The Walther Collection presents Then and Now: Life and Dreams Revisited, an exhibition that extends the Collection’s ongoing survey of Chinese photography since 2017. Curated by Christopher Philips in 2018, Life and Dreams: Contemporary Chinese Photography and Media Art was the first extensive exhibition of works by Chinese artists represented in the collection.
The second iteration combines early 20th century travel photography of China with groundbreaking works by 31 internationally renowned artists such as Ai Weiwei, Song Dong, Rong Rong, Yang Fudong, and Zhang Huan, as well as a presentation of works by a younger generation of artists, such as Lu Yang and Lin Zhipeng. Juxtaposing historical and contemporary Chinese photography, Then and Now illustrates the epochal changes that have not only transformed China’s rural and urban habitats in recent decades, but also essential aspects of social relationships and everyday life.
In the Green House, a selection of stereoviews conveys impressions from the final years of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), documenting one of the most momentous upheavals in the country’s modern history. Defeat in the First Opium War (1839–1842) between China and the United Kingdom forcefully ended China’s selfimposed isolation from European nations. After China’s renewed defeat in the Second Opium War (1856–1860), the Western powers began to occupy numerous harbors and districts across the nation in order to exert further influence and establish trade networks. The drastic economic consequences of the two Opium Wars gave rise to widespread anti-imperial sentiment that would eventually topple China’s 4000-year old feudalistic system, and accelerate the urge to build a modern nation. The Xinhai revolution of 1911 led to the resignation of the last emperor, marking the end of the Chinese empire and the founding of the Republic of China in 1912.
The featured stereoviews reflect the seismic changes that took place in the early 20th century, particularly through infrastructure—showing Western embassy buildings on the Shanghai waterfront, the railway built by the colonial powers, or the Chinese people’s first encounters with Western inventions such as the Edison phonograph. Little is known about the origins of these photographs. The depicted hairstyles, clothing, and utensils, as well as the landscapes and varied locations, indicate that the series was probably made between 1910 and 1920 by a traveling Western photographer. Its richness of detail, sharpness, and quality are exceptional for images from that period. In addition, the choice of motif goes beyond the “exotic and bizarre” views typical of images coming from the West. In addition to classical attractions such as the Great Wall or the Yunyan Temple in Suzhou, the preserved 138 images also show the everyday life of urban and rural China in detail, and recorded scenes at the hairdresser, in the market, or working in the rice fields.
A radical departure in both time and subject matter, Lin Zhipeng’s works are dedicated to illuminating contemporary Chinese youth culture and are displayed in a special exhibition on the upper floor of the White Cube, curated by Simon Baker. Born in 1979 in Guangdong province, Lin has become a representative figure in contemporary Chinese photography for works that explore urban youth culture, queer love, gender and sexuality. After graduating with a degree in Financial English, he worked as an editor and author for numerous creative and fashion magazines such as VICE and iLOOK. Today he lives and works as a photographer and freelance author in Beijing.
In the art world, Lin Zhipeng is best known under the pseudonym “No.223,” which is based on the character of a love-sick policeman, played by Takeshi Kaneshihiro in Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express in 1994. His cinematic sensibility is reflected in his photographic portfolios, which embody a poetic and dreamy atmosphere as well as the loneliness, melancholy and mysticism of many film characters.
His blog “North Latitude 23,” founded in 2003, brought “No.223” worldwide attention and provided him with the perfect platform to share and communicate his artistic vision. To this day, he documents both his and his friends’ everyday lives in an imaginative and exceptionally intimate way. Supplemented by personal notes, he creates a private diary of a young generation trying to escape the pressure of Chinese society and fathom its boundaries.
Drawing aesthetic inspiration from the works of Guy Bourdin, Wolfgang Tillmans and Jürgen Teller, “No.223”’s images offer a personal view of a youth subculture in contrast to imposed conservative cultural values and standards. “No.233” relies strongly on intuition to create spontaneous works that reveal exuberance and angst, guided by a simple human need to be loved in an otherwise indifferent and constantly changing society. Nonchalance and playfulness characterize his visual language, often projecting a sense of grief and vulnerability. In combination with his talent for improvisation and a sharp aesthetic sensibility for his subjects, “No.223” succeeds in showing a diversity of interior lives and dreams.
Throughout the White Cube and Black House, key selections from the acclaimed Life and Dreams exhibition remain on view, showcasing visually inventive and emotionally compelling artworks in diverse mediums, and responding to sweeping social and economic changes that have fundamentally transformed the fabric of everyday life. Organized in several subthemes, images in the exhibition represent complex, often challenging individual perspectives: from referencing classical artifacts and surveying the built environment, to evoking technological dystopia and critiquing political authoritarianism.
Juxtaposing early photographic works with recent examples of Chinese media art allows for surprising echoes, affinities, and continuities to be revealed. Life and Dreams demonstrates the remarkable speed with which photography and media art have occupied important positions within the field of experimental Chinese art since the early 1990s—providing an up-to-date account of the main directions and key achievements during the past three decades.
Then and Now– Life and Dreams Revisited
May 5 – October 27, 2019
The Walther Collection