The Chinese artist Miao Xiaochun and Shomei Tomatsu of Japan are photographers who depict their respective nations with an insider's sympathy. Xiaochun employs large-format photography and digital technology to give fresh life to old ways of painting. Beautiful and awesome, his work is wedded to history yet apart from it. Tomatsu has lived for extended periods in different parts of Japan, recording them in photographs that he publishes in books.
The Birth of "He"
"I can use photography -- a modern visual technology and medium -- to represent ideals in traditional Chinese art," says Xiaochun. "Although I'm not using traditional brush and paper, I can certainly enjoy traditional concepts and esthetic principles." Born in mainland China and twice rejected for art school, the artist went to Nanjing University where he majored in German. Unable to forget art, he earned a master's degree in art history from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, and then became a freelance painter for six years.
In 1995, an exchange program took Xiaochun to art school in Kassel, Germany, where he began to make photographs that were distinguished by the presence of a life-size mannequin, dressed in traditional Chinese attire and bearing the artist's own facial features. The artist calls this mannequin "He" and says that it represents both himself and China's highest cultural traditions. The photographs are not just disguised self-portraits, he says. They function visually if "He" is covered up.
Xiaochun's first "He" photographs, taken in Germany, suggest the artist's cultural isolation and his frequent inability to communicate his emotions in a foreign language. Starting in about 2002, Xiaochun began to make panoramic photographs of China with "He" in them. Taking multiple pictures of the same scene, he joined them seamlessly with digital technology to create images that honor China's painting traditions.
Capital(2003) is a vertical scroll-like C-print (8.5 ft. high x 2 ft. 8 in. wide) of a street scene in today's China. At the top of the picture is an office building with an advertising sign on its roof and another sign partly covering its faade. At ground level are more ads and inflatable New Year's decorations -- cartoon rams and parrots and a bright yellow arch with lettering on it. A double-decker bus speeds by in the street, its passage a blur. Bicyclists and pedestrians wait on the curb. Standing apart from them, "He" looks directly at the viewer. Nobody seems to notice the mannequin. In the foreground, a woman counts her cash after buying groceries. Four blurry men cross the plaza behind her.
As Xiaochun explains it, Capital is "close to a traditional hanging scroll in which images are depicted according to the principle of three distances' (san yuan), with a focus on high mountain peaks (gao yuan), the 'middle distance' scenery (zhong yuan) and the far-away vista (ping yuan)." If a conventional camera were used to take this picture, the woman in the foreground would be much larger, blocking the view behind her. The horizon would be in the middle of the composition.
"This goes against my intention to represent different views," he states. "So what I have done in this picture is to elevate the background and lower the figure in the foreground. The size and spatial relationship also change accordingly."
The "different views" in Capital seem stacked on top of each other -- the woman with the four men out of focus behind her; the pedestrians and "He" in focus with the blurry, fast-moving bus behind them; and the garish flat building faade in the background substituting for mountain peaks. "He" is inconspicuous, much like the sages and hermits who sit by caves and waterfalls in Chinese art.
Over the past 30 years, modern buildings have so rapidly supplanted traditional architecture in urban China that cities have lost their character and now look like stage sets. Mirage (2004) communicates Xiaochun's feelings of loss. This panoramic view of Wuxi, the town where the artist grew up, consists of eight C-print panels, almost six feet tall and more than 70 inches wide, installed side by side for a total width of more than 26 feet.
We look down on Wuxi from the hill where Xiaochun sat as a schoolboy when he made his first watercolor painting. Mirage "combines many individual shots," the artist explains, "I climbed the hill day after day, using two tripods to support a large-format camera with an enormous lens. The guard on the hill got to know me quite well."
The first thing we see in Mirage is a cable lift with a dark green support pillar and two orange cars passing each other. "He" rides in the car going uphill on the right and the artist stands with his back to us in the car going down. Beyond the lift are apartment buildings, factories, expressways, a suspended bridge and a river.
The city center in the far distance is all recent multi-story architecture. We notice the tip of a pagoda projecting up through the vegetation on a tree-covered hill in the right foreground. Beneath the trees is the city zoo, as yet un-modernized. There is so much detail in Mirage -- and so many ways we can look at it that it seems new every time we visit it.
In his latest work, Xiaochun retires "He." Celebration (2004) is a transparency, measuring more than five by seven feet, that shows the inauguration of a large Beijing real estate project. Celebration suggests "the momentary nature of contemporary events," the artist says.
From a high perspective, we see a complex of curtain-wall high-rises that would be at home in any U.S. city. On a stage at ground level, red-uniformed musicians play and dancers perform. A huge crowd fills the plaza and surrounds the stage. We see construction men -- or police --dressed in orange uniforms with bright yellow helmets and festive people who resemble U.S. football fans wearing silly hats and wigs.
Instead of showing the mannequin, says Xiaochun, Celebration often depicts the same person more than once, for example a journalist who photographs the scene from two or three vantage points. Celebration "conveys a different sense of reality because it represents the whole process of the event," says the artist. "He" is no longer necessary because "the connection between the photograph and traditional culture is found in the style of the photograph." In old Chinese paintings, a figure may appear several times, representing a sequence of events. The artist has absorbed this "pictorial language" or "style" into his work.
Ezra Pound once called artists "the antennae of the race." They understand the human spirit in ways that the rest of us do not -- and often issue prophetic statements. China is losing its soul to progress, and Miao Xiaochun evokes its great past in his art. We cannot praise this work enough.
Miao Xiaochun's exhibition, "Phantasmagoria," was on view Oct. 1-Dec 3, 2004, at Walsh Gallery in Chicago, Ill.