To Add a Meter to an Unknown Mountain: An Iconic Collection of Contemporary Chinese Photography

23rd September 2011 – 30th October

Introduction

To Add a Meter to an Unknown Mountain: An Iconic Collection of Contemporary Chinese Photography features the works of four Chinese artists whose bold, conceptual art challenges the conservative society that they grew up in. As internationally renowned artists, CangXin, Ma Liuming, Liu Wei, and Zhan Wang are all important figures in the rising contemporary Chinese art scene that is taking the world by storm. In their respective styles, each of these contemporary Chinese artists expresses social critiques of the world as they see it. From the impermanent state of human actions to the harmony between nature and mankind, the photography in this exhibition highlights the relationships between man and nature, new and old, and modernity and tradition. In a rapidly urbanizing world, their work serves to capture significant moments of interaction between two starkly different worlds.

Artwork

Artists

Artists Bio

Cang Xin (b. 1967, China)

Born in the Heilongjiang Province in 1967, the renowned Chinese artist Cang Xin is known for his performance art and photography, both of which reflect his shamanistic belief that all living and non‐living things transcend each other through their spiritual essence. He studied at the Tianjin Academy of Music, and his work has been exhibited worldwide in London, Barcelona, Russia, Australia, and Italy. Cang Xin currently lives and works in Beijing.

 

Liu Wei (b. 1972, China)

As a contemporary Chinese artist, Liu Wei has no trademark or uniting element in his work; rather, he engages in mixed media and a wide variety of mediums and art forms such as video, painting, installation, sculpture, photography and drawing. He was born in Beijing in 1972 and studied at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. His works have been featured in numerous exhibitions worldwide, including the Pompidou Center in France, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, and the International Center for Photography in New York. He currently resides and works in Beijing.

 

Ma Liuming (b. 1969, China)

Ma Liuming is an internationally renowned performance artist who is most widely known for his controversial nude persona, Fen‐Ma Liuming – an androgynous figure with a female face and male body. Born in Hubei province, China in 1969, he joined the avant‐garde art movement that took hold in the Beijing East Village in the 1990s although his radical work often gained the unwanted attention of the Chinese police. His solo performances and exhibitions have been showcased around the world in Europe, the USA, and Asia. He currently lives and works in Beijing.

 

Zhan Wang (b. 1962, China)

Zhan Wang is an internationally recognized Chinese sculptor whose works examine the relationship between old and new, modern and traditional, and synthetic and natural. Born in Beijing in 1962, Zhan Wang is the first contemporary Chinese artist to have his work included in the permanent collection of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. His studies at the Beijing Industrial Arts College led him to experiment with his surrealist technique in the early 1990s. His exhibitions have been held worldwide in Japan, Italy, France, and Singapore. The artist currently lives and works in Beijing.

Essay

天人合一/分二 Humankind and Nature, Together and Apart: The Photographic Works of Four Contemporary Chinese Artists

by Britta Erickson

At the start of the millennium the energy, quality, and inventiveness of Chinese photography engaged the interest of a widespread international community. Contemporary Chinese photography became established as a major force, and was the subject of numerous exhibitions, most notably Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China (2004),[i] which travelled from the International Center of Photography in New York to Chicago, Seattle, Berlin, and Santa Barbara; and Zooming into Focus: Contemporary Chinese Photography and Video from the Haudenschild Collection, which opened in 2003 at the University Art Gallery, San Diego, subsequently showing in Shanghai, Tijuana, Singapore, and Beijing. In addition, photographer-filmmaker Yang Fudong’s 2004 nomination for a Hugo Boss Prize underscored the serious consideration being afforded Chinese new media art by the international art community.

Like video and installation, photography is a relatively new medium speaking an international language. It continues to evolve in terms of technique and approach and, compared to such long-established media as oil painting and ink painting, it remains less encumbered by a history of association with a particular regional culture. Nevertheless, historical circumstances have borne a deep impact on the development of photography as an artistic medium in China. Following its introduction in the nineteenth century, photography was adopted as a medium ideal for documentation, including portraiture, and also as an artistic medium. Political entities seized on it as a means of propaganda, however, and it was diverted almost exclusively to this purpose by the time of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). During the Cultural Revolution, government-controlled publications reproduced endless staged photographs of happy dancing minority peoples, bumper harvests, smiling helpful members of the People’s Liberation Army, Mao Zedong laboring alongside workers, and so on. Photographs also documented propaganda in other media, such as revolutionary ballets and operas.

Following Mao’s death in 1976, government control of the arts loosened, but photography was not taught in the fine arts academies, and private ownership of cameras was uncommon due to their prohibitive cost. Reflecting on the expense, Shi Guorui recalls saving for many months to purchase his first “point and shoot” camera in the mid-1980s, for two hundred yuan. Those who are now China’s prominent mid-career photographers found different paths into the field. Xing Danwen, Yang Fudong, Wang Qingsong, and many others began as oil painters, and their oeuvres show the influence of that early training in composition, coloring, and lighting. Zhuang Hui was the son of an itinerant portrait photographer. RongRong worked in a photography studio while taking photography classes, and Cang Xin supported himself and learned about the medium by working in a photography lab. For all of them, access to sophisticated cameras came only after they established their careers.

China’s best-known early experimental photographers Xing Danwen and RongRong first gained acclaim in the early 1990s, for their photographs documenting edgy, often nude performances by Beijing’s East Village artists, notably Ma Liuming, Zhang Huan, and Zhu Ming. Those fleeting performances now stand as iconic expressions of the artistic zeitgeist, but would be unknowable without the talented photographers with whom they associated. Since then, numerous artists have moved into photography, taking advantage of increasingly advanced cameras, as well as the highly sophisticated photo printing facilities now established in China. Four major paths have emerged: photography as documentation of a performance or installation (He Yunchang, Zhan Wang); photography of a tableau or action staged by the artist to be viewed through the medium of photography (i.e. not for “live” viewing; Cang Xin, Liu Wei, Weng Fen, Hong Hao, RongRong & inri); photography of unstaged scenes and events (Shao Yinong & Muchen); and digitally manipulated photographs (Cui Xiuwen, Xing Danwen, Zhao Shaoruo). Interestingly, all four approaches were practiced during the Cultural Revolution, except that in the pre-digital era photographs were manipulated by other means. Then, photographs were created to amplify and broadcast the government’s unified message; now, they express highly individualistic and varied points of view, in much subtler terms.

In 1995 eleven artists formerly of the East Village (which had disbanded not long after artists were arrested for staging illegal performances) produced an early iconic collaborative performance, To Add a Meter to an Unknown Mountain. It involved the nude artists forming a pile (approximately one meter high) to join with a mountaintop in the countryside near Huairou. Following the performance they dispersed, leaving the mountain unchanged, and thus reflecting an idealized notion of the interplay between nature and humans with their more transient presence. Each of the artists received a black and white negative of the performance, so that there are eleven slightly different black and white versions of the photographic work of art that resulted from the performance, as well as two color images.

Although To Add a Meter to an Unknown Mountain was a collaboration, it seems likely that Cang Xin contributed to the concept, given his long-term fascination with the relationship between humankind and nature. He became interested in his heritage as a Manchu born in Inner Mongolia, presenting himself as a shaman: in 2002 he stated “my work is an extension of Shamanistic rituals native to the nomadic tribes of northern China . . . . A person, animal or object [in their forms] contain [sic] a metaphor for the whole universe.”[ii] For his Man and the Sky as One series he photographs a scene, often with his naked body inserted into it, calling on his audience to reflect upon the possibility of harmonious existence—to the point of unity—with nature. The mani stone in Man and the Sky as One: Mani Stone is carved with the Buddhist mantra, om mani padme hum.

Presented in the traditional ink painting format of a continuous composition across six panels, Liu Wei’s black and white Landscape No. 1-6 draws a tight connection between the human body and the environment. The work at first glance appears to represent a mountainous, fog-enshrouded landscape, but it proves instead to be a montage of naked bottoms. Anatomical references such as veins, bones, and energy were traditionally employed in discussing Chinese landscapes, and Liu Wei’s image suggests that people are physically one with the landscape, and shaped by local traditions. The deft touch of humor achieved through a juxtaposition of incongruous materials and references is typical of this younger generation artist’s work in a wide variety of media.

To Add a Meter to an Unknown Mountain, Man and the Sky as One: Mani Stone, and Landscape No. 1-6 present philosophies of the relationship between humans and nature, ranging from spiritual unity (Mani Stone), to an ideal of harmony (To Add a Meter), to a connection via physical co-existence (Landscape No. 1-6). These works have been created against the backdrop of China’s lightning-fast economic development and concomitant rapid urbanization—a situation in which nature and an appreciation for the land often seem to have been abandoned. For these artists, nature remains an essential part of existence, worthy of thought and not to be sundered from life.

A striking comment on the lure of contemporary urban existence and the resulting erasure of more organicly derived modes of life is provided by Zhan Wang’s Urban Landscape: Chicago and Urban Landscape: London, both of which are photographs of complex installations. Zhan Wang’s work as an experimental sculptor focuses upon the changes overtaking his hometown, Beijing. In 1995 he began producing his well-known series of stainless steel rocks, Artificial Jiashanshi (artificial “artificial rocks”/literally “fake mountain rocks”), noting that reflective ornamental rocks would complement contemporary glass and steel high-rises better than traditional, natural rocks. Later he noticed that, just as Beijing’s old, idiosyncratic courtyard homes were disappearing, so too was the great variety of table and cooking ware: factory-produced stainless steel replaced hand-made ceramic and wooden items. From 2002, he has been creating site-specific installations composed of thousands of pieces of stainless steel kitchenware arranged to form a three-dimensional model of the host city. Adding mirrors, fog, and Artificial Jiashanshi, he creates shiny cityscapes that combine conceptual and visual representations of the globalized urban experience. Photographs serve as permanent manifestations of his Urban Landscapes.

The works discussed here, by Ma Liuming, Cang Xin, Liu Wei, and Zhan Wang, all express thoughts concerning humankind’s relationship with nature via an international language of conceptualism. The artists’ backgrounds vary, but it is significant that in this era characterized by dramatic urbanization, profound thinkers take up the issue of nature vis a vis humankind. Their visual imagery is quietly compelling, encouraging contemplation of an increasingly important issue.

 


[i] Co-organized by the Smart Museum, University of Chicago and the International Center of Photography, New York, in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and the Asia Society, New York; curated by Wu Hung and Christopher Phillips.

[ii] Cang Xin, Existence in Translation (Beijing: Timezone 8, 2002), p. 4.

Documentation

Opening

Press