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Riha Zhaojue, Sichuan Province Photo by Li Lang/Courtesy of FotoFest Sino Eyes This year’s FotoFest explores the ironies and intricacies of China. By DAVID THEIS nder the guidance of co-founders and curators Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss, FotoFest, the biennial Houston extravagan za 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 discov eries 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 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. 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 FotoFesfs 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 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 trainpassengers who certainly had compelling extraliterary reasons to look like they were listening with great interestand 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 men APRIL 4, 2008 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21