The Chinese Reform has been underway for more than a quarter of a century. This historical social transformation is one in which all of Chinese society is moving toward urbanization. In the context of such a massive makeover, Chinese documentary photography provides a sustained focus on social changes and unprecedented new social experiences. With support from Bates College, I organized this exhibition of photographs with works by seven contemporary Chinese photographers to illuminate the path that China has traveled in the past twenty-five years. The exhibition is intended to illustrate changes in Chinese society to an American audience.
The photographs by the painter Liu Xiaodi were taken in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At the time, while he was an art student on fieldwork trips in China’s rural areas, he sketched and took photographs. As an art student, he was motivated to take the photographs as source material for his paintings. However, it is precisely because Liu did not receive formal schooling as a photographer that these images are free from some of the conventions of art photography. Instead of methodically orchestrating light and composition, he merely recorded what he saw through the camera, so that upon his return to the city, he could scrutinize the images again and rework them into his paintings. Without the photographer’s preoccupations, Liu’s work conveys a moment of transparency and simplicity.
Village (series), 1978-1979
Untitled (no. 1)
I place Liu at the beginning of the exhibition because his images of Chinese rural life retain the traces of a society bound by the social structure and lifestyles of the Maoist era. Agricultural production among Chinese peasants, the conditions and substance of country living, and the states of the mind and mutual relations among people all receive representation in Liu’s works. The photographs that he originally took for his painting projects made him an accidental witness to a...
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