On Friday, March 2, Bates was honored to host Chinese photography scholar and practitioner Gu Zheng as he gave an informal talk the Bates Museum of Art. In the Synergy Space, in the lower floor of the museum, Professor Gu introduced the audience to ten of his black and white photographs from the Shanghai Series (2004) that are owned by the Bates Museum. The photos were stunning and also stunningly simple, combining street photography with a sensitive leaning towards surrealism. One of my favorites was a well-composed shot of a person riding a horse in front of KFC; although simple, there was an ordinary magic in that atmosphere that escapes language and engaged me as a viewer. In their own individual ways, the prints portrayed the everyday breaking with the ordinary that marks much of street life. Professor Gu seemed to be very pleased to revisit some of his works as if he had not seen a couple of them in a while. With modesty and a light sense of humor, Professor Gu shed some light on his works as well as on documentary photography more broadly.

Gu Zheng is a Professor at Fudan University’s School of Journalism, Vice-Director of the Research Center for the University, and a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University. His scholarly practice is around the history of Chinese photography and 20th-century avant-garde. He is the leading academic on Chinese documentary photography and also a well-known street photographer. In the late 1990s and in the 2000s, Chinese contemporary art became more present in the American art scene. Following this emerging interest, in 2004, Gu Zheng curated the exhibition Documenting China: Contemporary Photography and Social Change at the Bates College Museum of Art. The exhibition portrayed glimpses of the incredible economic growth that happened in China after 1978 through the eyes of seven contemporary Chinese photographers. According to the catalog essay by Professor Gu, “the exhibition is intended to illustrate changes in Chinese society to an American audience.”

Professor Gu mentioned that the fast-paced social changes that were happening across China correlated with the growth of documentary and street photography in China. The appealing nature of photography as documentation was appealing to artists trying to record both social change while simultaneously recording their own view of the world. In the informal talk, I asked Professor Gu if there were any elements that were distinctive of Chinese documentary photography in relation to its American counterpart. While he had mentioned that American and Chinese documentary photography have been mutually influencing each other, he said that if there was such distinctiveness it would appear from the nature of the changes in Chinese society or from the reactions artists have to these changes. Assistant Professor of Asian Studies Mia Yinxing Liu, whose expertise is also in Chinese contemporary art, promptly mentioned that one should avoid essentialism in interpreting the photographs – an extremely relevant consideration.

Today, the Bates College Museum of Art has a strong collection of Chinese contemporary photography. The collection has been growing fast over the last couple of decades. Before joining our college as the Director of the Bates Museum of Art and Lecturer in the Humanities, Dan Mills co-curated a groundbreaking exhibition named Regeneration: Contemporary Chinese Art from China and the U.S (2003-06). Informally, Mills told me that this was most likely the first Chinese Contemporary Art show to travel around the country. Now as the Director of our museum, Mills seems interested in continuing to develop the collection.

During the informal talk, Bates Museum of Art Curator William Low estimated that we have around 120 Chinese documentary photography prints! These works of art are fantastic primary source documents and a great resource for students; we can contact the museum and get access to the collection for free. I hope that future Batesies are able to take advantage of the wealth of international art located right on our campus as well as the artists and curators we host. I know I look forward to the next Gallery Talk in Olin, and hope to see many of you there!