John B. Turner: The Pingyao Experience – Part 1

The Pingyao Experience – Part I, Enjoy the Chaos

Pingyao International Photography Festival, Shanxi Province
China, 2010, 2011, 2012

by John B. Turner
co-editor PhotoForum (New Zealand)

John B Turner: Pingyao, September 2011. Remnants of previous year’s PIP linger until removed at the last moment.
“Expect chaos: milling crowds, posters, exhibitions, cameras everywhere; cafes, shops, pedicab touts, open-air mini-buses, tourist’s trinkets, Mao mementos, market stalls, performing monkeys, and umbrellas instantly on sale in case it rains….”

This article is written for foreign and Chinese mainland photographers and anybody contemplating going to the Pingyao International Photography Festival, or wanting to exhibit there. I thoroughly recommend PIP for anybody interested in seeing a huge range of work by Chinese photographers in particular, as well as interesting foreign work, and also the experience of this charming ancient city.

The sheer number of participants and visitors make PIP a worthwhile venue for showing local and foreign work and thus becoming better known. PIP’s English-language outreach publicity has been found wanting so it is nowhere near as well patronised by foreign visitors as it deserves to be. I hope this introduction, which I intend to follow up with more critical review and commentary in future, will help you make up your own mind about visiting this extraordinary annual event. All illustrations are by myself unless otherwise noted. The copyright of photographs depicted reside with their authors. Please notify the writer of any mistaken identities, wrong attributions of works, or other factual mistakes. I cannot read Mandarin, but will make every reasonable effort to keep an accurate record of what I saw and how I interpreted it. The opinions expressed are those of a New Zealand photographer, teacher, editor, and occasional curator with 50 years experience in photography, who has twice presented exhibitions of New Zealand work at PIP.

It is not possible to list all of the fine work seen, or to mention all of the practitioners whose work impressed me: some because it was the best of its kind, and some for all the wrong reasons – because it seemed so superficial and misguided. In fact, I found that some of the award-winning exhibitions were weak or pretentious compared to some potent but overlooked work.

I am bemused by the Chinese propensity for grand gestures and the display of official certificates of approval for their work – by government agencies – as if the work can’t stand on its own or the audience is not smart enough to see through such humbug. It reminds me a lot of the old New Zealand camera club system which was fixated on gaining personal prestige at the expense of concentrating on honing the content and form of the work and its relevance to life in their times.

I am particularly interested in learning about Chinese photography and found that both young photographers and some of the more established exhibitors seemed hungry for informed critical feedback that is not being provided by their peers. It is not much fun when your work is ignored, so they might appreciate the observation that it is ok to make work that nobody seems to notice, as long as it is an honest expression of the things you value and want to share. That in the Western liberal art tradition, at least, it is expected that our work is made for ourselves, first and foremost.

Read the full article HERE.



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