With a Documentary Focus, China's Lianzhou Foto Festival Spotlights the Marginalized
Source:Artinfo Author:Madeleine O’Dea Date: 2012-01-06 Size:
Getting to Lianzhou, a small town in China’s south, requires a four-hour drive from the teeming streets and fluorescent pollution of Guangzhou along truck-crowded highways lined with flamboyant property developments, up through a misty mountain pass to a temperate valley on the other side. Few Chinese – not to mention foreigners – have ever heard of Lianzhou, but its eponymous Foto Festival, now in its seventh year, is aiming to change all that.


Lin Zhipeng captures gay lovers kissing in a patch of sunlight

 Getting to Lianzhou, a small town in China’s south, requires a four-hour drive from the teeming streets and fluorescent pollution of Guangzhou along truck-crowded highways lined with flamboyant property developments, up through a misty mountain pass to a temperate valley on the other side. Few Chinese – not to mention foreigners – have ever heard of Lianzhou, but its eponymous Foto Festival, now in its seventh year, is aiming to change all that.
 
The town’s anonymity and remoteness was once its greatest attraction. In imperial times, Lianzhou was known as a southern bolthole for moments when life at the palace became too hard. Many a disgraced courtier saw out his life painting and writing poetry in this sleepy sub-tropical town.
 
Today it is a quietly prosperous place, enjoying the pleasant southern climate and the cleaner air that comes from its relative lack of industry. But for any city in Guangdong — a province whose GDP outstrips every other in China — such modest accomplishments are never going to be enough. Around eight years ago, the city leaders, looking for a bit of brand differentiation, seized on the then-emerging buzzword of "cultural industry." Lacking a booming population, universities, an expat community, ready access to an airport, or a UNESCO world heritage listing, Lianzhou wisely decided not to pursue cultural cred through biennials, film festivals, or “destination architecture," all common tactics in the global culture industry. Instead they opted for a photo festival.
 
The decision followed the pioneering and improbable success of the International Photo Festival at Pingyao in Shanxi province, an event that crams the town’s historic streets with wannabe photographers and a gaggle of exhibitions for a few weeks each fall. But Lianzhou chose to aim a bit higher, signing an experienced Chinese critic and curator — Duan Yuting — to a 10-year contract to develop the festival, and inviting a series of high-profile co-curators to direct its yearly outings. Last year it was the internationally respected Fei Dawei, who previously held the position of Director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, and this year it was Christopher Phillips, curator of the International Center of Photography in New York. For 2011, Phillips and Duan Yuting fixed on the theme of “Toward the Social Landscape,” focusing on documentary photography. This may seem a little worn to a Western audience used to the work of U.S. photographers like Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus, but in the context of a rapidly evolving China where society’s borders are ever fluid, documenting the social landscape still possesses a real and vital urgency.
 
Duan and Phillips worked with an international curatorial team, including New York writer and photo editor Joanna Lehan, Moscow Multimedia Art Museum’s Olga Sviblova, the Musée Nicéphore Niépce’s Francois Cheval, and local curator and critic Zhang Xiang’ou, to draw together the festival’s slate of 18 foreign and 52 Chinese photographers.
 
Although there were remarkable contributions from U.S.-based photographers like Mary Mattingly, who showed a gripping series of images of life in a post-apocalyptic world, many of the curators’s international choices were drawn from some of the most extreme and ruined places on earth, matching the power of the imagery from photographers documenting the rapid pace of change in China with a decaying grandeur.
 
This end-of-the-world vibe made for some strange and moving juxtapositions. Shown in a room all to themselves in the deserted granary building that provided one of the three exhibition spaces at the festival, Sergey Shestakov’s magnificent “Journey into the Future – Stop Number 1” presented a series of photographs taken within the 30-kilometer exclusion zone at Chernobyl just last year. These extraordinary and painful "Mary Celeste"-like images of lives deserted in midstream found striking parallels in the work of Chinese photographers like Wang Xiaodong, with his images of deserted amusement parks, and in his peer Fu Weixin’s shots of discarded toys in apartment blocks already destined for demolition within just a few years of their construction.
 
Meanwhile, the subjects in Lebanese photographer Ziad Antar’s “Expired Portraits,” created during the last decade using a 1940s-era camera and expired film from the 1970s, seemed to dissolve into the shadows, similar to the aging dancers shown wrapped up against the cold in Tang Haowu’s series “A Certain Period and Place.” Both photographers deliberately created a sense of age in their photographs, evoking nostalgia for a world still not quite lost. But when Tang turns his camera on the marginalized world of China’s army of migrant workers, his work becomes even more moving. The sense of these workers’s longing to enter a world they are not allowed to inhabit recalls a time from the very birth of photography — the rise of industry in Europe in the 19th century.
 
While almost all of the Chinese photographers on view in Lianzhou seemed to be working on the edges of their society, not all found that margin to be a grim place. The youthful revellers in Zhu Danyang’s “Night of Youth” looked wasted but exultant, while Lin Zhipeng’s gay lovers kissed in a patch of sunlight untroubled in their own bed.
 
The most remarkable aspect of Lianzhou Foto 2011 was how genuinely serious it was, not just in the calibre of the participants, but in the attitude of the local organizers. It may have been founded to satisfy some kind of civic urge to put Lianzhou on the map, but on the evidence of this sixth edition, it also seems truly devoted to the exploration of what is going on in documentary photography in China and around the world.
 
The festival was also a remarkably open event. Photographers came from around the country, not just to exhibit, but also to meet and discuss their work. Of course, this being China, openness has its limits. In Beijing, one gets used to the ubiquity of censorship, self- and otherwise. However, in Lianzhou they seemed to have forgotten that part of the script — at least for a while. It was well after the opening day that the authorities finally noticed that hanging on one of the granary walls was Philippe Petremant’s “Seven Mercenaries,” a series of portraits of world leaders — including Mao Zedong — rendered in photographic collages of banknotes. Each portrait bore the name of one of Snow White’s Seven Dwarves; in Mao’s case, it was “Happy.” Whatever the moniker, renderings of Mao — outside the reverential conventions of socialist realism — are frowned on these days in China, and so once its presence percolated up to the local authorities, “Happy” had to go. The rest, depicting figures from Queen Elizabeth II to George Washington, stayed on.
 
The next day the group of international worthies who had gathered in this remote place in support of the festival, including curators Phillips, Lehan, Sviblova, and Cheval, pre-eminent U.S. critic Viki Goldberg, Contact Press president Robert Pledge, and the School of Visual Arts’s Charles Traub, agreed that the only thing that was really holding Lianzhou back in its mission to make itself the leading photo festival in China was its remoteness. “If only it had an airport just next door,” someone remarked. But even in saying it, one sensed they didn’t mean it. Lianzhou is certainly hard to get to, but perhaps that may — just like in the old imperial days — be its main charm.

[Editor] Lola Xu

    Artintern