No Heaven Awaits Us: Contemporary Chinese Photography at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art

By Atkinson, Alan | Chinese Literature Today, July 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

No Heaven Awaits Us: Contemporary Chinese Photography at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art


Atkinson, Alan, Chinese Literature Today


T he international art market, and the international art world in general, have been completely transformed in the last twenty years by the arrival of Chinese art. The tremendously fecund power of contemporary Chinese art has swept aside all preconceptions and nearly all prejudices as it has thundered onto the world stage, unabashedly celebrating all the gorgeous neuroses that have erupted from China's successful transformation into an ambitiously consumerist society. While many in the West are aware of the financial success and critical acclaim that has been heaped on the more prominent Chinese painters, sculptors, and filmmakers in recent decades, few are aware of the incredibly diverse and exciting work being done by contemporary Chinese photographers. One of the most striking features of the contemporary photography scene in China is how rapidly it has developed. Photography was first established as a major at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2002 within the Department of Design. Prior to that, advanced training as a photographer was only available through a professional journalism curriculum. As a result, many of today's photographers originally worked in other fields of art and industry, or are in some notable cases completely self-taught. This breadth of backgrounds, coupled with the enormous amount of new information about Western art and photography that rapidly became available in China after the mid 1980s, has produced a phenomenal explosion of experimentation and creativity in Chinese photography. It is a situation that has no precedent in art history, so it is therefore no surprise that it has resulted in a vast body of work that is of an unprecedented nature. Many Western viewers are literally stunned by their first encounter with contemporary Chinese photography. Whether struck by the haunting beauty of the imagery or by the phenomenal scale of its conception and execution, it is an encounter few ever forget.

As a medium, photography has always called upon its practitioners to address the question of truth, of what is real, and the perhaps unfair expectation that photography serves as a sort of public memory. Yet, as photography stirs the heart of memory, it also stirs the conscience, because our proximity to the experience of another human is never more immediate than with photography. The poignancy of the moment when we recognize ourselves in others is the true magic of the medium.

I n recognition of the growing international importance of Chinese photography, the 2011 inaugural festivities for the new Stuart Wing of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma will include an exhibition focusing on trends in contemporary Chinese photography. The following selection represents highlights from the exhibit, yet it can only begin to suggest the wide array of styles, philosophical approaches, and subjects that have made contemporary Chinese photography one of the most exciting aspects of the contemporary art scene worldwide. Photography has unquestionably become one of the best ways to quickly gain some insight into the complex issues being addressed by contemporary Chinese artists. It has also become an important means to observe the growing sophistication of the domestic audience for contemporary art within China. But most exciting of all should be the certainty with which we may expect to see even more surprisingly inventive ways in which photography will be used to address the rapidly unfolding changes in Chinese art and society.

Xie Hailong: I Want School

I Want School is an image that is probably known to almost every Chinese, but is almost unknown in the West. Xie Hailong's haunting photograph of eight-year-old Su Mingyuan at her desk in rural Anhui province literally captured the heart of the Chinese people and helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars for an educational charity. Xie Hailong originally took up photography to chronicle the childhood of his son. …

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