Shanghai is a difficult city to know well. With the obvious language barriers and differences in taste and culture I have struggled to find photography exhibitions to view. This trip, however, I managed to locate a region of the city known as 'Creative Park M50'. M50 refers to No 50 Moganshan Road, an area of old warehouses that have been converted into stylish galleries for art. Even in this area there are only a few photography shows but I was lucky enough to find the m97 Gallery which specialises in contemporary photography. Even more fortunate was a chance encounter with Steven Harris, the Director of m97, who was kind enough to give me his thoughts on the work on display.
At the time I visited, m97 was showing a couple of solo exhibitions, one called 'Mood and Memory' by Chi Peng and another called 'Some Days' by Wang Ningde.
Chi Peng was born in 1981 and graduated from the Digital Media Department, Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, China in 2005 so he is a recent addition to the world of Contemporary Photography. Despite this he has had solo exhibitions in Berlin, Beijing and New York and participated in group exhibitions in many city including Vienna, Palm Beach, Seoul, Fukuoka Japan, Pompidou Centre France, to name just a few.
His work in this exhibition consisted of large-format panoramic photographs that represented surrealistic seascapes of his home town area. Digital composites of images, the scenes include wide expanses of sea with large flocks of seagulls dominating the centre of the photographs. The images invoked a dream like quality which represents Chi Peng's memories in narrative form displaying the fleeting emotions he has felt.
I certainly liked the grandeur of the images and was impressed with the scale and imagination that it took to create such large photographs. What I didn't like was some of the technical aspects of his work. Objects in his photographs are often repeated, for example, the birds in the flocks are cloned many times and just changed in scale or orientation to appear different rather than being individuals. This technique is also used in other images in a more obvious way. His photograph called 'Children in the Rye' and 'Catcher in the Rye' include many repeated areas, not only of the children and scarecrows but of the field of rye itself where stalks in the foreground can be seen repeated several times across the panorama. The photographer may have an emotional reason for this technique... a repeating dream thread or in the way his mind fills in the blank spaces of his memory but all I see is a laziness in his technique!
The work on display by Wang Ningde was disturbing. I find it great when a photograph can create real emotion even when it isn't always positive. Born in the early 70's, Wang Ningde entered the world shortly after the end of Mao's cultural revolution. With the freedom to explore artistic expression he chose, in this work, to examine his feelings towards those repressive days. Much of his work displays characters wearing Mao suits reflecting their thought of earlier times. All his images have eyes shut, apparently dreaming or in despair. The models are have ambiguous body language and are hard to interpret but all are meticulously posed by the photographer to reflect his emotional response.
Michael Wolf's Tokyo Compression series is, in comparison to some of the work described above, a wholly understandable and admirable theme of photographs. The theme came from a chance photograph he took of a person crushed against the steamy window of a train during the rush hour of Tokyo. He went on to create a whole series of images in the same theme and then revisited the subject a second time. The surrealistic look of these images are quite astounding. Although they are of people going about their normal daily routine, the anguish and, in come cases, pain of their journey is obvious from these images. I thought Wolf might have used models but am assured these are photographs of real travellers. Crushed against the carriage windows they display a kaleidoscope of attitudes to their discomfort, from stoical sufferance to despair. To achieve the surrealistic quality, Wolf has tended to focus on the wet surface of the windows with a very narrow depth of field, allowing the subject to drift into soft focus... very talented work.
Some of the work of Robert Vanderhilst Chinese Interiors was also on display and chatting to Stephen about it I discovered that this represented many years of work throughout China documenting the interiors of rooms. He captures a whole series of thought provoking images of people and their possessions from the lowly to the well off. Shot with available light he manages to compose many excellent still life images as well as fascinating views of the life styles of many Chinese. His work brought to mind the images of Russell Lee when he documented the Interior of a Black Farmer's House in 1939 and of Margaret Bourke-White who photographed a Sharecropper's Home, also during the great depresson.