between past and future

The massive 10 year retrospective Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China has just opened in New York at the International Centre for Photography and Asia Society (New York). The New York Times has a lengthy and in-depth article on the exhibition and artists who have so little exposure in the western art world.

“Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video From China,” a perspective-altering show at both the International Center of Photography and the Asia Society, gives a panoramic glimpse of the continuing cultural revolution after the Cultural Revolution. It is the first such glimpse New York has had since Asia Society’s 1998 survey, “Inside/Out: New Chinese Art,” for which the new show provides a historical update.

The history in question began a few years after Mao Zedong’s death, in 1976, when China expanded its contact with the West. Over night, it seemed, a generation of young artists, many of whom were trained in classical painting and calligraphy but reached maturity during the implacable heyday of Socialist Realism, gained access to Western art, all of it, old and new.

They went wild, scrambling through styles, ideas and forms with a kind of raucous, guerrilla energy. What resulted was less a New Wave than a series of avant-gardist firecrackers going off: big bang, little bang, silence, huge bang and so on. Political Pop painting in the 1980’s was like a Socialist Realism in reverse, with Coke bottles instead of Little Red Books. Installation art had a tremendous impact: it was cheap to make, required no special training and embraced all other forms, including performance.

Photography and video had similar advantages, the former, in particular, being easy to show and conceptually versatile: it could imitate painting, adapt to installations or just be itself. Most important, photography’s dual capacity for recording and inventing reality made it the ideal medium for an era of experimentation, chaotic variety and whiplash change.