From a distance

By GREG COOK  |  November 6, 2007
ne Art Center Galleries, 14 photographers reflect and try to make sense of the industrial dynamo that is China today. Side by side, the images feel like momentary glimpses of a nation at once awesome, bewildering, and massively in flux.
Beijing artist Wang Qingsong’s 2001 triptych “Past, Present and Future” poses models in the heroic stances of Maoist social realist public monuments. China’s past is represented on the left by gun-toting revolutionary soldiers in muddy uniforms. The present, at right, is a troupe of silver-painted soldiers, laborers, and a man and woman holding rolls of paper (architectural plans, perhaps). The future is represented in the center with a group of gold-painted soldiers, a farmer, a welder, and a businessman carrying flowers, cymbals, baskets of fruit, and lanterns.
Like several of the eight Chinese artists gallery director Judith Tolnick Champa has assembled here, Wang draws nostalgically on past artistic models to mull his hopes and doubts about China’s present direction.
China is often in the news these days. Its economic and building boom, which has put it in greater competition with the West for natural resources, sparks both fascination and anxiety. Simultaneously, Chinese art has become a hot commodity in the West, as loosening cultural restrictions allow artists based there to increasingly exhibit outside of the country and speak with greater latitude.
In “Speak, Memory . . .,” six 2005 photos, Beijing artist Hong Lei riffs on traditional Chinese painting. Branches, either suspended by strings or reaching in from the side of the frame, are surrounded by squadrons of flies suspended on strings, suggesting that something in the culture has turned rancid. Beijing artist Hai Bo’s “Blue Bridge” (2004) is a misty moody blue scene showing a lone man walking over a twin-arched stone bridge that is mirrored in the still water it spans. Again, the elegance and serenity of the composition references traditional Chinese painting.
Beijing artist Liu Zheng, a former photojournalist, offers two documentary photos. In one, a pair of men in suits smile from behind feathered masks at a New Year’s Eve Party. In the other, a line of convicts in heavy coats line up with thermoses to fetch water. These photos come from “The Chinese,” a series of portraits of actors, strippers, farmers, miners, beggars, and mourners which he shot between 1994 and 2002. The images have a gritty style — a cross between Robert Frank and Mary Ellen Mark — that makes them feel like records of an older era.
A showstopper is Toronto artist Edward Burtynsky’s mesmerizing diptych of a Chinese factory that seems to extend infinitely into the distance. Dozens of workers in yellow uniform jackets assembling black coffeemakers at green work tables become a dazzling pattern, like something out of a kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley dance number.
New Yorker Lois Conner, who has been photographing in China for more than two decades, presents black-and-white photos of giant neon stars running along a rooftop of the World Fantasy Hotel and satellite dishes atop a Beijing television station. Most striking is her bird’s-eye view of tall buildings at a narrow intersection in Hong Kong. The dense, seedy warren of buildings, signs, and scaffolding feels a bit like something out of Blade Runner.
The Western artists here tend to focus on the vast scale of China — the armies of workers, the astonishing amount of demolition and construction that is rewriting the Chinese landscape. New Yorker Sze Tsung Leong, whose work was exhibited at Brown University’s Bell Gallery this spring, presents a photo of five men sledgehammering down a brick building at the crest of a field of rubble. In the misty distance, on the other side of a river, rise skyscrapers and cranes.
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