I'll post more images on Joyceyland when I have time over the weekend.
By JOYCE HOR-CHUNG LAU
PINGYAO, CHINA — With 2,200 photographers, the Pingyao International Photography Festival may be the largest event of its kind in the world. It is certainly the grittiest.
Ma Xiaobo, a Sichuan nature photographer, huddled under a tree next to his prints, which were covered in rain-soaked plastic sheeting. Showing wildlife shots in an outdoor setting might have seemed like a good idea until a storm hit and everyone else ran for cover.
Even the indoor exhibitors were not entirely safe, as some of the abandoned factories used as temporary art spaces no longer had roofs. Plastic tarps strung between rusted ceiling beams flapped violently in the wind. Inside, Ouyang Xingkai displayed large, richly colored, almost painterly portraits of village life in Hunan. A staff member wiped them off after drizzle came through a broken window.
This ancient walled city in Shanxi Province was an unlikely place for a massive art show. But PIP, as the event is nicknamed, gained increased international attention in its 10th-anniversary edition, which ended Saturday.
Contributions by 2,200 photographers, including more than 200 from overseas, were shown in venues all over the city, including old factories, warehouses, temples, a historic magistrate’s office and whatever outside walls people could find.
While Pingyao’s population, less than a half-million, is a small fraction of Beijing’s, the juxtaposition of disused industrial spaces and contemporary art called to mind the early days of the capital’s 798 district, a factory area that has grown into a fine-arts hub.
The setting was fitting, since much of the work from China documented down-and-dirty daily life. Pingyao’s walled old city is a Unesco World Heritage site, but the area’s industrial present often overshadows crumbling vestiges of the past. The environmental-themed works were particularly poignant, set in an area that is choked with coal dust.
“They wanted to choose somewhere with history,” Bai Xiaomei, the festival’s public relations director and a Shanxi native, said when asked why organizers would pick this location. “This has always been a special destination for photographers.”
The venue created some fascinating contexts. At the Brazilian group exhibit, two Chinese workers in fluorescent orange jumpsuits and hardhats stood transfixed in front of a photo by Michael Ende, showing a needle being injected into a prostitute’s naked breast.
Tiago Santana, one of the Brazilian photographers, was on his first visit to China, but he wasn’t put off by the difficult conditions in Pingyao. He even knew to bring waterproof, laminated prints because he once showed his works in an abandoned supermarket in his home state, Ceará.
“It was in ruins — it didn’t even have a roof,” he said of the supermarket. “It was empty during the day, and used by drug dealers and prostitutes at night. We just threw images onto the walls.”
It was also the first trip for Rebecca Dagnall, a photographer from Perth, Australia, who used modern-day photos to create post-Impressionist landscapes in the tradition of Australia’s 19th-century Heidelberg Art School. Her dreamy landscapes, with people canoeing or children playing outside, are based on daily life in her country’s outer suburbs.
“I love the space — all these old buildings,” Ms. Dagnall said. “If it wasn’t for this festival, I may never have come to China.”
The exhibits from other countries were generally better curated and of higher quality, probably because of their limited number. They added variety and a broader international view to a festival that was overwhelmingly Chinese-themed.
Jonas Merian, a Swiss photographer, documented Bangladeshi life, while Franck Vogel of France showed striking black-and-white portraits of albino people in Tanzania. Moises Saman, a photojournalist whose work frequently appears in The New York Times, covered the consequences of the 2009 drought in Iraq.
The sizable Taiwan section was refreshingly quirky. There were several talented photographers who had turned Asian landscapes into almost abstract creations.
The mainland Chinese contingent was huge, with tens of thousands of photos. Editing that down to something more selective would have been nearly impossible and besides the point, anyway.
PIP seemed to take a “come one, come all” approach to domestic work and included students and others who might not be able to get their work in a museum or a big-city gallery.
The majority of the Chinese works was done in a documentary or journalistic style, like “Thirty Years of Chinese Life” by Wang Fuchun, who is originally from Harbin, in China’s far northeast.
Some images were noteworthy because of rarity of their subject matters, like images of Siberian tigers by Viman Vivien Chong, a Hong Kong environmentalist.
Tucked away in a group show were Pu Yan’s portraits of ethnic minorities living on the border of Yunnan Province and Myanmar. He sat patiently at a small table and explained how he had used a large-format film camera to create panoramic black-and-white images that had a lovely, misty quality.
It was his first year showing at PIP, and he said the highlight was being able to reach viewers from outside China. “A Frenchman came and said he liked my work,” Mr. Pu said. “Maybe, someday, I’ll be invited to France.”
Not all the works were documentary. There were more innovative pieces at a former cotton factory complex. One of the best Chinese shows was curated by Mo Yi, an artist originally from Tibet. He chose works mostly by women, including images of plastic dolls; a noisy video showing life inside a factory; and pictures of broken pieces of furniture, which fit in well with the crumbling walls of the venue. Eerie images, shot with a red filter, were suspended in pools of murky water. Perhaps the thinking was that, if you’re going to show in a venue that’s dripping wet, you might as well go all the way.
Since PIP is a state-financed event, there were few overt political statements. While there was no overriding creative or curatorial theme, the festival did have “confidence and strength” as a slogan. That theme was supported by the presence of uniformed military guards and a rousing anthem that played from a loudspeaker in the main exhibition area. The temples, in particular, had more patriotic works: glossy, color photos portraying scenes from the Beijing Olympics, the Shanghai World Expo, and the sorts of smiling airline attendants and quaint village folk found on tourist brochures.
Aside from a few corporate sponsors like Epson (which also offered printers for sale at the festival) and Audi (whose exhibited artwork clearly featured Audi products), the Pingyao event was distinctly noncommercial. In fact, with its dirt floors dotted with cigarette butts, it was downright grubby, and a world away from the auctions, galleries and museums of Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong. There wasn’t a Champagne flute or cocktail dress in sight.
Still, there was a party atmosphere on the night of the gala presentation as crowds rushed to the South Gate of Pingyao to watch endless rounds of fireworks go off just outside the ancient barricades.