“It’s sexy and elegant. You put it on a wall – it makes a statement,” says Alexander Montague-Sparey, artistic director of Photofairs Shanghai, of fine-art photography. “I often go to people’s houses and if there’s a talking point it’s usually a photograph, not a painting.”
He isn’t the only one singing the medium’s praises. Interest in photography has spiked in recent years. Gallerists are signing more photographers, collectors are snapping up prints and specialised fairs such as Photofairs Shanghai are popping up increasingly.
While people have been collecting photography in the West since the 1970s, it’s a relatively new phenomenon in Asia. “Appreciation for photography is growing exponentially,” says Vanessa Hallett, senior vice president and worldwide head of photographs at Phillips auction house. “More and more people are understanding it and taking it [seriously] as an art form in itself.”
More accessible and affordable than other types of contemporary art, photography is also becoming increasingly popular among first-time collectors. Not only is demand for the medium soaring, but the number of talented contemporary photographers emerging from greater China has also risen. We profile four rising stars who made waves at Photofairs Shanghai in September.
Yao Lu’s photomontages are like gazing down a telescope or a peephole into another world of mist-shrouded mountains, majestic temples and mysterious valleys. But then something sinister happens. Step closer and you realise you aren’t looking at a tranquil traditional landscape but rather construction sites, piles of debris and litter. Yao’s works are a poignant snapshot of the environmental devastation sweeping not only China but also the globe.
Yao studied printmaking before a stint as a journalist, when he was exposed to photography. He became so enamoured of the medium that he went back to school to train. His career took off when he won the BMW Paris Photo Prize in 2008, and was shortlisted for the prestigious Prix Pictet award the following year.
When asked what inspires him, the photographer explains that all of his works are rooted in nostalgia. “I am an old Beijinger. When I was young the capital was full of nature and so beautiful and calm,” the artist reminisces. “It’s changed so fast and so much has been ruined by the process of modernisation. Not just Beijing but much of Chinese culture has faded away.”
His recent works shift away from landscape and look at China’s copycat culture. “So many things are made in China but are actually copied from the West,” he says. Works such as Seaside No. 1 (2014) poke fun at the issue, depicting a café on a boat called “Star Fucks” instead of Starbucks. “There are a lot of serious issues in works like this but it’s conveyed in a humorous way,” he says. “People get the point, but they are smiling and laughing.”
Shao Wenhuan is among the few remaining photographers who spend hours shut away in a darkroom. An oil painter turned photographer, he’s known for his black-and-white prints that challenge perceptions of the medium. A professor at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, his pieces are collected by prominent figures such as Uli Sigg and he’s slowly gaining ground in the international art scene. Not unlike artists such as Sigmar Polke, his approach can be highly experimental.
Shao says he always felt restrained by painting but photography has afforded him newfound freedom and expanded his perspective. “It doesn’t represent the past or future – there’s a lot of uncertainty in the medium and that’s what makes me excited,” he says.
For one series, he dug up films from a decade ago, which he altered in a darkroom – a place he feels is filled with possibilities. “In the traditional sense, photographs show what the world looks like, but by intervening in the darkroom processes I can share how I see it,” he says. Playing with photographic emulsion, the liquid that forms the image, he altered the scenes of bamboo leaves and mountains to haunting effect.
“There’s a magic in photography that has kept me addicted,” says Cai Dongdong. A former photographer in the People’s Liberation Army, he would shoot up to 200 portraits of soldiers each day, holding his camera still for hours on end without a tripod. After leaving the army, he began his career as an artist – he’s represented by Blindspot Gallery in Hong Kong and Klein Sun Gallery in New York – and has gone on to become one of China’s most talked-about new talents.
Cai is best known for using vintage photographs from the Cultural Revolution to create photo sculptures or assemblages. He stumbled upon the idea to alter photographs and transform them into three-dimensional works by accident.
“At one point I wanted to give up photography,” he says. “I had a lot of photos collected so I started to tear them apart, but then I found the results were quite interesting. It started off when I found an image of a woman’s back and when I tore it I liked the silhouette.” After that incident he began creating pieces resulting from spontaneous acts such as shooting arrows, tearing photographs and even throwing a rock at his works.
He also began re-examining old photographs and incorporating humour and elements of the absurd into his work.
In Shooting Practice (2015), for instance, he added a mirror to an image of a man and woman clutching rifles poised to shoot. Adding a reflection creates the illusion that they’re pointing the guns at themselves. “It extends the image to change the original meaning,” he says, explaining this is something that characterises much of his work.
Artist duo Ji Weiyu and Song Tao first met when they were in high school in Shanghai. Ji went off to study at Central Saint Martins in London, but when he returned they decided to form a collective called Birdhead. “We shared the same interests in cameras, so very naturally we went out shooting together,” they say. “We created the collective to make something memorable.”
Birdhead shot to fame for their charming snapshot style images recording everyday life in their city. Their black-and-white images chronicle everything from mundane scenes of a potted plant to the rapid industrialisation of the Chinese metropolis. While they photograph scenes from contemporary life they also draw on their country’s heritage, including ancient poetry and traditional depictions of nature.
One of the biggest breakthroughs in their career came in 2011 when they exhibited at the Venice Biennale. They plastered 198 colour and black-and-white photographs chronicling their life, friends and artists in their hometown on the walls of the Arsenale. Titled Welcome to Birdhead’s World – Venice Project (2011), their images presented a raw, fresh perspective piercing through the city’s glossy facade. Asked to sum up their practice in two words, the duo responds poetically: “[It’s about] seeking and purity.”