Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Alternatives to Social Realism in Photography

The Chinese Conceptual Photography Group Exhibition, in Avant Gallery now (Jan 18 to Feb 28), gave me the same feeling as the Chinese photographic exhibition in the Institute of Photography last year. The photos felt derivative, and the concepts thin.

One group featured a full-costumed opera actress superimposed on industrial or urban landscapes: the incongruity of tradition and modernity. In another group of photos, a boy and a girl, wearing the red scarf of Communist Youth, looked out of faces painted like Chinese landscape scrolls.

For me, the photos lacked formal interest. Superimposition of images can be an interesting method. I remember Kara Walker's black cutouts of black men and women superimposed on conventional pictorial narratives of American history. The cutouts were both form and stereotype, both childlike and rigorous. Each black shape, stuck on top of the mostly white page, commented on and revised that page in a particular and thoughtful way.

The strongest image of the Chinese Group Exhibition was the left hand of Sheng Qi who cut off his little finger to protest the Tiananmen massacre. Against a crimson background, the mutilated palm held up a miniaturized black and white photograph of his family, or other similar photos. The mutilation thus became a stage or a frame in which to examine and value the family in the photo. The photo nested in the slope of the wounded palm. In this age of digital photography, in which photos can be altered so radically, it came as a shock to learn that the mutilation was not a digital trick.

The James Bidgood exhibition, in CLAMPART Gallery, provided another alternative to social realist photography. Instead of concepts and political critique, the Bidgood photos offered fantasy.

Taken in the 1960s and restored digitally, the photos showed boys dressed up as figures from myths, legends and stories—-Pan, Aladdin, aqua-men—-in fantastic and exotic settings like a magical forest or a canopied four-poster bed or under the sea. The locations were set up in the narrow confines of Bidgood’s Hell's Kitchen tenement apartment. The photos were self-consciously campy; the settings, costumes, hair and make-up were glamorously detailed.

I was asked which I preferred: the realistic photographs of suburban folk seen in another gallery or Bidgood’s stagings of his fantasies. Realism or Fantasy? The truth was I liked some, but not all, of the realist photographs, and the same went for Bidgood. I don’t see fantasy as necessarily regressive or conservative. Bidgood’s fantasies were so richly imagined (for instance, Pan’s goatish leg was cleverly simulated by a rope-net) that they acquired aesthetic force. The force I did not find in the politically progressive photographs of the Chinese artists.

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