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Beijing based photographer and curator Ruben Lundgren collaborated with curator and writer He Yining to curate an exhibition entitled “China Imagined”. Held at BredaPhoto Festival in 2020, this exhibition gives an insight into contemporary Chinese photography. In China today, people enjoy the conveniences provided by science and technology for their personal lives. Intelligent payment, the share economy and artificial intelligence created a growing middle class and a booming economy. This new reality however, comes with problems such as surveillance and privacy disclosure. At the same time, behind the deterioration of the living environment lay the fruits of 30 years of tree planting and behind the lack of resources lies the exploration of clean energy. In times of strong polarisation it seems harder to accept that progress and backwardness sometimes coexist.
In these corona-virus times He Yining and Ruben Lundgren feel the urgency of exhibitions like these to help bridge an undeniably gap of incomprehension between western and Chinese audiences. “China Imagined” presents over 20 visual projects made by both Chinese and foreign photographers, artists and archivists covering contemporary issues and developments within China. On that occasion, they kindly accepted to answer a few questions.
Can you tell me about how you decided to put together « China Imagined » exhibition?
Ruben Lundgren: Yes, we were approached by the festival to give an insight to the contemporary photography scene in China. Yining and I had coffee a few times and basically started with pitching each other some of our favourite projects that excited us and were eager to show to a Dutch audience. In the process we found out many of the projects were documentary storytelling works, often with a twist to existing (western) ideas of what China is about. We felt the need to wider the horizon and put together a show with over 20 photographers and a great set of contemporary photography books.
He Yining: Yes, after several communications, we quickly decided to present a complex, rich and diverse Chinese reality through the works of some interesting photography practitioners who made their work in China over the past 10 years. Using these diverse narratives, we are trying to build a platform for Dutch and European audiences to discover China on their own. On this basis, some dialogue can be generated, which can break through the imagination and interpretation of China under the European central logic. However, the title of the exhibition comes last since it is very difficult for us to give an attracting one.
Tell us more about the exhibition design at Grote Kerk Breda. It seems quite challenging to invest this venue.
R.L.: The venue is challenging indeed. Its probably one of the largest churches in the Netherlands, with a royal history to it as well. On our first visit to the church last year, we were both overwhelmed by the size and soon realised that you can’t compete with the many artworks already present in the church. We did not want to block any sight within the church but instead create walls and spaces to compliment it. The huge cigarette package from Thomas Sauvin’s project “Until Death Do Us Part” for example is placed right next to a very decorative grave monument, it looks absolutely amazing.
H.Y.: During our visit in November last year, we had already decided on the locations and exhibition methods of most of the works that we selected. After that, Jan Schaerlackens from Bredaphoto and we communicated with us via email and phone to present the installation of the show. I think if I missed the on-site meeting, the exhibition might be a different look. After all, my international travel was interrupted after the outbreak.
As curators, would you say you have a specific responsibility within the current global pandemic?
R.L.: Not really, sure we thought about it and decided to include a recent work of Coca dealing with the topic, but the main structure of the exhibition stayed the same. I think the only real difference is that the topic and urgency to get to know “real” stories from a contemporary China have only grown bigger.
H.Y.: As a professional writer and curator, as well as an individual living in this era, I am more willing to express my observations and ideas through writing. After the outbreak in China, I wrote some articles to respond to these issues.
What (photographic) trend(s) do you see happening in China right now?
R.L.: Oh, thats a hard one. I am sure He Yining actually has a better answer to this question. In the preparations we did talk about it a bit though. We came to a conclusion that when the print market collapsed around 2009 it created a whole new diverse and splintered photography landscape that offers many opportunities for young photographers. A stable trend is the desire to publish a photobook for example. The Art Book Fair in China has an overwhelming number of young visitors. To me it says that both the audience as many photographers now have a need for authentic storytelling and with the help of Wechat, Taobao, Weibo etc. are able to find each other.
H.Y.: If I compare contemporary Chinese photography to a miniature version of world photography, it may be a bit exaggerated, but I still want to use this metaphor to describe the current Chinese photography trend, which is mixed, rich in layers, vivid and active. This may also shift my perspective from the initial study of British photography to China. My current research attempts to discuss the construction, application and development of image algorithms in the creation of photographs at the intersection of photography, media ecology and technical philosophy in China.
What role play photobooks in understanding photographic practices?
R.L.: For a long time the photobook has been an important medium for photographers to express themselves in. In my research for “The Chinese Photobook” (Aperture, 2015) I have been able to show the history of this practice within China. In recent years I think the urge to publish has only increased, every serious body of work comes with a publication in some form. Within the splintered photography landscape, it has become a tool to define a photographer’s practice and an unchanged milestone for ones career.
H.Y.: Almost at the same time, I edited and self-published "50 Contemporary Photobooks from China 2009-2014" and the books mentioned in it were exhibited at the FORMAT Photography Festival in the UK. Both Ruben and I trying our best to promote the publication and display of Chinese photography books in the Chinese and international context. Over the years, we have also witnessed that photography books have slowly moved from the edge of the photography world in China to an important position. More and more photography book fairs, awards, photography bookstores, libraries and related activities have been established.
What’s next for you two?
R.L.: For November I curate two shows for the Jimei x Arles discovery award in Xiamen. Very happy to present Hua Weicheng’s and Xu Xiaoxiao’s work there. And at the moment I am researching the works of Ellen Thorbecke. She was a brilliant photographer in the 1930’s who photographed Beijing, Shanghai and Hongkong but has been forgotten ever since. A real shame because the works are amazingly good. With the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, I am working on an exhibition that will open in June 2021 and of course, it will be presented in a publication as well.
H.Y.: In addition to BredaPhoto, one of my most important projects this year is to collaborate with Pro Helvetia to curate an exhibition called " Between Mountains, Hills and Lakes". Using geography as a metaphor, the exhibition not only aims to present Switzerland as a melting pot for diverse cultures and complexities, but also hopes to illustrate the uniqueness of contemporary Swiss art. The 9 projects featured in the exhibition come from 7 leading photographers from Switzerland who are active on the global art stage and 2 Chinese photographers who have completed residencies in Switzerland in recent years. The exhibition has showed at Design Society, and it going to open at Modern Art Base and Three Shadows Photography Art Center Beijing in the following month. I am also working on two group exhibitions centered on young Chinese photographers.
More information:• China Imagined at BredaPhotoDates: 9th September - 25 October 2020Venue: Grote Kerk (Big Church), Breda, The Netherlandswww.bredaphoto.nl• www.heyining.com• www.rubenlundgren.com