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FOTOFEST2008 - CHINA
March 7 - April 20, 2008
A Special History

Curator’s Statement
by Wendy Watriss, Senior Curator FOTOFEST2008-CHINA

The trajectory of Chinese photography from pre-Communist times through the periods of Communist propaganda and into the late twentieth-century marketplace is unlike that of almost any other country. For nearly a century—the very century of photography’s maturation as a reportorial medium and as an art form — Chinese photography was engaged in a seemingly endless competition with political, historical, and economic circumstances that prevented it from having the environment and time to experiment with and evolve its own modes of expression.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, photography arrived in China as a Western innovation that accompanied the economic and trade domination of China by foreign powers that wanted to use China’s resources and culture for their own purposes. The images created by the famous European photographers like John Thomson and Felix Beato furthered a European Victorian idea of China - China seen from the outside. Photography studios that appeared in Hong Kong did so with more of a European audience in mind than the Chinese themselves.

Photography’s arrival in China coincided with a time of great debate in China about modernization and the degree to which China should change its own educational system and civil service to teach more Western science and technology. Given the way the foreign traders and emissaries had treated China, there was not a great deal of official or popular openness to Western ideas or innovations. But the loss of the first Sino-Japanese war to Japan in the 1890s and the weakness of the Qing Dynasty in its waning years during the early twentieth century gave impetus to new ways of thinking. Younger civil servants, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs wanted China to modernize and become part of a broader world. The decades of the 1920s and 1930s saw an exodus of some of China’s most talented thinkers, artists, and students to Japan, Europe, and the United States to learn about administration, engineering, technology, science, and avant-garde art.

At the time when these Chinese emigrants and students would have returned to begin professional and creative careers in China, Japan invaded, occupying the northeastern part of the country and gradually cutting off China’s access to major eastern ports like Shanghai. The country was split between growing Nationalist and Communist camps, maverick warlords, and regional differences with a corrupt central government. Once again, as had often occurred in China’s long history, the country seemed in the throes of cutting itself off from its past and dramatically remaking itself.

With the end of the Anti-Japanese War of the 1940s, followed by the victory of the Communists over the Nationalists in 1949, it was only a few years before art and creative expression, particularly photography, became subject to government control and definition. By the mid 1950s and early 1960s, the media was tightly controlled, and various forms of Socialist Realism and state-mandated visual propaganda were imposed on creative expression.

The repressions of 1955-1965 were followed by the Cultural Revolution, which overtook the whole country and put all visual expression into the service of Mao’s state. Later, in the fourteen years that followed Mao’s death, there were many spontaneous movements and manifestations of newly emergent creative energy. But, just as these creative movements were finding their own ground so to speak, they cut short by the trauma of the Tiananmen Square events in 1989 and the aftermath when many artists and intellectuals again went abroad or underground.

In terms of art and photography, a possible prolonged period of creative give-and-take between China and its own cultural/political past, as well as between China and the rest of the world, appeared improbable until fifteen years ago. Today, there is not only a resurgence of new kinds of artistic expression in China but also the re-emergence of work and artists whose work and careers had been caught up in China’s political vicissitudes - individual artists and works that had essentially “disappeared” for decades.

The organization of Photography from China 1934-2008 for FOTOFEST2008 takes this history into account. In designing these exhibition programs, we have created a framework that we hope will stimulate a longer and deeper look at the twentieth-century history of Chinese photography.