thinking about photography and “truth”

Nothing earth-shattering, just some notes that won’t make it into a review.

For me, the classic, single-viewpoint photograph is a seduction. It threatens to convince us that it is imparting a “truth” about the world by its seemingly straightforward presentation of a view. Art’s use (and more importantly, abuse) of the medium and its formats has been instrumental in disabusing us of the static image’s privileged status as a purveyor of truth. So these days no one should be under any illusion about these fixed perspective, mono-directional images—neither for their depiction of reality nor for the value of their meanings.

ArtSlant: Narrative Naysaying

Overstep: Shen Yi Elsie & Lei Benben Works Exhibition

Siemens Home Appliance Art Space, Taoci 2nd Street, 798 Art District, 100015 Beijing, China

23 July – 7 August, 2011

In 2010, on a side street behind the main drag of 798, the German appliance company Siemens opened a small art space as part of their mission to “finance young artists’ projects and provide community service around China.” As part of this worthy cause, this month the gallery is hosting Overstep, a show of two young Chinese artists Shen Yi Elsie and Lei Benben, curated by Pi Li (Director of Boers-Li Gallery).

Over the past few years both Shen Yi Elsie and Lei Benben have moved from photographic works to a more expansive approach to media – in Lei’s case into video and for Shen a practice that has developed through video into public interventions. For Pi Li, their work “oversteps” discredited boundaries of objectivity, fragmenting narrative into disjointed personal histories, creating a situation he characterises as “the inversion of time and space, [where] reality starts to drift into illusion and no longer firmly detains us.”

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Slow looking

Some extracts from Michael Kimmelman’s article in last weekend’s NYT lamenting the demise of the slow observation of art, with some brief comments:

…What exactly are we looking for when we roam as tourists around museums?…

A few game tourists glanced vainly in guidebooks or hopefully at wall labels, as if learning that one or another of these sculptures came from Papua New Guinea or Hawaii or the Archipelago of Santa Cruz, or that a work was three centuries old or maybe four might help them see what was, plain as day, just before them.…

“…plain as day…”? Sorry, surely this is the problem, it’s never plain as day. Visitors need some context to understand the works, or maybe that’s what they should expect from a museum. That’s the “job” of the museum: to provide a place to see works in some kind of context. Kimmelman seems to be suggesting that the visitor should just take what’s “just before them” at face value, which I suppose they could, but it seems that is not providing enough to hold the tourists interest, hence creating the premiss for Kimmelman’s article.

Visiting museums has always been about self-improvement.…

<sighs> I think it would be more accurate to say museums have always been about someone’s idea of improving other people. The Louvre (the subject of this article) being a case in point. When it was opened up to the masses after the French revolution, the displays were adjusted from being the private collection of the king, to being specifically designed to demonstrate and inculcate an idea of France’s place in the world in “the people.”

Cameras replaced sketching by the last century; convenience trumped engagement, the viewfinder afforded emotional distance and many people no longer felt the same urgency to look.…

…the canon of art that provided guideposts to tell people where to go and what to look at was gradually dismantled. A core of shared values yielded to an equality among visual materials. This was good and necessary, up to a point. Millions of images came to compete for our attention. Liberated by a proliferation, Western culture was also set adrift in an ocean of passing stimulation, with no anchors to secure it.

This wistful nostalgia for an overarching ideology to guide our thinking, is a bit sickly. The “liberation” he speaks of will inevitably lead to new ideologies, perhaps ones better suited to the material and the proliferation, in the same way that it will lead to new ways of seeing and presenting art – new museums even. The tourists’ inattention in the Louvre is symptomatic of this change in viewing patterns and its sensible for the museum to try and identify how to address these new patterns.

Slow looking, like slow cooking, may yet become the new radical chic.

That, I think, is wishful thinking. Just because this is how it was in the past, and what museums have been created to cater for, does not mean it will be so in the future, or that museums will be suited to our viewing habits in the future. Our viewing habits adapt, and institutions will be created to serve those habits. Museums which work by “slow-viewing” will still have a place, and will go in and out of vogue as times and tastes change, the definition of “slow-viewing” will also change to meet these new requirements.

Kimmelman, Michael (2009), At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus,, 3 August 2009.

Laoban Soundsystem: Xmas Mixing Event at CPU:798

My friends at the Laoban Soundsystem will be installed in the Gallery tonight presenting their new venture, the Laoban Soundsystem. This is an open invite to all artists, musicians etc. to come along and show off what they are working on. Should be an exciting, energetic evening! Come along and see works in progress.

Laoban Soundsystem 1.0 Holiday Mixing Event at CPU:798

Friday, December 12, 8 PM – 12 Midnight, Free and Open to the Public

We invite all to come out to the launch of version 1.0 of the Laoban Soundsystem for a special Holiday Mixing Event at CPU:798. This is a new type of media event where all are welcome to join, bring media, laptops, video players, cameras, and other recording devices. The goal is to mix media, explore what artists, DJs, musicians, designers, and architects are working on RIGHT NOW — successes, failures, and rough edges are welcome at Laoban events! The ultimate plan is for consumers to be producers by both mixing media, and by tagging any recordings they have with “laoban” when posting onto,, or other places.

Notes on the artist Zheng Yunhan

Zheng’s work deals with the relationship between the Chinese people and their landscapes, it’s idealised nature as a site for forming, as man-perfected/adjusted material, a symbolic residue or site of potential for human activity.

His works stem from an investigation of his home town of Jixi, a mining town in NE China. Jixi Research Project, ongoing since 2004, is a documentary-like archive of visual and spoken records of the lives of the people living in this town dominated by mining and the consequences of this industry on their lives and landscape. This piece is presented as a 4-channel projection with interactivity, emphasising the audiences participation in the story telling process.

For Sunflower Project, Zheng commissioned his family and friends to plant a large field of sunflowers in the hills surrounding the town of Jixi. The resulting artwork is an ultra-high resolution composite photograph of this field. On the one side in the distance is Jixi and on the other a memorial marking a mass grave of locals killed by the Japanese Army during the occupation of China during the Second World War. The sunflowers act as physical link between the living and the dead, a route of remembrance, reflecting during their short lives the remains of life and death all around them.

Zu Jing’s opening

Announcing that our next show at CPU:798 will be opening next weekend. This will also be the first new show in our new space, so I’m pretty excited about it.

The show is called “Frivolous” and is a set of installation by our artist Zu Jing. Zu Jing hails from Beijing and although she’s been working for a few years now on the series which we are presenting, this is the first showing of them in a gallery. She’s a very talented artist for whom we have high hopes! I’ve written a short introduction to the show on the website and will do a longer text over the next week.

So do join us next Saturday!

Gallery pics

Dust is Dust installation

Dust is Dust installation (2008) by Wang Yuyang

I just posted some pictures of the gallery to flickr. Unfortunately, it’s a very small space and the installation uses reduced lighting, and these two factors show up the shortcomings of my camera, but the pictures give a flavour of what we have here.

I was thinking about the show the other day, and why I like it so much. I usually profess to prefer more socially committed work, or work which has some sort interaction for the viewer or direct effect, and this would appear not to have such if you looked at it superficially. However, through talking to the artist (via interpreter, obviously) and thinking about his work’s methods, I’ve come to appreciate the meaning and significance of these works more and more, and how these actually have as much effect in their way as the kind of work I usually go for.

The pursuit of truth is a very strong and emotive subject, and one which is probably common to all of us in some shape or form. Closely allied with truth would be understanding, one step towards truth. The means we take in the pursuit of truth and understanding vary massively – this show and some of the artist’s other pieces investigate the place science and technology take in the formation of ‘truths’ through the facilitation of understanding. Their relationship is scrutinised by the artist and in the pieces is opened up to analysis in itself by the viewer, potentially clarifying the constructions in play.

A corollary of this activity would be that the artist’s very actions are just adding a further layer of complexity to the process. Analysis could go on forever, but at some point we stop, take stock and report on what it is that we have found. Written into that report is the awareness that this is very much a provisional state. This is an artificial, man-made point and one which is as much a construction as any in the subject matter.

Artificial Moon (2007)

Artificial Moon (2007) by Wang Yuyang