Thomas Bird excavates the Lianzhou photography festival
I follow the map on my phone as it leads me into the backstreets of Songzhuang Art Colony, the world’s largest art village, located on the eastern fringe of the Beijing municipality. Just when I think I’ve been lured into a labyrinthine trap, the unmistakable bald head of Shanxi-native Luo Dawei (罗大卫) emerges from a doorway and beckons me in from the cold.
“Sorry about the mess, we’re just moving in,” he says as I watch computers and office furniture being delivered, unpacked in a tempest of cardboard and dust.
This is Fengmian HQ. Founded in 2017, Luo describes his innovative new-media business as a “photography and cultural education platform.” The company’s official WeChat account has over 50,000 followers who tune in for news on China’s contemporary photography scene, as well as online workshops and talks by critics and artists. Dawei is the man to turn to for Chinese photography.
After settling down for some tea, it’s clear that Luo is less concerned with happenings in Beijing than those in Guangdong, where the Lianzhou International Photography Festival (连州国际摄影年展) is soon to be held. The festival emerged from humble beginnings in 2005 to become one of China’s key cultural gatherings: a Woodstock of the photographic world, attracting aficionados from all quarters to congregate in a remote mountain town that hitherto could only claim an ancient leaning pagoda as an attraction.
“It’s a small place with a big spirit,” Luo says. “Not everything can be exhibited there.” Yet he has managed to secure himself 80 meters of wall space in the Shoe Factory, a disused industrial space co-opted during the festival period. He shows me a 3D visualization of the exhibition on his laptop. “We’re exhibiting Wu Guoyong,” he explains. “Wu has driven much of Fengmian’s traffic this year, he’s our number one featured artist.”
Wu Guoyong (吴国勇), a native of Xiangyang in Hubei Province, came to photography after a long career as an engineer in Shenzhen. Heeding the advice of notable Shenzhen-based photographer Li Zhengde (李政德), who taught him how the camera could be wielded to ask social questions, Wu got to work with a drone, provoked by news of China’s shared-bicycle graveyards. He eventually filmed and photographed mass-metal cemeteries in 20 cities, resulting in No Place to Place (无处安放), a series of images that exposes the devastating power of China’s industrial machine.
Luo is candid in his analysis. “Wu’s work asks major questions about the logic underlying capitalism, as well as highlighting issues of the morality of citizens who stole or broke the bikes. Then there are major questions raised regarding the rationale of the authorities, who failed to deal with situation adequately.”
Luo seems to see Wu’s drone like a celestial microscope from which to view the ills afflicting Chinese society. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wu’s work has become a social media phenomenon in China as well as making the pages of the foreign press.
But despite the mass media exposure he’s already attracted, there will be new facets of No Place to Place on show at Lianzhou, including a short film shot by Wu and an exhibition of photographs taken by Fengmian’s online followers. “I asked everyone to photograph the share bikes,” Luo explains. “We received thousands of photos and have chosen 500 of the best.”
I wonder aloud if this is too provocative for a country undergoing a censorship renaissance, but Luo has faith in art’s expository power as well as Lianzhou’s unique status in the world of photography. “It’s a really special place. [Chief curator] Duan Yuting has forged an amazing network, globally and locally, while maintaining a level of quality and integrity we don’t see elsewhere.”
2000-kilometers south of Beijing, in steamy, sprawling Guangzhou, Lianzhou Foto’s office is located in historic Yuexiu District, inside a pleasant compound surrounded by the lush flora of the tropics. It feels like a different world from the North, but Duan Yuting (段煜婷) is mulling over the same issues as her northern counterparts. When we spoke earlier in the year, right off the bat she took umbrage with my use of the term “Chinese photography.”
“Chinese photographers should first face the reality of China, but in doing so still engage in the universal values shared by mankind,” she said. “We believe in the sun and there is nothing new under it. The plight of China is actually the plight of the whole world. Whether it is Chinese artists or artists from other countries, we should look at and understand current problems from the perspective of the common destiny of all people.”
This internationalist manifesto, with its discernibly critical edge, might sound contrary to other noises emanating from China, but it’s integral to Lianzhou’s make-up as a festival where serious issues by serious global talents will be tackled.
Duan thinks in thematic terms, and has given the 2018 festival the umbrella title Wind of Time. She says of the concept, “It refers to continuous technological and social development, endlessly promoting the process of human development, yet gradually driving the world out of control.”
This year’s Lianzhou will be mining the zeitgeist with hundreds of exhibitions, notable among them renowned Swiss photographer Yann Mingard’s Seven Sunsets, concerning the human impact on the planet’s atmosphere, and Norwegian artist Eline Benjaminsen’s Where the Money is Made, which investigates the invisible world of lighting-fast algorithmic trading.
One young Chinese talent set to stir audiences with a more subtle, though no less pensive, approach to her work is Hunanese photographer Peng Ke (彭可). Peng grew up in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen – a city of migrants – then studied in the US. Now she’s based in Shanghai, where she is focused on displacement in an age when everyone is on the move.
Duan says of Peng’s series Leaving Speed, which will be on display in Lianzhou, “Her work uses images to depict the relationship between private situations and the public environment, with particular attention to China’s fast-growing, rootless urban population.”
Everyday objects, from market vegetables to shoes, are brought into focus by Peng – it’s the micro, not the macro, that arouses her curiosity. “I’m always inspired, as every second passes by,” Peng told me via WeChat. “I especially like objects devoid of style, that don’t try to sell you anything.”
There’s a thread of nostalgia imbuing Peng’s images, as if the ghosts of a demolished past haunt her. I put this to Peng, who replied simply, “I think, compared to four years of liberal arts education, the first 20 years of a person’s life is way more profound. I could never photograph the US like I photograph China. That’s why I came back.”
It’s a motif pumping through the veins of the festival. Contemporary art is concerned with the now – that’s what makes it contemporary. Yet as the photographer Li Zhengde often likes to say, “You can’t choose the time you’re living in.” Artists are turning their lens on the world today, and the vista is one of bleak consumer homogeneity and ecological fallout. If art is a barometer for measuring the health of the planet, the diagnosis is a sobering one.
At the end of year, when wildfires have blazed through Malibu and plastic–coated shorelines have made headlines, Duan has the measure of things, curating exhibition halls like halls of mirrors reflecting our world right back at us. It’s this instinct and courage which might make Lianzhou 2018 the most important festival yet. ∎