And Where Do We Go From Here? LIPF turns 10

The most important photography festival in China, the Lianzhou International Photography Festival, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. I have been to four of the previous nine editions. This gives me an understanding on this photography festival with “Chinese characteristics”, as it were.

As the People’s Republic of China has evolved over the years, culture has been a major part of the establishment of the Middle Kingdom on the world stage, and the LIPF has been a serious part of this transition.

In contradistinction to the more photojournalistically–oriented festival in Pingyao, the LIPF has both been more “art-oriented” and more international. As a result, the LIPF has become the dominant platform for the exchange of ideas—at least as far as photographers are concerned—between China [and within China, too] and the rest of the world and between various other photography festivals as typically represented by the top-tier umbrella group, the Festival of Light, that includes long-established festivals Arles, Paris, Houston, Buenos Aires, Mexico, Lodz, Madrid, and beyond.

As an entity that is sometimes subject to the whims of China’s government as are all cultural events in China, the LIPF occupies an interesting space, somewhat free and sometimes not so free, depending on local or national officials and the whims and needs of the powers that be. Some various incidents of censorship have occurred at the festival over the course of my experience there, mostly, I believe as a result of the various power plays between the powerful Guangdong state and that of Beijing. Guangzhou, Canton, to Westerners, is one of the most important power centers in China and includes Shenzhen, next door to Hong Kong. Nearly everything we in the West purchase is made there, or so it seems.

Lianzhou, a beautiful provincial city of some 500,000 inhabitants some 4-5 hours up the new road to the north-west from Guangzhou, has had a very interesting cultural history for thousands of years and more lately has become a place where new ideas are tested out before they are main-streamed. As such, it is the ideal location for a photography festival and a place for China to demonstrate its cultural prowess to international audiences and international photography specialists and artists from around the world whose works are included in the iterations of the LIPF, each technically better, more professional, and more international than the previous incarnation.

The 2008 co-curator Li Xianting noted that historically, Lianzhou was always a place of artistic expression. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) its distance from centers of power made it a place for the powers that be to exile troublesome intellectuals, officials, and artists. Thus put on ice, they were able to express themselves without causing too much trouble. Yet they succeeded nonetheless. During those years artists and writers such as Han Yu, Liu Zongyuan, and Liu Yuxi overturned the prevailing literary style and proposed a “Classical Prose Movement” “that championed creativity and cutting analysis of social ills in a plain language.” Li Xianting declared that the LIPF “is not only intended to assert the importance of our relationship to [the camera], but also to reaffirm the importance of the independent viewpoint and revisit the camera’s ability to bear witness to and confront us with reality, current events and emotions.”

Under the leadership of its founder, Duan Yuting, and with various other national and international guest curators, the LIPF has, without question, established itself as the most important photography festival in China.

The 2013 LIPF had a budget of some 4,000,000 Yuan (approximately 500,000 Euro or 650,000 US Dollars), has a main period of one week, although shows may run for a month or so, has approximately 10,000 visitors, 100,000,000 million hits on Weibo, the Chinese version of Google, for its 70 exhibitions presented in three disused industrial spaces. These are the official statistics from the closing press conference.

As an honored foreign observer, one who has written about the LIPF and participated on its most recent jury and has known many of the artists involved in the shows, I think it makes sense to take stock of the LIPF as it is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary.

While the LIPF has, generally speaking, had themes—2008’s “My Camera and I,” 2012’s Narrative and Narrative Forms, and more recently 2013’s Farewell to Experience—they are rather loose. Thus it is perhaps better to look at the role content plays in the festivals. Or, rather, the purpose of showing various exhibitions of Chinese and international photographers as well as historical retrospectives is more important than the actual themes.

The LIPF has consistently served as a platform for educating international audiences (represented by the foreign press, curators, and participating photographers) about the breadth and depth of Chinese historical photography and contemporary practices. At the same time, by exposing international photography to Chinese audiences and photographers, the festival encourages the exchange of ideas and possibilities inherent in photography to people who may not have had the opportunity to travel outside their province, let alone outside of China itself. Similarly, portfolio review sessions, workshops and colloquia facilitate this kind of cultural exchange. The presence of international curators is also a “force-multiplier” where work from China is then taken to other countries and shared with other audiences at festivals as varied as those in Arles, Houston, or Buenos Aires. For Chinese photography and for everyone else, it is a win-win situation and brings out the best of what photography festival can do.

Some examples:

In 2008 the LIPF combined a series of historical retrospectives starting in the 1930s through the death of Mao to the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Zhou Haiying’s “World in a Mirror Box” was a fantastic documentation of everyday life in the tumultuous period in the 1930s and -40s as China was rocked by the Japanese invasion and the civil war that led to Mao’s ascension to power in 1949. Shi Shaohau concentrated more on rural life than that in the big cities, but his work, scarcely known in the West, was also revelatory. So too was Li Xiaobin’s work about the post-Mao to Tiananmen.

Other works directly addressed transformations in China since Deng Xiao Peng’s political and economic reforms began to shake up China and rapid development took off and began to change the entire economically. Still, images from the new housing projects and the materialism that is the face of increasingly prosperous modern China were balanced by a far more critical look at the actual costs of transformation.

Jin Jiangbo’s “Great Economic Recession” looked behind the facades of the famous Hejun Toy Factory in Dongguan, Guangdong province. Here, as a result of a brief collapse in the world economy, the factory’s owners closed the factory and sent the equipment back to Taiwan. Jin Jiangbo, an academic from Beijing University, obtained unprecedented access to the abandoned factory floor and the dormitories replete with suicide nets and violent graffiti to reveal the world behind the scenes of the Chinese economic miracle and the huge factories more lovingly documented by Edward Burtynsky, among others. The Dickensian working conditions in Donnguan and elsewhere—Foxconn where this computer and much of our present electronica are produced—have seldom been so tellingly illuminated.

Ou Zhihang’s “Sight,” of his naked body performing push-ups with his face averted in front of architectural symbols of Chinese power, historical like the Great Wall and the Great Hall of the People, or contemporary like the then under construction Bird’s Nest Stadium or the CCTV tower in Beijing, in an ironic challenge to authority, were made more critical by an image of him exercising this time face up before the collapsed school in Fuxin where hundreds of students died during the Sichuan province in 2008. The collapse of that school and those of others in the province led to the deaths of more than 5,000 students and revealed a history of shoddy construction and political corruption that is to be seen all over the country and represents, along with terrible pollution, part of the true cost of China’s race to the future.

2012’s edition took a different approach by stressing different modes of artistic expression. While it took part during the context of the power struggle that led to the selection of Xi Jinping as Chinese premier and which opening ceremonies emphasized the power of Guangdong province viz other regional power centers, Beijing, Chongqing, and Shanghai, the LIPF concentrated many more personal projects that emphasized the photographers’ individual visions. There were far more whimsical or concept art related works than before with images by Chen Xiaoyun of people interacting with scraps of brush or Feng Li’s of isolated objects or people as examples. Although there were documentary and archival images, and images that did include nudity—a sensitive issue in Chinese culture, the festival mostly played it safe.

This brings us to last year’s LIPF entitled “Farewell to Experience. With several international festival directors and curators presenting projects from Argentina, Denmark, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea, 2013’s edition marked both a coming of age on the international stage and a movement to the “curator as artist” trend that has recently swept the art world. This was most formally demonstrated by the project of Thomas Sauvin, “Beijing Silvermine,” that excerpted images of thousands negatives he found in 2009 in a recycling dump north of the capital. The great bulk of the images came from the 20 years since 1985 as the huge changes that have shaken China began to pick up speed. They show the incredible arrival of consumerism and material culture as documented in amateur pictures. For this, he was awarded a special prize by the jury.

Other works involved curatorial and workshop-related projects. A stunning series of images related to poverty and big city culture, curated by Duan Yuting featured imagery by Qin Wai and Ouyang Xingkai, from Hong Kong and Hunan, respectively, and Simon Wheatley from the UK, as well as their workshop participants in Lianzhou, gave the festival real depth and power.

What we can see from these developments is how the LIPF has grown both artistically and internationally. It has moved from exposing Chinese artists to the Western (and other Asian) artists and curators and vice versa in Lianzhou, but, through the incorporation of other festival exchanges, the LIPF is now taking Chinese photography on the road. Similarly, it has encouraged a professionalization of Chinese artistic practice by exposing new generations of Chinese photographers to their contemporaries outside of the country. Additionally, after encouraging the personalization of artistic expression and stressing rigorous artistic coherence in the presentation of one’s vision, the LIPF has introduced curation as artistic production. As such, the festival has, in a short nine years, brought Chinese photography up to speed with the rest of the art world whether in the Americas, in Europe or elsewhere in Asia.

The forthcoming 10th LIPF is scheduled to take place in November 2014 and to emphasize curation with more artists acting as curators of various projects. It looks to include more contemporary artists using photography and multimedia. Lianzhou is, just as 2008’s co-curator Li Xianting noted, a place where ideas can be tested that may have great ramifications for artistic and intellectual expression with political and economic consequences. We can hope now in 2014 that the LIPF will continue “to reaffirm the importance of the independent viewpoint and revisit the camera’s ability to bear witness to and confront us with reality, current events and emotions.”

This 10th festival will be taking its place as an equal among other international photography festivals, but it will always be one with Chinese characteristics.

See and for updates and archival materials.