Photography: "Humanism in China"

Culture Wars,  2 March 2007
    After drawing favorable comment and respectable crowds in Frankfurt and Stuttgart, the first stopovers on an all-German roadshow now midway through its two-year run, this exhibition is on its way to Munich's Pinakothek der Moderne, where it will be back before the public eye as from mid-July.
'Humanism in China' seems an odd title to slap on a show that offers quantities of images as vast as its ambition to composite them all into a mosaic of ordinary people going about their business and living their lives. Remember The Family of Man? This time one-fifth of the human race is represented in 601 photographs, as they eat, yell, seek amusement, worship, interact with the opposite sex, work the land (still and for a long time to come, the default way of life in that part of the world), urinate, doze off, cry, build things, jaywalk, complain or wait around for something to happen.
Oh, right, got it: A Day in the Life of China. No, that's not exactly it, either. For one thing, in that series, journalists familiar with the terrain did extensive recon work to line up photogenic sites, situations and set-ups before the photographers -- mostly non-natives having no prior acquaintance with the country -- arrived to make the final determination of the right places and right times to be in them. Nowadays that would be considered exploitative, patronising, and (get ready for the Vulcan death grip of PC vituperation) inauthentic. Here, though, you will find photos taken of the Chinese people, by the Chinese people and for the Chinese people, who will keep them on permanent display at the Guangdong Museum of Art in Guangzhou when their current two-year tour of Germany wraps.
The good news is that they were not produced by any old Chinese people, but taken by one set of accomplished photographers and curated by another, so quality is high, apart from their documentary interest. Moreover, this is not simply a cascade of images wrung from a single moment in time, though all but a few were taken after 1979, that is, after China had put the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forwards and Chairman Mao's 'thought' behind it, and something like ordinary life again became possible. The closer to the present, of course, the more photographs there are. But what's humanism got to do with it?
'In China, the fundamental question 'What is a human being?' can be posed in a manner entirely different from that of Western tradition,' a wall inscription informs us. 'The Unity of Heaven, Earth, the human being, all creatures and things is more important to the Chinese than the formation of a hierarchy among the elements. In this respect, the cultures differ.' You bet they differ, but that statement can mean anything you want it to, including nothing at all. However, it's clear that 'humanism' with its connotations of rationalism, democracy, and rule of law, is wide of the translator's mark.
It turns out the character signifying 'human being' or 'being human' overlaps differently-nuanced words in European languages relating to 'fundamentals, basics, capital, origins'. But the idea conveyed is that of human beings considered as individuals. Until not that long ago, individualism was a dirty word, the opposite of collectivism and the ultimate thought crime. Just by its title, this show appears to be making an implicit political statement: that it's definitely OK to be an individual, with a private life and money to spend, and what's more, individuals are now a valued resource of the state. In photographic language, the message is made explicit in terms of crusty old People's Army veterans whooping it up and showing off their decorations, or by a gaping hole over a gate where a Mao portrait has been removed.
 In one unforgettable image, an elderly man in Tiananmen Square holds up a picture of his wife, while far in the background, the face of Chairman Mao Zedong dangles complacently over the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Is the widowed husband on the big city trip that the couple always dreamed of making together? The implication might be that in the new China, Mao is still present, but has yielded the foreground to ordinary people and their personal affairs.
One of the most powerful photos in the show is the one by Liu Jun, of an elderly peasant circa 1985, who has just been savagely beaten by the local party official or cadre, sobbing on the ground as his fellow villagers cradle and comfort him. It's a remarkable composition, evoking Benjamin West's painting of 'The Death of Wolfe', and the expressions and gestures - especially the woman who can't resist looking up and into the camera - would not be out of place in a 'Descent from the Cross' by Mantegna or some other Renaissance master.
Now this, too, is political, but in a very specific way. The toxic levels of systemic corruption and abuse of power that are especially prevalent in the countryside are no secret. You can denounce abuses like this one, but not the system that allows them to take place. Feeling indignation and seeking redress is fine, though. A different sort of message is conveyed by the inclusion of photographs of Tibet, which China invaded and annexed. Sorry, folks, no shiny-head monks or prayer wheels. It's China you're seeing and you better not forget it. (Likewise, if you were looking for a well-known image of a lone, tiny figure standing in front of a row of lined-up tanks, you just needn't bother.)
Sociology as much as ideology writes the narrative of contemporary China, where millions say bye-bye to the boonies and migrate to the big cities hoping to find work in the factories that fill the shelves and bins of the world's Wal-Marts. The contrasts engendered by that Grapes of Wrath scenario and its potential for situations of pathos and ironic juxtaposition results in pictures like the slew of Santa Clauses marching through Beijing, or the two schoolgirls in pinafore uniforms staring innocently at a beggar girl just slightly older than they are, like she was an animal at the zoo.
No surprise that many photos evoke China's embrace of capitalism without irony, subtlety or even commentary. The one of the beaming fellow carrying an armful of money fresh from the mint made for a great poster, and scenes of investors' imminent anxiety attacks at the stock exchange give another glimpse at the 'new China'.
China's future depends on how it finesses the transition from a superpopulated, low-on-basics agrarian society to a superpopulated, superpolluted urban one. My feeling was that urban China was depicted more often and more positively than it possibly deserves. Not exactly sugar-coated, but the people with lampshades on their heads who stayed home to feed the oxen resonate more deeply with Walker Evans' sharecroppers than they do with their urban hustler cousins, despite their both being 100% Chinese. As you work your way through, the preachy subtext gets more explicit, as when every tolerated religious denomination gets its turn at bat, or street vendors of steamed sweet potatoes are identified as high school dropouts (now you get busy on your homework right now, junior!). Retinal fatigue may be to blame, but I can't recall seeing any with people gambling. I mean, c'mon, really - these are Chinese, right?
But that may just be beyond my ability to comprehend because I am not Chinese, and have to take someone else's word - it's there in the wall text - that only through pre-packaged vistas like this will I be vouchsafed 'deeper understanding of the Chinese culture and the mentality of its people'. But why should that be the case? When the show was at Frankfurt's Museum of Modern Art last year, some critics were dismayed that curators assembled a satellite exhibition of pictures taken on a 1985 visit to China by Barbara Klemm, a press photographer for the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung. Ask around - she's one of the best in the business (you may recall a disconcerting shot of Soviet honcho Leonid Brezhnev French-kissing his East German counterpart, Erich Honecker).
Yet critics claim her photographs of China are inappropriate in this context because she's not Chinese. Haven't we been through this already, with Madame Bovary not being written by a woman, nor Moby Dick by a whale? Certainly there are differences. Klemm has a stronger sense of drama, of the story-telling potenial of her images. You have a fair idea not only of what is happening in them, but also what led up to it and what's probably going to happen next. They seem more densely packed with content. Look at her other photos from Soweto or Romania to see how they dovetail with the Chinese scenes. The vision and viewpoint are those of an outsider, but one who definitely knows how to take a picture. Dismiss them if you dare.
Maybe I'm a sucker for clichés, but I'd almost go so far as to say that six hundred authentically Chinese photographs make for a fine feast, but an hour later…. I said almost. Yes, by all means, go see this showfor a privileged inside view of a fascinating society. Sometimes, though, you get a truer view of things if you stay on the outside, peering through the keyhole to see what's really going on.