Expressions unlimited

As China’s rich artistic heritage continues to flourish, photography is growing in importance as a medium of unbridled expression, observes Monideepa Sahu

One of the most ancient and progressive civilisations in the world, China is surrounded by an aura of mystery. Making giant strides in economic growth and technological progress, China continues to remain enigmatic to the rest of the world in many ways. An exhibition of the work of six contemporary Chinese photographers, which has been made possible by Glenfiddich, Tasveer and OFOTO Gallery, Shanghai, seeks to throw fresh light on the complex culture of China today. Nathaniel Gaskell has worked closely with OFOTO Gallery to put up this exhibition.  There is a popular impression in the rest of the world that while China is a rapidly growing economic power, freedom of expression is curbed, he says. The works of these photographers show that China’s rich artistic heritage continues to flourish, and photography is growing in importance as a medium of artistic expression.

Ma Kang’s deliberately hazy shots of ‘The Forbidden City’ are reminiscent of Impressionist paintings, with patches of colours building up into images. His photos of ‘The Forbidden City’ show, in his own words, “a blank existence shrouded in layer upon layer of metaphysical haze”. Its façade appears imposing, but its inner core seems “devoid of strength or definition”. Burgeoning economic growth and the influence of foreign cultures appear to be infiltrating ‘The Forbidden City’ from both without and within. Ma Kang’s portrait of Chairman Mao is hazy, yet through the blurred features the face and image of this towering figure in modern Chinese history is unmistakable. Policeman before the Tiananmen Gate tower is another, far lesser figure of authority, whose individual identity is also blurred.


Yang Yongliang’s stunning composite images appear at first sight to be elegant landscapes exhibiting delicate brush strokes and intricate compositional arrangements of traditional shansui paintings of the Song and Yuan Dynasties. A closer inspection reveals myriad buildings, highways, bridges, clouds of noxious fumes and other elements from urban constructions deftly interwoven to form a magical whole. The sceneries no longer remain graceful depictions of beauty for the enjoyment of individuals. These are landscapes made with the aid of technology by many, many people, urging viewers to confront the effects of industrialisation, environmental pollution and urban issues.

Yan Xinfa has spent 30 years wandering through the villages of Henan Province, his chosen spiritual homeland. His simple, low-key yet thoughtful images explore and faithfully record the daily lives of Henan’s traditional villagers. They live, work and play against a backdrop of relics from a rich and glorious past. A farmer drives his tractor between two ancient statues which stand mute reminders of the past in the middle of his fields. Another villager walks on a dirt road past a row of towering statues from an emperor’s tomb. There is a touch of humour too in a photo showing two villagers climbing on the back of an ancient carved lion in the middle of the fields. 

Luo Yongjin’s images of Fort Houses and New Residences explore modern China’s connection with the rest of the world. The private villas constructed by the new moneyed class of China reflect their desire to ostentatiously display their wealth. These grand buildings are a jumble of cultural influences, combining elements of traditional Chinese architecture with western styles. With high walls, forbidding closed gates and overall ugliness, these houses display an arrogant lack of humanity. The grim buildings show no signs of life; no flowers blooming in balconies or people peering out of the window and exchanging pleasantries with neighbours. Is this the price of development? After all, buildings such as these are not empty shells, but reflections of the collective unconscious.

New light

Chu Chu’s series, ‘It’s Not it – Tool’, shows everyday objects such as a wok, a spanner, scissors and a hammer from unusual perspectives, encouraging viewers to perceive them as objects of art transcending their mundane functionality. These larger-than-life images in black and white shades encourage an appreciation of their forms, rendering the familiar with fresh aesthetic appeal. Viewing these objects from unusual angles and perspectives, one wonders about the human stories behind the people who created and used them.

Liu Yue uses traditional Chinese quilts in unusual compositions, folding them into mountains in a take-off from traditional Chinese landscapes. At the beginning of Chinese reform and ‘opening up’, life was not as colourful and varied, says Liu Yue. In those days, flower-themed quilts gave expression to people’s feelings, whether sadness or joy. Landscapes played a profound role in Chinese history as “spiritual symbols of the whole of Chinese culture and art”. By combining these two elements, Liu Yue uses them as an approachable way of expressing his emotions.

China is the world’s most populous country. Yet people are conspicuous by their absence in most of these photographs. What we see is things they have created and used; homes, skyscrapers, elevated roadways, tools and objects of daily use. Through these images, these Chinese photographers are exploring and responding to cultural and economic sea changes sweeping their land, and their effects on their deep-rooted cultural values. Works such as these have intrinsic artistic value. They do not pose direct criticism or political challenges, but are suggestive of wider issues, urging the viewer to ask far reaching questions and seek answers.

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