2012 Caochangdi Photospring Hit-List

Randian’s pick of the best.

Photospring Beijing is again upon us, with a plethora of galleries throwing light on contemporary photography for throngs of visitors on a murky, smog-smothered opening weekend. The overall quality seemed slightly down compared to last year, with a few hints inadvertently dropped that the organizers hadn’t seen every exhibition, and some galleries were closed on Sunday to the dismay of visitors wielding green maps. That said, there were still first-rate photographs to be seen beyond the gates of Three Shadows. Here is Randian’s pick of the best.

“Notes of Reflection,” group exhibition, and “Photographic Oddities from the Archive of Modern Conflict,” group exhibition.

Chambers Fine Art (Red No. 1-D, Caochangdi, Chaoyang District, Beijing).

Iona Whittaker: Chambers Fine Art excelled this year with two utterly different exhibitions. The first, “Notes of Reflection,” combines Zhu Yinghao’s recollections of the Middle East with views of Japan by Deng Yun. Zhu’s raven frames featured strangely isolated shots including one of two figures, physically adjacent yet apart in dark robes. Other works depicted scenes of crowds in an amphitheater, which singe the imagination with imagery far removed from that which normally surrounds us.

In the other space is gathered a brilliant, motley collection of pictures: “Photographic Oddities from the Archive of Modern Conflict.” Here we are treated to a Chinese “Special Effects Make-Up Artist Photo Album” from the 1950s, and well-oiled biceps in an 80s “Celestial Master Cup National Bodybuilding Classic” postcard. A standout was the hilarious group from the archives of the British Royal Horse Artillery in the 1960s showing true British army-brand slapstick. Bravo.

Gu Ling: In the film Woman Without Men, (2009), directed by the female Iranian director Shirin Neshat, the magic realism of the film often overshoots reality. But Zhu Yinghao stays closer to earth with photos of female figures walking by the waterside their faces tinged with sadness and loneliness. A couple of what looks like cut-apart eggplants on the rocks, waiting to dry, evokes the moisture and brine on the volcanic rocks along the shore — or are they insect corpses? A small Ferris wheel slumps between the freeway and the desert, sinking into the horizon, while a pair of lovers on a motorbike look out into the ocean.

The Archive of Modern Conflict, based in Britain, displays some fascinating books, including Happy Tonite. Compiled by the curator Thomas Sauvin, the book includes selected work by Luo Dan, Ceng Han and 12 other Chinese photographers.

One full wall of the exhibition is dedicated to the series of photographs and handwritten manuscripts entitled “Gordon Earl Adam & His Time Machine.” Gordon Earl Adam, an Englishman, who disappeared along with his machine in the 1920s, immediately conjures up Martin Scorsese’s first animated film, Hugo, which explores film history and early special-effects techniques rather more than mechanical depictions of man. It relates a story in the same time period as Gordon’s — a period of industrial revolution in the wake of a surge of mechanical innovation. At the same time that it explores the humanistic relationships between drawing, cinema and machines, it also displays a love and respect for the moving image. In the seven short years from Train Arrival (L’arrivée d’un train, 1895) to Georges Méliès’ Journey to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune, 1902), the visual scope of humanity had extended from train stations, still relatively new, to the moon, which no longer felt so distant.

In the Hall of Ancestral Worship inside the Forbidden City in Beijing is a clock and automaton that can write “All Peoples from the Distant Corners of the World Hail the Emperor,” designed by the British clockmaker Williamson in 1770 (the thirty-fifth year in the reign of the Qianlong emperor) and represents the highest level of mechanical technology. Could this be inspired by the same source that inspired Gordon Earl Adam? The difference is that Méliès’ voyage is film, while Adams’ is a true time travel back to the era of Qianlong.

Elsewhere, photos of cloth samples from the People’s Liberation Army’s Factory No. 35480 vividly recall the spirit and faces of an older generation of people wearing Western suits and army clothing, just like the pictures taken by my mother at factory No. 4805. What is interesting is how the same compositions can still be seen spread out at today’s textile markets.

And the photos of the British Imperial Artillery Corps leave one speechless with its sadistic exhibitionism. There is even a photo of a mounted soldier leaping over a sick man’s bed.

“Zhuiku Tablet” Annotation, solo exhibition by Chen Xiaoyun.

ShanghART Gallery (261 Caochangdi, Old Airport Rd, Chaoyang District, Beijing).

Iona Whittaker: Next up is Chen Xiaoyun’s bizarre “Zhuiku Tablet Annotations,” at ShanghART. These compositions involving twigs, we are told, “develop profound configurational interpretations” around a fictitious theme. Make what you will of this highly individual exhibition — this is the photo we chose.

Gu Ling: Chen Xiaoyun invited quite a few artists to perform the “dangling” of the “dried twigs.” The pretty scene in this photo belongs to the artist Yan Xing. Of course, not all artists were so lucky: some only bared a hand or a leg. From painting to photography, people to scenery, these dried twigs, as a theme, cut across the exhibition even if not all of the works had such an exhortatory title, as in another piece, with a chair leaning, yet still in balance.

“An Unexpected Reality,” solo exhibition by Bo Shang.

CCD300 Gallery (Caochangdi, Beijing).

Iona Whittaker: Bo Shang’s “Unexpected Reality” series at CCD300 gallery situates mirage-like figures of dinosaurs in the sparse pre-urban landscapes of Inner Mongolia — resource-rich locations where the human apparatus has sprung up in the absence of inhabitants. Hovering on rutted tracts, these peaceful chimeras enact a metaphoric gaze upon desolate traces, lonely and surreal. These photographs are the products of a wonderful imagination and sensitivity to contemporary states hanging between time and space, aspiration and paucity, reality and what is keenly sensed.

Gu Ling: In the introduction to the exhibition, Gu Zheng called the new empty cities of Inner Mongolia “ghost towns.” Ghost towns are nothing new, of course, like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project in Missouri. The dinosaurs Bo Shang brings into the ghost cities are not the gigantic beasts who once walked the earth, but very gentle creatures, as if projecting a past life into this one.

Book Fair, organized by Jia Zazhi.

Gu Ling: On the second day of the opening, the Jia Zazhi Company (translation: Fake Magazine Company), a photography and art promotion publishing space founded by Yan You and Aman, held a “book fair” of stalls by young photographers and artists at Caoliaochang2, a well-known gathering spot in Caochangdi. Many hand-made albums by artists filled the tables, like Zhu Lanqing’s 17 collections of experimental street-scene photography dealing with the theme of trust, or the limited editions of artworks and pamphlets, like Sun Yanchu’s Obsessed — a collection of works from 2004 to 2011 (with a foreword by Karen Smith). At the gates, a whole goat was being roasted, and the scrumptiousness wafted in with the charcoal into the little houses jammed with all sorts of miscellaneous old tchotchkes and knick-knacks — a scene to behold in itself.

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