December 16, 2010

Exhibit gives glimpses of China

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity, Entertainment at 11:18 pm by dinaheng

Two photography exhibitions that offer different viewpoints of life in China have opened at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, in Los Angeles — “Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road” and “Photography from the New China.”

The two exhibitions, which run concurrently through April 24, 2011, offer rare glimpses into a country that has long fascinated Americans because of its traditional closed doors to the West.

The “Felice Beato” exhibit shares work done by a British photographer who was among the first to record images of newly opened countries like China, Japan, India, Korea and Burma in the 1850s to 1871. He was one of the first global photographers, chronicling wars and life in foreign countries.

The “Beato” exhibit includes architectural views, costume studies and portraits, giving an historical perspective to life in Asia from the viewpoint of a Western photographer in the 19th Century. Beato’s work contrasts with “Photography from the New China,” which features contemporary art produced by Chinese photographers since the 1990s, when People’s Republic leader Deng Xiaoping introduced the current period of Opening and Reform.

“People are fascinated by art coming out of China because we’ve seen so little of it until now,” says Judith Keller, senior curator of photographs and curator of the exhibition. “The use of photography in producing art in China is playing a major role there. The artists there don’t have the same tradition of making black and white photos in the darkroom, thinking about how good the negative is.

“They’re thinking about digital photography, and are very adventurous with it, experimenting with size and technique. They have all these Western influences and new techniques, combined with their own traditional culture, to express their own ideas of what their art should be.”

The photographs in this exhibit show imagery from ancient Chinese culture and propaganda from the Cultural Revolution in ways that convey how repression has affected the human spirit, and how Western influences are changing values in the Chinese people today.

Models, in some cases, are staged in whimsical, theatrical or cynical scenes. Family portraits are juxtaposed against current photographs of people. The message is that China’s people are in transition from a rural, isolated society to an urban, industrial society that’s trying to catch up with the West on one level, yet poised to surpass it on the economic front.

Nudity, for example, was forbidden during the Cultural Revolution. There’s a lot of it in today’s photography as Chinese artists use the human form in their artwork, often as statements about publicly enduring pain of some sort.

“It’s about the impact of consumerism and global marketing,” Keller says, “and how money has become what people are worshipping now, instead of the Communist state. There’s greater freedom of expression than in the 1990s, when artists were trying to push the limits with performance art, and a lot of them were arrested.”

Today, she adds, artists acknowledge that the state feels free to censor their work and shut down exhibitions whenever officials decide to. But as long as photographs don’t represent or criticize current state officials, the images seem to be tolerated.

“There’s one artist who paints his own body and models with traditional landscapes,” Keller notes. “Painting landscape on one’s body is not a traditional art. Landscapes were done on rice paper mounted on silk in small scale. Now it’s seen on a man’s muscular torso.  Their work is very humanistic, and the art is about how current events are affecting people.

“I hope the people who see the exhibit will become even more fascinated by art from the East because of this show.”

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