Sino Eyes

This year's FotoFest explores the ironies and intricacies of China.


Under the guidance of co-founders and curators Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss, FotoFest, the biennial Houston extravaganza that ranks among the world’s best photography festivals, has always been something of a cultural agenda-setter. It’s only a slight exaggeration to claim that FotoFest’s 1992 show of South American photography introduced the continent to the world-photography mainstream. And the festival’s discoveries aren’t just geographic and cultural. FotoFest 2004 focused on water as a photographic subject just as the world was becoming conscious of a looming crisis in the safe availability of this fundamental resource. FotoFest even opened an early exhibit of South African photography on the very day Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

So when it was announced that this year’s festival would focus on China, the choice felt predictable. China is already everywhere: staging what promises to be a controversial summer Olympics in Beijing, subsidizing generations of American war debt, and demonizing the Dalai Lama. China’s state-run news agency even offered official apologies for publishing an award-winning (and doctored) photograph purporting to show endangered antelope running unperturbed beneath China’s $4 billion Qinghai-Xizang railway, which traverses the Tibetan plateau and which has drawn fire from environmentalists for its potential impact on the rare animals. This year’s FotoFest, considered in advance, felt an inch behind the curve instead of its usual strides ahead.

Militia women training

That’s only because we think we know more about China than we actually do. Walking through FotoFest’s vast exhibitions, we are reminded just how restricted our knowledge of China really is, and how much there is yet to learn. We can even see how limited in certain cases China’s knowledge of itself has been until well into this century. Some of FotoFest’s most striking images were created by photographers who, as late as the 1930s, were literally exploring the western reaches of that vast country, documenting the land bordering Tibet just to show people back in Beijing and Shanghai what that distant part of China looked like. (More on these exhibits later.)

Still, elements of FotoFest do look familiar, especially the frankly propagandistic images from the era of Cultural Revolution: Red Guards reading from Mao’s Little Red Book to passengers on a train-passengers who certainly had compelling extraliterary reasons to look like they were listening with great interest-and the Great Helmsman himself looking down on the crowds of Tiananmen Square like a god.

Perhaps this is the place to talk about the Chinese government’s control of media and culture. Artists no longer work under the absolute restrictions of the Cultural Revolution. Some FotoFest artists deal with subjects that at least imply a critical view of government policies, even if all they really do is artfully acknowledge the presence of unwelcome realities, such as the existence of Chinese Catholics, with their orientation turned at least partially toward the West, or China’s almost totally uncared-for mentally ill. But it remains the case that no Chinese can challenge the government and win. Witness the 2004 case of a Chinese journalist who was imprisoned for 10 years for sharing with Western media outlets the details of a government memorandum on how the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crisis should be downplayed. And before western media outlets begin beating their chests about their relative enlightenment, note that Yahoo! helped the Chinese government track the journalist down.

So while there are certainly some images of marginalized peoples, from Catholics to Tibetans, on display, none of the Chinese I spoke to at FotoFest was willing to comment on the recent crackdown in Tibet.

This is not to imply the slightest criticism of any Chinese, artist or otherwise, but simply to note that these are the conditions under which Chinese artists work. It is also worth noting that Baldwin and Watriss did not seek the cooperation of the Chinese government in assembling this exhibition; they relied instead on a network of contacts they developed on various trips to China. The festival is augmented with more openly critical shows, such as the Houston Center for Photography’s concurrent Mined in China, which deals with the environmental and human costs of coal mining there, where approximately 6,000 miners a year die on the job. But such “special collaboration” exhibits are ancillary to FotoFest, and are not FotoFest-produced.

man with bird

These caveats aside, FotoFest 2008, Photography from China, 1934-2008, is a stupendous encyclopedia of Chinese culture and history-nothing less than the biggest and most comprehensive display of Chinese photography ever assembled anywhere, according to Baldwin.

The festival tells the stories of the Japanese invasion of the 1930s, with its stoking of Chinese patriotism, and the triumph of the Communists under Mao Zedong, and finally of China’s post-Mao “opening.” Collectively, FotoFest tells of China’s rush through history as it evolved in the span of 60 or so years from a cruelly poor, warlord-ruled peasant society to today’s post-bicycle world of material girls and boys. That’s a world in which China has emerged as an imposing regional power at the very least, with its eyes on both Taiwan and outer space. It’s also a world in which China has become a leading guarantor of American debt and a prominent purchaser of American dollars.

Besides the crash course in Chinese history, there’s also a good deal of fascinating nuance. For me, the highlights are Ethnography, Photojournalism and Propaganda, 1934-1939 (on display downtown in Allen Centers One and Two) and Independent Documentary Photography 1985-2008 (in the Winter Street Studios galleries just northwest of downtown).

The former’s photos are hung in the middle of busy business tower lobbies. It’s something of a kick to look at the magnificent black-and-white portraits of Tibetan nobility taken by Zhuang Xueben in the 1930s hanging in this antiseptic setting. The FotoFest catalog claims, without egregious hyperbole, that “[Zhuang’s] pictures appear to show a group of people who have descended from heaven to this barren land, people who are living the most noble and pure life of humanity.” Several of the pictures invite you to stop and look deeply, especially the “Young Tibetan Noble Girl” with her piercing, otherworldly stare, her challenging (cruel?) lips, and her spectacular head of hair.

Of the many human stories told in FotoFest’s China excursion, perhaps none is more striking than that of Sha Fei, the great but almost unknown (in the West, and to a large extent in China) war photographer. If Robert Capa had been a Chinese patriot-propagandist, he might have produced work like Sha Fei’s “The Front-Safeguarding the Country,” with its iconic image of a Chinese sentry framed by a massive cloud as he stares off into the threatening distance. Sha Fei essentially invented Chinese photojournalism as he covered the Anti-Japanese War, as the 1931-1945 Japanese occupation and resistance are known in China, and the 1946-1949 civil war between Communists and Nationalists. After the Communists drove the Nationalists off the mainland, Sha Fei would probably have become a national hero if he hadn’t, during a period of mental illness, murdered a Japanese doctor who was treating him for pneumonia in 1949. As a condition for improved postwar trade with China, the Japanese demanded Sha Fei’s execution. After the Chinese army complied, Sha Fei became a nonperson despite the fact that his acolytes emerged as the leading photographers (and visual propagandists) of the Mao era. His name is only now being retrieved as his elderly protégés begin to speak out about their mentor.

On the subject of Mao, the Cultural Revolution section, featuring images by Weng Naiqiang, Xiao Zhuang, and Wang Shilong, is the third leg of the Allen Center exhibitions. After the severe black and white of the war images and ethnography, it’s a relief to be confronted by the rich reds of these portraits of mass pro-Mao demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. These displays of the Red Guard’s enthusiastic embrace of all things Mao moves viewers from the highly individual Tibetan faces of Zhuang’s ethnographic series to immersion in the mass society of Mao’s Communist China. And they do so uncritically. The images read as mostly heroic, and FotoFest’s labeling and even the catalog are politically neutral. This is a straightforward display of propaganda art, but impressive for all that. Like the films of Leni Riefenstahl, these photographs are aesthetically pleasing celebrations of despotic power.

Mental Hospital

The single most moving cluster of FotoFest exhibitions is on display at the Winter Street Studios. A former industrial building, Winter Street requires an epic show to properly occupy its massive, beautifully lighted space. Independent Documentary Photography 1985-2008 accomplishes just this. It’s another three-part exhibition that offers a glimpse into the opening of Chinese society that occurred after Mao’s death, and which ended with the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square.

All the Winter Street exhibits are memorable, but Lu Nan’s three distinct black-and-white series on various outcasts of Chinese society has the largest number of photographs that will stop you in your tracks, if only because of his relatively daring choice of subject matter: Tibetans, Catholics, and the mentally ill. The image of the violent mentally ill man whose impoverished family ties him to a tree every day (and chains him to his bed at night) because no treatment is available offers a biting comment on the plight of the Chinese who don’t share in the boom. The photograph “Mental Hospital, Tianjing Province,” which shows a group of wretched men huddled together in the courtyard of their asylum, their features obscured by wintry fog, is a true masterpiece.

Finally, Li Lang’s black-and-white photographs from Sichaun Province capture, with a symmetry that Henri Cartier-Bresson himself would approve, the harmony of a people, the Yi, who still live close to the land.

A third major FotoFest grouping is hung at Vine Street, another huge, post-industrial building on the northern edge of downtown. This show, Staged and Conceptual Work, 1994-2008, offers a series of images of postmodern China. The artists here have largely run their images through a metaphorical processor, ironically juxtaposing snippets of traditional Chinese iconography with taunting, sometimes downright lurid, images of China today.

Given China’s reputation for prudery, I was surprised to see the graphic sexuality of some of these images. At Vine Street, nudity is handled casually, if at times a bit sophomorically, and I struggled to connect these images-especially those from “Twelve Flower Moths,” a thematically related show at the Art League of Houston in which artist Chen Lingyang offers 12 photographs of her vagina taken during a year’s worth of menstrual cycles-with the recent news that actress Tang Wei has been blacklisted in China because of her highly erotic (but also deeply moving) performance in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. Perhaps mainstream films draw more official scrutiny than still photography.

Cat, Reply is Negative

Some of the conceptual work is arresting enough. Wu Gaozhong’s “Reply is Positive” series, which depicts the artist as sharing physical traits with a variety of animals, is provocative, as is his catalog statement that “Animals and humankind are consumer goods … in this era.”

Other contemporary artists offer presumably ironic images of a young Red Guard and a variety of takes on traditional Chinese landscape art. But this exhibition lacks the wallop on display at Winter Street and the Allen Centers. The carefully constructed personalities shown in postmodern Chinese art photography seem pale compared with the faces shown in the ethnographic and documentary exhibitions.

No doubt these artists reflect the confusion and disorientation the Chinese must feel as they hurtle from a virtual Middle Ages into an exciting but dangerous future, all in the space of a single lifetime.

But one photograph at Vine Street seems likely to carry more meaning for American viewers. It’s Bai Yiluo’s “Devaluation, 2005” which shows an American banknote with hundreds of tiny Chinese faces embedded in it. Most of them are smiling-but Ben Franklin’s tight lips look more than a little worried.

David Theis lives in Houston. He is the author of the novel Rio Ganges.