Nataline Colonnello is a specialist in Chinese contemporary art who serves as the current director of Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing. She has been a part of Chinese art circles for over a decade, working as an art critic – she has published monographs on Wang Xingwei, Xie Nanxing, Xia Xiaowan, He Yunchang and Anatoly Shuravlev – and leading major galleries like Galerie Urs Meile and Ink Studio. In her current position at Three Shadows, she is in charge of the one of the rare private spaces in China dedicated solely to photography. Launched in 2007 in Beijing by the Sino-Japanese artistic duo RongRong and inri, this authoritative institution opened a new space in 2015 in Xiamen, which hosts the annual Jimei x Arles International Photography Festival that celebrated its third anniversary in 2017.
The following interview was conducted in November 2017.
Marine Cabos: What is your mission at Three Shadows?
Nataline Colonnello: Our mission has always been the same: to promote Chinese contemporary photographers – young, emerging, and more established artists – and work to preserve the past history of the medium here while also bringing in top international art.
Exchanging art across borders has become more important than ever to us. It’s long been important for us to introduce the work of international photographers to China; we now want to start bringing more Chinese photography abroad by developing closer collaborations with major international institutions and museums. Something like the Jimei x Arles Festival is a good example – the Discovery Award there allows young Chinese, like Liu Silin last year, to show their work at Les Rencontres d’Arles in France. We hope this sort of collaboration is just the beginning, and that we can bring in more work from abroad too.
In the last couple years we’ve had several historical exhibitions that we feel meet the standards of any top international museum: “Chinese Photography: Twentieth Century and Beyond” and, most recently, “40 Years of Chinese Contemporary Photography (1976-2017). We think a wider audience with different cultural and political backgrounds could gain a lot from these.
Our team has been getting more specialized and professional, and we’re focused now on creating even more interesting exhibitions for the Chinese public. We’re also working intensively on the archive here, stepping up our research and educational program, and building a greater media presence.
M.C: Were there specific events related to the 10th anniversary of Three Shadows?
N.C.: We set up our exhibition “40 Years of Chinese Contemporary Photography (1976-2017)”, which opened exactly a decade after Three Shadows’ inaugural exhibition “New Photo – Ten Years.” Both were led by the same curator, Wu Hung. The “40 Years” exhibition was divided into four main sections: the rise of unofficial photography (1976-1979), new wave photography (1980-1989), experimental photography (1990-2006), and the development of experimental photography organizations (2007-present). The last section was about the Three Shadows Photography Award (TSPA).
M.C.: Speaking of the TSPA, in 2018 the jury will comprise two French leading figures - Clément Chéroux and Sam Stourdzé. It seems there is a strong connection between the Three Shadows and France.
N.C.: It’s a combination of factors and yuanfen [predestined affinity]. The TSPA jury committee is generally international and always rotates – the only consistent presence is RongRong. This time, like you said, it includes Clément Chéroux [Senior Curator of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA] and Sam Stourdzé [Director of Les Rencontres d'Arles, Co-founder of Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival, France]. We’re honoured to have them both alongside Fumio Nanjo [Director of Mori Art Museum, Japan] and Pi Li [Senior Curator of Hong Kong M+ Museum, China].
In truth we have been working with France, more specifically Arles, since 2010 with the Caochangdi Photospring festival, which ran from 2010-2012. That was a different format, as Three Shadow’s space in Beijing is not as convenient as the one in Xiamen. At that time, we were showing different exhibitions in collaboration with several art spaces, commercial and non-commercial, across the Caochangdi area [an art district in northeast Beijing]. It became a bit complicated to hold exhibitions of this scale across several privately-owned spaces, so after three years we decided to take a break and reassess.
The opening of the Three Shadows space in Xiamen in 2015 allowed us a completely new configuration that has made it much easier to host a large-scale international exhibition. If the main annual event in Beijing is the TSPA, the main event here in Xiamen is definitively the Jimei x Arles International Photography festival. We expanded on our early collaboration with Arles, which we think is very valuable: Arles is a top quality festival not only in Europe but also around the world. We hope we will keep up this collaboration with Arles for many years. We’ve received the support of the Xiamen municipal government, and this has been very encouraging as well.
M.C.: Tell us more about the Three Shadows Centre’s collection.
N.C.: Three Shadows functions in the same manner as a photography museum. We do research, display, and publish historical and contemporary works. The collection includes over 300 pieces, held mainly in Beijing and divided into three parts. The first part encompasses the works of the TSPA finalists from the past editions; the second part comprises more established Chinese artists; and the third part contains works by international photographers like Daido Moriyama, Bernard Faucon, Robert Frank, Man Ray, and Nobuyoshi Araki, just to mention a few of them. The collection will always be growing.
M.C.: What are your highlights from the Jimei x Arles International Photography Festival ?
N.C.: I enjoyed very much the Iranian exhibition [“Iran: Year 38”]. I thought it was a very mature and interesting glimpse of Iranian society. The photos unveiled different viewpoints. Some were rather humorous, others more crude.
I also liked the idea of following a family of gypsies and their development [“Mathieu Pernot: The Gorgans”]. They really served as a case study. Of course their experience was very peculiar, but it could be transposed onto any other family with a different culture and context. Despite their differences, they seem to tell similar stories.
Regarding Chinese exhibitions, I liked Shen Chen’s a lot [“Phantom Pain Clinic”]. It was a very thoroughly research show about the notion of human pain, and he tackled different problems in a very sensitive way. I especially liked how his selection of works told global stories.
Oh, and I enjoyed those photos from Indonesia as well [“Greetings from Indonesia”]. Those photographers managed to speak to an international audience and their own young people, using a visual language to tell tough stories in a new way. They used saturated color, clever compositions, and so on to create unforgettable images and get at deeper issues in society.
M.C.: How would you describe the Jimei x Arles International Photography Festival in three words?
N.C.: Collaboration, all-encompassing, and genuine.
M.C.: What’s next for the Three Shadows Centre?
N.C.: We’ll continue following the original vision while emphasizing the most important changes in Chinese and international photography today.
We’re restarting our residency program that provides studios to photographers, curators, and scholars who want to spend time in Beijing to complete projects – another part of our dedication to increasing our international collaborations. Starting this year we also created a membership system and began a yearly fundraising auction. The goal is to provide support to the museum so it can become more financially independent and we can continue to provide high-quality exhibitions.