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Florida Museum of Photographic Arts exhibits bold Chinese photography

TAMPA

Our planet seems a very small place these days, with few brave new worlds left to discover.

Thank goodness for art.

In that sphere, we can always find something that opens our eyes and minds to alternative possibilities. Take Chinese photography, a hot global commodity (like contemporary Chinese art in general), examples of which can be seen at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts on loan from collector William Knight Zewadski and Eli Klein Fine Art, a New York gallery.

It's bold. Fearless in some cases.

And even feral, like those occasionally discovered individuals or tribes who have had no contact with fellow humans.

Until fairly recently, modern China has had little discourse with global art movements. It has a rich tradition of art, some of the oldest and most beautiful in the world. But art as an expression of a personal and creative ego has been largely absent throughout the nation's history, which has been defined mostly by authoritarian rule of one type or another. Any emerging cults of individualism in the 20th century were effectively quashed during the first several decades of Communist rule beginning in the 1950s.

Hope springs eternal, and so does the creative spirit. Along with reforms instituted in the 1980s, exposure to Western art was introduced in academies. Works from the mid 1990s, the earliest in this show, indicate how profoundly the exposure affected young artists. They seemed to be making up for lost time, combining their classical, painterly training with performance art that they married to photography.

The East Village was the name given to a slum on the outskirts of Beijing where they lived in a sort of collaborative collective. The name was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the New York neighborhood made famous in the 1950s for its concentration of artists.

A number of performance pieces were conceived in Beijing's East Village and made famous when documented by photographs. The names are now familiar to anyone with passing knowledge of contemporary Chinese art.

Zhang Huan is the most visceral of the group, using themes involving masochism, suffering and endurance as metaphors for China's national human rights ills. In Twelve Square Meters (1994), he slathered his body with fish oil and honey, then spent an hour in the filthy public toilet of his neighborhood as flies covered his body. A photograph of the performance by Rong Rong, another artist, is in this show.

Ma Liuming was another controversial artist of that time. He, too, based his performances on nudity, public displays of which were taboo. Yet his works are more personal, using his androgyny (a delicately boned face that, with makeup, appears female, and male genitals) to celebrate the beauty of the human form and assail public hypocrisy about it. He has performed much of his art using a persona called Fen-Ma Liuming, adding the prefix that is often used as a synonym for "woman."

After spending several months in jail for nude performances, he returned to his village and created The Lunch, in which he cooks in a public square, nude of course, some of the wretched food he was served while incarcerated. In another work, he walks along the Great Wall without clothes or shoes, tearing up his feet. It has become one of the most memorable works in contemporary Chinese art, an embrace of one's heritage blended with a protest against the strictures one inherits from it.

All performances were recorded for posterity by other artists who share the credit on wall labels. The use of photography in this way is unusual since performance art, by Western standards, is meant to be temporary. But the Chinese artists realized the value of extending its life, sort of like carryover heat. The photographs serving that purpose become art in and of themselves. (Prints now sell for thousands of dollars.) And the desire to preserve can be seen in the context of a country in which thousands of years of history can be officially erased in a few years in the name of enlightenment and progress.

Liu Zheng's approach seems more in the tradition of documentary photography. His black-and-white silver prints are mostly portraits of Chinese from different social and economic strata, from Two Rich Men on New Year's Eve looking like masked fat cats to Two Miners, scrawny and haunted, in a public bath. You'll see a bit of Diane Arbus' subversion in them.

Recent works are different, indicating just how far the medium has progressed. Pan Yue's large, gorgeous color prints borrow not from his Chinese past but from the West's. Time Transfixed appropriates a famous surrealist steam engine painting by Magritte, and Train Station Stories takes its inspiration from the historic photograph of an 1895 train wreck in Paris. Zhang Peng's Goldfish is one of a series in which little girls are garishly made up and posed in provocative settings. In this case, she sits with a birthday cake, frosted in technicolors, holding a bloody knife, surrounded by dead goldfish. Its fetish vibe deals more directly with Western influences (the makeup and cake), that can have a more mortal effect on Chinese traditions (suggested by the dead goldfish, standing in for the ornamental carp, beloved for centuries in China).

The new photographs seem more liberated, but China is still a repressive place for artists. The young people who braved real physical threats 20 years ago are now famous enough to be left alone by the government, as are most of the other artists exhibiting here. And most have become wealthy. I doubt anyone will begrudge them such hard-earned success.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

Contemporary Chinese Photography

The exhibition is at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, 200 N Tampa St., Tampa, through May 9. Also on view is "My Florida Home: Recent Works by Benjamin Dimmitt." Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Suggested $4 donation. (813) 221-2222; fmopa.org.

Florida Museum of Photographic Arts exhibits bold Chinese photography 03/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2009 4:30am]

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