new photography in guangzhou

All month I’ve been meaning to blog this, but attack of laziness and other things to keep me occupied meant it always slipped away. So, mid-last year I mentioned, the book 3030: New Photography in China around the time it was published, and mostly forgot about it. Then PingMag from Tokyo did one of its famous interview/essays on the monograph with some of the photographers from Beijing, Shanghai and of course my favourite town, Guangzhou. While reading it, I was reminded just what entranced me last time I was in the city, when I met a bunch of quite amazing young artists, designers, all-round creative people the were part of something like a Cantonese cultural renaissance of art kids.

I was going to lament the lack of relevance of so much contemporary dance in some of the cities artists in this book come from, and compare that lack to the phenomenally strong and unique contemporary art, photography, performance, design, music, magazines and pretty much everything else coming from the new generations in these places, but … I’m not feeling particularly lucid today.

So back to Canton art kids, and the bunch I met while making apocalypse prd 岭南启示录, some who are in 3030, some who appear in the photos, many who are part of this large and really cool diffuse mass of artists who are making art that is so strikingly relevant to the cities it comes from. I occasionally carry on about Cantonese new art, and so I guess for everyone who tries and fails to imagine what it looks like, this article and all the links to the artists pretty much is it.

However, the basic premise of the “3030″ book is that after the Open Door Policy – the implementation of sort of new policies and an economic liberalization in the very early 90s – China changed so much. Here is this first generation of young people that has grown into maturity under this new program. So their experience of China is very different and clearly unlike their parents they know the country only as a booming economy and fairly international place. Naturally their work is quite different. Being in their mid, late 20s, they are maturing as artists too. But their work has started to be shown only very recently, maybe in the last few years, with a couple of exhibitions and then only in China.

— PingMag – New Photography in China

New Photography In China

What did you know about Chinese photoblogging so far? It surely must be young, fresh, and wild – and it is, as you can see on the cover of the photo book 3030: New Photography In China: there are the legs of a woman in pink in white net stockings and she seems to be spitting something floury white onto the ground. This is the work from Lin Zhi Peng aka 223 who seems to be some kind of a Chinese Terry Richardson, regarding his blog. Other contributers are for instance Cao Fei, Peng&Chen, Birdhead or Alex So. PingMag asked “3030″ editor John Millichap all about the vivid contemporary Chinese photo art scene – and let participators 223 and Wen Ling aka Ziboy have their word, too, afterwards.

Written by Verena

John Millichap, you told me before you have been in China for quite a while now…

For nearly ten years I have worked in Hong Kong as a journalist and got hold of the art scene. Then, after one year in Beijing, I moved to Shanghai two years ago.

How would you describe the art scene in Hong Kong?

It seems to be much smaller and is quite different in character from the massive mainland. Even Hong Kong doesn’t have the richness and the variety of China, it has a very well organized infrastructure, like the gallery network, the museums, etc.

What about Shanghai and Beijing?

Though since 1949 Beijing tends to be the cultural center of China, it feels like for me that Shanghai is far more out looking, far more receptive to new ideas. My impression is of Beijing that people go there to be an artist, but it is less compartmentalized in Shanghai: a lot of the creativity there is harvest to particular industries like fashion or the media and there are lots of young people mixing graphic design, fashion, photography, and painting. People there told me that they want to build up another 100 galleries over the next 8 to 10 years there alone.

How did your book 3030: New Photography In China evolve? You even founded the publishing house “3030 Press” just for that…

We started in early 2006 with various ideas, but a photo book seemed the easiest to execute. At that time, a lot of photographers in Hong Hong were starting to come to Shanghai in particular and I knew a few of them.

“3030″ is also the concept of the book: a selection of 30 photographers under 30. What is distinctive for this younger generation?

The artists themselves changed, their experience of art and their sense of themselves as artists: the new generation seems to be more sophisticated in many ways in their manipulation of images and ideas – simply because they have been more exposed to more ideas, maybe more foreign influences than the previous generation.

How did you find all the artists?

UNITAG, the guys who designed the book, are in touch with the whole creative and quite tight networks in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. They helped me to get introduced to people. Also, Ou Ning and Gu Zheng who contributed two articles to the book are quite well known figures on the scene.

What were the criteria for the book selection?

There were several limitations: I produced the book independently with no sponsors, so because of the costs the number of pages were limited. Nevertheless we tried to include a broader selection of people geographically as possible from Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing. If you look at general trends, I think there are regional differences: the media seems to have more influence for artists in places like Guangzhou or Shanghai. There the artists’ works tend to be more documentary style which may reflect their day jobs in the media, working for magazines. Whereas in Beijing people might take their position as artists more serious and their works might reflect their ideas of themselves as artists.

Also we wanted to catch an idea of the different influences that affect the works: we have the high art people, the media folks and artists who do weblogs as well. These are bloggers that have quite amateur sites as they haven’t been involved in too many exhibitions yet, but they are very popular in China.

Check out the artists’ blogs via the 3030 Press website, more at or in the detailed listing of Ou Ning’s blog.

Unlike much of the art from China you get to see overseas, “3030″ shows Chinese pop culture and doesn’t spend so much time on known art that deals with Mao or the Cultural Revolution…

That’s why we picked Lin Zhi Peng’s work as cover for the “3030″ selection: it is an aggressive kind of a Punk image that gives you absolutely no clue that this is about Chinese photography – as there are no revolutionary images, neither dragon nor calligraphy, and not even a Chinese face.

We wanted something that didn’t trade on any of the preconceptions about Chinese art. As for contemporary art from China to be successful in the West, it has to press certain buttons and, in a way, has to trade on the kind of clichés like the Cultural Revolution and Mao. It’s a particular generation and a particular kind of art which Western audiences, or Western collectors, find quite accessible. That’s why there tends to be a lot of political pop, or, to use another term, cynical realism.

However, the basic premise of the “3030″ book is that after the Open Door Policy – the implementation of sort of new policies and an economic liberalization in the very early 90s – China changed so much. Here is this first generation of young people that has grown into maturity under this new program. So their experience of China is very different and clearly unlike their parents they know the country only as a booming economy and fairly international place. Naturally their work is quite different. Being in their mid, late 20s, they are maturing as artists too. But their work has started to be shown only very recently, maybe in the last few years, with a couple of exhibitions and then only in China.

Will you show us some more work from China with “3030 Press” then?

Our next book will be about Chinese graphic design, and there will be a follow-up of the “3030″ photography selection. Also we are planing another photo book called “17″: once more a collaborative project with photographers portraying young Chinese between 17 and 19 years old, trying to capture the changing generation.

Thank you John Millichap for your interesting photo book selection!

Next PingMag asked two participants of the book, namely Lin Zhi Peng aka 223 and Wen Ling aka Ziboy about their perception of the Chinese art scene:

223 works currently as chief editor of a lifestyle/culture/fashion magazine in Guangzhou. Ziboy moved from Beijing to the States recently. He is the founder of, a directory listing of Chinese photoblogs. As one of his recent projects he collected a Chinese photoblog exhibition via Flickr.

Ziboy, what are your favourite photoblogs at the moment?

Ziboy: Michael Zhang

And 223: what is it about your “Nature-Graphy Society”?

223: Me and my friend Alex So, also a young photographer from Guangzhou city, founded it in 2004. With “Nature-Graphy” we focused on any natural image style, like for example snap shots, and used to organize some exhibitions, snap shot activities and photography screen shows in coffee shops. But recently we were too busy for further events.

How do you see China today – for young people making art?

223: If you like it, do it.

Ziboy: Better and better. In particular, the Chinese art market is booming and more and more young artists can live by art. The society is also more acceptable to the new arts community.

And how do you think did the situation change in the last couple of years?

223: There were more and more exhibitions and creative activities in the last two years alone. For example, the GET IT LOUDER exhibition or iMART, a creative market where young people sell their handmade works and design.

Ziboy: Previously, China’s art market was limited and only a few top-notch artists could depend on it. But still, young people involved in the arts often feel no protection in their life.

Is particularly young Chinese art popular in the media?

223: Some magazines focus on young people’s lifestyle but most of the mainstream media like to report on mainstream art.

Apart from online websites – are there enough platforms, like exhibitions and galleries where you can see it?

223: Of course. Apart from GET IT LOUDER, there are more and more concept shops in Chinese main cities that do exhibitions and shows for young people.

Ziboy: For artists having more and more galleries is generally a good thing. But now there have been too many art galleries in Beijing, a few new ones every month. I hope that there will be more art museums whose purpose is not solely commercial.

One last thing: is there a street art scene / a graffiti culture in your city?

223: Yes. I would say that Guangzhou has the first graffiti society in China and it all started from there.

Ziboy: The government is very strict and doesn’t allow graffiti. There are only a few locations in Beijing that have some.

Thank you two as well, 223 and Ziboy, for giving us a glimpse into the young Chinese art scene!

when in doubt … cliché and generalise

Two almost opposite examinations of art or culture came from Ou Ning’s blog today, the first a textless photographic documentary, 乡土凋零, observing a village barren of people, the end of the world, even an empty outdoor opera stage, home to motorbikes and a table of distant, seated figures.

The second, from New York Times Magazine on contemporary art in China. I used to lament the execrable editorial retardedness that could induce every newspaper and magazine to endlessly refer to Mao or the Cultural Revolution in every title of every article about China. In an effort to see hip and up with the times it’s now often a reference to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon just leaves me thinking they’d be better off and advance Euro-Sino-Freundschaft more if they just shut up.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Agenda is an atrocious article full of name-dropping and disconnected sprawling from one topic to the next, almost a shopping list of every foreigner who has even glanced at Chinese contemporary art in the last two decades. As a magazine filler story, which in English language media is largely what writing about art is concerned with, this is not such a surprise.

What is hideous and smacks of the very ‘orientalist’ racism the author charges certain nameless collectors with (though Uli Sigg’s name appears immediately afterwards in a deliberately obscure conjunction of two sentences) is such remarks as “I’m not convinced that we Westerners really understand what’s going on there.” That the writer is also a former curator of the Venice Biennale, Francesco Bonami is disturbing, as he plays on one hand with some odious “inscrutable China” generalisations and on the other with sympathetic, cultural insider, and defender of Chinese contemporary art.

The last paragraph though, is full of bizarre and non-sensical tangled mess of metaphors, undefined allusions, and outright cultural colonialism, an illiterate scrawl of meaninglessness. This is lazy journalism at its worst, and certainly does no favours for the artists it profiles. It highlights a certain impoverishment in traditional journalism, despite the massive resources underpinning a paper such as NYT. Contra this, a blog like Heaven Tree, writing frequently on Chinese culture, history, art is emblematic of the phenomenal quality of individuals writing out of passion.

Saving itself from some of the roadkill is the slideshow and accompanying notes on several prominent artists including Ou Ning and Cao Fei from Guangzhou now based in Beijing, Xu Zhen from Shanghai, and Yangjiang’s Zheng Guogu. Skip the article and go right to the slideshow.