Can a Photography Festival Thrive in Today's China?

In the city of Lianzhou, visions of global power collide with official censorship.

He Qingsong, Untitled, from the series About a Prophecy, 2018
© and courtesy the artist

In an installation at the 2018 Lianzhou International Photography Festival in December, six screens of public transport passengers staring at their smartphones illuminated a dark, carpeted room. Dutch artist Jacqueline Hassink, who died of cancer in 2018, shows how, from this view, Seoul looks a lot like New York, and Moscow’s not that dissimilar from Tokyo. This reflection of our current moment describes a state of isolation and interconnection not so different from that between China and the West.

Despite its population of half a million, Lianzhou is referred to as a provincial town by those who live in the region’s capital, Guangzhou. Restaurants and shops spill their wares, from medicinal herbs to industrial netting, onto the street in heaping baskets, and curiosities, like a shop window brimming with pulled teeth, abound. The festival, located in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, took place across two venues and coincided with the opening of four exhibitions at the Lianzhou Museum of Photography. Previously a sugar factory, the understated, open-air complex opened in 2017 as China’s first public photography museum. The two festival venues are also renovated industrial spaces, an old shoe factory and a grain storage facility, both of which include multiple small buildings.

Salvatore Vitale, Untitled, from the series How to Secure a Country, 2015–18
© and courtesy the artist

The granary, with its high-ceilinged cisterns and polished wood floors, hosted the marquee group exhibition, Winds of Time, curated by Jérôme Sother of the GwinZegal center in France. Featuring mostly European artists, the exhibition is broad enough to include a wide variety of work, all relating to the theme—if tenuously—but not all relating to one other. Michele Borzoni’s Open Competitive (2014–17), critiquing Italy’s civil service examinations, hangs near a project by Lau Wai, whose Walking to Nam Kok Hotel (2018) deconstructs Hollywood’s depictions of the “Orient” from the 1950s on. In a building across the courtyard, videos by Sebastian Stumpf show the artist lying facedown in puddles or jumping off bridges—nihilistic performance art fifty years too late. Despite these outliers, the exhibition more or less holds together thematically.

The strongest thread within Winds of Time speaks to global systems of power and commerce related to the internet. Salvatore Vitale, winner of the Punctum award (given each year at Lianzhou), explores Switzerland’s vast security networks, from insurance companies to the military. Vitale sees Switzerland as a case study for the West, “confronted with growing threats—real or perceived—from migration and cybercrime, surveillance and big data,” as he told me recently by email. In Where the money is made (2017), Eline Benjaminsen traces the banal European landscapes where data centers for algorithmic, automatic trading, known as high-frequency trading, are housed. Esther Hovers, in False Positives (2018), asks viewers to put themselves in the position of “smart” surveillance systems, which use algorithms to analyze security footage and detect suspicious behavior. Slightly different, but equally compelling, Henk Wildschut’s ongoing Thomas Struth–like project, Food (2011–13), considers how we might feed a growing global population.

Shi Zhen, Untitled, from the series Kwei Yih, 2017
© and courtesy the artist

The festival also included thirty-two solo exhibitions and four group exhibitions of varying quality. Solo exhibition highlights included Yan Changjiang’s excavation of a shuttered art college; He Quinsong’s poetic photographs reminiscent of Rinko Kawauchi; Shi Zhen’s journey of self-discovery through landscape; and Koji Onaka’s Slow Boat, a tidy display of black-and-white travel photographs from the ’80s and ’90s. For an international festival, however, I would have liked to see more artists from outside of Europe and Asia.

The standout among the four museum exhibitions was Leaving Speed by Peng Ke, considering changing Chinese cities. Located near the entrance of the museum, off the main courtyard, this one-room exhibition features large color photographs hung on the wall, two light boxes on the floor, and a wire-and-cinderblock fence. Ke, who was born in the neighboring province of Hunan, effectively merges photography and installation without being gimmicky or hackneyed.

Peng Ke, Malatang, Changde, 2014
© the artist and courtesy the Lianzhou Museum of Photography

Unfortunately, at both the museum and the festival, many of the projects couldn’t be viewed in their original and intended forms. Almost one-third of the works in Winds of Time—120 in total—were removed by government officials; some were confiscated the night before the festival opened. Swaths of white drywall dotted the galleries, with only screws to mark where a photograph should have been. Some artists, like Wildschut, who had half his works pulled, rehung their shows entirely. Andy Sewell—whose installation, Known and Strange Things Pass (2018), considers the physical structure of the internet—instead drew boxes on the wall where his photographs had been. In the most severe case, Oliver Sieber’s solo show portraying countercultural music scenes around the world was so heavily censored that the festival closed the room off altogether.

Henk Wildschut, Feaces. Maatschap Stroo, Slootdorp, The Netherlands, July 2012, from the series Food, 2011–13

The Lianzhou festival is funded by the local Chinese government—along with international partners, including the Institut Français and the Mondriaan Fund—and is therefore required to submit a full list of works included in the festival for approval months prior to the opening. In past years, the festival has gotten away with submitting a partial list of works, and then finalizing the exhibitions closer to the opening. This year, however, there were administrative changes to the censorship system, and the festival didn’t properly adjust. They went on with business as usual and didn’t send a totally final list, but because of the changes, they got in trouble for it. “It definitely had an impact on the quality of the festival,” Duan Yuting, the festival director, noted. “Following changes in the approval process, we were not prepared properly. Next year we will take extra time and care to make sure every image has been submitted in order to safeguard the program’s integrity to the best of our ability.”

There didn’t seem to be a particular logic to the removal of works: some works that weren’t on the list were left in place, and there was some joking among artists that the censors consistently took the smallest pictures because they were easier to remove. “There seems to be no sense, no system of rules that explains why one picture was taken and another left on the wall. They just disappeared in the night with no explanation,” Sewell said. Even stranger, photographs that were removed from exhibitions were still displayed in front of party officials at the elaborate opening ceremony, as well as on billboards and posters throughout the city.

Andy Sewell, Untitled (New Jersey, USA), from the series Known and Strange Things Pass, 2018
© and courtesy the artist

The festival’s scale and scope, along with the museum itself, is impressive; in the years since the festival first launched, the city itself has changed remarkably. “Fifteen years ago, many cities in China sought new projects to push development in the city, and some cities chose to develop projects related to culture and art,” Yuting explained. “It was quiet, there were not so many cars, and the festival had arrived out of the blue for the people of Lianzhou. But after a few years, the festival has grown to become part of the city and a pride of the local community.”

The city of Lianzhou is just one example of a country undergoing rapid growth. Winds of Time, appropriately, considered change and asked questions of what the future might hold. As China continues to expand its global influence, nothing is more relevant. The West, however, already failed in predicting China’s current role as an autocratic economic powerhouse. Academics and presidents alike wrongfully assumed that prosperity would lead to a demand for liberal values. Imagined as a vehicle for free speech, the internet has instead become a tool for China to monitor and control its people. Even Google, which refused to do business in China for years, is now developing a government-approved search engine. One must wonder, will Western artists and institutions also bend to the will of the Party?

Winds of Time was on view in Lianzhou, China, from December 1, 2018, to January 3, 2019. Leaving Speed is on view at the Lianzhou Museum of Photography through March 18, 2019.