Since the very first edition of the Lianzhou International Photo Festival in 2005, people have been predicting its demise. And yet this annual event persists, 15 years later, still trying to be China’s answer to Rencontres de Arles in a climate growing increasingly uncertain.
Lianzhou Foto has emerged over the past decade and a half as the vanguard platform for contemporary photography in China, a veritable Chinese Rencontres de Arles. Ask any shutterbug worthy of their Canon or Nikon where they’d like to be exhibited and they’ll likely tell you Lianzhou, rather than other Chinese photography festivals which tend to put scale ahead of substance.
“Lianzhou is remarkable for three reasons,” says Shenzhen-based photographer Lǐ Zhèngdé 李政德, who exhibited his bombastic critique of consumerism-with-Chinese-characteristics in The New Chinese in 2014 and 2016 (which has since become an internationally published photo book). “The festival has a broad vision, it focuses on reality, and it encourages artists to push toward experimental frontiers.”
The most recent edition of the festival began on November 29, and will last until January 3. It has the curatorial theme “A Chance for the Unpredictable” (不期而至 bù qī ér zhì). Billboards containing that phrase are scattered throughout Lianzhou, a county-level city of less than 400,000 people (small for Chinese standards) in the southern province of Guangdong, affording light relief from the patriotic slogans and red banners that festoon the country. The posters have been purposefully smudged, as if partially whitewashed. Given that in 2018, numerous photographs were unceremoniously ripped from Lianzhou Foto’s walls minutes before gallery doors opened to the public, I had to ask festival director Duàn Yùtíng 段煜婷 if the design was a subtle critique of censorship.
“Not at all,” she replies. “This is simply a design motif that is representative of the festival concept, it’s not meant to be political.”
And yet, this year’s festival — celebrating its 15th year — does feel safer, with aesthetic photography dominating the main gallery walls. Renowned Beijing-based photography critic Bao Kun 鲍昆 put it thusly: “The new photography museum [opened in 2017] is a really impressive building, but curators have put playful photographic technique ahead of content. I don’t see artists saying much here.”
He pauses before adding, “Though nobody is saying much anywhere right now.”
Veteran curator François Cheval, who has worked all over the world and turned 65 during Lianzhou’s opening week, remains philosophical about the unsettling times we live in. “When they pulled down the pictures last year, I was not here because I was very ill,” he says. “But each day I heard the news, and it was hard. I said to Duan and my Chinese friends, Maybe it’s time for me to stop. But they said if we stop, then that will be a real defeat. This is true. If one day the adventure ends, so be it, c’est la vie. But all my life I dreamed about bringing art to the people, and here in deep China, we have created something incredible.
“Today I saw some young Lianzhou folk walking through the gallery and it touched me. I still believe art is about exploring humanity, but also the contradictions of humanity, and that art has the capacity to question and change.” Cheval lights a cigarette before quipping, “I’m a missionnaire.”
These “contradictions of humanity” are apparent in one of the most startlingly sensual and intimate exhibitions on show this year, a work of gravitas and beauty that lives up to the “unpredictable” theme: Shanghai-based Coca Dai’s (戴建勇 Dài Jiànyǒng) exhibition Judy Zhu (朱凤娟 Zhū Fèngjuān). The photo series documents Dai’s girlfriend-turned-wife Zhu over several years, showing her pain and joy, her frailties and strengths, each photograph genuine and intimate. “When I took those pictures, I didn’t even know I was making an artwork,” Dai confesses to me.
The Granary (粮厂 liáng chǎng), an old factory converted into an exhibition space for the festival, sits on the edge of town. This year, it’s housing much of the festival’s 15-year retrospective exhibition, showing off highlights from yesteryear, including Qián Hǎifēng’s 钱海峰 stunning The Green Train. In this series of photos taken over eight years riding third-class on China’s slow trains, Qian captures the struggle and stoicism of the country’s overlooked migrant workers with startling tenderness. The fact that Qian himself is a blue-collar worker from Wuxi only makes the questions of class and country embedded in his work more pronounced.
Bao Kun, who plucked Qian from obscurity and exhibited him in Lianzhou in 2015, where Qian won the grand prize, says, “His images capture a realistic, serious, and neglected side of China in an insightful way. It’s the opposite image from that which is presented by the high-speed railway. In recent years, Lianzhou’s great success stories have been to discover Qian Haifeng and Wú Guóyǒng 吴国勇, both of whom have since been exhibited globally to great acclaim.”
“Lianzhou is quite small, with only 60 distinct exhibitions, but it has a thematic approach and puts contemporary ideas right under the spotlight,” says notable Beijing-based curator and educator Luō Dàwèi 罗大卫, who helped bring Wu Guoyong’s No Place to Place to international prominence in 2018.
Yet the retrospective skips some of the more candid and explicit photographic works of yesteryear. Li Zhengde is absent, as is Rèn Háng 任航, whose graphic nudes (warning: graphic nudity) earned him notoriety abroad and censure at home. He was championed by Ài Wèiwèi 艾未未 overseas while being arrested several times in Beijing. He died in an apparent suicide at age 29 in 2017. Also absent is Lú Guǎng 卢广, the controversial photojournalist who was arrested for taking pictures in Xinjiang, who could not be re-exhibited despite his recent release after a year’s detention.
Environmental issues are at least tackled, and tackled head on this year by Yī Rǎn 伊冉, Zhāng Héng 张恒, and Nán Kǎ 南卡, whose joint exhibition Waste of Snow Mountain exposes in graphic detail, via video installation and still images, the littering now prevalent in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau. Their message is as simple as it is universal: we’re soiling our bed.
In a space at the rear of another converted factory called Shoe Factory (二鞋厂 Èr xié chǎng), I discover Zhāng Yùmíng’s 张玉明 bright and bold Cultural Wall, a series of images that documents propaganda murals on the sides of rural dwellings. Zhang is a respected teacher and researcher at the Beijing Film Academy but hails from a rural part of Anhui Province. “I went home last year for Spring Festival and was surprised to find all these propaganda pictures on the sides of buildings,” the 52-year-old explains. “I hadn’t seen such things since my youth.”
“Many of these murals have been painted poorly, they’re even cartoonish and gaudy. Plus, I discovered that by framing them in the context of their surroundings — flanked by crops, laundry, and ragtag electric wires — we see the images in a different context. Sometimes the pictures appear to merge with their surroundings, yet sometimes they jar. For instance, this mural depicts plum blossoms, which represent prosperity in China, yet the area around it is very poor.”
A wooden box in the corner of the room, next to a blank wall, contains Zhang’s censored images.
“I had about 10 pictures removed,” the artist says, smirking, perhaps amused at the thought of a government censoring its own images of propaganda — an irony that only enhances the meaning of his artwork.
Lianzhou Foto owes its genesis to a chance encounter between newspaper photo editor Duan Yuting and Lín Wénzhāo 林文钊, the mayor of Lianzhou. In the heady days of the Hú Jǐntāo 胡锦涛 era, Lin was keen to get his obscure county-level city on the map, and asked Duan if she could organize a photography festival. A native of Shanxi Province who had previously worked at People’s Photography as well as assisting at the Pingyao International Photography Festival, Duan was uniquely qualified for the challenge.
“If Lianzhou had been an established tourist locale, I might not have been able to curate the festival I envisioned,” she says. “But we were basically granted free rein.”
Three abandoned factories scattered around the downtown area, namely the Candy Factory (which was demolished to make way for the Liaznhou Museum of Photography), Shoe Factory, and Granary, were hastily converted into galleries, immediately giving Lianzhou Foto a gritty, postmodern feel. Duan was also able to give the festival an international dimension with the assistance of Alain Jullien, a notable French curator she had worked alongside in Pingyao, who brought foreign photographers to exhibit alongside domestic artists. This set a precedent for years to come. Under the curatorial theme Dual Visions: Lianzhou Beginnings, with the stated aim of becoming “the most influential and professional photography festival in China,” Lianzhou Foto was officially born in 2005.
The years preceding the 2008 Beijing Olympics were arguably the most open in recent Chinese history, a time when rock music festivals proliferated across the country, raves were held on the Great Wall, and cultural events like the Bookworm Literary Festival in Beijing emerged. Riding the liberal wave, by Lianzhou’s third year, the festival was already championing critical artwork that dared to ask questions, a trajectory it has attempted to maintain since, aided somewhat by its location, where “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”
By 2008, the world’s eyes were firmly fixed on all things China, from cinema to sports. Though the Olympic torch protests, Tibetan unrest, and Wenchuan earthquake would shake the Chinese Communist Party to its core, Chinese creatives were still riding high. Duan Yuting, buoyed by Lianzhou’s success at home and abroad, cultivated connections while curating exhibitions in Europe, working with the likes of Robert Pledge and François Cheval, who maintains a close connection with Lianzhou as the Lianzhou Museum of Photography director. Indeed, the French connection has helped make Lianzhou une réputation internationale in the Francophone world.
The 2014 anniversary edition of the festival, Staging Encounters, appeared to cement Lianzhou’s status as the Chinese answer to Rencontres de Arles — France’s influential photography festival held every summer since 1970 — with daring works like Yán Chángjiāng’s 颜长江 Diary of the Three Gorges challenging China’s development model with images of temples, homes, and workplaces drowned by Chongqing’s epic dam project.
But the years since have seen China take a decidedly illiberal turn, throwing the future of all creative endeavors — much less those which try to push the envelope — in doubt. Whether Lianzhou Foto can maintain its international reputation as it moves forward is a real unknown, though organizers and participants seem willing to push ahead, whatever the circumstances.
“Of course it will survive in one for or another,” the photographer Li Zhengde says. “China has become so significant, it is now at the center of many of the world’s problems. Contemporary photography is the most artistic way to express these problems, and naturally there is much to be done. The only issue is that the country’s censorship of culture and art is becoming more and more stringent…Lianzhou’s curators have been smart, but will need to be smarter moving forward.”
People have been predicting Lianzhou Foto’s demise since the very beginning, and yet here it still stands, 15 years strong in a fringe Chinese city that stirs to life every December. “Lianzhou Foto will be tasked with balancing competing forces, which thus far, it has managed,” says Beijing curator Luo Dawei. “The festival means a lot to the city and hopefully the local government understands its value.”