Exhibition Response: ‘Inside Out – New Photography from China’

Exhibition Response: ‘Inside Out – New Photography from China’

Essay from Slavka Sverakova’s blog

Li Yuanming cites the “look” of the Yaoi Kusama (b. 1929) and Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954). It is an enchanting crossover from one tradition to another tradition in nascendi. This artist allows a composition to cross many traditional boundaries while disrespecting none.

Should you feel that Li Yuanming owes you something “new”, you would be overlooking the intricate role play of similarity as a ground for a difference.  The respect for older artists harmonises the lens based means with a respect for predecessors, a value deeply embedded in all Chinese visual art (and social norms).

The exposition of similarity works as a sense of belonging also in the three images by Wang Jiling, called “Second Birth” (2019), displayed before the set of nine monochromatic photographs of dust by Xiaochuan Sun.

“Like everyone else, once or twice a week I gather up the dust in my apartment with the help of a vacuum cleaner. Each time, and according to a specific ritual, I collect dust in a plastic bag. On the bag I then mark the date, the exact day.” Rehearsing methods used by On Kawara (1932 – 2014) with a significant difference: by placing the dated debris in front of abstract white background, the matter uproots itself from its origin and forms a new authenticity. One looks like an unearthed ancient cranium, another as a  trace of a prehistoric mollusc, etc.

At the end of the wall, there are three related images of night lights. Not just any three. The Winter Solstice, 2019, is a time of longer nights, of darkness capable of hiding secrets. Lui Hong Lui hunts those secrets with flash lights and documents what is revealed to the eye.

On the separate wall, two large images expose reworkings of Hirst’s shark and Sherman’s personages. However, in this small scale something significant is not visible. It is all constructed from tiny texts woven together like ribbons of untidy thoughts. Most of it in Chinese, some quotes e.g. “who like boys, who like girls” are in English. Yaxuan describes the text as an essay that gives “…complex and infinite interpretations within an elitist theoretical system that often alienates the viewer and embellishes the original artwork.” I honestly regret that I do not have at least a tiny smithereen of Chinese language to read it, though, the spirit resonates. Nevertheless – a significant subtext is possible: the Chinese artist acknowledges the two Western ones without creating a hierarchy between the works of art concerned.  I read it as togetherness – a value both undervalued and needed in the contemporary world.

While the artist’s intention and technique is mindbogglingly complex, the images seem to be from an unknown world. Yet, the gallery notes state that “the artist captures old industrial factories in northeast China” and digitally alters them to achieve “background narrative and microscopic life”.

The three following photographs are titled “City Code“, 2019, by Hong Ye, a fragmented record of familiar, and at times unnoticed, encounters.

Models dressed in red looking into the depth of the virtual space – away from the viewer – are intended to be in the whispering distance, but incommunicado. Liang Xiao intends to issue a warning of loss, as red signals danger as well as it demands attention and respect. The three grey images in the middle are titled Meaning and Memory, 2019. Xiao Long states they are combination of CT film and text narrative from the artist’s relatives. Again, a Chinese speaker will get much more that I from the layered text. Nevertheless, I responded to the visual impression of attention, care and commitment.

Another night light in the three similar compositions titled “Entrance”, 2019 by Jingsi Yi, evokes a feeling of strangeness, unease, and other worldliness. Next, two views of tree crowns are stack above each other without alignment, yet almost succeeding in being one. Lui Hong Lui, Pine, 2018, comments on the lens based image as representing integrity, simplicity and tenacity of the trees eulogised in literature. The image has a power beyond holding my attention.

Wang Xining exhibits iphoto, 2016/17 thus introducing the ubiquitous capacity to capture a multitude of images, an overload of images. Jianjiao Lin draws attention to the ease of recording not only what is lived, but also what is just wished for, the mute cross in Nowhere to save, 2019. A plant exposed to sunlight for 6-8 hours leaves a trace on silver gelatin paper, when Dan Xu revives old technique of copying architect’s drawings in Light tattoo, 2019. The gelatin silver paper appears also in Li Ding’s Trees in winter, 2013.

In a separate room Yang Jiao presented a three-channel video installation, To the unknown place, 2016. Its 9 minutes 51 seconds powerfully held my attention both by the aesthetics and ethics they embodied. I did not get the actual narrative but the lived experience of someone alone burning the boat thus not being able to cross the river. In the notes, I read that it is about a Korean boy living in China at the river, in some places only 4m wide that marks the border. His fishing boat allows him to look at Korea and the troops guarding the border. Then the boat is burned. Perhaps a sign of the fatal fact that he cannot visit his homeland.

The overall meaning of this exhibition is the oneness of the world – while accepting differences. It also signals friendship among nations, while respecting differences. It evokes both Plato’s idea of the world made from differences and similarities and Mao’s call to let all flowers grow. We may at times champion different causes, but this exhibition represents commonality. Ben Okri summarised the human condition which all of us Earthlings share, thus: “The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.”

Read more on the exhibition ‘Inside Out – New Photography from China’