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Farewell to Experience

Text by Duan Yuting


As art has entered a new era of artistic mass production, we must be careful about the danger of making art for the sake of making art. Major art institutions such as museums, biennales and festivals are constantly being criticized for the pervasive commercialization that has penetrated every corner of the system as well as being burdened by the enormous weight of art history. As these highly regarded organizations are also some of the most committed practitioners of art history today, it’s very difficult for artists of different practices to escape the trap of limiting themselves to the same standards that would have been applied by the institutions.


On one hand, very often photographers would lament about the lack of avenues for their work as the paths ahead seem to be getting narrower each day. As many of them begin to repeat themselves over and over again, they are further left behind with the rapid changes that are happening around them. On the other hand, as we mature we develop our own ideas about what good art is. When we see something that doesn’t resonate with us, we would not spend even a few moments looking at it. To some extent, when we look at other people’s work, inevitably we must be influenced by its narrative form, visual language and subject matter. These influences that we have accumulated over the years become significant burdens on our mind.


When a certain photographic form or visual style becomes merely a stereotypical exercise, it’s a time for reflection for all of us. Whenever a rule or a trend is established, that’s the moment it starts to get old. You may as well laugh at the idea of becoming an artist, as being an artist is no more superior than other occupations, like a bread maker for example. Contemporary art has gradually become a production and consumption of tastes, as Duchamp had spotted this and left the field to pursue chess. Nonetheless, his ferventness for change had always remained alive in his heart as he said: “We must learn to forget the past, to live our own lives in our own time.”


Contemporary art is no longer simply about form or decoration. Rather, photography shall be considered as a distinctive language of visual symbols. Since the 1970s, the role of photography has gone through several significant changes that we have begun to emphasize the importance of conceptual ideas and critical experimentation in an artist’s creative process. The increasing recognition of color photography as a legitimate artistic medium further pushed forward the experimental forces that helped to shape contemporary photography as we know it today.


In more recent years, the arrival of digital technology has allowed anyone who wishes to take pictures to easily become a producer of photographs. As we are living at a time when the abundance of images has been exacerbated by the existence of the Internet, even those experienced photographers have the tendency to indulge in photographic traditions of the past. As almost every corner of the world has already been seen by a camera, the need for photography as a medium for recording has diminished over the years. The British writer Peter Wollen said that “for photography to be an art involves reformulating notions of art, rejecting both material and formal purism and also the separation of art from commerce as distinct semiotic practices that never interlock.”


As a curator, I am acutely aware that when we demand photographers to forget the past in order to allow their creativity to flourish freely, we first have to empty our own mind before searching for those works that faithfully capture this moment in our history beyond the experience that we are so familiar with.


Without doubt, the search for those fresh, intriguing visual experience and thoughtful expressions by the medium of photography is an interesting and exciting task on its own. How much do we know about contemporary photography from places like Northern Europe, South America and Hong Kong? What happens if we combine soft sculpture, performance art and photography together? What’s the relationship between the body and death? What would intimacy and love become with the intervention of a camera? How would professional photographers go about taking pictures of their own children? Where were all those photos taken by ordinary Chinese citizens in the 1980s? Where do the clothes that we are wearing come from? What is our relationship with nature? How did those pictures taken by a nanny born in New York City stay unnoticed up until now? How does the world take on new dimensions in internationally acclaimed Swiss visual artist Pipilotti Rist’s kaleidoscopic explorations?


The above questions are among the themes that we wish to share with our audience at this year’s festival. However, besides these points of interest, I would like to further emphasize the importance for contemporary photographers to also assume the roles of information processor and thought provider. Only when we cut through the heart of the issues and struggles that we as human beings face together would photography fulfill its responsibility as one of the most important media of contemporary art.