China: Insights focuses on contemporary mainland China as seen by seven Chinese documentary photographers. Each utilizes a medium and a visual language that is relatively new as an art form in the People's Republic, since it was not until the 1980's that China began opening up to the outside world and to Western culture in particular. Even today, most of the artists in this show make their living as press photographers, which means that their editors and/or the Communist Party control what gets published. Yet the projects on view here are personal, in-depth studies of themes that these photographers consider important to document.
Traditionally, the practice of documentary photography has tended to be characterized by Westerners looking at non-Westerners through an often exoticizing lens. With that in mind, it is especially refreshing to be able to, as co-curator A.D. Coleman puts it, take a look at "China through Chinese eyes."
Unfortunately, I found the exhibition layout terribly confusing. The open-ended design of the gallery walls seems to make a straightforward sequencing of images virtually impossible. Oftentimes I found myself puzzled about where to start viewing a particular series, or even where one photographer's project ended and another's began. The photographers' names, while helpfully displayed in a large font, were oddly placed, very high up, and the introductory texts—especially important since most of the photographs do not have individual captions—often seemed to appear in the middle of an individual's body of work, rather than at any conceivable beginning.
Some photographs have, in lieu of any written captions, labels for a cell phone tour instead. For this "tour," the viewer is supposed to call a dedicated phone number and then press a numeric code for information on a particular image. I tried this system, but found it off-putting, since each time I dialed the phone number I had to hear the same introductory recording. In any case, when I'm looking at art I'd rather not have to fiddle with my phone just to find out basic information about the piece.
Leaving aside the above frustrations, I found the actual work on view to be compelling, enlightening, and visually rewarding. As befits such a large and heterogeneous country, each photographer's project is quite distinct from the others, both in subject matter and in tone, and each is well worth your time.
The first series, by Zhang Xinmin, uses a classic, dramatic black-and-white style to tackle the momentous theme of the mass migration of China's peasants to urban areas. This is arguably the most vital topic in the exhibition, as peasants comprise 60% of the country's population, and cities such as Shenzhen have exploded in growth during the past few decades. Zhang's images, taken over the span of a decade and in various regions of China, are moving, empathetic testimonials to the struggles of the poor. Subjects include people hitching rides on trains, crowded living conditions, a young worker's beat-up hands, and a window-washer hanging from a single rope on the outside of a dizzyingly tall skyscraper.
The other six photographers all focus on various interesting subcultures within this vast and rapidly-changing country.
Hua Er, an anthropologist, uses both color as well as black-and-white photography to document life in Lijiazui, a small village where the Mosuo people practice a rare matrilineal and matriarchal culture. The men in each household are the children's uncles rather than their fathers. Men can spend the night at their lover's place but they must return to their own family's home before sunrise. The Daba, a priestess or wise woman, is the key leader who oversees the people's health, religion, and history. Hua Er's beautiful photographs of this unique culture are as engaging as they are educational.
Yang Yan Kang also documents life in a small village whose norms are quite different than the Chinese mainstream. Yet this particular culture looks more familiar to me, and probably to most Miamians: the people are Catholic. Yang's black-and-white images capture a variety of different rituals and practices, in both interior settings and breathtaking mountainous views. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these photographs reminded me of Latin American cultures, in that they seem to indicate a strong integration of religious faith and folk art into the everyday lives of the people.
Li Nan's work takes an altogether different tack, using frontal group portraits to illustrate a wide variety of social types in China's cities, with an emphasis on how they would like to be seen by others. Often whimsical, these portraits include everyone from politicians to chefs, and from mental patients to workers in a chicken-processing factory.
The remaining three photographers are based in the youthful and highly-developed city of Shenzhen, and each focuses on a different aspect of contemporary life in that big city. Their projects reveal how integrated China's urban culture has become with the rest of the world—and how large metropolises around the world are more alike than they are different.
I especially loved Yu Haibo's dynamic color photographs of young people in nightclubs, letting loose with music, dance and alcohol. The use of blurred lights creates a painterly effect, vividly capturing the subjects' movement and ecstatic energy.
In a starkly contrasting view of nightlife, Chen Yuan Zhong's project uses black-and-white photography to cover the unhappy theme of prostitution. Chen's sensitive, unsensational images show female prostitutes plying their trade, and then—along with male pimps and customers—being arrested, prosecuted, and serving out sentences of "reform by labor." It's worth noting that the practice of arresting the customers as well as the prostitutes is a more equal and progressive policy than exists in many other parts of the world.
Lastly, Jia Yu Chuan uses color photography to document the male-to-female transvestite/transsexual community of Shenzhen. For the most part Jia's glamorous images present these individuals as happy, well-adjusted, and confident in their ability to fully express their gender identity. For me, such a hopeful, progressive perspective was an ideal note on which to end my viewing of this richly diverse exhibition.
Reflecting on the show as a whole, I was left with the impression that China today is as complex as ever, a place where old traditions and global cultural trends co-exist, and where the only certainties are income inequality and social change.
~Eduardo Alexander Rabel
Images: Yang Yan Kang, from the series Faith of a Village; Hua Er, from the series Mother to Daughter; Yu Haibo, from the series Night Moves. Courtesy Lowe Art Museum.