on the way. I deliberately wanted to miss the first of a series of talks, to be given by a spokesperson for the Japanese Shisheido Prize sponsor because I expected it to be similar to last year’s useful PR effort, but miscalculating the starting time of the International Jury Talk Series, I was late for Simon Baker’s Tate Modern slide talk.

The International Jury Talk Series

Presented in the large exhibition hall, instead of the 3+ Gallery, this year, the projection screen was too far away and the microphone so low that I could not hear what he was saying from the middle of the room, so I moved up to the front and sat on the floor against the left wall, underneath the large prints of He Bo displayed for the awards show, about five metres away from Baker and his translator, Three Shadows’s Dandi Huo. They were introducing the Tate Modern’s approach and exhibitions – interesting stuff. But with the front line of the audience set way back from the guest speakers in what seems to be a common separatist style, and with about half of the 150 or so people standing at the back of the hall, behind the seated audience, my impression was that few could hear what Baker was saying in English. Huo’s microphone was louder than his, however, so at least her Mandarin translation was more likely to have been heard from the back of the room.

JBT©20170416271: Simon Baker Curator, Tate London, giving Three Shadows Award selector's talk

Under these circumstances, I suspect that it was not only Baker’s humorous asides that were lost in transition. Commenting on a delightful series ‘With my Family’ (1975) by the Dutch photographer Hans Eijkelboom in which the photographer portrayed himself posing as the “father” in otherwise typical group photographs of numerous families, Baker joked that, of course, all people in Holland all “look the same”! The irony of this comment, which is an echo of how the Chinese and Japanese used to be characterised in the West, was likely missed by the majority Chinese audience. To make his points, which he did well in the short bursts necessary to allow the interpreter to understand and convey them, Baker skipped through some images from what seemed to be a more expansive and traditional academic lecture prepared for a general English language audience. I was annoyed at myself for missing the beginning of his lecture.

JBT©20170416272: Simon Baker and Dandi Luo, Three Shadows Awards talk 2017

A key theme in his talk was performance and photography, which relates very much to the work of Rong Rong and inri, the founders of Three Shadows. To this end he positioned the famous ‘Self Portrait as a Drowned Man’ (1840) by Hippolyte Bayard, as performance art. Bayard, who independently invented a method of photography resulting in one-off positive prints, was short-changed by the French government which adopted L.J.M. Daguerre’s daguerreotype positive process which competed with William Henry Fox Talbot’s more lasting negative-positive invention. It seemed to me that Baker’s assertion of Bayard’s pointed self-portrait as a “performance” was a bit of a stretch. All portraits had to be posed during the first decades of photography before instantaneous photography became possible due to improved optics and chemistry. I wanted to ask him how his notion of “performance” photography differed from what A D Coleman named “The Directorial Mode,” and what Van Deren Coke described as “Fabricated to be Photographed”, but no question time had been scheduled.

Seeing the illustrations was a significant problem, not least because the screen was faded and washed out due to the lights at the back of the hall being left on, and few of his illustrations filled the screen with the images he mentioned because they were represented small in installation shots. I could actually see the screen from the front but it was hopelessly too small a projection to be seen further back, beyond the middle of the room. Hopefully, Three Shadows will realise this is a problem and will rectify the image and microphone shortfalls next time.

JBT©20170416279: Dandi Huo, Chen Shen, Simon Baker, Feng Boyi, Thomas Ruff  and RongRong, Three Shadows Awards juror's discussion on ‘Current Photography in the West and the East’. In the background is Sun Xiaozhou's Hunter - New World series

Billed as a discussion on ‘Current Photography in the West and the East’ the format for the next session promised far more than it delivered. Led by Three Shadows’ curator, Chen Shen, It suffered from too much generalisation, no illustrations, too many opinions stated as facts, and practically no engagement with the audience. In effect, it seemed to become more of a griping session about how far behind China is compared to the “West” in terms of national recognition and government sponsorship of expressive photography. Three Shadows has been at the forefront of promoting contemporary and historical photography and a critical awareness of the medium in China: their fly-by-night exhibition and valuable publication of 2016: Chinese Photography: twentieth century and beyond was further proof of that. But, as I found out recently, it is not true that there are no national collections, nor national curators of photography in China, as they claim. The picture is not rosy, but contrary to what the front desk staff of the National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square had told me when I enquired about it, their museum does have a Photography department and two photography curators, whom I have met.  They do have a collection but are rather timid in presenting and promoting awareness of it and don’t seem to have much, or any contact with other groups such as Three Shadows, CAFA (Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, Guangzhou's He Xiangning Art Museum, or Liu Heung Shing (aka Liu Xiangcheng)'s new Shanghai Center of Photography (SCoP).

In answer to a typically broad panel question, Baker reiterated that publications and exhibitions had both, been the main pre-internet methods of presenting photography. Regarding Tate Modern’s collecting and exhibition approach, he repeated that unlike, MoMA, for example, they did not have a separate department but decisions were made collectively in collaboration with other Tate specialists. Once a theme is thrashed out and agreed upon, they then seek targeted funds to supplement the Museum’s contribution from its general pool. (Questions from the audience were not encouraged, so issues such as catering to popular taste or trends – which Three Shadows occasionally does - did not enter the discussion.)

Rong Rong emphasised that the importance of books as a vehicle for presenting photographs ensured that when Three Shadows was founded, the establishment of a comprehensive specialist library was a major target. [In 2016, however, their library was shifted to their new South China centre in Xiamen, Fujian Province so is no longer available in Beijing.] He said that he saw photography as a universal language and saw no difference between work in the East and West.

Feng Boyi, without waiting for the translator to do her job in English, told a long story of early lost opportunities regarding a national museum (perhaps the aforementioned Tiananmen museum) of failing to purchase significant photographs in the late 1980s because they first were not prepared to pay a fair price, and second, decided they were not good enough for them to collect. Rong Rong and inri’s early work, it was noted, suffered a similar fate. [Three Shadows was subsequently financed by mainly overseas sales of their energised and prolific work of the period.] To further compare China’s lack of official support for collecting photography as art, it was mentioned that as CAFA reaches its 100th year in 2018 they find themselves strapped for cash and are desperately seeking donations for their collection.

Thomas Ruff outlined (I think) that Germany had a long history of collecting and presenting photographs. A student of the Becher’s in Dusseldorf, he (I think) indicated that contemporary collecting started off with students buying their teacher’s work before galleries started to. And to give a broader perspective he mentioned early collecting in the United States of America by a separate department of photography founded at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in the 1930s, and hinted that they suffered from a lack of funds. [A lot of MoMA’s photography collection was built on donations, or by token payment for the privilege of being in their collection, it is true.]

Simon Baker picked up on Ruff’s point that MoMA New York museum (early?) suffered from a bunker mentality [not his phrase] by not including photographs in their “art” shows and vice versa. This was a point of difference emphasised in regard to the Tate, with Baker making some point (that I did not fully hear), the gist of which seemed that they were collecting European work by contrast to what he considered, for example, as the over-collecting of Lee Friedlander’s work by US museums. I’m not certain because the conversation was muffled, but he seemed to imply pride in not collecting any of Friedlander’s work for the Tate!

Boyi also stated that he saw photography as a universal language. As a curator, he focused on showing an artist in regard to their time and place, he stated. He was most interested in artists who were prepared to experiment and change their approach, rather than stick to one lifelong theme - such as the “market” prefers.

No questions were solicited and Chen Shen wrapped up the session with the hopeful conclusion that “We now have a better idea of what to do”.

A business lunch

The guest speakers were whisked off for a deserved meal break, so I did not get the opportunity to proffer some New Zealand books for the Tate. Knowing that lunch could not be bought at Three Shadows, and not wanting to waste time going off to the village of Caochangdi across the motorway, I’d asked my wife to bring me a takeaway meal. Meanwhile, I took a bag of our books to Rong Rong’s obliging sister, Linchun Zhong, as gifts for their library and gave her a few copies for their bookshop to sell. It would be more accurate to say “display” however, because their sales of New Zealand books, delivered on a sale or return basis, are rare. But they are there for people to see and one can always hope. Or, to be more correct they were here at their Beijing facility before they were sent off to the new Xiamen gallery, (mentioned in my blog on the 2016 Three Shadows Photography Awards).

Not being able to view the Awards exhibition until after the Opening session at 3pm. I had a brief opportunity to start to inspect the tables of books and magazines on display. My friend, Phoebe Li, from Auckland, who initiated and co-curated the exhibition we created for the Overseas Chinese History Museum in Beijing, had arrived with a spare copy of our book to show around as well, while we half-concentrated on seeing other’s offerings. When I rang Three Shadows a couple of days earlier to see if we could rent a stand for our books, I was told no, they were full up. They told me they charged RMB 300 ($NZ60) for a stand. But there was empty space that could easily have accommodated a few more book displays.

Page from First International Photographic Art Exhibition (Asia), Beijing, China, 1981
Page from Third International Photographic Art Exhibition, PR China, Beijing, 1985.
The sole New Zealand entry, by Barry S. Eyrel: 'Fuschia' is at left of third row

The first stand I saw was promoting what looked like an 180 page soft cover book, which turned out to be the first issue of a handsome new serial called Alter True retailing at RMB150 a copy, for which they later traded for a copy of Tom Hutchins Seen in China 1956. The next stand was of more interest because they had a range of historic books and magazines from or about China. Bystanders kindly translated the prices of the publications I enquired about and I bought a few. The sellers were an online outfit, Image Bookstore, an online bookshop (http://www.kongfz.com/) and had a fair idea of what the items were worth. I bought the first (1981) and third (1985) bi-lingual catalogues of the International Photographic Art Exhibitions held in China, not least because they contained thumbnail images of over 400 of the images chosen from a range of countries. In 1986, the neo-Pictorialist dominated show had three works from Australia and one from New Zealand – by Barry S. Eyrel – whom I had never heard of and Eyre seems like a more likely surname.

I bought a Chinese booklet from 1975 depicting typically and usually posed celebratory images, and another one of the period and similar content, which are useful comparisons to the work of Tom Hutchins and Brian Brake who photographed similar subjects two decades earlier with less smiles in evidence. Unwilling to part with RMB 3,000 for a large slip-cased book on China, I lashed out on a slightly damaged hardback of work related to the 1959-1960 celebrations of the first decade of Communist China. I was particularly struck by an image of a man mopping the floor of a semi-flooded apartment in a domestic scene with wife and daughter – and most importantly – full-frame thumbnails of all 96 images showing how each of them had been cropped.

Ruben Lundgren, Martin Parr’s main collaborator for The Chinese Photobook from the 1900s to the Present (Aperture Inc., 2015) came over when he heard me saying that RMB 6,000 was too much for me to pay for an admittedly important early foreign book. It was one he was already familiar with, but I was able to catch up with the fate of the long-awaited Chinese edition of their book which is suffering an excessively long delay. The English edition, which includes books on the Tiananmen showdown of 1989, remains banned in China. (I have since read The Tiananmen Papers compiled by Zhang Liang (Public Affairs, N.Y., 2001) which is also banned in China and was particularly impressed to learn how much restraint the Chinese government exercised to achieve a peaceful end to the complex and by no means primarily democracy-related student protests. Like reading Wikileaks reports, the facts presented are a great antidote to Western propaganda and makes its banning seem all the more counterproductive.)

I approached Simon Baker while he was casually browsing a stand and introduced myself while proffering copies of the Hutchins and NZ Chinese books to give him for the Tate. He deferred, saying he was on a hand baggage flight, but, giving me his business card, said I could send them to him. So much for trying to save on time, and expensive transport. He was on the way to a meeting so didn’t have time to look at them. Having emailed the Tate with a similar offer in the past, with no response, I thought to myself “Fuck it! Why bother?” It is not easy to get New Zealand books into major international collections, and the same goes, I must admit, to getting major Chinese photography books into New Zealand’s libraries. Parochialism rules. That said, I consoled myself with buying a half-price copy of Steidl’s handsome Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography (London 2011), by Tamar Garb, and Martin Barnes of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. A nice surprise.

I didn’t have time to study them, but it was impressive to see a stand full of reprints with Chinese translations of seminal English-language works such as MoMA’s classic American Photographs by Walker Evans and Lincoln Kirstein, and their volumes on Eugene Atget, etc.; especially while my copies of the originals languish in storage in Auckland.

I met up my French friend, Michel Genie, to talk about the work he has asked me to write about, and his friend Daniel Blaize, a retired member of the French Embassy in Beijing, bought a copy of my Hutchins’ book. We also briefly met up with Zhu Jiong, a French-speaking photography lecturer from the Beijing Film Academy. An outstanding teacher, historian, and curator, it was she who recently curated the superb retrospective of Paul Caponigro’s work – a first for China. I commented in my blog on that show, which only lasted two weeks, that I doubted they would ever be seen again in China, because collecting photographs has not caught on here, but I was wrong. I've since learned that the whole show was purchased by a Chinese investor. What happens to it is yet to be seen: it would make a terrific travelling show of the superb original prints.

The Three Shadows awards ceremony

The formal Three Shadows awards ceremony started at 3pm, fronted by Chen Shen and translated by Dandi Huo, with the selectors, Shiseido sponsor, and inri, co-founder of Three Shadows seated below a giant and useful poster listing the names of sponsors, selectors, and all 20 contenders for the two major awards. The Shiseido Award went to Zhang Zhizhou, a 31-year-old Beijing-born graduate of the University for Creative Arts, UK. Clever work based on the concept of imagining he was three different fictional photographers making different kinds of pictures. (At least I think that is what he meant?) His prize was worth RMB 20,000 (around  $US3,000) for his Three Photographers series. And the Three Shadows Award went to Liang Xiu, who in her own words is a ‘22 years old girl from Shandong’ who appears to have been self-taught. She received a prize of RMB 80,000 (around US $US12,300). These prizes are always a bit of a lottery, especially in this case when the standards are generally high: 20 practitioners were chosen from more than 400 entries submitted. Unfortunately, apart from saying how (genuinely) difficult it was for the selection panel to choose, there is no information about the kind of dialogue they had, nor competing options. Being included in the select 20, of course, is something all of these contestants should mostly be proud of.

Zhang Zhizhou, winner of Shisheido Excellent Photographer 
Award for his Three Photographers series
Zhang Zhizhou: from Three 
Photographers series

JBT©20170416289: Liang Xiu, winner 2017 Three Shadows Award

Liang Xiu, winner 2017 Three Shadows Award prize of RMB 80,000 (around US $US12,300)

On first looking, I wasn’t particularly impressed by this year’s exhibition and found the presentation of some work, with images placed far too high - or too painfully low, particularly frustrating. One of the advantages of the handsome book of the show (on the arbitrary and dubious theme of Allegory), is that the usually downsized illustrations are often more coherent and easier to study, free of reflections and designer flim-flam. The installation of works by Wang Pan and also Wang Jia (in particular) came across as more pretentious than adventurous: strong content undermined by obfuscating presentation. Whereas, by stark contrast, the winning display by Liang Xiu had absolutely no frills. It would be useful to have had a summary of the selector’s comments on such matters, as part of the educative process.

JBT©20170416302: Wang Pan_Broken Memory, Changing Hometown series

JBT©20170416300 Wang Pan_Broken Memory, Changing Hometown series.jpg

JBT©20170416291 Wang Jia trauma series
JBT©20170416290 Wang Jia_trauma series

JBT©20170416313: Han Meng_China's Forgotten Daughters series

JBT©20170416316: Han Meng_China's Forgotten Daughters series video

It was not the best-displayed work, but Han Meng’s series, ‘China’s Forgotten Daughters’, about the fate of unwanted female babies born during China's One Child Policy era was one of the most poignant and memorable works. Ling Fei’s panoramas of life in Tibet were among the best I have seen in that format, and several of Liu Jingxun’s Diana camera-like Lomo images of Tibet, presented as black and white transparencies, were charming and particularly evocative.

JBT©20170416326: Liu Jingxun_Other Places series

An exhibition by one of the selectors, photographer and film director Mika Ninagawa of Japan completed the Awards show. It was very well presented, as one would expect, but with few exceptions, like her reputation and her gushy press, most of her images were pedestrian and overblown. Very trendy, I am sure, but I don't think they will retain whatever popularity they may have, over time.

Three Shadows: Juror Mika Ninagawa's exhibition at 2017 Three Shadows Awards
I retraced my steps for another look at the whole show and was duly rewarded by noticing some overlooked images and connections that reminded me, despite the fact that some works were displayed far too distant from all except the tallest basketball player, that it is imperative to come back and view the whole show at least one more time before coming to any conclusions about it. There was music playing outside, people were mingling, but feeling tired, we left about 5.30pm.

JBT©20170416306 Main entry area to 2017 Three Shadows Photography Award exhibition 'Allegory'

JBT©20170416292 Chen Haishu_Zona Rossa series
JBT©20170416286 Lu Shan_Gene Town series

JBT©20170416295:  Hu Zhaowei_23:47series

JBT©20170416297: Yang Zhishu_Bug Language series

JBT©20170416298: Gao Peng_Illusion series

JBT©20170416308 Gu Benchi_Dusts series

Please note that due to time restraints not all of the Award exhibitors are mentioned or included with my illustrations. The full list of 2017 Award finalists are: Chen Haishu, Deng Yun, Gao Mingxi, Gao Peng, Gu Benchi, Han Meng, He Bo, Hu Zhaowei, Liang Xiu, Ling Fei, Liu Jinxun, Lu Shan, Sun Xiaozhou, Wang Pan, Wang Jia, Morgan Wong, Yan Liang, Yang Zhishu, Zeng Ge, and Zhang Zhizhou.

Allegory: The 2017 Three Shadows Photography Award Exhibition book is a handsome and useful book available for RMB78 (about $US12.00, and $NZ16.00). At 148 pages in their 20x20cm format series format, it illustrates roughly half of the works in the exhibition. It includes impressions by Simon Baker, Thomas Ruff and Feng Boyi, as well as an introduction. These, as are the brief biographies and statements of intention, along with the juror's biographies, are all in English as well as Chinese. It is an important record of recent trends in contemporary Chinese photography of academic and popular interest.

According to a preview in Photointer the selection process for the Three Shadows Photography Awards is made by the members of the Selection Committee by secret ballot by the end of December in the previous year. In Beijing, the international jury then visits the exhibition in April the following year to choose by secret ballot the winners of the Three Shadows Photography Award and the Japanese Shiseido Excellent Photographer Award. 

The 2017 Three Shadows Photography Award International Jury included Simon Baker (UK), Senior Curator of Photography and International Art, Tate Modern Museum; Feng Boyi (China), independent curator, art critic and art director at He Xiangning Art Museum, Guangzhou; Mika Ninagawa (Japan), photographer and film director; Rong Rong (China), founder and director of Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, co-founder of Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival, and Thomas Ruff (Germany), Photographer. The exhibition was curated by Chen Shen.

Contact details: Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, Caochangdi 155A, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100015, P.R. China. Email:info@threeshadows.cn. Phone: 86-10-64322663. Website: www.threeshadows.cn

NOTE: I have contacted Three Shadows several times for feedback and any corrections of fact in this blog but for whatever reasons, to my regret, they simply do not respond. This is both disappointing and frustrating from an organisation I admire and the lack of communication has delayed publication. This year is Three Shadows' 10th anniversary, so if you are in Beijing sometime up until 27 August  2017 you can see their special survey, '40 years of Chinese Contemporary Photography
Mori Art Museum is also presenting the exhibition “Laboratory for Chinese Contemporary Photography – Three Shadows Photography Art Centre”, on view from 5 July – 23 October 2017. 

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