Contemporary Chinese photography tends to be associated with the turbulent social and economic changes taking place throughout history. It is certainly true that it is common in many photographers’ works as a response to the urbanization and transformations of their home environment, imbued with sentiments of loss and nostalgia. However, there are also other emerging photographers worth taking notice of. They revert back to Chinese ink painting aesthetics, engage with abstract photography, or challenge photography as a medium. Featuring works ranging from documentary to abstract photography, from digital photography to analogue and to photo installations, we have handpicked for you 10 Chinese photographers to watch!
Birdhead is an artist collective started by Song Tao & Ji Weiyu in 2004. Contrary to their surrealist and imaginary name, Birdhead’s photographs concern urban reality and daily experiences, and have a signature spontaneous, snap-shot aesthetic. They capture their hometown, Shanghai, in fragments of time and space while it continues to grow in a “wandering and repeated stare”, in the words of Birdhead. The daily snippets manifest their subjective views on the world, and as they claimed, are concerned with the sole themes they recognize in art—love, hatred, feeling, sorrow, life, ageing, sickness and death (爱恨情仇 生老病死). Each photograph echoes the others in the series and expresses key sentiments arising from basic events of life.
Theatrical. Conceptual. Bold. These are the words that come to mind when one encounters Chen Wei’s works. Recently featured in the exhibition Brilliant City at David Zwirner Hong Kong, his iconic photographs reconstruct key fragments of reality—memories and locations from childhood, and his daily experience in Beijing. Contrary to the spontaneous and dynamic quality of documentary photography, often used to evoke associations with memory and subjective experience, Chen’s work is about careful handcrafting of objects, assembling of sets, and meticulous composition. The theatrical and cinematic settings are set off by strong contrasts of colors and tones, offering glimpses into an alternative reality. He reconstructs urban scenes of Beijing in his studio, while adding a twist of surreality and uncanniness through removing people, and adding in bold and saturated lightings.
Jiang Pengyi exhibits mastery over a wide spectrum of photography styles—from his earlier documentary works concerned with China’s rapidly changing landscapes, to recent experimentations with photography as a medium and abstraction. He not only comments on the abandoned urban fabrics in Beijing, revealing the overlooked by-effects of urban regeneration, but also explores analogue photography and the properties of light, resulting in abstract works where coloured fluorescent paper leave traces on photosensitive film and creates vibrant forms. In his other series “Everything Illuminates”, the depicted objects are stripped of their representational and functional attributes and given a sense of vigor and energy to be rediscovered through the use of fluorescent matter.
Liu Yuyang is a freelance photographer for Getty Images, The New York Times and The Washington Post. He focuses on ethnic, health, and environmental issues in China, while also taking on assignments such as on sustainable fishery in West Africa. He won the Magnum Foundation Human Rights & Photography Fellowship, Abigail Cohen Fellowship in Documentary Photography and Ian Parry Scholarship, and was selected as PDN’s 30 in 2017.
His photographs tell compelling stories of their subjects, at times confronting the uncomfortable truth of how society treats the mentally ill, at other times responding to the government initiative under growing tensions with the Muslim-Uighur population. This most recent body of work is based on the experiences of young Uighurs from China’s far west working in factories in south-eastern China, and puts forward powerful images.
Shi Yangkun was born in Zhoukou, Henan, and moved to London where he received an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography from the London College of Communication. In 2017, he has won the prestigious PDN Emerging Photographer competition.
His ‘Solastalgia’ series that discovers the “form of melancholy evoked by changes that have happened in the used-to-be familiar home environment”, is an attempt to document the loss of home and memories due to urban regeneration projects. This feeling of homesickness experienced at home resonates with every single Chinese individual who has witnessed the massive economic, urban and social changes taking place across their country.
Hailing from Qingdao, China, Taca Sui is a fine art photographer who documents the passage of time through his poetic depictions of often neglected cultural artefacts. Having exhibited at multiple exhibitions in both China and USA, including Chambers Fine Art (2011 & 2015) and Three Shadows Photography Award Exhibition (2011), Taca continues to engage with Chinese history and literature by drawing inspirations from texts layered with historical and literary significance.
From travelling to locations associated with The Book of Odes (Shi Jing) and documenting landscapes evocative of the poetic beauty of the odes, to tracing the steps of the Qing dynastry imperial bureaucrat Huang Yi, and photographing the erasing marks of inscriptions on stone steles, Taca produces stunning black-and-white works resembling Chinese ink paintings, with a similar poetic beauty of otherworldliness, evoking melancholy of the passage of time.
Xu Xiaoxiao, a native of Wenzhou in eastern China, moved with her family to the Netherlands when she was a teenager. The constant changes that took place in her hometown during her years away overwhelmed her, and forced her to reconcile with memories of a completely different contemporary experience. Whether depicting daily objects, home environments, or men and women in their homes or an urban metropolis, Xu’s work exhibits a high level of attention to human experiences and their surrounding environments. Photography for her is a medium to explore her background and roots, and to recreate experiences in mystical, elusive and alienating atmosphere.
Having studied traditional painting and calligraphy at a young age, Yang Yongliang injects the traditional medium of ink with a new life by creating “digital” landscapes. Though the images resemble Chinese landscape from afar, a closer look would reveal the layers and layers of urban and natural images, consisting of motifs such as buildings, cranes, traffic and urban wastelands. His works speak to the duality of urban versus nature and serve as a subtle critique on the erosion of treasured homeland and memories by rapid urbanization. The clash between the majestic overall view and the appalling details, between traditional aesthetics and modern technology, are what make Yang’s work so remarkable.
Yang has held exhibitions in esteemed galleries and institutions all over the world, including at The Louvre, Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale 2014, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.
Active online in the past decade, photography duo Zhang Jungang & Li Jie sees creating as part of their daily routines. The duo brings camera wherever they go and captures fleeting moments in their daily lives. Their art is highly subjective and personal, coupled with blurry and ethereal qualities blur the distinction between the intentional and accidental. According to them, their works are a celebration of “youth and love”, which is manifested in the spontaneous aesthetics, vibrant hues and occasional light leaks resulting from a 135 film camera.
The duo have exhibited in numerous notable exhibitions, including Pingyao International Photography Festival (2005), San Francisco Photographic Art Exposition (2006), and Chambers Fine Art (2008).
Check out more works by emerging photographers here!
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