BEIJING—With all that’s been written about the disappearance of the patron saint of Beijing’s arts community, Ai Weiwei, and the increasingly challenging environment for free speech in China, it was interesting to see the crowds that turned out this weekend to enjoy an unfettered and uncensored prestigious international annual photography festival.
Courtesy of artist Liu Di and Pekin Fine Arts
"Animal Regulation NO. 4" by Liu Di (2010)
In just over ten years, Caochangdi has developed from a sleepy rural hamlet in the capital’s northeast into a lively neighborhood (at least on the weekends) of studios and galleries that, unlike the 798 arts district closer to the city center, still retains some of its grittiness.
And it was Ai who pioneered Caochangdi’s development. In 2000, the man many have called the father of contemporary Chinese art set himself up in the area, building a gray brick-and-cement compound that became a template of sorts for the artists, studios, and galleries who followed his lead.
But it’s been exactly one month now since anyone has seen or heard from Ai, who was detained at Beijing’s airport on April 3. Chinese officials refuse to comment on his status or his whereabouts although the Chinese embassy in London did say just last week there is an ongoing investigation into his finances.
The mysterious circumstances surrounding his detention has heightened anxiety in the local arts community. “This kind of thing—an artist that is highly respected and well-known disappearing is disturbing, to put it mildly,” said one gallery manager who wished to remain anonymous because of the topic’s sensitivity. (A Chinese journalist who has covered Ai’s disappearance as well as other controversial matters has just been reported missing for three days).
The gate to Ai Weiwei's studio in Caochangdi, Beijing.
Ai’s arrest is only the most high-profile of a couple dozen arrests of activists and lawyers this year, reflecting “the increasingly thuggish and unlawful conduct of Chinese security forces in stifling perceived dissent,” said Phelim Kine, a researcher with the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch organization.
Even the U.S. has described the situation in China as a “serious back-sliding on human rights”—as a senior official visiting Beijing for a two-day human rights dialogue did last week.
Young Chinese photographers flourish
Under this cloud, Caochangdi PhotoSpring kicked off its second annual run. Around 170 international artists, principally Chinese, are taking part in the event — the result of a three-year partnership with the world-renown Les Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival based in the south of France.
Chief among the events during the month-long festival is the 2011 Three Shadows Photography Award Exhibition, which features works by semifinalists selected from across China, each one reflecting an extremely personal theme.
Take, for example, a series of sensuous black and white self-portrait prints by Xu Lijing. The caption reads, “Self-portraits are the objectification of the subconscious…. You examine photography and it examines you.”
Another photographer submitted a series called “Summer Ocean Love.” The collection of color prints depicts a summer “in the last seven years” of the life of the artist, who is interested in exploring happenings “related to my own life.”
“You can see these young photographers today are more focused on personal themes, personal matters, than they are on larger issues.” said RongRong, a founder and director of Three Shadows Photography Art Centre as well as a director of Caochangdi PhotoSpring. “Especially the balinghou (or those born after 1980).”
A public fixture in Chinese photography since the 1990s, RongRong sees a great difference between the generation of photographers to which he belongs and the current crop of up-and-coming artists.
“When I was growing up, there was no Internet. I had much less connection with other people,” he said. “But young photographers today can connect easily with anyone.”
The irony is not lost on RongRong or others. “Young photographers are so exposed, they almost have to internalize everything,” said Bérénice Angremy, another PhotoSpring director. “The significance is the opening up of [Chinese] society.”
By He Chongyue, Courtesy of Caochangdi PhotoSpring
He Chongyue, "The End: Family Planning Series No 12," 2010
Some sensitive themes explored in PhotoSpring
RongRong’s own work is also on display at the festival—with a theme far removed from the deeply personal ones expressed by the younger photographers. His “Ruin Pictures 1996-1998” documents the destruction of traditional dwellings in Beijing:
“Vivid testimony of the lives and interests of former occupants, the poignancy of these photographs is intensified by awareness that their owners had no choice in their relocation.”
In fact, quite a few major works showing at the nearly 30 galleries and arts institutions as part of PhotoSpring focus on sensitive topics that could raise authorities’ eyebrows: surveillance, wrongful prison convictions, the transformation of the Chinese urban landscape (and by extension, hints at illegal land seizures and forced evictions), and the one-child policy.
These are themes that have much in common with the social criticism and activism that Ai engaged in latterly in his life.
Ai has played no role in PhotoSpring. Nevertheless his absence has been felt deeply in Caochangdi and beyond, demoralizing—as one person put it—the arts community.
“Of course, the situation [with Ai’s disappearance] has had an impact,” said inri, a director of Caochangdi PhotoSpring as well as founder of the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre.
After all, the month-long festival is as much about providing a network and platform for photographers to engage with one another as it is about introducing fine arts photography to a wider audience in Beijing.
And the notion of nurturing Chinese talent was one of the great Ai hallmarks.
“A lot of young artists have come here from the provinces to try to make a career in Beijing, and he helped them,” said Meg Maggio, owner and founder of Pékin Fine Arts. “He helped them find places to live. He helped them find work. He helped them get recognized in the art world. And this was all since the 1990s.”
It seemed fitting then to be looking at one particular exhibit comprising large photographs of wrongfully convicted men and women. In her series called “The Innocents,” Taryn Simon took portraits of individuals who served time in prison for “violent crimes they did not commit,” after being mistakenly identified with the use of photographic technology.
All of the subjects posed in scenes that led to their “illegitimate” conviction. (An eerie echo of some of Ai’s previous run-ins with the authorities, when he would photograph or record police officers during their encounters.)
Their experience, according to Simon, raises the question whether photography is a “credible eyewitness and arbiter of justice.”
One wonders what kind of photographic evidence Chinese authorities are building in their case against Ai Weiwei.
Related story: The show goes on in New York, minus detained Chinse artist