China: Insights

January 22 - April 10, 2011
Opening Reception:Saturday, January 22, 5-7 PM
  • Chen Yuan Zhong
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  • Hua Er
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  • Jia Yu Chuan
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  • Li Nan
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  • Yang Yan Kang
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  • Yu Haibo
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  • Zhang Xinmin


Hua Er: from the series "Mother to Daughter"

Hua Er: from the series "Mother to Daughter"

This exhibition brings together the work of seven photographers from mainland China: Chen Yuan Zhong, Hua Er, Jia Yu Chuan, Li Nan, Yang Yan Kang, Yu Haibo, and Zhang Xinmin. While earning their livings as either freelance or staff photographers (or, in one case, as a freelance writer), each has undertaken the creation of a long-term documentation of one or more aspects of Chinese culture that he or she feels reflects something vital about China now -- whether that is something emerging or something vanishing.

Collectively, these photographers have numerous publications, exhibitions, and awards to their credit, but little of their work has appeared outside mainland China. None of these projects has yet been seen in the west. Six of the seven -- Chen Yuan Zhong, Hua Er, Jia Yu Chuan, Yang Yan Kang, Yu Haibo, and Zhang Xinmin -- are based in Shenzhen. Just across the border from Hong Kong in southern China, Shenzhen was the first of the Special Economic Opportunity Zones established by China in the post-Mao era, as magnets for entrepreneurs and educated people in all fields. Already a world-renowned center for printing and information technology, among other industries, Shenzhen was a fishing and farming community with a population of roughly 20,000 in 1980. Today it is a booming 21st-century metropolis whose population exceeds 13 million, with an average per-capita age of 30. As such, it serves as a microcosm revealing many of the dramatic shifts in contemporary China. The exhibition's organizational structure moves from the rural scene to the metropolitan context, echoing developments in China today.

While some of these photographers focus on aspects of life in their home city, others look at situations outside of Shenzhen. Their themes include rural Catholicism, matrilineal culture in an agrarian setting, the population shift from country to city, prostitution, gender and identity, typologies of urban citizenry, and the emergence of a thriving pop music/club scene as an index of internationalization. They approach their subjects employing methods ranging from classic modernist documentary to more formally experimental styles. Intended for presentation in college and university contexts, among other possible venues, this exhibition's images and texts make it relevant to such diverse disciplines as visual anthropology, sociology, urban studies, economics, geopolitics, Asian studies, and of course contemporary photography and visual culture.

About the Images

Faith of a Village: Yang Yan Kang

A freelance editorial and commercial photographer, Yang Yan Kang pursues several long-term, self-funded projects. These include studies of Tibetan life and the project excerpted here, a scrutiny of life in a small Catholic village in the Yellow River area of Shaanxi province of north China. Yang has visited this area repeatedly over the past decade, familiarizing himself with the ways in which these people's religious convictions – presently tolerated, previously oppressed – weave through their daily lives. Yang, born in Guizhou province in 1954, is a member of the French picture agency VU. In 2001 and 2002 he was named one of the 10 best photographers in China by She Ying Zhi You magazine.

Mother to Daughter: Hua Er

As an independent anthropologist, Hua Er has concentrated her attention on a matrilineal culture of long standing, a rare phenomenon in Chinese society. Located in Lijiazui, a village situated between Tibet, Yunnan province, and Sichuan province in southwest China, this clan-based matriarchal social structure removes men from any direct involvement with their own children, shifting their familial roles to emphasis on their relationships as uncles to their sisters' children. The marginalization of men and the empowerment of women are the main themes of Hua's study. Hua supports herself as a freelance writer.

Country to City: Zhang Xinmin

In China's booming economy, escape from the drudgery of peasant life to the city and the dream it represents of upward mobility has become increasingly possible, but undependable. Zhang Xinmin, long-time staff photographer for a Shenzhen newspaper, tracks the transition from country to city of working-class Chinese, most of them former farmers and agricultural workers, revealing the details of their individual struggles for survival and success in this new environment. Born in 1952, Zhang is now visual supervisor for the Shekou News, a daily in Shenzhen, a position he began in 1994.

Young Pros, Oldest Profession: Chen Yuan Zhong

Easily policed in the countryside, prostitution becomes a fact of life in urban settings everywhere. In a city like Shenzhen, where residence permits require legal employment, prostitutes and pimps (and their customers) play a risky age-old game of hide and seek with the authorities. Chen Yuan Zhong here follows the trail of this illicit trade from the streets and the daily life of sex workers through police raids, the court system, prison, and efforts at rehabilitation. Born in 1970, Chen is Picture Director for the Shenzhen Evening News. In 1998 he was selected for participation in the month-long Joop Swart Master Class at World Press Photo in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Bending Gender: Jia Yu Chuan

Urbanization has brought to China's city population personal and social options not available in rural contexts, including the creation of micro-cultures such as the transvestite-transsexual community of Shenzhen. His pictures investigate his subjects' private lives, their process of self-transformation, and their self-presentation in public. Born in Chongqing Municipality in 1961, Jia graduated from the Journalism department of Wuhan University in 1999, and now works as a staff photographer for a Shenzhen newspaper group. He has won several national awards for news photography.

Urban Identities: Li Nan

Like August Sander, Li Nan concerns himself with social types in China's cities. And like Neal Slavin, he seeks meaning in the ways that people present themselves publicly in groups. In this series of formal, posed group portraits Li surveys clusters of city dwellers -- from chicken pluckers to Party officials; from construction workers to opera singers -- consciously registering their appearances for posterity. Born in Jinan City, Shandong province in 1961, Li Nan is a staff photographer for the Dazhong Daily. He has won many awards both inside and outside China, including first prize in the Art category from World Press Photo in 1996.

Night Moves: Yu Haibo

Staff photographer for the Shenzhen Economic Daily, Yu Haibo pursues his own photographic interests when not on the job. In this suite of dramatic color images he explores the contemporary pop music scene in Shenzhen, with its rock musicians, club kids, mosh pits and riotous environments -- an increasingly common feature of urban culture worldwide. Born in Henan in 1962, Yu won the China Photojournalists’ Golden Eye Prize and the second prize in the Arts and Entertainment category from the 2005 World Press Photo Awards in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Film Festival

A selection of Chinese films, lectures, and demonstrations will complement the exhibition.

"Between Disorder and Unexpected Pleasures: Tales From the New Chinese Cinema" (April 11-14)

Presented by Pomona College Museum of Art in collaboration with REDCAT FILM SERIES 

In recent years, independent Chinese cinema has experienced a virtual explosion. Digital media have allowed filmmakers to be bolder, more daring and to explore hybrid forms of documentary and fiction, or mix found and live footage while playing with novel formal strategies. Independent Chinese cinema has also come of age. Reaching beyond nostalgia and social protest, it plumbs surprising corners of Chinese reality with humor that is at times light, dark, saucy, dry, raunchy or conceptual. Expect the unexpected.

All films are FREE and will be screened in the Rose Hills Theatre at the Pomona College Smith Campus Center (170 E. Sixth St., Claremont, CA 91711)

Liu Jiayin: Oxhide II (Niupi II), 2009, 133 min.

Monday, April 11 at 7:30 pm

Director Liu Jiayin will screen and discuss her celebrated Oxhide II, the impressive sequel to her stunning 2004 film Oxhide. Set around a kitchen table in a Chinese home, Oxhide II conveys the story of a family crisis through a powerful composition that uses only nine shots, which move in 45-degree increments. Considered to be one of the most original directors of her generation, Liu Jiayin studied screenwriting at the Beijing Film Academy, where she now teaches.

Zhu Wen: Thomas Mao (Xiao Dongxi), 2010, 80 min.

Preceded by: Sun Xun: 21G (21 KE)
Tuesday, April 12 at 7:30 pm

Director and novelist Zhu Wen will screen and discuss his intriguing feature Thomas Mao (Xiao Dongxi). Set in the country side during the Beijing Olympics, Zhu Wen’s third feature Thomas Mao recounts the farcical story of an unexpected friendship that develops between a Western painter backpacking through the grasslands of Mongolia and an eccentric inn-keeper who lodges him. Inherent to the narrative are issues of translation, domination, and desire.

Jia Zhangke: I Wish I Knew (Hai Shang Chuan Qi), 2010, 138 min.

Preceded by: Ying Liang: Condolences (Wei Wen), 2009 19 min.

Wednesday, April 13 at 7:30 pm 

China’s most significant filmmaker of the decade, Jia Zhangke has done it again, with another alluring hybrid of documentary and fiction. Here Jia weaves a dense texture between amorously shot footage of contemporary Shanghai and the films the city created or inspired. Peeking through the gaps of an architecture menaced by permanent urban renewal, he finds the traces of a romantic or brutal past, and echoes the voices of survivors or those who went into exile.

Huang Weikai: Disorder (Xian Zai Shi Guo Qu De Wei Lai) 2009, 58 min

Preceded by: Ying Liang: Condolences (Wei Wen) 2009 19 min.
Thursday, April 14 at 7:30 pm

A splendid, original experiment on how to translate urban texture on the screen. Huang Weikai collected more than 1,000 hours of footage shot by amateurs and journalists in the streets of Guangzhou. He then selected 20-odd incidents, reworked the images into quasi-surreal grainy black-and-white and montaged them to create a kaleidoscopic view of the great southern metropolis, in all its vibrant, loud and mean chaos.

Related link: Redcat Film Series: “Between Disorder and Unexpected Pleasures: Tales from the New Chinese Cinema” (April 6-9) 

"China: Insights" Film Screenings at the Museum in the Project Gallery

All films are FREE and will be screened in Project Gallery inside the Pomona College Museum of Art

Yu Li: Lost in Beijing, 2007, 112 min.

March 8, 2011

If the Urban Generation of Chinese filmmakers is marked by an increased accessibility of image technologies, then so too has this generation seen a greater presence of work by women, such as directors NIng Ying (1959—), (Li Shaohong (1955—),and Li Yu (1973—). Indeed, it is women directors active during the era of Fifth Generation filmmaking of the 1980s and 1990s filmmaking whose work portended many of the thematics and style of the current Urban Generation. Li Yu’s controversial Lost in Beijing (2007), currently banned in the PRC, retells with an astonishing look the familiar narrative of contemporary China: the rise of a new elite based upon urban migration, labor exploitation, and the price of love. (Jonathan M Hall)

Wu Junyong: Short Animated Work (2006-2010)

March 15, 2011

Wu Junyong (1978- ) is an internationally acclaimed artist and animator who depicts with scathing irony and visual wit the contradictions and excitements of China’s contemporary social and political landscape. In these computer-generated animated shorts with their strong use of chiaroscuro, Wu offers an oft whimsical portrayal of the brutal limits to expression. Wu teaches New Media Arts at the China Academy of Fine Arts. His work has been exhibited in solo and group shows at such venues as the Guangzhou Triennial, the Museum of Contemporary Art (Shanghai), the White Rabbit Gallery (Sydney), and the Museum of Cinema (Torino). The Museum would like to thank Danielle Shang and Fabien Fryns Gallery. (Jonathan M Hall)

Cui Zi’en: Enter the Clowns, 2002, 80 min.

Tuesday, March 22

Emblematic of the aggressively low production values that typify the new Urban or Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, Cui Zi’en’s Enter the Clowns (2002) demonstrates the often lyrical powers of the director’s imagination. The opening scene of the film presents us with Xiao Bo, in whose world conventional gender boundaries radically but also unassumingly fall apart. Xiao Bo is presented by the dying wish of his mother/father, namely to “nurse” at her/his son’s body. The conflation of bodily acts and of familial relations here are not presented with shock value, but with a matter-of-fact-ness that beguiles and seduces the viewer into another China. Cui, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, celebrates the Chinese pirate video market as the most effective means to circulate queer filmmaking “to places as remote as Inner Mongolia.” Cui’s queer imagination seems to have few limits. (Jonathan M Hall)

Stanley Kwan: Lan Yu, 2003, 86 min.

Tuesday, March 29

The year 1997 marked the reversion of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule, and the ensuing years have seen tense relations in Hong Kong between advocates of autonomous, democratic rule and those backing a greater presence for Beijing in Hong Kong affairs. Stalwart Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan adapted a gay narrative that had been anonymously published on the Internet into a stirring vision of human relations in the era of Chinese high growth economics. Set in Beijing in the 1980s and filmed with a predominantly Beijing crew, the film represents a fascinating interplay between north and south. (Jonathan M Hall)