A Tale of Three Cities (Part III) SHANGHAI
The City and the Country:
Shanghai is more about the future
than the past. That’s as true for me as it is for this ever-expanding city. Of the three cities I visited, this was where I
spent the most time and was the busiest, working with the students
taking my summer workshop during this—the year of the dragon—the luckiest sign in the Chinese Zodiac. Predictions for
this dragon year were auspicious: it was destined to be transformational, even
life changing, where outmoded paradigms were certain to be shattered. Forecasts
don’t get more exciting than that.
Judging by the Shanghai photography scene, the forecast was accurate.
Compared to Seoul and Saigon, Shanghai’s photo scene is more energetic, diverse
and economically viable. In fact, the Chinese photography scene is
altogether more boisterous, experimental and outward looking than Korea’s and
Vietnam’s, perhaps because its roots lie in performance and pageantry (think
Chinese Opera). Many practitioners,
such as Wang Qingsong whom I met in Korea, have international reputations and
are represented by galleries both at home and abroad; their prints regularly turn
up at auctions in the West and the East. Consequently, Chinese
photographers are aware of both their audience and the market.
Much of Chinese photography
conjures Olympic-sized thoughts—big size, big bucks and big studios. Some works
sell for very high prices, and consequently there are a number of very rich
photographers making mammoth-size work in hangar-size spaces with numerous
assistants. It’s not so much that big is better; the work is just big because
it can be (although, of course, there is smaller work, too).
What’s particularly interesting
is the way photography in China—and indeed many of the arts—has been so finely
attuned to the country’s huge and rapid changes, and how artists, who are quick
studies in recognizing new possibilities in technology and media, have seized
and mastered new materials and methodologies.
Content is often political. Ai Wei Wei, who gets a great deal of
press for his political involvement and participation, isn’t unique in dealing
with political ideas and criticism (although he may be the most upfront and
overt, not to mention media savvy). Many photographers deal both with China’s
past and the environmental concerns generated by its enormous growth. One who
comes to mind is Yao Lu, whose digital work comments on China’s vast changes
with images that are first seen as traditional landscapes. Yet on closer examination,
one discovers that the mountains are really
piles of debris covered with the protective green cloths found at contemporary
It also seems that the attention
to content usually supersedes concern with print quality. Not that work is badly printed; it’s
just that virtuosic printing is not the norm.
Galleries are more
omnipresent—and easier to find—in Shanghai and Beijing than in Seoul and
Saigon. Both Chinese cities have specific, contained art districts: M50 (a.k.a.
Moganshan) in Shanghai, 798 and Caochangdi in Beijing. A number of American galleries—like Chambers,
James Cohan, and Pace—have locations in China (a number of Korean galleries
have Chinese branches too). Also, Beijing has the distinction of being the home
of Three Shadows, China’s first
and only privately run, non-profit center devoted to photography and video art
(full disclosure: I had a residency there in 2008 and wrote an article about it
for the Trans Asia Photography Review. Click here to read it.
Some Background on our Workshop
We started SVA’s Digital Photo Workshop because photography is
increasingly global and we figured what better place to understand and
participate in that than in China, where there’s a jet-propelled art scene that
plays an ever-larger role in the international photo world.
We chose Shanghai because the city has long been a place of dynamic
east/west fusion. While it’s big and sprawling, it’s also comprehensible and negotiable in a
fairly short time (unlike Beijing, which stays geographically fuzzy for
months). Like New York, it’s a walkable city, something that can’t be said for
imperially proportioned Beijing. Shanghai has a metro system that’s easy to
understand (not to mention its cleanliness), along with street signs that tell
you whether you’re heading north, south, east or west. For those of us with a dicey sense of
direction, this seriously cuts down on time getting lost.
program, worth four studio credits, is four weeks long. We wanted to
ensure that after participants had traveled such a long distance they’d have
enough time to recover from jet lag, learn the city, network, learn about the
culture and cuisine and really dig into projects that expanded their horizons
and helped their careers.
I started running the Workshop in
2010 with Eleanor Oakes, the BFA photo department’s special programs coordinator.
Our third iteration in 2012 had eight students. The SVA contingent was made up
of freshman Sora Woo, a Korean; sophomores Michael Schmidt and Ariel Bobson and
junior Mitch Paster; plus our 24/7 translator, Nova Pan, a graphic design major
who had just finished her sophomore year. Also in the mix: Dogon Arslanoglu, a
recent Florida International University grad, Patricia Peguero-Vidal, a junior
at Fordham, and Indonesian-born Dhita Beechey, a commercial photographer
specializing in food who lives and works in Shanghai. You can read their
firsthand impressions of the program and see some of their pictures on our blog.
We hit the ground running. Orientation and our welcome banquet were on
June 9. Sunday, June 10, our favorite tour guide Henry Hong squired us around
to give people some sense of the city’s history and layout.
Monday was our first group crit. On the itinerary for Tuesday: the surreal and kitschy Bund Tourist
Tunnel, where a pod-like car shuttled us under the Huanpu River not only to and
from Pudong but also reputedly between heaven and hell (although it was hard to
tell which was which).
We followed that up with drinks on a rooftop café to watch the sunset
and the Pudong light show across the river. Rounding out the activities, we
attended a tony art opening at Bund 18, for which many of us were underdressed.
On Wednesday, June 13, the Shanghai-based photographic duo Birdhead came and
talked to us. Friends Ji Weiyu and Song Tao
began their collaboration in 2004 and have since shown internationally. Last
year they participated in the Venice Biennale and this coming
October their work will be included in MOMA’s New Photography Series. As
billed on MOMA’s Web site, their photos “capture the lived reality of
their community against the urban landscape of Shanghai. Their mass
accumulation of snapshots of friends and family eating, working, sleeping and
hanging out, speaks to a world of total image saturation and the obsessive
documentation of the Facebook generation.”
Thursday, we had another field trip with Henry Hong to two historic water
villages outside Shanghai—Zhujiajiao, with its renowned
bridges and Suzhou with its famous, UNESCO World
Heritage Site-designated gardens along with a silk embroidery factory.
generally have Fridays through Sundays off, but that Friday we added an
optional trip to Shanghai Film Park, the city’s equivalent of
Universal Studios, where we watched several gangster movies being made, set in
the 1930’s. The actors, wearing fedoras with their traditional mandarin jackets
worn over long gowns, looked very cool.
As there’s no rest for the weary, we also schlepped to Thames Town, another theme park of sorts: a faux English village that looked to have more wedding photographers and bridal couples than residents.
In her last post … Robinson recaps the balance of the workshop.