Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China
Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art
Through Feb. 18, 2007

It has been only 30 years since the official end of China’s Cultural Revolution, but in that short span, a generation of a new kind of soldier has emerged. These anarchists have formed a cultural revolution of their own, a new guard that might be called the avant garde. They are the warriors in a fresh battle to reclaim China’s place in the world art scene, and they are a fearsome group.

Some of these young cultural talents are showcased in the latest exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China is a mesmerizing look at today’s China through the relatively new media of photography, digitized pictures and video. The show offers a startling glimpse at the world’s most populous country and how its own contemporary artists view it.

The exhibition features more than 100 works by 60 artists, and its overriding theme centers on the intense economic and physical change that has swept across China since the mid-1990s. In just 10 years, many Chinese villages have changed from tranquil fishing hamlets to bustling cities. Small houses have been razed to make way for skyscrapers. Neon signs have replaced hand-lettered ones, and cell phones are far more commonplace than paper lanterns.

The change has been radical and rapid, and many of the show’s pieces demonstrate the mixture of exhilaration and terror that comes with serious upheaval. It is a double-edged sword, this hurried growth. Tall monoliths poke holes through the thick green air pollution. Beneath shiny modernization and urbanization lies the seamy underbelly of corruption, prostitution and generalized angstall documented through the instantaneous medium of photography.

“China’s overnight urbanization creates opportunity, but has a very definite downside,” says Christopher Phillips, curator at the International Center of Photography in New York City and co-curator of the exhibition with Wu Hung of the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago. “Change that’s taking place so rapidly and intensely is disorienting. There are artists who are desperately trying to get their bearings amid a kind of flux. Photography is a perfect medium for that. It allows moments to be frozen.”

Indeed, the work of Zhang Dali may be seen as a kind of photographic record of Beijing, a city that is working hard to transform itself in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics. For the past 10 years, Zhang has painted an outline of his own profile on buildings slated for demolition in Beijing. He has chiseled out some of these outlines, allowing the viewer to glimpse the new Beijing through the walls of the crumbling old. Zhang’s photographs and videos of his efforts have been exhibited only privately in Beijing, but he has many sympathizers, he says.

Speaking through an interpreter, Zhang says he began his work throughout Beijing in an effort to express his feelings of loss and sadness over the destruction of the old buildings. He photographs the profiles of himself immediately after making them because often the buildings are knocked down within a day or two.

“I want the old buildings and the new buildings together. I don’t want my city turned into New York or Hong Kong,” he says during a stopover with several of the exhibit’s artists in Durham. “I think China goes the way of the modern, and I don’t want only one voice in my city. I also want to express my voice, that old and new together is good.”

This concern with the past also communicates itself through rebellion, as in Hong Lei’s “I Dreamt of Being Killed by My Father When I Was Flying Over an Immortal Land” (2000). In the chromogenic print, created with the help of a computer, Hong portrays himself as a fairy doing things of which his father would disapprove. In the center, he lies dead with a shot to the head.

Hong, who also spoke through a translator, says his father was a Communist and very strict. The photo, which references a significant Chinese painting, can be interpreted to “apply to the older generation looking down upon the younger generation and not approving of it,” he says.

The difficulties that Chinese women are facing is intensely described in Cui Xiuwen’s video “Ladies Room.” Cui hid a video camera in the ladies’ bathroom of a nightclub and recorded the comings and goings of the club’s women, many of whom are prostitutes. In the film, the women come up to the bathroom mirror half-dressed, checking their breasts and lips. At the end of the work, the only sound is that of swishing notes, as the women count out the money they earned during the evening.

Cui, who also works in photography and paint, says all of her pieces deal with the condition of women. She once wanted to be a military journalist, but turned to art, which also requires bravery, she says.

“Things are getting better and better,” she says, through a translator. “There is more freedom in recent years. It takes some courage for Chinese young people to take art as a career, but the art market is now booming in China.”

Overall, the exhibition is a multilayered look at China and how its past has affected its future. The show is so multifaceted that it takes several walks around the galleries, as well as a thorough reading of the accompanying signs, to begin to grasp it. Like China itself, it is a study in contrasts.

“The more time you take with the individual works, the more it will open up for you,” curator Phillips says. “China is returning to its traditional place as a global player in the art world.”