Suzhou, China, 2013
A photographic and video art festival screened on the white-washed walls of the ancient city of Suzhou, China. The project bought together artists, academics and curators from Victoria, Australia and Jiangsu, China, to engage collaboratively with the street community and promote cultural connections between Australia and China on a local level.
Li Xiao Song
Excerpts from the publication, through Australian Scholarly Publishing
Typology, Heritage and the Lens: Curating an ancient city through photography and video
It was the appeal of the ancient walls that did it – a projection festival of Australian and Chinese photography and video art in an ancient Chinese city with no gallery, no venue and no ‘screens’, just a bustling 900 year old canal district adorned with white washed stone walls. Known as the ‘Venice of the East’, the ancient city of Suzhou, 110km west of central Shanghai, in Jiangsu Province, China, has, throughout the centuries, been a popular site for lovers, poets and artists. There is an ancient proverb in China, Up in the sky there is Heaven: here below on Earth we have Suzhou and Hangzhou. Lumens Festival: Curating the ancient city (Lumens) began as a project with a unique challenge – how to make use of a UNESCO world heritage listed site for a public art project that engages the community, integrates with the history and culture of the site, and leaves no permanent physical trace. Developed out of a series of research trips to China to work on public art projects connected to the 2011 Shanghai World Expo, Lumens was designed specifically as a cultural project supporting the Victorian State Government’s Sister State Agreement with Jiangsu Province’s government. Established in 1979, the agreement seeks to enhance co-operation between Victoria and Jiangsu, on projects of mutual benefit to create a forum for knowledge sharing through collaboration. This sister connection was critical in not only providing the festival with the essential monetary funding, and facilitating a dialogue to secure the necessary permissions required to hold such an event, but it also positioned the project within the broad context of realising the shared cultural goals of the sister state relationship. Lumens was held over three nights in May 2012, along the central canal precinct of Ping Jiang road, an amazing location containing all the elements of a city district that inspires, bewilders and impresses. The cobbled streets and arched bridges run alongside and over the canals, shop vendors work at the front of their stores crafting traditional Chinese goods, and well-dressed couples line the streets with photographers shooting glamorous wedding portraits. The location was so tantalising, the idea so unique, that it presented one of those rare opportunities where the curatorial framework had the potential to integrate itself into the site in a way that could engage with the street community and promote cultural connections between Australia and China on a local level. It also meant that a ‘normal’ curatorial process seemed almost irrelevant. Rather than develop a singular or specific theme for the project, it became more about connecting cultures, and identifying global issues that concern artists from both Jiangsu Province and the State of Victoria. The resulting work presents an overview of what is essentially a shared experience, but one that is shared on a local level.
Following the Suzhou exhibition, the festival was then screened in Melbourne at Federation Square on the ‘Big Screen’, as part of the summer program. Featuring the same works as shown in Suzhou, the Melbourne screening linked the curatorial framework, consciously emphasising the potential for dialogue found in difference. In this way, Lumens pictured an ancient city and a new world city linked increasingly by media and travel – collapsing concepts of distance and time, as artists explored both their own place and that of the former ‘other’. The combination of artists chosen for the project and presented here outlines a collective experience of key aspects of life in Victoria, Australia and Jiangsu Province, China. The artists’ eclectic responses to the project are evident in the diversity of issues being considered: environment and sustainability, heritage, isolation, sexuality, politics, history and culture, all forming a collective attitude towards life in the contemporary world, a life that, while separated by oceans, cultures and history, resonates with the similarities that define our relationships with each other and our world.
Who are you? Where are you from? These are among the questions that underpin the diverse collection of still photographs and moving images that comprise Lumens Festival: Curating the ancient city. The twenty-two artists from Australia and China have each presented distinctly individual images that consider a broad range of ideas about: place, in the cities and the natural world; and identity, using portraits of the individual and nuanced social studies. Photographs of place, be it the natural world or the built environment, date back to the origins of photography. In the earliest years the static subject predominated, in part because of the technical limitations of the medium. Consequently, architectural views and landscapes form an important part of the canon of photography. The work of early photographers, and subsequent generations of artists, has always been driven by an engagement with the pictorial conventions of their times. Historically, photographers have sought to represent the land in diverse ways. The natural world has variously been presented as a manifestation of the sublime; in the romantic tradition; as the vehicle of esoteric spiritual philosophies; and, more recently, to champion the concerns of environmentalism. Similarly photographs of the city have responded to the particular interests and concerns of their age. The politics of national expansion and development can be charted in photographs that celebrate the burgeoning cities of the nineteenth and twentieth century, and in those that effectively catalogue the colonialist ambitions of various nations. The flip side of such constant growth can be social breakdown, destruction of historic sites and environmental devastation and photographers have always addressed these concerns with an astute and unflinching gaze.
In the twenty-first century we collectively share a complex relationship with the natural world and the built environment. We are acutely aware of the delicate balances in the world that can too easily be shifted to dreadful effect. Pictures of place, images that respond to the simple question, “Where are you from?” comment on some of the most significant social and political issues of our time. The images, both still and moving, of Australian ‘places’ included here are dominated by mournful, abandoned sites. Harry Nankin, Shane Hulbert, Dominic Redfern and Matthew Sleeth all situate their work in quite particular, empty places. Nankin’s lyrical images made around Lake Tyrrell reveal the beauty of the night sky at an important indigenous site. Paired with photograms of tiny invertebrates, they draw together heaven and earth, and reflect upon the interconnectedness and fragility of the landscape. The fragility of the land also underpins Redfern’s video work, Zanci Station: Exploded diagram. The transient nature of man-made structures in the harsh environment of Lake Mungo in western New South Wales is immediately apparent, but the work also explores the overlaid histories of the site. In Hulbert’s work the abandonment of specific sites is more recent but no less complete. The ‘Broken Hill Speedway’, once a popular drawcard for the region, lies empty, decaying and defaced.
In contrast the Chinese images of place included in this exhibition show the burgeoning cities of Shanghai and Suzhou as a centre of contemporary life. Li Weilin considers the civic aspirations for harmony as reflected in the built environment, whereas Hu Bing suggests the unsettling effects of growth and displacement in Shanghai, the archetypal twenty-first century metropolis. Older cities or historic areas within cities are the subject of works by Wu Zhongwen, Zhang Mingxing, Hua Qian and Zhou Wei. The passage of time, along with rapid economic and social change, have had a huge impact on the cities of China, and shared concerns about a loss of cultural heritage underline the work of each of these artists.
The different views of home, of China and of Australia, contrast starkly in the photographs of Bronek Kozka and Li Xiao Song. The guardian lions in Li Xiao Song’s work traditionally offered protection and good fortune to the occupants of a home. Having stood in place for decades they also bear witness to generations of families and carry a sense of continuity and security. No such familial security is suggested in the bleak interior of Kozka’s, Kew House Dinner Time. It is instead the setting for a miserable drama from which it would seem all the occupants wish to escape. Escape, or at least travel, is key to the work of Mark Galer and John Billan. Galer’s Landscape Revisited series chronicles his return to significant sites in the landscape which have been altered by subsequent commercial activity. There is something absurd, and a little sad, about the sight of middle-aged tourists resorting to balancing their camera on a rubbish bin to document their visit to one of the great engineering feats of the twentieth century. Billan finds unsettling beauty in the English landscape where vernacular architecture is metaphorically overshadowed by another monumental feature of the twentieth century – the nuclear power plant. The particularities of each of these places reveal something of the identities of the individuals who have built them, work in them, and live in them.
But of course, a sense of identity does not only reside in the depiction of places. Although in the works of Nikos Pantazopoulos and Craig Shell the empty spaces they have photographed resonate palpably with the sense of people who have moved through particular spaces. More than any other aspect of photographic practice, portraiture has the capacity to construct, maintain and challenge identity. From the earliest days of photography, the medium has been used to ‘describe’ individuals through both singular images and serial presentations. Such portraits have been used for a diverse range of personal and political projects, and variously operated as a means to classify people, document the individual and society, depict physical identity and offer insight into the inner life of the subject. Even the blandest of photographic portraits, such as the passport photograph, has the potential to offer insights about the sitter. All portraits have the capacity to allude to aspects of personality, relationships with others, and a sense of self and place in society. The reading of a portrait is a highly subjective act that reveals aspects not only of the subject and the artist, but also the viewer; and in turn serves to present a bigger portrait – a social portrait. As writer David Bate explains, ‘If the photographic portrait is a shorthand description of a person, then portraiture is more than “just a picture”, it is a place of work: a semiotic event for social identity’ (Bate 2009, p. 67).
The works of Wang Gang and Yang Haitao present social portraits of contemporary China reflecting, as they do, on traditional social activity in public places. It is not at all uncommon to see people in public spaces practising tai chi, but more surprisingly – for Australians at least – people also meet there to sing karaoke and enjoy outdoor ballroom dancing. The daytime domain of older people, the parks and the activity there is illustrative of the role of the state in ensuring particular cultural bonds.
In contrast, the Australian artists, included here, present more individualistic portraits. Highlighting points of distinction is the common element across the works of Darren Sylvester, Lyndal Walker, Ian Haig and Martine Corompt. The women in Walker’s La Toilette D’une Femme series, for example, seek to express their individuality through their personal presentation and dress. And Sylvester’s photograph explores the importance to teenagers of making an individual statement through an overtly projected identity. Although his image, showing the ‘political’ use of face paint is a reconstruction not a documentary ‘reality’, it nonetheless signals the particular importance of personal differentiation. The images shown when the Lumens Festival: Curating the ancient city was projected on the walls of the old city of Suzhou, China; and the big screen at Federation Square in Melbourne, Australia, was more than a cultural exchange.
By including artists from disparate places and diverse backgrounds, this project enabled the building of a rich and complex portrait of place and identity, and it went some way to explaining who we are and where we are from.
Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The key concepts, Oxford: Berg.
Images from the Project Archive