3rd Guangzhou Photo Biennial: Sightings - Searching for the Truth
約翰百德 (John BATTEN)
at 11:44am on 20th July 2009

The Guangdong Museum of Art mounts two highlight events every three years: its Guangzhou Triennial presents new ideas in contemporary art and the Guangzhou Photo Biennial features photography in its many forms. The First Guangzhou Triennial in 2002 was groundbreaking due to the shown art and accompanying catalogue essays tackling sensitive issues about the Cultural Revolution.

Museum Director, Wang Huangsheng, indicates that the expansive 3rd Guangzhou Photo Biennial, is making a similar breakthrough stance by purposely taking a “humanistic” approach to cover the “cultural interactions between history and contemporary times” and, as the Biennial title offers, a search for the truth. Or, just like different photograph angles, versions of the truth.

Biennial viewers are offered a not-to-subtle re-assessment of Chinese society through easily read, comparative visual narratives or stories that offer contrasting views about China’s recent history, politics, societal and physical changes. It is a bold Biennial considering that China is cautious in the lead up to the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.

The seven Biennial curators from China, Taiwan and the USA take the viewer by the hand and offer a range of contrasting photographic work from China, a strong selection from Latin America and smaller displays from the USA, Taiwan, Europe and other parts of Asia. Excellent explanatory wall text allows multiple readings from the photography displays.

It is no coincidence that, in one of the sub-themed sections of the Biennial titled ‘From Negative to Positive’, the harrowing photographs of torture and murder victims of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Prison are displayed adjacent to images from the Cultural Revolution, SARS victims, Sichuan Earthquake devastation, large format portraits of disadvantaged village children and, in a compelling juxtaposition, photographs from the China Photographers’ Association.

These photographs are a selection of 20,000 dumped in 1997 by the Association and fortuitously purchased from a Beijing re-cycling centre by a passing photographer. Many had been submitted to the Association’s salon photography exhibitions dating from the early 1950s and cover a range of subjects. In the Biennial, some are displayed in museum cabinets as they were found: crumpled, torn and anachronistic; idealized propaganda imagery displaying a dubious truth. Public outrage, however, followed after media coverage of the dumping: it was recognized that such imagery was important documentation of China’s recent turbulent history, and irreplaceable – like in Tuol Sleng Prison - photographic evidence of a time that should not be forgotten.

One of the curators, Wendy Watriss, co-founder of Fotofest in the USA, has curated a remarkable set of 19th century photography from Latin America. They play an important role in setting the Biennial’s overall remit: they nudge an assessment of China’s decision-making institutions and of its engineered development. Juan José de Jesús Yas set up a studio and began work in Gautemala in 1880 and photographed the Catholic Church’s clergy, depicting its hierarchy and rituals. Beautiful photographs printed from the original glass plates graphically depict the country’s clerical power structure and divisions of political influence.

The work of the de Calle brothers of Colombia plays a similar comparative role in the Biennial by allowing viewers to contrast the thoughtful building of the mountain town of Medellin in the early 20th century against China’s own recent and devastating urban redevelopment.

Photographers that document this urban building frenzy include Gu Xiang and Jin Jingbo’s pre and post development images in Shanghai; and, a sequence of photographs taken over a 10 year period documenting the construction of Guangzhou’s huge new commercial area near the Tianhe district by Xu Peiwu, whose social enquiry belies the fact that he works as a photographer for the state-run China Daily. John Fung’s ‘One Square Foot’ images capture Hong Kong’s dalliance with ever-higher buildings squeezed between minimal recreation areas.

Making silent comment about the madness of excess is Yang Tiejun’s photographs of the follies of provincial power: elaborate small-town government offices designed in faux White House Georgian style with layers of floors, imposing staircases and colonnaded porticos. In contrast, Miao Xiaochun takes wonderfully seductive panorama views on the urban outskirts of Beijing: viewers are privy to a changing cinema graphic array of mundane street-life as people ride motorcycles, eat rice, navigate a construction site or hold a baby, and, with silent curiosity, watch what the photographer is doing.

Since its discovery in the early 19th century, photography has spanned both the ideological and technological advances of modernity and the Biennial also focuses on our understanding of mechanically and technologically enhanced imagery as a record of society. This is best seen in two evocative sets of photographs done in the 1970s but now stitched together using panorama digital technology.

Bao Naiyong was one of the million people who came to Tiananmen Square on 4 April 1976 to mourn the death of Zhou Enlai. He climbed on the back of a bicycle and carefully photographed the Square in sections to give a complete 360º panorama view of the huge crowd that had congregated during the Ching Ming festival. His dramatic photographs capture an expectant crowd and a mountain of wreaths at the base of the Monument to the People’s Heroes in memory of Zhou and their tacit criticism of the country’s Gang of Four leadership. The following night, known as the 45 Tiananmen Incident, the Square was brutally cleared and many people detained.

In 1978, Beijing’s Democracy Wall became a place of criticism for the previous actions of the Gang Of Four and one of the most influential postings was known as ‘Accuse the Facists’ – an 18 page posting describing the conditions of those detained in jail after the 45 Tiananmen Incident and a call for their vindication. Li Xiaobin’s stitched panorama captures the quiet drama of the moment and, if you look carefully, the lighted cigarette and part-profile of an on-looker.

At the entrance of the Biennial, and seen again as you exit, is a display of 729 covers from the influential China Pictorial magazine. Tsai Meng, curator of this section, reminds us “when we are looking back at the 60-year history of politics and society through the images of these covers, we should not overlook the complicated context behind these images.”


Exhibition: 《3rd Guangzhou Photo Biennial: Sightings - Searching for the Truth》(第三届廣州國際攝影雙年展)
Date: 18.5 – 19.7.2009
Venue: Guangdong Museum of Art, Ersha Island, Guangzhou
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