Photography is a special medium and vehicle for intervention, application and self-renewal. It plays a role in the participation of the construction of contemporary cultural narratives, as well as in the establishment of a new order and pattern of art. Following the “Aura and Post Aura: The First Beijing Photo Biennial” in 2013 and the “Exploring Asia by Photography: The Second Beijing Photo Biennial in 2015, the Third Beijing Photo Biennial returns to the theme of photography, exploring the significance of photography in a contemporary context through the perspective of “Mixed Publicity and Privacy”. It was concurrently held at Liaoning Beizhen Cultural Center and the Art Museum of China Central Academy of Fine Arts on September 28 and October 1, 2018. Wang Huangsheng and Zhang Zikang served as exhibition directors, and Hans De Wolf, Cai Meng, Ângela Ferreira and He Yining formed the curatorial team.
The exhibition was skillfully divided into twelve chapters. The number “12” naturally reminds people of the popular “12 zodiac signs” of astrology, which mirrors the original intention of the curatorial team. In the moment that the curatorial team of the Third Beijing Photo Biennial decided to use the format of the CONSTELLATIONS as an organizing principle for each of the twelve chapters of the exhibition, Hans recalled they were engaged in a quite unusual practice, by bringing artworks, artists, pictures together in configurations that never existed before, but would offer a completely new sense-giving opportunity to all those contributors, to all of those chapters, and this without following any rational logics. There seems to be no direct link between the zodiac signs and the photography biennial. From “CONSTELLATIONS” to the “photo biennial”, what story does it contain? The CONSTELLATIONS symbolize a set of various complex relationships. Starting with the CONSTELLATIONS, it in fact initiates a sort of relationship building. What relationships did the Third Beijing Photo Biennial knit?
Photography in the era of image democratization
Susan Sontag began her In Plato’s Cave (On Photography) by saying that Mankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling with its age-old habit in the mere images of the truth. However, cultivation by photographs is starkly different from enlightenment by older and more artistic images. This is because there are many physical images around to attract our attention. According to the record, such work started in 1839. During half a century after its invention, her so-called photographic work was widely used in different fields in society, such as medical care, science, political pursuits, publicity, etc. It was the most popular and active period for this work. Its verbalized features were infinitely expanded.
Today’s photographs require no “cumbersome and expensive things.” People living in the present effectively experience the attraction of physical images everywhere. The “metal organ” of the mobile phone (“Sensory Technology – Mobile: Body and Society”, Wang Min’an, p. 81) gradually dissolves the original writing and reading modes. The connotation of “image democratization” has penetrated our lives like never before: WeChat, Weibo (tweet), Douyin, ins, Facebook, etc. are invading our lives ubiquitously, becoming direct ways for people to obtain and disseminate information. Unreachable physical images can also be infinitely clustered together in an interconnected network. Thus, our ways of viewing, ways of thinking and ways of sharing have changed, and a novel lifestyle has been rebuilt.
“Since then, almost everything has been captured on photo images. This photographic vision of absorbing all things has changed the relationship defined in the cave – the world we live in.” Our relationship with the world has been thoroughly changed with the participation of photography. In just a fraction of one minute, the whole process from photographing to sharing is completed. However, today’s “photography” is not the same. This “quick and convenient” operation turns what used to be dynamic “photography” gradually into nominalized photography. Simply put, photography has become an “image”, the result of pixelization, and the “thing” that we spread. The sense of speed, technology and futurism generated by the “clicking” sounds gives people no time to think about “why they take pictures in the first place.” The story of the exhibition was built in the contemporary context to launch a platform for recapturing the verbalized “photography” and exploring what photography should be like in a multicultural era.
The exhibition intended to raise questions for the audience. It also focused on communicating with them. In addition to the huge work volume on display—113 artists from home and abroad were invited to present more than 1,000 works, and the exhibition was concurrently held in two places, with a huge floor space of over 6,000m2. The curatorial team buried multiple clues when they conceived of their idea for the exhibition. These clues do not exist in isolation—They are interconnected and combined into different relationships. From the perspective of “relationship”, this can help us uncover the multiple structures hidden behind the exhibition. Specifically, “Mixed Publicity and Privacy: The 3rd Beijing Photo Photography Biennial” has constructed of a variety of codes: from the relationship between the two elements in the discussion theme to the arrangement of chapters in the form of “12 zodiac signs”, or between the exhibition and the audience in Beizhen and Beijing, to the relationship between the space in the exhibition and the arrangement narrative of the exhibits and works. The layers of relationship are interwoven and intertwined, constituting rich and diverse mediums. On the other hand, it considers the reflective mirror of “where photography should go in a multi-lingual context.”
“Mixed” theme and arrangement of CONSTELLATIONS
Since the advent of photography, the relationship between publicity and privacy has been repeatedly discussed. “Mixed publicity and privacy” can be said to be the motif of returning to photography. If the two words of publicity and privacy are separated, neither of them forms the focus of discussion of this exhibition. The center of the theme is the “mix” of the two. Talking about the theme, Cai Meng, one of the curators, noted that “This is very similar to the situation after television became popular. First of all, the impact of television has led to the loss of an audience from the ‘public’ cinema, while watching TV at home is relatively ‘private.’ The cinema and the family (watching TV) form a public and private relationship. Today, everyone has one mobile phone, making it possible for them to instantly upload all kinds of information to social platforms via the Internet. Then, the original private shooting, perspectives, and works are placed in the public media, becoming a way of sharing universally, while the exhibition highlights this public nature. Therefore, the family and the cinema, the photos in the mobile phone and the photos at the exhibition site also constitute a corresponding relationship between publicity and privacy.” If the two words of publicity and privacy are separated, neither of them forms the focus of discussion of this exhibition. The center of the theme is the “mix” of the two. This also implies a photographic attribute as a verb. But, this is not an awkward hope for the return to the original state of photography. The verb “photography” essentially stresses a way of thinking, a way of viewing and a way of expression, and how to exert its role in today’s social ecological environment.
The exhibition was divided into twelve chapters. The number “12” naturally reminds people of the currently most popular “12 zodiac signs” in astrology, which mirrors the original intention of the curatorial team. Curator Hans recalled that when the team initially decided to arrange the exhibition in a “zodiac sign” layout, they “undertook an extraordinary practice” —combining all the artistic works, artists and pictures in an unprecedented form, so this will provide an all-new feeling for all contributors and all chapters —it does not fit in with any rational logic.” Frankly speaking, some young people today are particularly convinced of a close relationship between “star combinations that are given special meanings by humans” and the logic of people’s actions and way of thinking. Looking back at the East and West in ancient times, there were different interpretations of astrology. Be it the imprint of civilization in the Babylonian and Sumerian periods of Mesopotamia, or the record of the lunar mansions and four images in the Historical Records, the concept of zodiac signs symbolizes a set of different complex relationships. It becomes a dematerialized connection between human beings, nature and the universe. It is at best a metaphor for mankind’s good ideas. As Ângela Ferreira, another curator, put it: “This is a perceptive mechanism that developed to aide them in confronting the vastness and chaos of the world.”
Curtains, balconies, walls, forests, showcases, liquid wisdom, dust, shadows, spirit, reverse gaze, spaceships—the twelve chapters were arranged in a cloud pattern. The 1,000-plus pieces of work were like stars, floating in the vast sky. Images were constructed under the “go-between” of the four curators, pointing to human life, intentions, and stories, and linking up the past and present, universe and nature.
Spatial dialogue and exhibition narrative
The biennial exhibition site spans the capital Beijing and Beizhen in Liaoning province. The two places also form a particular relationship for a dialogue. The construction of the site carries the medium of concept output. The Central Academy of Fine Arts Art Museum is located in the capital city of Beijing, and it has formed a dialogue with Beizhen in Jinzhou, Liaoning province, which is the cultural ancient capital of “Five Mountains and Five Towns.” In the face of different fields, the team of curators and the team led by Sun Hua adopted a different approach to different environments, and made a new attempt in crowd positioning, exhibit selection and layout. The huge warehouse-like display space in the exhibition area of Beizhen in Liaoning province is fully utilized. The light gray exposed zenith and the original colored wooden frame are mixed with the carefully modulated light color temperature, which creates a space capsule. In the glittering package of countless tubes, the audience is in outer space where the stars are shining, and travels in a very experimental and challenging video journey.
The exhibition hall of the museum in Beijing has a different appearance. When entering the art museum, the sound effects of the engineering speakers are deafening, and the huge black box can absorb everything, and the most specific image of the exhibition is stored here. Not even “photography”, but an immersive multi-channel imaging device, in which Incoming was created by Irish artist Richard Mosses with composers and film photographic technicians. Curator Cai Meng revealed that “ ‘Incoming’ is a tactical term that indicates that the enemy’s artillery has come. For example, enemy missiles and grenades fly over, teammates will shout this word.” Mosses used a military infrared surveillance camera that measures body heat within 30.3 km. The Incoming records the behavior of European refugees, the dynamics of refugees, the environment and the heat in a negative silver grain texture. It exudes an unreal beauty. On the one hand, the conflict between this real situation and the unrealistic artistic beauty implies that the author thinks and questions politics and social ethics; on the other hand, from a technical point of view, photography approaches the “verb” here. This verb is completely different from the verb definition at the beginning of the photographic invention. Curator Cai Meng explained, “In the process of this change, how to extract photography as a mode of thinking and ideological thought thus becomes an important direction in the change.”
Two huge pictures of Cixi on the second floor of the museum (Cixi, Chinese Empress Dowager, 1835-1908, photography: Yu Xunling, Freer Gallery and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery archives) really shocked the audience. The photography that Cixi enjoyed in her life was also the most popular in the 50 years after photography was born. She was resistant to the sedentary requirements of Western sketches. She chose photography, exquisite details and the majestic environment. The layout and court furnishings show a sense of authority. In addition to the two large photos, there is a workbench that can be seated at and played with. The table is covered with various photo papers and printed with cut details, such as the eyes, costumes, shoes, and apples on the table, chairs, etc., can be enjoyed by the audience in their hands: this is a scene in which the photo studio picks photos.
The last set of photos is displayed in the form of installation, using a retro simulation of the action of photography. It is the full stop of the exhibition as it is the finale of the exhibition line. It is also an ellipsis as the audience can stop and relish here. Thinking, the photo paper held in the hand reminds the audience: The shooting mode and image are the result of the digital age that may be missing more than just a texture, as film is produced by mixing with human body temperature. Texture, more importantly, is the way of observation and thinking of fermentation under the joint action of the heart, brain and hands, this should not be a victim of a convenient life in the technical age. Despite being in the colorful ‘landscape society”, we should still have a little bit of ideal, photography is a reliable strategy: “photography is primarily a social etiquette, a barrier to anxiety and a tool of strength.”
Text (CN) by Zhang Yizhi, edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO
Photo Courtesy of the Organizer and Cai Meng