“The Chinese Photobook” runs at 798’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) until May 31, and a book by the same title will be published by New York’s Aperture. Both the exhibition and book should appeal greatly to visual learners young and old.
Exploring China’s modern history through the medium of the photobook, the exhibition showcases photobooks made in China or about China from the 1900s to the present.
A “photobook” can be defined as a book, with or without text, where photographs carry the primary message. Some books in the show stand out because of their artistic value, others have beautiful ornate covers or casings, and still others are interesting because of their historical content and introduction to an aspect of Chinese history we might not be familiar with.
The show has been divided into six sections, looking at historical periods including the late Empire and Republic, the Sino-Japanese War, the early years of the People’s Republic, the later Mao era, and the Reform and Opening period, with a special section of foreign-produced photobooks about China.
Captions in the show are in both English and Chinese. The exhibition also provides a small-scale library of photobooks which viewers can browse at their leisure. Take your older children and teenagers to this exhibit and experience the touch and feel of China’s bygone eras as well as a taste of the present.
The exhibition is the result of years of research and collecting of photobooks from around the world by Britain’s renowned photographer and current president of Magnum Photos International, Martin Parr. Realizing that there is a gap in is his collection he set out for Beijing with the hope of filling that gap. He started his search at the Panjayuan Antique Market in the south of the city and with the help of artist Ruben Lundgren was able to make the first purchases towards this project. Lundgren is the Beijing based artist of the Dutch photography team WassinkLundgren who are the co-curators of this show.
Co-curator Thjis groot Wassink pointed out, "While visiting the show we realize that photography is not neutral but is used to tell a particular story or promote a particular viewpoint." Good examples of this argument are photobooks created by the Japanese versus those created by the Chinese during the Sino-Japanese war.
When asked whether the show represents the “real” China, co-curator Wassink’s commented that "It does not and that it cannot." Look at the images and see if you agree with his view that photography only shows us a sliver of truth and not the full truth.
Photo: Courtesy of UCCA