Banned in 1999, a Legendary Chinese Photography Show Is Restaged

Sam Gaskin
Sep 18, 2018 5:01PM

Chen Xiaoyun, The Holiday of Fish. Courtesy of the artist and ShanghART Gallery.

Everything was in place for “The Same But Also Changed” (物是人非), an artist-organized photo exhibition in a Xuhui basement that should have taken place from September 4–6, 1999. No one advertized the show—the audience for contemporary photography in China was largely friends and family back then, anyway—but authorities nevertheless got wind of it, and, on the afternoon of the exhibition’s first day, shut it down.

The show would have been historic: one of the first to focus on experimental contemporary photography in Shanghai with 15 then–under-the-radar artists taking part. Many of those artists have gone on to become household names of Chinese contemporary art, and a selection of them will present works at the Shanghai Exhibition Center this week, in a recreation of “The Same But Also Changed” for the Insights section of Photofairs Shanghai.  

None of the artists were surprised when the original show was shut down. Exhibitions were regularly being shuttered at the time. “I was prepared for this circumstance,” said Chen Xiaoyun, one of the artists who took part. Before everyone could be kicked out, he said, “I immediately browsed the works of other artists at the exhibition after I heard the news.”

Among the images was Chen’s own photograph of miniature figures set against unnerving landscapes—a couple drinking tea inside a gutted fish, a fisherman pushing a small boat into the joint of a butchered bone. There was Hu Jieming’s wry, anti-consumerist diptych of women staring at a man’s crotch, only to discover, from the reverse angle, the labels of fashion brands—Calvin Klein, Versace, DKNY, and so on—clustered over his fly in place of a bulge. Yang Zhenzhong’s Cycle Aerobics I (1999) featureda montage of lovers sharing a bike in myriad positions; like something straight out of a rom-com, they were suggestive somehow of both innocence and sex positions.


For his work, Xu Zhen, another artist from the original show, used pictures of different bends of the human body to create a full circle. He called the image Sewer (1999).

“There were no art institutions and museums supporting us then,” recalled Xu. “We, the young artists at that time, were all looking for our own venues, and everyone put money in the show to cover the costs. After the exhibition got cancelled, we started to plan the next exhibition.”

An artist-led exhibition that didn’t happen is perhaps a peculiar lens to put on a big, commercially successful art fair. Photofairs Shanghai is celebrating its fifth edition this year, making it one of the longest-running contemporary art fairs in mainland China. The West Bund Art & Design fair, for comparison, also turns five this year, while ART021 is turning six (both will take place in Shanghai the week of November 4th).

Victor Wang, the curator of Photofairs Shanghai’s Insights section, said he used what little documentation remains of the original exhibition “to explore and bring to light the ‘unofficial’ history of contemporary art in China, and to consider the unique conditions in which not just photography, but China’s contemporaneity was developed.”

Yang Zhenzhong, Cycle Aerobics I, 1999. © Yang Zhenzhong. Courtesy of the artist and ShanghART Gallery.

The section includes works from the original show, newer works by the same artists, and pieces by a new generation of Chinese artists who are in dialogue with them in various ways—notably on the issue of censorship.

Highlights include a site-specific installation using Post-it notes printed with photographs by Xu Zhen; Hu Jieming’s “Postcards” series (2002), in which he remixes Chinese landmarks with his own images; and Miao Ying’s Content-Aware, the Five Pillars of Awareness: Reclaiming Ownership of Your Mind, Body and Future (2016), a large installation that utilizes what she described to me in a previous interview as her “tacky Taobao aesthetic,” referring to the e-commerce site that helped make vast numbers of Chinese people virtual shopkeepers. Ying’s installation is composed of wall-sized, digitally printed landscapes with supersaturated blue skies, green grass, and fluffy white clouds—the sort of scene found on Windows desktops, the billboards around Chinese construction sites, and nowhere else in urban China. The words “Reclaiming Ownership of Your Mind, Body and Future” are printed over the scene, satirizing the slogans the Chinese Communist Party tags all over the country.

Photography is a medium that can make authoritarian regimes anxious—news organizations use it to shed light on injustices, and even as documentation of art performances, it can look a lot like protest. So what makes it okay to show images at Photofairs Shanghai that couldn’t be viewed at “The Same But Also Changed” in 1999?

One possibility is that the government has realized that the appearance of greater freedom—while substantive dissent remains tightly circumscribed—helps legitimize its policies and cement its power. Another is that the art world has learned to operate in a way that less often falls afoul of government standards.

“In the art world, there has been no event that goes against the authorities for many years,” Chen said. “There were no heroes or legends; there were commercialized performances.”

Chen is ambivalent about the degree to which artists are responsible for standing up to censorship. “The most important thing for good artists is their purpose in making art, which should be resisting the mediocrity of life,” he said.

Wang pointed out that censorship is pervasive and cross-cultural. “In the ’90s in China, your exhibition may be censored if you showed a nude image, yet today in 2018, on the largest image sharing platforms in Euro-America, such as Facebook or Instagram, the same policies apply,” he said. Images that do not meet the platforms’ community guidelines (including nudes) are taken down, and repeat offenders can have their accounts closed or suspended.

Art is typically given more freedom to transgress than multinational corporations, though, and on this score, Chinese artists are optimistic. “The development of contemporary culture and art in China might be hard, but it is inevitable,” said Hu Jieming. “Under layers of censorship, we see the contemporary art and culture are gradually being established, and that is the reason for our confidence.”

Sam Gaskin