China Through the Looking Glass

Mark Kelsey

A man appreciates Adrian Gordon’s photographs on display in CGIS. The show "Photographs of China" opened on February 6th, and showcases the young, American photographer’s work.

In the last decade alone, China has transformed into the site of a dynamic art scene. Adrian Gordon, a photographer who was born in China but now works in New York, has attempted to document the recent social shifts in her native country through photography. A selection of her work entitled, “Zhuaji: Photographs of China,” is on display until the end of April at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.

On Wednesday, her photographs were the subject of a frank conversation among art critics and historians about the realities of contemporary China. Gordon participated in a panel discussion about photographing China with several faculty members from Harvard.  Professor of Asian Art Eugene Wang moderated the panel, which consisted of Boston-based photographer Kris Snibbe, Professor of Photography and chair of the department of History of Art and Architecture Robin E. Kelsey, Professor of History of Art and Architecture and of Visual and Environmental Studies Carrie Lambert-Beatty, MIT Associate Professor of Architectural History Arindam Dutta, and junior fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows Winnie Wong.

Gordon recounted her childhood in China and talked with the panel about the significance of her photographs. She said that she hoped to present an “unpackaged” portal into China through her photographs. “I’m interested in imagined futures [in China] that you can no longer imagine,” Gordon said. Wang agreed that Gordon had a unique desire to photograph China. “[She had an] urge to go there with a camera to look for things that may have vanished, to capture and imagine things,” Wang said.

Gordon said her childhood was spent playing with cameras. One of her playmates was Liu Xiaobo, a currently imprisoned Chinese critic, writer, and human rights activist. “[Gordon’s] unique perspective propelled her to create a documentary and imaginative inquiry into the China of her birth,” Wang said. The panel discussed the original approach that Gordon has taken to China. Neither a tourist nor a conventional foreigner, Gordon says her understanding of China springs from her upbringing and background.

“I wanted to portray the personal ghosts of a China that doesn’t exist anymore,” Gordon said. The urban-rural dichotomy of China is a major theme in her photographs, which  feature subjects that sweep the gamut from shopping malls and city streets to the open fields of the Dulong River Valley on the border between China and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. “I wanted to juxtapose the whiteness, wealth and luxury of these shopping malls against the rural openness of the country,” Gordon said.  Architecture historian Dutta focused on the use of diagonals in the photographs of urban environment. “[This creates] the feeling of being displaced inside this environment of sheer interiority,” he said.

Professional photographer Wong marveled at the scope of the exhibit. “[Gordon is] showing all of China, and in particular, Hong Kong and Macau, and how it is culturally and politically and socially distinct but of the same China,” she said. Art historians Wang, Kelsey, and Lambert-Beatty spoke of how the work echoed that of other artists, such as photographer Robert Frank, documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, and pioneering photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson. “There are certain tropes and historical moments embedded in the photographs [of Gordon],” Wong said. Panelists situated the work within current trends of photography and critical interpretation, mentioning how Gordon reflects current developments in participatory photography and shifts away from what Lambert-Beatty called “overly critical gestures.”

“The [contemporary] critique is losing its valency. What is more powerful in a way are the imagined futures that bewilder and pose questions,” Lambert-Beatty said. Gordon was quick to stress that her photos were not altered or manipulated using digital editing software, launching a conversation about authenticity and the struggle for it in both contemporary China and its art. Wang placed this debate within a sociopolitical context.

“[The] photographic medium [is] a democratizing force, with the deskilling and availability of easy snapshots,” said Wang. These comments led panelists into a discussion of China’s political future and the effect of increased exposure to mass social media and globalization on Chinese society. When Gordon was asked about her aspirations for the exhibit, she said, “I hope it raises questions and that people can resist the impulse to read into it an overarching argument. I hope it brings up a conversation.”

At once inquisitive and candid, Gordon’s exhibition evokes the vivid colors of China and harks back to past documentarian images of China taken by Western photogrpahers. It suggests that documentary art can serve as more than an anthropological record for a moment in society, but that it can be an instrument for political activism and criticism.

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