When Fears Were Fictions- key visual2







IN ISAAC ASIMOV‘s classic short story Nightfall (1941) a distant civilization lives on a world of perpetual daylight, illuminated on all sides by six suns. Its citizens have never known darkness, yet predictions of a rare solar eclipse, and with it a few hours of nighttime, cause panic. The people have never known the stars or the infinite blackness of the universe and are so traumatized that society becomes paralyzed by superstition and weird religions before finally collapsing in anarchy and madness. The story was first published as the Second World War in Europe gathered pace, but for the Shanghai-based photographer Xiong Xiaomo (熊小默), Asimov’s vision of a civilization in crisis today seems more prescient than ever and provides the key inspiration for his series of night-time cityscapes When Fears Were Fictions (2009-2010).

Begun in 2008, the series focuses on Shanghai and Beijing as emblematic of the cycles of destruction and renewal that have transformed the character of urban life in China. His subjects are often down-at-heel housing blocks, decaying docklands and shabby industrial zones, beyond which can be seen the dazzling lights of vast construction sites and ultra-modern tower blocks. The sense of urgent transformation is magnified where long exposure times give dramatic intensity to nocturnal colours and an exaggerated impression of scale. This intensity is heightened by the works’ powerful geometry which in some cases lends the works a kind of abstraction. The result is a series of cityscapes that tremor with relentless energy and moral uncertainty.

When Fears Were Fictions #3 (Beijing) (2009), Xiong Xiaomo

When Fears Were Fictions #3 (Beijing) (2009) Xiong Xiaomo











When Fears Were Fictions #1 (Beijing) (2009), Xiong Xiaomo

When Fears Were Fictions #1 (Beijing) (2009), Xiong Xiaomo











Xiong Xiaomo was born in 1982 in Shanghai and attended the Publication College of Shanghai University of Science and Technology. From 2006 to 2010 he was chief editor of youth culture magazine M-Zone and in 2012 he was appointed founding editor-in-chief of iWeekly online magazine, which he conceived and set up for Modern Media, China’s largest privately-owned publishing group.

Xiong’s photography has been profiled in magazines including GQ China, Surface (China edition) and The Outlook magazine and has been presented in exhibitions including 1981 (2007) at ZhengDa Gallery, Shanghai; Campfire – Young Chinese Photography (2009) at No Space Gallery, Ningbo; the Lianzhou International Photography Festival 2010, and Tora, Tora, Tora – Cutting-Edge Chinese Photography, curated by the multimedia artist Zhao Zhao and included at the 2010 Caochangdi PhotoSpring festival in Beijing. In 2010 he received an Honorable Mention at the Epson Color Imaging Competition in Shanghai. His work is featured in the book Here Comes the Night (Thiaps, 2010).



HardPressed: Where does the title, When Fears Were Fictions, come from?

Xiong Xiaomo: I was obsessed with sci-fi writing during my teenage years. I was looking not just for imaginative mirages but also for a sense of the exotic or ‘alien’ in the present world. Asimov’s Nightfall, a novel about how an advanced civilization that has never experienced sunset collapses in one night because of its fear of the unknown darkness, is an important influence, but it’s also a mirror of my own fears. It’s awkward to admit nyctophobia and making this series was a way to confront this. So, the title is about my own fears but it could also be an alternative title for that novel.

HP: What inspired you to start this series?

XXM: My father used to work for a small library and he would bring home ‘retired’ books. We had no TV and I read through most of his collection, including several photo books. I was completely amazed by Brassaï‘s Paris de Nuit and its mystery and beauty inspired me to explore the cityscapes around me in Shanghai, even though I couldn’t then afford a camera. When finally I could, I started to collect different models and to experiment with the different effects they produced. Around 2007 I shifted from black-and-white to colour film, but the city has always been a constant theme.

When Fears Were Fictions #26 (Shanghai) (2009), Xiong Xiaomo

When Fears Were Fictions #26 (Shanghai) (2009), Xiong Xiaomo











When Fears Were Fictions #10 (Beijing) (2008), Xiong Xiaomo

When Fears Were Fictions #10 (Beijing) (2008), Xiong Xiaomo











HP: What were you looking for when you made these pictures?

XXM: I tried to capture Chinese cityscapes in the dead of night with very low light-and-dark contrast. Technically this helps to produce surreal atmospheres. One thing was very important for me; I wanted the scenes to be as anonymous as possible. Documentation was not my purpose. I was looking for contradictions between prosperity and desolation, collectiveness and solitude, the known and unknown. These images could be any city in China. They are familiar but unreal.

HP: Is the city a force for good or bad?

XXM: I was born and raised in one of the world’s biggest cities and have witnessed the greatest process of urbanization in the history of mankind. The cycle of creation and annihilation, as skylines go up and down, is both awe inspiring and horrifying. It’s not about good or bad, but [the city] represents a paradox for our civilization. It is mankind’s greatest creation but also the source of its ultimate destruction. I’m afraid I am not an optimist for humanity, but I feel lucky to have been born in this generation and to be a witness to what is happening now.

When Fears Were Fictions #29 (Shanghai) (2009), Xiong Xiaomo

When Fears Were Fictions #29 (Shanghai) (2009), Xiong Xiaomo











HP: Can photography be more than just a mechanical record of time and place?

XXM: Conventional theories encourage photographers to be as objective as possible. This is still a popular theory in China. But subject matter is a choice, framing is a choice and focusing is a choice. The photographer is not a passive observer. I certainly hope my works record something beyond time and space. By using different technologies and different techniques these works show views which do not exist. The colour of the sky and the land, the over-bright nights, the locations wiped of people are fictional. It’s a series of urbanscapes that can never exist in reality.


This article is adapted from the e-catalogue essay Nocturne, published by 3030Press to accompany the collection of works When Fears Were Fictions, available online at The e-catalogue can be downloaded here.

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A Few Hours in Hong Kong

Hong Kong Botoanical & Zoological Gardens

Hong Kong Zoological & Botanical Gardens

A two-minute walk up the hill from Central, past St. John’s Cathedral and the US Consulate is the Hong Kong Zoological & Botanical Gardens – the most soothing place downtown to while away a couple of hours between trains (or flights), or any other time.

Public Gardens early 20th century, incl. original fountain (now moved to the Protestant Cemetery in Happy Valley

Public Gardens, early 20th century, including original fountain (now moved to the Protestant Cemetery in Happy Valley)

The public gardens were opened in 1871 and today, although the trees are much bigger and the fountain has been updated a couple of times, it’s not much changed. The mammals section and aviaries were added in 1975.

George V still presides

George V presides

My favourite bits include the avenue of Gum Trees which is an original feature and the huge twisting Flame Trees which line the path near the entrance on Upper Albert Road. Just nearby is a mini Bamboo Garden which includes more than 20 different varieties found in the territory. The Magnolia Garden is spectacular in spring and summer but rather bare during winter.

Avenue of Gum Trees, now & then

Avenue of Gum Trees, now & then

Flame Trees near the gate on Upper Albert Road

Flame Trees near the gate on Upper Albert Road

Bamboo Garden

Bamboo Garden

On the terrace above is a mini garden of ornamental trees. My favourite is the Indian Almond Tree, which is especially dramatic in autumn and winter when its leaves turn a brilliant red. Another in my top ten is the Japanese Pagoda Tree, which has a delicate canopy of tiny pale green leaves. In China it’s also known as ‘The Guilty Scholar Tree’ after a historic Pagoda Tree in Beijing on which the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Chongzhen, hanged himself.

Indian Almond Tress

Indian Almond Tree

Japanese Pagoda Tree

Japanese Pagoda Tree

The mammals tend to catch most of the attention.  When I turned up WaWa, the baby orangutan, was taking the air and we caught up for a handshake. I also like to visit the lemurs who’re always good for a lark, although maybe the cool weather caused them to be in pensive mood when I dropped by.

WaWa and a Human

WaWa & friend

Three Pensive Lemurs

Three pensive lemurs

Macaques, mother & baby

Mother & baby macaques

Exiting via the gate on Glenealy gives a stroll past dense bamboo and towering palms and one particularly massive fig tree (sadly not pictured).  For anyone with a little time to spare I’d definitely recommend it.

Avenue of bamboo & Palm

Avenue of bamboo & palm

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Night Train to Hong Kong


Somewhere in Zhejiang Province, around midnight

After stricter visa regulations were introduced in China last autumn I was expecting a lot more foreign faces on the overnight train to Hong Kong. Tighter limits introduced last September restrict all Europeans and N. Americans not on a sponsored visa to a 30-day visit only. For some it also means applying for a completely new visa every 30 days – with no guarantee that it will be granted.

Maybe they’re just a lot more organized than I am, however. I only realized on Tuesday I had 72 hours remaining before I needed to cross the border and get my passport stamped.

Normally I would have opted for a cheap fight but at such short notice the train was the only option. A round-trip ticket for the 2,500km journey costs a little over USD130, which is not bad value if you don’t mind just under 40 hours on a hard sleeper. As it turned out return tickets must be booked in advance and all the hard sleepers were taken by the time I got to Shanghai North Station, so for an extra CNY300 I reserved a soft sleeper instead.


Bording at Shanghai North Station

02. Cabin

My cabin

I’d not done an over nighter for a long time and was quite excited at the prospect. Long-distance train travel has a unique place in modern Chinese culture. Every Lunar New Year festival millions ride the rails from the cities where they work back to home towns in distant provinces. As a result the Chinese care passionately about their trains and nothing sours the national mood quicker than late arrivals and accidents.  Little wonder the authorities are careful to ensure that China’s rail network is among the world’s safest and most efficient.


Waking up in Guangdong Province

Early morning somewhere in Guangdong

Early morning somewhere in Guangdong

Unlike flying, travelling by train gives a real sense of China’s scale. It’s an extraordinary experience to go to sleep with dripping-cold Shanghai outside the window and wake up with the banana palms and paddy fields of Guangdong flashing by. Perhaps it’s partly this that gives people here such a strong sense of national identity.


Travelling through Guangdong Province


Travelling through Guangdong Province

The other striking feature is the strong sense of community.  In the UK passengers typically tolerate each other for the duration of their journey. Yet in China there is a jolly camaraderie to the experience. The train can sometimes feel like a small village on wheels, with the smell of hot food and loud card games up and down the corridor. So long as your cabin door is open it’s not unusual for someone to poke their head in for a chat. The restaurant car around 11pm was raucous and thick with cigarette smoke and plenty of beer and wine being consumed. The only option is to dive in.


Arriving at Guangzhou East Station – 2 hours to the border

After just over 19 hours and a fitful night’s sleep our train pulled into Hung Hom station in Hong Kong four minutes ahead of schedule. Fresh bedding was delivered and the restaurant car was again orderly after the previous night’s festivities. I got a call later the previous evening to say I was booked on a flight back to Shanghai the following evening, so there was no need to buy a return ticket. On the one hand this was a relief. Nineteen hours seemed to pass quickly but it’s still a long time. Nevertheless, the journey has stoked my enthusiasm for China’s long-haul trains and I’ve already begun promoting the idea among friends for a three-night train journey to Lhasa in the spring.

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GOING HOME. Photography by Mu Ge


In his series of black-and-white photographs entitled Going Home Mu Ge explores the impact of industrialization on his hometown of Chongqing and the nearby regions along the Yangtze River. Today this is one of the most industrialized regions on the planet and in Going Home, which was completed over five years between 2005 and 2010, he documents the human and environmental cost of this expansion, especially for those communities displaced by construction of the Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2006.


Mu’s black-and-white treatment gives an elegiac poignancy to many of his portraits in which the people appear bewildered or stunned to silence. The landscape is a persistent theme yet one in which a tension seems to exist between man and nature. Heaps of rotting concrete and vistas of churned mud enforce this feeling of dislocation and perhaps suggest a population for who the environment has become a hostile or alien place, heavy with loss and decay. In other images forests and dramatic river valleys are shown shrouded in heavy mists, as if a half-remembered, distant memory.


Mu Ge was born in 1979 in Chongqing and graduated from Sichuan Normal University in 2004 with a degree in Broadcasting and Television Directing. He has has participated in festivals including PhotoOff 2011 (Paris), Savignano Immagini – La Fotografia 2010 (Italy), Caochangdi PhotoSpring 2010 (Beijing) Arles Photography Festival (2010) and Format International Photography Festival Biennale 2009 (UK). His work was also included in the group exhibition Rising Dragon: Contemporary Chinese Photography at the Katonah Museum, New York (25 Mar-2 Sept, 2012), Krannert Art Museum, Illinois (12 Oct-30 Dec, 2012) and San Jose Museum of Art (2 Feb-30 June, 2013). In 2011 he was nominated for the Foam Paul Huf Award in the Netherlands.

Selected images from Going Home are published by JiaZaZhi Press as a limited edition book of 600 signed and numbered copies. See more at








All photos courtesy of the artist.


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Brothers & Sisters


Twenty-six years ago this week a musical landmark was made. Maybe for some there was already a feeling that something big was coming, but when in the first week of September 1987 “Pump Up the Volume” first breached the UK charts at no.35, for most people it came like a streaking meteor across a clear blue sky.

The track, composed by M/A/R/R/S, a fractious and short-lived collaboration between the two British bands AR Kane and Colourbox, built on the stripped back, electro-infused sound pioneered by DJs in the US who were re-editing disco, funk and hip hop tunes to create more danceable club music; what became known as House.

Almost exactly twelve months earlier in September 1986 the mainstream success of Love Can’t Turn Around by Farley Jackmaster Funk, and in January 1987 Jack Your Body by Steve “Silk” Hurley, had set the stage. Yet where both of these tracks little altered the minimal feel of their House club roots, PUTV added a richer density of sound, crisp production and accelerated sense of purpose that seemed to exist one step beyond anything that had yet been tried.

That its mastermind should be Ivo Watts-Russell, co-founder of the post-punk indie label 4AD, up to that point best-known for the swirly, atmospheric debut album by the Cocteau Twins, Garlands, and the Goth-inspired “dream band” This Mortal Coil, only adds another unlikely twist to the tale.

PUTV was first released in late July 1987, initially as an anonymous white label distributed to selected clubs in the UK. The following month, on August 24, it received general release as a 12” double A-side with the track Anitina. Yet it was the launch one week later of a 7” radio edit that captured wide radio airplay and helped it achieve massive mainstream success.

In so doing it lit the touch paper, not only for the existing dance scene, but also for the legions of would-be djs, bands and musicians in suburban bedrooms and garages, from the UK to the US, who would go on to create genres such as acid house and rave, among others.

In all, the original UK version contains samples from 25 different tracks. The range of samples was altered for the radio edit and later US versions. And while the basic drum sequencing and guitars were original creations, some of the tracks most recognizable motifs were added by DJ producer Dave Dorrell, not least the vocal sample “Pump up the volume” itself, which is taken from Erik B. & Rakim’s slouchy hip-hop icon Paid in Full, which had been released only weeks before PUTV on July 7, 1987. Both in turn borrowed heavily from Coldcut’s Say Kids What Time Is It? , also released in 1987.

Other defining elements include samples from the Criminal Element Orchestra’s Put the Needle to the Record (1976) and the squelchy moog and drum and cowbells from The Bar-Kays’ Holy Ghost (1979), which is similarly used on PUTV as a mid-track climax. Yet it was the scratch effects contributed by DJ Chris “C.J.” Macintosh that provided the final irresistible lift.

The M/A/R/R/S alchemy was not to last long. A profound clash of styles and approach between Alex Ayuli and Rudy Tambala of AR Kane and brothers Martyn and Steve Young of Colourbox, ensured that PUTV would be the band’s one and only release. Its effect, however, was far reaching.

While the release of PUTV caught the mainstream music industry looking the other way, it struck an immediate chord with indie labels and artists. Tracks such as Theme From S-Express (1987) by S-Express and Beat Dis (1987) by Bomb the Bass appeared over the following months and bore an obvious similarity. Yet its shadow can be detected in the work of numerous other musicians and DJs over the years that followed, the best known of which range from Voodoo Ray (1988) by A Guy Called Gerald and 808 State’s Pacific State (1989) to Hey Boy Hey Girl (1999) by the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim’s debut studio album Better Living Through Chemistry (1996), among dozens, if not hundreds of others.

Music consumption today has altered beyond recognition. The world has moved on. And while DJs and musicians now are no less inventive it’s debatable that a single track could again achieve such massive impact and influence. Certainly the technology is all there. All that’s needed are the right people, in the right place, at precisely the right moment.

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On En Ning Road

Cantonese opera master, Huang Bing Jie, at his studio on En Ning Road, Guangzhou

Cantonese opera master, Huang Bing Jie, puts a pupil through his paces at an opera studio on En Ning Road, Guangzhou




Early spring in Guangzhou brings the bougainvillea into fresh bloom. Along the streets of the old town knotted banyan trees twist their heads and murmur to each other above the bustle of jumbled street markets.

Such scenes captivated the first European traders, who began arriving in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, sniffing out new markets along the Pearl River. More than five hundred years before it was an inspiration for the Song dynasty (960-1279) literati Su Shi, who, when asked by the abbot of the Jingshui monastery to suggest a name for his temple, proposed Temple of the Six Banyans. The temple, and the name, remains today and is located on the western edge of Haizhu district, which together with Liwan district make up the old town.

As with so many cities in China, however, old Guangzhou is under increasing pressure. Today, progress is measured in new office and apartment blocks, and the shaded streets with their tall shops houses and unhurried street life occupy prime downtown real estate.

A new photo book, entitled En Ning, captures the character and communities of this area before proposed redevelopment alters it for good.

The book focuses on En Ning Road, which lies to the south of Liwan district, formerly known as “Xiguan”, or West Gate, and runs for just over a kilometer between Baohua Street and the new pedestrian zone of Shangxiajiu to the east. Many of the buildings here date from the 1930s when En Ning was the focus for a bustling community of  traders and artisans, particularly metal workers who were well known throughout the city for their brass, bronze and copper wares.

The passage of time and the annual floods, which until the 1980’s saw parts of En Ning ankle-deep in river water during the rainy season, have softened the stiff geometry of the Art Deco facades. Here and there sprays of greenery sprout from the guttering and fallen clumps of plaster reveal crumbling brickwork.

Echoes of En Ning’s old life remain, however. One image from the book shows Mr Su, who sits in front of his shop in one of En Ning’s arcades. Su Shao Wei learned copper working as a teen and today, past 60, still works from the same street-side space. Trade has dropped off in recent years, he admits, and most of his customers are now tourists looking for mementos. He is worried what will happen to his livelihood when redevelopment finally takes place.

In another photo a young pupil is put through his exercises by Mr. Huang at a Cantonese opera studio. En Ning is home to the famous Yue Opera Company. Previously, it was one of several opera companies found here. Today it is the last and is based just up the road at the Behe Huiguan Hall, where it was founded in the late 1800s.

Recent years have seen a revival of traditional Chinese opera as a new generation tries to connect with traditional local folk art and culture, previously suppressed or discouraged until the beginning of reforms in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Like all forms of Chinese opera, Yue is based on classic scenes from Chinese history or traditional myths, and combines highly formalized elements of poetry, singing, martial arts, gesture and costume, which vary according to different regional forms. Yue opera originated in Zhejiang province and is distinctive for its focus on love stories. During the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s it achieved massive popularity, particularly in Shanghai. Today it’s reckoned there are more than 300 types of Chinese opera.

Like his father before him, Huang Bing Jie learned Yue opera as a child and today is proud to pass on his knowledge. However, he says he misses the old days when the sounds of rehearsals and performances up and down the nearby streets and in the teahouses provided the everyday soundtrack to life on En Ning Road.

En Ning is published by Big Head Photo, a mini publishing house that was set up in 2012 in Guangzhou by the husband-and-wife team Jiang Yanmei and Chen Wenjun, both of who are photographers. So far they have published three books, all of which focus on the local communities in Guangzhou. Books by Big Head Photo are unavailable outside of China. See more pics at the 3030Press Facebook page. Find En Ning (priced US$10) at

Su Ying Min in the bronze ware shop on En Ning Road. He recently took over the business from his father.

Su Ying Min in the family bronze ware shop on En Ning Road. He recently took over the business from his father.

Inside Mr. Guo's barber shop on En Ning Road, Guangzhou.

Inside Mr. Guo’s barber shop on En Ning Road, Guangzhou.

Huang Xin Xin, whose father owns a book store on En Ning Road. Dreams of one day becoming a painter.

Huang Xin Xin, whose father owns a book store on En Ning Road. One day she hopes to become a painter.

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High Anxiety

Zhang Xioagang, 'Big Family - Subway' (2004) (detail)

Zhang Xioagang, ‘Big Family – Subway’ (2004) (detail)











For more than half a century Mao Zedong’s impassive visage has presided over the Tiananmen Gate in the centre of Beijing. It is by far the best-known portrait in modern China and an icon of national consciousness and political power. Today images of Mao turn up everywhere; in government buildings, schools, restaurants and barbers shops, as well as on the country’s banknotes. Yet in the mammoth exhibition Portrait of the Times: 30 Years of Chinese Contemporary Art, which opened on August 18 at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai, he is nowhere to be seen.

For a show that sets out to profile the psychology of modern China through three decades of portraiture this is a strange absence, made more so for the frequency with which his image has been appropriated and parodied by so many Chinese artists, notably those of the Post ‘85 New Wave Movement. Yet this is not the only curatorial quirk in what is one of the largest surveys of Chinese contemporary art to take place on the mainland since 1989 China / Avant-Garde, held in 1989 at the National Art Gallery in Beijing.

As befits one of country’s largest new art museums, the exhibition is organized on a grand scale. More than 300 works by 118 of the country’s most illustrious contemporary artists are spread through the vast spaces of the Power Station of Art, which opened in October 2012 in a converted electricity plant on the banks of the Huangpu River in Shanghai and is an eerie echo of London’s Tate Modern.

Gu Wenda, 'The United Nations -- Human Space' (1999-2000)

Gu Wenda, ‘The United Nations — Human Space’ (1999-2000)

Gu Wenda, 'The United Nations - Human Space' (1999-2000)

Gu Wenda, ‘The United Nations – Human Space’ (1999-2000)











The tone is set right at the beginning in the entrance foyer with Gu Wenda’s colossal installation The United Nations – Human Space (1999-2000). The piece was originally created for the Gwangju Biennale in 2000 and takes the form of a monumental pagoda  made out of burlap and suspended from the ceiling more than 25 meters above. A mosaic of 188 national flags makes up the sweeping upturned curves of its roof and short texts in different languages acknowledge diversity at the same time as they tacitly announce China’s new place in the international family.

Portrait of the Times, installation view. From left: Zhang Peili, 'Uncertain Pleasure' (1996); Zhang Huan, 'My New York' (2002); Xiang Jing, 'An Open Woman' (2006); Deng Jianjin, 'No.11 A Repertoire for a Kinky Fantasy Maker' (2013); Deng Jianjin, 'How Does Sunset Make Us So Charming', undated

Portrait of the Times, installation view. From left: Zhang Peili, ‘Uncertain Pleasure’ (1996); Zhang Huan, ‘My New York’ (2002); Xiang Jing, ‘An Open Woman’ (2006); Deng Jianjin, ‘No.11 A Repertoire for a Kinky Fantasy Maker’ (2013); Deng Jianjin, ‘How Does Sunset Make Us So Charming’, undated










This grand scale is often repeated in the exhibition, one feels as much to take up space as to awe the viewer into submission; from Xiang Jin’s gigantic corpulent fiberglass sculpture An Open Woman (2006) and Liu Xiaodong’s series of 17 life-size portraits of soldiers from Taiwan and mainland China, to Fang Lijun’s two monochromatic paintings 2003.2.1 and 1999.3.1, both of which measure more than seven meters in length and hang side by side in one of the first floor galleries. The effect of so many massive works can be exhausting.

This fetish for bigness is mirrored by the breadth of material on offer, much of which has been gathered from museums and private collections in China by the exhibition curator Li Xu. Li is well used to events of this scale having previously been chief curator at the Shanghai Art Museum and an organizer for the Shanghai Biennale.

Here, he arranges the works in five themed segments: Specific Human, Social Identity, Inner World, Body Imagery, and Survival in the Future. The composition of each is therefore a matter of curatorial whim rather than chronology and the results can sometimes feel muddled.

Wang Guanyi, 'Great Criticism - Time' (1998)

Wang Guangyi, ‘Great Criticism – Time’ (1998)









Wang Guanyi, 'Great Criticism - Time' (1998) (detail)

Wang Guanyi, ‘Great Criticism – Time’ (1998) (detail)

Wang Guanyi, 'Great Criticism - Time' (1998) (detail)

Wang Guanyi, ‘Great Criticism – Time’ (1998) (detail)











Despite such question marks, Li achieves an eye-popping roster of big-hitters. Walking the halls can feel like the curator has simply shaken out the images from a textbook; there’s one of Yue Minjun’s pink grimacing self portraits; Zhang Peili’s scratchy 10-channel video installation Uncertain Pleasure (1996); Wang Guanyi’s Pop-inspired propaganda painting Great Criticism – Time (1997); a lavish six-panel painting from Zhang Xiaogang’s Big Family series; three life-size Mask paintings by Zeng Fanzhi; 12 photographs from Qiu Zhijie’s Tattoo series, and a vast four-meter print of Zhang Huan’s famous performance My New York, which was created for the Whitney Biennial in 2000 and featured the artist wearing his ‘steak suit’. (Now where could Lady Gaga have got the idea for that dress??)

Zhang Xioagang, 'Big Family - Subway' (2004)

Zhang Xioagang, ‘Big Family – Subway’ (2004)








Zhang Xioagang, 'Big Family - Subway' (2004) (detail).JPG

Zhang Xioagang, ‘Big Family – Subway’ (2004) (detail).JPG

Zhang Xioagang, 'Big Family - Subway' (2004) (detail).JPG

Zhang Xioagang, ‘Big Family – Subway’ (2004) (detail).JPG











The list goes on – and on and on. I’m no insurance expert but a reasonable guess would put the cumulative value of the exhibition at several hundred million dollars.

Yang Fuding, 'International Hotel Series' (2010)

Yang Fudong, ‘International Hotel Series’ (2010)











Picking a few works that stand out above the others is no simple feat. But for me, the multimedia artist Yang Fudong occupies a serene space all his own. His life-size, black-and-white photo portraits International Hotel Series (2010), which show bathing beauties at a hotel swimming pool, have the polish of a high-end fashion magazine, yet somehow manage to exist outside of  time and fashion. Little wonder Prada commissioned the artist to make a promotional film for them in 2010, entitled First Spring.

Yang Fudong, 'Backyard - Hey, Sun is Rising' (2000)

Yang Fudong, ‘Backyard – Hey, Sun is Rising’ (2000)








It is a sensation repeated in his poetic video installation Backyard – Hey, Sun is Rising! (Hou Fang – Hei, Tian Liang Le) (2000), in which the artist disassembles narrative structure and cultural motifs to suggest inner conflict and existential doubt.

That such anxiety should pervade so many works here is maybe unsurprising given the massive changes that have transformed China from top to bottom in the past few decades.

Yang Shaobin, 'Untitled' (2011)

Yang Shaobin, ‘Untitled’ (2011)








Yang Shaobin, 'Untitled' (2011)  (detail)

Yang Shaobin, ‘Untitled’ (2011) (detail)

Yang Shaobin, 'Untitled' ( 2011) (detail)

Yang Shaobin, ‘Untitled’ ( 2011) (detail)











It is something evident in the scrabbling, gnawing figures of Yang Shaobin’s Untitled 2011 and Geng Jianyi’s famous painting Second State (1987), in which the open-mouthed, laughing faces seem more like a parody of mirth. Time and again the impression is of a society struggling to touch spiritual and moral bedrock in a world spinning ever faster beyond the limits of tradition and the individual.

Geng Jianyi, 'The Second State' (1987)

Geng Jianyi, ‘The Second State’ (1987)








Ironically, however, it is a disquiet expressed most eloquently by what is not shown. On the one hand the absence of the Great Helmsman strikes an awkward note given his enduring legacy in Chinese life and art. On the other is the gaping, if predictable void where Ai Weiwei might be. For, as much as any artist represented here, he remains a vital part of any history of contemporary art in China. Such omissions loom as large as any monumental installation, and perhaps say a lot more.

Portrait of the Times: 30 Years of Chinese Contemporary Art is on at the Power Station of Art, Shanghai, until November 10.


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