By General Curator Fei Dawei

Today’s civilization of today has come up against a critical point in its own history. Formerly, humankind went confidently into the world, attempting to master and remake it. Later, an awareness dawned on people that such efforts in themselves were causing them to lose touch with the world, to become daily more distant from the actual world. All the tools which people had invented to master the world were delivering them into another world, a human-created world.

This is a world of symbols and language. A world composed of concepts, words and images—relying on high-tech networks—is hemming us in on all sides. A daily onslaught of news and advertising images pervades every corner of our lives, like an enveloping miasma. The more that images proliferate, the less they partake of actuality. The compelling force, the persuasiveness of images gradually drains away. Ultimately people are stifled by the pictures that they themselves manufactured, enslaved by the tools they themselves created.

Photography plays an important role in picture-making. Photography, with its mechanical, objective technology, faithfully reproduces the world that we see. Its advent heralded a new way of seeing and even undermined the position of realistic painting. The world manifested by photography had profound impact upon our way of seeing. Photography can intensify the moral standpoint of seeing; it can bear witness to facts; it can extract slices of time and serve as a substitute for memory. It can beautify or uglify its subjects; it can trigger pondering and reverie about the world. Photographs provide views of the world’s many aspects. It is precisely their objectivity which enables them to penetrate into our inner lives and shake our souls. 

Political consciousness and commercialism, in order to achieve their propagandistic aims, have made full use of photography’s “objective” characteristics. On many occasions, photography has unobtrusively conveyed various ideological messages; in this respect its function surpasses that of slogans and written language. Nothing can lure us into a conceptual trap more easily than photography. 

For a long time the field of photography in China was deeply influenced by pragmatism. Language was broken down into two parts, namely form and content, and only when the former “served” the latter could photography achieve legitimacy. Regardless of whether it was in the name of “correct” ideology or in the name of a “rebellion of language,” photographic works were functionally reduced to tools for conveying certain concepts. Thus photography became diagrammatic treatment of concepts; it became a means of incitement. Quality of expression was thrown aside, and photography became a servant, with no dignity of its own. And precisely in this sense, photography created an illusory screen between ourselves and the world. 

The actuality of the world is called into question, because the world expressed through language is not reliable. The world we see through photography is a filtered world, a partial representation. After the invention of digital technology, photography lost even more of its identity as witness to the actual world. The world became a picture which could be altered at will, and photography became a tool which can be impinge toxically on awareness. 

Thus the relation between the world’s existence and photographic language has become a paradox that needs to be worked out in current criticism of visual culture. Only the mouse that tied the bell around the cat’s neck can untie that bell. The problems brought about by photography can only be solved by reflectively approaching photographic language. Can photographic language break through the pitfalls that it itself has imposed? Can it bring forth the motivation to keep creating and making discoveries? Can it stir the imagination in broader ways? Can it become open-ended language which points toward expansive possibilities of meaning? Can its it be in alignment with the world rather than at odds with it? We have chosen the theme “Is the world real?” in hopes of displaying, through the works here, how these photographers have penetrated language in their own unique ways to re-constitute a freer, more intense, more meaningful world.