Global Playing

by Wendy Watriss

othing stays still very long in China today. In Beijing, artists often find themselves moving month by month, from one warehouse district to another. As soon as they move into under-developed areas of the city and create studios and art spaces, they find themselves having to move, displaced by higher priced development. Only the now famous Dashanzi Art District, which has it own international Art Festival, seems stable.

Created within the walls of a former East German weapons fac­tory, Dashanzi is a huge rambling area of galleries, cafes and artist studios. There is photography everywhere, and prices are high. In the 798 gallery, a show of medium format, limited edition digital images of the Cultural Revolution had prints selling for $60,000 apiece. There were a large number of red stickers in evidence.

When Chinese photographers and businessmen visiting FOTOFEST2006 asked FotoFest to create, or re-create, the FotoFest Meeting Place portfolio review in Beijing, the expectation was that it would happen perhaps in one to two years. But two months later they emailed that they had raised the necessary funds and were ready to start work on organizing the Meeting Place FotoFest Beijing 2006. It took place in October 2006, with over one thousand photographers registering from all over China. (Clint Willour from the Galveston Arts Center and Houston Center for Photography Exhibitions Committee, and Burt Finger from Photographs Do Not Bend in Dallas were among 30 participating international reviewers.)

In most areas, China is playing the global 'game' with seeming ease, even beginning to shape the rules of the game. But in photography, many good artists have yet to become part of the larger world. Despite many shows of Chinese photography in Europe, the U.S. and other parts of Asia, and despite two international festivals in China - Pingyao and Lianzhou, there are large numbers of talented photographic artists whose work has yet to step out beyond China.

It is not only that photographers want their work to be seen, it is also because they want to break through the barriers of their years of enforced isolation. One of the very strong currents visible in contemporary Chinese photography is the struggle to come to grips with the rapidity of change, the meaning of this change and what it is doing to traditional Chinese ways of life - what is being created in its wake. Transformation is everywhere, even in the most remote villages. This kind of transformation can be brutal, but it can also be very stimulating to creative work.

Many Chinese photographers are deeply engaged in documenting what is happening to their country: the huge internal migration of people; working/living conditions of factory workers in the new industries; the transformation of cities and replication of Western architectural styles; the despoliation of land and natural resources. The amount of very penetrating black and white documentary work is a stunning contrast to the joyous color posters that came out of China in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the work of many younger artists, one also sees a struggle of how to incorporate contemporary avant-garde art practices into work that gives testimony to the scale of upheaval in China, what it means, and the society it leaves behind. Much of the contemporary work on urban transformation is in large format color, and very ironic. There is a staged and color narrative photography about the lifestyles of young people, the anomie of modern youth, the search for identity and place. Much of this work reflects personal and psychological responses to China's own political and social history that is only now becoming part of public dialogue - histories that were previously concealed, stories such as those of Chinese "comfort women" used by the Japanese army during World War II as "sex slaves," or the stories of Chinese orphans abandoned by their families.

With photography, there is a lot of experimentation with performance and the technologies of moving media. Many young Chinese artists are exploring video and web-based work. In fact, the number of media festivals and events significantly outnumber those for photography per se.

To broaden visibility, open opportunity, and create further exchange with Chinese artists, FotoFest is dedicating its 12th International Biennial, FOTOFEST2008 to CHINA and a related theme, TRANSFORMATIONS.
In exhibits curated by FotoFest, the focus is on presenting work by Chinese photographers, primarily those living and working in mainland China. These exhibits will emphasize contemporary work, but there will also be historical exhibitions showing photography from little known archives, particularly from periods of time, such as the years between World War I and II, where the photography is little known.

Alongside the exhibitions, FotoFest plans to sponsor forums and talks with Chinese artists and curators and a symposium looking at the history and development of Chinese photography.

Because there has been such an important diaspora of Chinese people over the past 170 years, FotoFest is hoping to work with other spaces to present work by Chinese Americans, Chinese living abroad and non-Chinese photographers who have done work in and about China.

The TRANSFORMATIONS theme relates to what is happening in and to China, but it is more open-ended. It is not limited or restricted to China-related work. It can be interpreted however artists and curators would like to represent or 'see' it: related to youth and age, the urban environment, physical or psychological metamorphosis, passage of time, architecture, war, technological change, and history, to name just a few areas of possibility. Work submitted to FotoFest on this theme will also be available for viewing and possible selection on the FotoFest website.