Hong Kong “See way over there, where those high-rises are? That was the East Village once. Basically a dump.”1 Photographer Xing Danwen (pronounced shing dahn-wen) gestured toward the new urban vista that spread beyond the window of the second-floor coffee shop of the Westin hotel in Beijing’s northeastern Chaoyang district. Now home to the relocated Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) as well as the 798 and Caochangdi gallery districts, the area is, as she went on to say, “all changed now”—a phrase that could serve as a veritable mantra for post-Mao China, for its avant-garde art scene and for her own transformed career.
Earlier that day last August, we had joked together over some of Xing’s recent publicity—“how can China Vogue make me look so bad, in an ugly dress?”—while discussing the stages of her evolution from bohemian documentarian to deliberate, soulful orchestrator of straight photographic images to author of deftly fabricated digital tableaux and animations. That artistic journey, from reportage to ever greater artifice and personal control, reflects the development of Chinese art photography in general since the late 1970s. And it has taken Xing, in roughly 15 years, from the edge of the East Village “dump,” where many of China’s most daring young artists once struggled to survive, to a two-story apartment in one of the city’s elite residential towers, a refuge in which she now creates much of her work and administers a nonstop international exhibition schedule.
To date, the 42-year-old Xing has been known, both within China and abroad, primarily for the images she made during and after her 1998-2001 MFA stint at the School of Visual Arts in New York. These works are nearly all, in various ways, concerned with the profound sense of dislocation now felt in China, with its recent history of sudden, titanic socio-political shifts—from a 2,000-year-old empire to a fledgling republic (1911) to Communist dictatorship (1949) to one-party state capitalism (1978).
Xing’s first widely exhibited works, shot exclusively in black and white, are elegiac meditations on lost worlds and broken ties. Scroll (1999-2000) consists of two long horizontal strips of moody, deliberately blurred images from Beijing—widely separated swimmers, nearly empty streets, people sitting forlornly on park benches—all conjoined, jerky film-strip fashion, in stark contrast to the natural flow of traditional scroll paintings. The slide-show installation Sleepwalking (2000), similarly disjunctive, features stills from New York fading in and out of each other to a mix of old Chinese and new electronic music.
Xing’s shift from nostalgia to a more vivid social critique occurred hand in hand with her adoption of color. The “disCONNEXION” series (2002-03) is composed of disconcertingly gorgeous close-ups of electronic waste: mounds of circuit boards, plastic cords and computer housings, rendered with sharp allover focus and luscious chromatic saturation. Although the images reflect the mass dumping of high-tech refuse from Japan, Korea and the U.S. in southern China (where many of the devices were originally manufactured using low-wage labor), the sense of ecological and economic protest is balanced by the sheer formal beauty of the large-format shots, their “found” compositions exhibiting a kind of Ab-Ex sublimity.
An eerie quality entered Xing’s work with the “Duplication” series (2003), each shot depicting a pile of sorted doll parts: Caucasian adult male heads, bald baby heads, detached infant arms, female heads with wildly spread pale blond hair. These images, which for Westerners might evoke the Holocaust, could very well suggest other associations to Chinese viewers cognizant of their country’s grim history of street decapitations and female infanticide. Mercifully, a vestige of the playful aura of toys clings to the dismembered dolls, giving the pictures a surrealistic tinge, rather than a strictly macabre air. The shots serve, Xing says, as a mordant comment on the dehumanizing effect of tailoring oneself to preconceived social roles.
During travels in Europe, the artist was struck by the worldwide uniformity of contemporary city architecture, especially high-rise residential blocks. Her somewhat Laurie Simmons-like response was “Urban Fiction” (2004-08), in which stylishly dressed “live” characters are digitally inserted into architectural models of luxury apartment buildings. (Real-estate offices in China are studded with elaborate scale mock-ups, and units are often sold long before the structures are complete.) The domestic scenes played out by the “residents” (many of them Xing herself in diverse guises) range from the mundane (sunbathing) to the melodramatic (murder), and suggest that the foibles of the human heart cannot be fundamentally altered by China’s recent upscale housing frenzy—contrary to promotional materials that, in a bizarre twist on both ancient spiritualism and Mao-era utopian propaganda, rhapsodically describe high-rise residency as a new, more elevated state of being. On the contrary, as art historian Madeline Eschenburg has pointed out, living in self-enclosed, vertically stacked spaces, singly or with only a spouse and one child, is profoundly disorienting to many Chinese city dwellers accustomed to life in horizontal courtyard buildings and hutongs, long-lane complexes shared with extended family members and intimate neighbors spanning two or three generations.2
This concern with isolation and lost identity is paramount in “Wall House” (2007), which resulted from Xing’s artist residency in the high-concept Wall House designed by U.S.-based experimental architect John Hejduk (1929-2000). Constructed in Groningen, the Netherlands, the dwelling is bisected by a solid, freestanding wall that separates work areas from living spaces. In addition, the residential components are layered in such a way that one can move from one room to another only via a stairs next to the wall. Thus every change of activity requires a change of location: inhabitants are forced to think about their every function throughout the course of the day.
Xing commemorated her time in Hejduk’s stark interior in digitally manipulated photographs and video pervaded by signs of loneliness and uncertainty. Views through the windows show not Groningen but Beijing. In one shot, the artist perches alone on a couch, wearing a pale blue synthetic wig. In another, she sits, back to the viewer, in a simple chair, facing a small picture window that reveals an eight-lane Beijing expressway clogged with traffic; a cell phone sits forlornly on a table in the foreground. Perhaps the most telling image in the series presents a partially clad woman gazing into a bathroom mirror, where she sees “herself” fully dressed and wearing the incongruous blue wig. And a bedroom shot provides the environment for an animated projection of a young woman who rises from the edge of the bed and wafts about an interior space seemingly more real than herself.