Lyle Rexer, New York–based independent writer and critic and editor of the upcoming Aperture title The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography (May, 2009), is currently traveling in China for the Shanghai Biennial and reporting for Exposures.
The Biennial — Ants! by Chen Zhiguang
The Biennial: Smiling Dinosaurs by Yue Minjun
Yesterday’s tallest building, nicknamed “the bottle opener’ just dedicated in the Pudong district, seen from the old city — tourist’s perspective.
In a presentation by the photographer Liu Heung Shing, organized by our host Pearl Lam to celebrate the publication of his book “China,” the vast compendium of documentary images by various photographers, I noticed a number of art photographs. I mentioned one to him that I had just seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art titled “Princess,” by Zhang Peng, which depicts in all its photoshopped glory a little girl sitting on a couch and made up as an ancient princess, with an outsized, elaborate headdress of what look like Christmas tree ornaments. He instructed me to look closely at the image in his book, which was the straight version before the artist altered it. The headdress was considerably smaller and actually heightened the ambiguity of the photograph. Shing has seen and photographed as much as anyone in China over the last three decades, and he lamented the rise of Photoshop because it knocks the ground out from under all documentary image making, and perhaps from under photography itself. I have been listening to this argument for more than a decade, often hashed out in the pages of Aperture itself, and like most writers, I feel that we need a new word to describe objects confected in the digital workshop, something like (again) George Bush’s “truthiness,” but something better than “photoish.” Peng’s princess (version 2) is photoish. But not until listening to Shing, who like Capa or Cartier-Bresson or a hundred other great photographers had spent their careers in the belief that bringing a version of visual reality to others was the equivalent to telling a truth, not until thinking about how unknown China was to most of us growing up except for the images we managed to see in magazines and occasionally on TV, not until this moment did I feel with Shing that we have lost something essential, and that something is hard to calculate. It is a combination of credibility (or credulity, if you like) and surprise. Shing was in the business of delivering China to the West, and yes his version was constrained by editors, altered in the darkroom (think of all the Mao-era photos in which purged officials vanished in the darkroom), recontextualized and subject to deliberate misinterpretation, bla bla bla, but his photographs confirmed China and China’s difference as another reality. They and others like them were the very reason I could stand in Shanghai and say, “I’m in China!” because they measured the imaginative distance I traveled. They established that distance. Without a sense of their truth, it was all just a story, just something someone might have made up, like the butterfly dream of Chinese philosophical legend or a little girl princess.
For me, to be in China is to say I am living not a dream but a photograph.