Chinese Contemporary at FotoFest

Quelling the White Bone Demon displays an appealing blend of camp and myth.
Courtesy of Three Shadows Photography Arts Centre, Beijing

So far FotoFest's official China exhibitions, focusing on early documentary images, propaganda photography and contemporary documentary work, have been surprisingly strong. But the biennial's winning streak ends with the section Contemporary Conceptual and Staged Photography, 1994-2008, which consists of the works in "New Photo, 1993-1998" and "Current Perspectives, 1998-2008," presented at various locations. It's work that, with a few exceptions, ranges from banal to ­disappointing.

The works in "New Photo, 1993-1998" come from artists featured in New Photo magazine, an independent underground Chinese publication founded in 1996 by RongRongKW and Liu Zheng, two Beijing artists. Their large, handstitched magazines presented the work of contemporary artists using photography and were passed around Beijing art circles. Although fewer than 100 copies were produced, the magazine is viewed today as a landmark in the development of contemporary Chinese ­photography.

Organized by Beijing's Three Shadows Art Center and curated by Zhang Li, "New Photo, 1993-1998" features the work of 15 artists published in New Photo. One of the strongest images is An Hong's 1997 Water Buddha, a staged photograph of a costumed young man in a leafy pond. He's wrapped in a yellow robe and wears theatrical makeup and an elaborate floral headdress. It's an incredibly lush and fantastic color image.

Like An Hong's images, Liu Zheng's work has an appealing blend of camp and myth. In his large black and white photograph, Quelling the White Bone Demon (1997), Liu stages an elaborate scene that looks like circa-1920s erotica. In front of a homemade background of drapery, animal skins and a big furry spider in a giant web, three nude young women adorned with arm and ankle bands sport long black wigs and ornate headdresses. They strike elegant but predatory poses over a young man who holds up his hands in protest while his torso is seemingly bound with silk from their web.

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But other staged photographs from the period fall flat. Qui Zhije's Fine no. 1 (1997) presents an image of businessmen in shirts and ties striking "revolutionary" poses holding umbrellas instead of rifles. It reads as a one-liner about China's economic transition. Meanwhile, Zhuang Hui's One Hundred and Thirty Artists (1995-1996), a grid of pairs of people standing in profile, employs a hackneyed conceptual strategy that has been better used by scores of other artists. Zhao Liang's Relationships — Making a Telephone Call (1998) is a color diptych of two nearly life-sized figures talking on corded phones and wearing see-through plastic clothes. It's just a dumb premise, and the only remotely interesting thing about it is that his subjects are naked.

A lot of the work in the show just feels like it was done by undergraduates, and I guess in a way it was. Art photography was just coming on the scene in the '90s and to be fair, many of these artists have gone on to make much stronger bodies of work. But ultimately, while work from this period may be interesting in the context of the development of contemporary Chinese art photography, the photographs themselves are mostly underwhelming.

And that sense of disappointment continues through most of "Current Perspectives, 1998-2008," the official FotoFest exhibitions scattered around the city at various venues. Work by Sun Goujuan, Liu LiJie and Chen Lingyang is on view at Art League Houston. Sun takes serene pictures of herself naked and encrusted with sugar. She is in year seven of the project and plans on continuing it to record her body's aging until she dies. It's a really vapid, self-absorbed work, an impression enhanced by Sun 's sculptural addition of a sugar-encrusted dressing table and beauty accoutrements. The premise is weak and Sun's execution is entirely too aestheticized; a lot of women artists have done similar work with much stronger results — think of Hannah Wilke's documentation of her deterioration during cancer and chemotherapy. As for Liu LiJie's staged scenarios — woman stands in room with man in bed changing channels, woman lies on operating table presumably for a facelift, woman lies on couch with panties on the floor — they are a particularly uninsightful and stereotypical take on the lives of women. Liu comes across as a Cindy Sherman wannabe.

Meanwhile, Chen Ling­yang takes pictures of her crotch with flowers and menstrual blood. Apparently it caused quite a ruckus back in China. Unfortunately for Chen, it lacks shock value here; nobody gives a shit about that stuff, especially when the art isn't especially interesting.

Williams Tower fared a little better. Yao Lu makes photographic spoofs of socialist realist stalwarts. His portraits of model workers with obviously made up rosy cheeks and lips, clasping Mao's "Little Red Book," are a fairly amusing twist on a frequently used strategy in contemporary Chinese art. Also interesting are Wu Gaozhong's images of mold and decay. They're shot so close up that they look like landscapes. The images are quirky, unique and oddly beautiful.

At Bering and James, Xing Danwen's photographs of architectural models are digitally turned into stage sets for scenes of urban despair. They're well done and come across as fairly insightful takes on China's brutal urbanization. Zeng Han is also at Bering and James. In his images of architectural and individual oddities, a Cinderella-esque castle and teenagers clad as anime characters for cosplay, Zeng seeks out China's evolving popular culture with fairly good results.

The New World Museum features Cang Xin's series Man and Sky as One. Many of his massive color photographs use as their backdrop the spectacular mountain formations most of us have only seen in traditional Chinese landscape paintings. They're even more stunning in the exaggerated color of Cang's photographic landscapes. Skies are bluer than blue, grass is so green it almost looks plastic. In these surroundings, Cang stages various scenes, mainly involving naked people and fire. There is a feeling of individual and collective rituals and ceremonies to the images, but they still fall short. They aren't quite strange enough or spectacular enough to really move beyond large, attractive images. Cang seems to be hinting at deeply profound content that the images don't quite deliver. Maybe it's because of some cultural gap, or maybe it just isn't there.

Chinese contemporary art is in a weird place right now. It really has only a 20-or-so-year history, but it is garnering tremendous international commercial interest. And while the political environment for artists has loosened up considerably, it is far from completely free and unfettered. That is no doubt reflected in the choices artists make. And while there is good, interesting and original work being made in China, there is also a huge amount of work that seems glossy and specifically targeted towards a Western market and/or that seems to be simply mimicking pre-existing art strategies without internalizing them. I'd like to see what's going on 20 years from now.

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