In 1983, Wu Yinxian completed his most famous photographic series, ‘Inside the Great Hall of the People.’ These pictures, taken when he was 83 years old, represent the zenith of Wu’s career, and have been hailed as the ‘culmination and closure’ of social realism in Chinese photography. The series is indeed unique: an ideologically-tinted window onto the rooms inside China’s flagship edifice. Row upon row of seats await meeting tables lined with legions of cups; chandeliers hang above, reams of deep patterned carpet lie below. They are propagandist images of the highest distinction - ‘awesome’ in the traditional sense of the word.
These famous photos were shown at Taikang Space as the first installment of their focus on Wu Yinxian’s work. The second – on now – examines through a selection from the thousands of images he took in the period of the 1950s and 60s, when Wu was photographing labour, industry and social life in China. The ‘Inside…’ series portrays the proud ‘stage’ of the State, whereas these photos show a more ‘domestic’ angle.
At first glance, the downstairs room has a didactic feel; Wu produced many textbooks that helped build the principles of social realist photography. On the walls are extracts from his writing, pointers such as ‘Highlight the image of the main figure’…‘Three kinds of images in the picture and their functions.’ Some might find these somewhat dry, but it is engaging to read Wu’s guidelines and to look then at the photos mounted below, some of which follow them with striking accuracy.
Socialist realist photography, albeit sometimes lacking in spontaneity, can nonetheless produce lovely results. These photos without doubt show a visual sensitivity that transcends the mores of idealistic representation. In some, the light, for example, is beautiful. One shows a group of agricultural workers pausing amid an arena of winnowed corn; the eye is drawn to the central figure, whose straw hat has become a white halo lit from behind by the sun. In the foreground, sunlight picks out textures and folds on the tops of already-filled sacks. On the opposite wall is a smaller set of photos entitled ‘Composition’; it is through these that it is perhaps easiest to envisage Wu Yinxian as an artist-photographer. Here, for example, is a slightly misted shot of a flock of swans swirling on water and resting on a shore; close by an entire frame is filled with a stack of fruit. Striking is a shot of a lone tribal-looking figure feeding a bird. It is refreshing in this room to see also some test sheets; these deliver a more natural, human side of the subjects depicted: the real looks and attitudes that the final portrait aims to distil. A quirky photo shows a huddle of people looking up, but we cannot see what commands their gaze.
Propagandist images are typically legible in more ways than one – idealistic, contrived, accomplished, aesthetic, but not often personal. Upstairs is a series of vivid images of flowers, which prove to have become highly personal to Wu as vehicles of different moments of expression. This colour-saturated series began simply as a means to examine the pigment in photographic film. As the Gang of Four renounced Mao’s literary and artistic principle of ‘All Flowers in Bloom,’ however, so the photos became angry and oppositional, forcing the image of flowers against ‘evil’ political intruders. When the Gang of Four was defeated, Wu continued to pursue the flower series to welcome the new ‘Spring’ of socialist culture. Seldom have flowers been used to depict anger: this part of the exhibition is startling after the black and white images with which it begins.
In Wu’s own words, ‘All art serves a political goal or a social class. “Pure art” or “Art for art’s sake” does not exist.’ It is of course true that art resides in heavily propagandist imagery. One might ask here whether what is shown is the framing of Socialism by an artistic mind, or the activation and inspiration of an artistic mind by Socialism. But perhaps this question too is arbitrary in the presence of photographs that constitute simultaneously a historic visual document and testimony to a highly sensitive and passionate individual.
- Iona Whittaker
(All images courtesy of Taikang Space and the artist.)