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A Glimpse Through the Lens, A Person Going Against the Mainstream, Review of An Era

陈溪Cecilia Chan 2018-04-10 13:37

Zhang Hai'er 

A Person Going Against the Mainstream 

Zhang Hai'er is a renowned figure of the Chinese photography world, and the focus on individuals and their styles to reflect a unique perspective of the world and emphasis of grey-tone visual language are two major characteristics of his photographs. He has been in the industry for 30 years; he only retired last year from News Weekly where he worked for 20 years. In September this year, Shanghai Center of Photography (SCoP) held a solo exhibition of Zhang’s work: Zhang Haier Muse. The exhibition showcased photos Zhang took over the years but were never shown to the public. 


Zhang started to explore photography through highly-concentrated individual portraits very early. At his exhibition of Muse, there were a series of photographs that he took of his wife, Hu Yuanli, as reflection of his worldview - it is not difficult to peek through the photos that back then Zhang had already established his well-known photography styles of today. A photograph that he took of the Forbidden City from an uncommon vantage point - it was during one of this trips in Beijing in 1983 - shows that in addition to his unique views of the world, Zhang keeps a distance from the city. The outsider perspective enables Zhang to capture life moments with a sharp eye. 

Zhang’s biggest wish was to become a painter. In 1985, he was admitted by Guangzhou Academy of Arts. When studying for his Masters degree, he bought a Nikon camera as an accessory to help with his painting needs. It was an era during which arts’ popularity grew rapidly and under the policy of 85 New Wave, arts and culture started prospering. Nonetheless, when people talked about photography, they all had low regard for its artistic value. Even Zhang’s close friends thought the same: photography ranks at the bottom of the arts. 


The stereotyping led Zhang to take a lot of photos with historical meaning from 1980 to 1988, yet he never thought of making a living through it. During that time, Zhang often hung out in a small photographer’s group organized by his classmates from the arts academy. The majority of the photos were either taken in dark alleys or small rooms with closed doors. The girls in the photos were either lying lazily on their sides, yawning, stretching… sometimes naked. Without exception, their eyes all showed naked seduction. The bead-like texture of the photos combined with a grey tone give the models vivid outlines that almost fill up the entire canvas of the photos. The sun that secretly peeked through the camera lenses and landed on the models formed a soft filter yet the final result of the images is sharp and shocking. The Bad Girls series were shot during that time, and they became Zhang’s most controversial works. People could neither accept his photography techniques nor could they tolerate the “naked” seduction shown in the photos, which was called carrying a “dark, degrading taste” by critics. 

Zhang’s life took a major turn in 1987, a year before he graduated from Guangzhou Academy of Arts. That year he met Karl Kugel, one of the organizers of the Les Recontres d'Arles International Photography Festival. The meeting made Zhang want to travel to France for the first time. His tour to France, undoubtedly, was a pleasant one. Compared to the different restrictions photography faced in China at the time, France was much more open, and it was then when he realized to use photography as a media of self-expression. Following the trip, Zhang was invited to attend a couple of oversea photography exhibitions that brought him more opportunities. Then he started to work for a young photographer agency UV Imaging Studio, which later helped Zhang obtain his French residency. 


Zhang’s art creation period spans for multiple decades and with that it sees the change with the times. The objects that he has been observing are changing but he has always kept his sharp perspective. Even when he was busy shooting photos behind the scenes of famous runway shows, he always took time to shoot the ordinary audience in either Guangzhou or Paris, and to shoot people close to him, or people with different genders or in odd dresses; the focuses are closely related to his long-standing emphasis of “thinking like an author” - always keep a clear mind, and through oneself to view the society we currently live in. 

He is used to hiding among people and behind his camera lenses. In that way, his subjects have no clue that a pair of eyes is gazing at them and so they don’t hide their true selves. For this, Zhang said apologetically that: “Though it is fair, it is never equal. It does not matter the person being photographed is energized or defeated, their emotions are all exposed as if they are shirtless.” 


Back in January 1988 during his first exhibition in Guangzhou, Zhang received many critiques from people. Some audiences even says his photographs were “useless garbage.” Decades have passed, when looking at the tone of language being used in the Chinese contemporary photography world, it seems that such one-sided misunderstanding is still prevalent. Zhang is frustrated yet motivated. He said, “I need some opposition views for friction, it does not mean that I am completely against the system, rather if we are eggs, then what stands in front of us could either be a ‘fragile sheet’ like the system, or be ‘metal-like walls’ forged by the people.” 

The frankness and sincerity displayed in Zhang’s creation viewpoint not only shows, subconsciously, how he sees the world but also as an influential social figure, how he is very strict of what he says. It is why he can claim with confidence that, “Throughout history, there has never been shortage of artists who became famous because of a moment’s inspiration or beyond-average wisdom, but from the bottom of my heart, the spot for artists is always reserved for those who have suffered emotionally and stood against the main stream.” 

Chen Wei 

Review of An Era 

Chen Wei, born in 1980, is one of the young-generation of photographers with a global view. His artwork is primarily created through photography, with which he reflects people’s physiological states in a rapidly developing society and their individual relationships in the world. During his photo shoot sessions, Chen specializes in making amazing scenes with staging devices to bring out the dimensions of time; filling his artwork full of emotions. 


Theoretically, someone graduating from Television Filmography major should typically work in TV related jobs. But Chen Wei, who once formed a band and made experimental music during his school years, prefers creating art. 

Chen said the opportunity that made him realize the direction of his art creation was the Shanghai Biennale. During the exhibit, he saw Jeff Wall’s lightbox series of Cibachrome and Cindy Sherman’s Bus Rider. These two types of artwork’s artistic methods and the messages they carry deeply attracted him and since then, Chen’s view for photography had been revolutionized. At the same time, they also opened up his understanding for photography and enabled him to think more about how he wanted to make art. 


After discussing with his artist friends and practicing for some time, Chen’s completed his first series of photos, The Countless Encounters In A Colourful Story. In the series, people are placed in vast backgrounds, their stillness made it as if the pictures were taken out of a stage - the mysteriousness intrigued audiences. In the beginning of 2006, Chen took the series to Shanghai Contemporary Art Gallery for exhibit - his first exhibit as a photographer. 

As Chen’s thoughts on photography become clearer, his style started to evolve as well - his artistic expressions become more and more mature and he also moved from outdoor to indoor shooting. In his photographs, the spaces are usually decorated with well-thought out details, among which, the absence of people and the clues of stories create illusions for memories, viewers could not help but imagine and guess the stories associated with the clues - a short moment of the past or today. 


In the “PHOTOFAIR Shanghai”, Chen’s series titled Dancing Hall attracted a lot of attention. Chen says, the series started by this idea he had in 2003, which is to shoot portraits showing people’s states of self-reveling and absence. However, after diving deeper during photo shoot sessions, he discovered that the themes can be connected. Eventually, the series shifted away from its original “shell” and arrived at its core - the Dancing Hall series capture a person’s moment of “absence” in a club or a dancing hall. These scenes carry Chen’s creating emotions and they are also periodical summaries of his artwork. In the photographs, the roads with wet surfaces, the twinkling fluorescent lights, people lost in mist, all seem to come out of a colourful mid-night show. They come from our memories of the dancing-hall culture in the 1990s - it recreates a signature moment of the era of feeling lost. 

In the Dancing Hall Series, people and scenes are separated but are also closely related. In Chen’s recent creations, it is not difficult to see that he always purposefully separates people from scenes, but the photos, again, always show a state in which people will never leave the scene. Then, what made Chen want to separate people from the scenes? Chen explained, “After people are separated from scenes, we will be able to see more clearly where people and things are respectively, thus making the storylines clearer. And after organization and editing, we are able to focus on a particular object.” 


When asked what his best creating state is, Chen smiled and answered, “Like the legendary painter Ma Liang.” Undoubtedly, all the photographs, seemingly results of quickly pressing a button, are in fact products of Chen’s detailed stage planning. He is enthusiastic about collecting really old memory pieces, moments, and phenomenon that are so common in our lives. He continuously collects, merges, and learns from them while trying out different photography approaches. It is because of this gradual learning practice that Chen’s artwork has been transformed from single pieces to more complete series and projects. Behind his pieces of emotions are Chen’s coherent thoughts - it is also where Chen is at in his creating state. 


View It How You See Fit 

Artists Ji Weiyu and Song Tao said that the name of their duo "Birdhead" is the result of an accidental typing when they tried to right click and create a new folder on their computer. And the even more odd thing is - it seems that they could not care less about the technical problems that is showing in their overexposed photos, or what their audience thinks. 


Chatting with Birdhead was unexpectly relaxing - the brutal truth that came from their mouth somehow has the magic power to put you at ease - it is the same feeling their subjective artworks can bring. 

The artists claimed that they preferred to stay put in Shanghai even though they once attended Venice Biennale. “There are many types of people, some are like birds that travel seasonally and they find it joyful. To the contrary, we are happy to stay in Shanghai, no matter how.” The two artists said that the Shanghai in their memories had no Starbucks or McDonalds, and there were no bright lights shooting into the sky, rather there were shadows from the sun shining on dark-green scaffolds and tall cement blocks, it was also a city with small transportation boats shaken back and forth in its harbor during typhoon season and with dirt trucks driving through the empty streets at night, nonstop. Of course, there was also them wearing thin clothes, with two pockets full of sugared-coated, roasted lychees, wondering on the streets in the autumn wind - appeared to be fierce but aimless. 


Ji Weiyu and Song Tao met each other in Shanghai Art and Design Academy. Upon graduation, Song left to study in London and Ji stayed in Shanghai. Once there was distance between the two, they started to send each other photos and showcase their lives through pictures. As a result, they formed a habit of taking and sharing photos tirelessly in the past ten years. Though the photos are somewhat subjective but they display the other side of their city lives - especially the photos about Shanghai, they let us see the different versions of Shanghai behind the high skyscrapers and prosperity. 


Many say Birdhead represents the China's New Generation artists; but they don’t quite agree. “We use cameras to show our emotions, cameras are the tools we use to explain things. When an artwork is completed, it requires an audience, thus we can’t stop people from discussing. Some will like your work and tell you a bunch of reasons of why, and it might be completely different from what you are trying to say. We have no way to control what people think. And we really can't think too much about it as artists, but for bystanders, they can interpret it however they see fit.” 


Perhaps it is because of their “neglecting” attitude towards their audience that allowed them to keep taking photos without interruption, and it also made them have little interest or spare time to guess what audiences might think or what their aesthetic preferences might be. “We are oriented around our own aesthetic views, for exhibitions, the key is to make audiences happy. What kind of aesthetic emotions our work might bring to an audience, we don’t know and we don’t want to evaluate.” 

Birdhead said there are a several types of Chinese artists: “Some like to negate others, some like to play the ‘Chinese card’, some like to be critics of the society and they don’t belong to any of them. What they are doing is ‘life philosophy’. "We love the sky above us and the earth underneath our feet, and we just want to let out our emotions.” 


Birdhead said their photographing process is like our stomach processing food, but instead the end results are photos. If we put all the photographs together, we would see the world of Birdhead. “The world orients around us, and during the digesting process, the energy released from the photographs is interesting. I think it has something to do with country, culture, different histories and backgrounds, you might misread the message or feel it is difficult to understand, but because so, there might be new things emerging from your misunderstanding.” 

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