Although city officials are unwilling to lend formal sanction or support, “Caochangdi PhotoSpring—Arles in Beijing,” which returned for its third annual edition in the Chinese capital on Apr. 21, endures. The photography festival takes place under the aegis of the Croisements Festival of French Culture organized by the French Embassy in Beijing and is co-presented by Les Rencontres d’Arles. It is the pedigree of these partnerships that allows PhotoSpring to survive as the only independent among more than 50 photo summits that regularly take place in China. This alone makes it important, according to Christopher Phillips of the International Center of Photography in New York, who was among several foreign curators and photographers at the official opening.
Unsurprisingly, there is a strong French presence in the program, which consists of more than 200 artists and 30 exhibitions, screenings, talks and workshops that are concentrated in the art districts of 798 and Caochangdi village in the northeast part of the city. This year’s guest curator is François Hébel, director of Les Rencontres d’Arles, who organized Brian Griffin’s “The Black Country” at the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, the festival’s principal venue. Through carefully arranged portraits and large-scale tableaux Griffin pays homage to local histories of manufacturing in his native UK. The exhibition opened last year at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris but the works find new resonance in Caochangdi, a faded industrial neighborhood that has struggled since the factories moved on.
Other key exhibitions include Jean-Christian Bourcart’s often horrific photo essay “Camden” at C-Space gallery, in which portraits and journal entries reveal the traumatized residents of what Bourcart describs as the United States’ most dangerous city, and selections from the collection of the Pays de la Loire Regional Fund for Contemporary Art at the China Art and Archives Warehouse (CAAW). PhotoSpring 2012 is dedicated to CAAW’s co-founder Frank Uytterhaegen, who passed away in December 2011.
With no official endorsement and the consequent paucity of resources (over the past three years not a single Chinese company has agreed to become a sponsor) PhotoSpring has turned to commercial art galleries to provide spaces and fill out the program. The result is a diverse, albeit sometimes uneven, patchwork of events.
One of the standouts this year is “Photographic Oddities from the Archive of Modern Conflict” at Chambers Fine Art, which explores the tangled and intersecting stories encoded in an eclectic jumble of photo albums, artifacts and books, from fairground passe-têtes and pictures of shrapnel wounds from a medical textbook to a brochure of PLA army uniforms. Books are the inspiration for a successfully exhibition of self-published photography catalogues at the Fodder Factory café, organized by the indie publisher Jia Zazhi, from Beijing.
For most visitors the main event is the Three Shadows Photography Award Exhibition. This year it features work by 23 artists selected as finalists by an international panel of photographers and curators. More than 350 mainland Chinese photographers of all ages submitted entries. The grand prize went to Zhang Jin, 25, from Chengdu, for his Buddhist-inspired series that documents a desert pilgrimage along the eastern section of the Silk Road between the ancient cities of Xi’an and Yangguan. The winner of the Tierney Fellowship was Yang Yuanyuan, 24, whose use of text and images to re-cast childhood memories is one of the few collections to deviate from conventional linear narratives. Some of the most dramatic images, however, come from Geng Yi’s series of riveting and visceral portraits entitled “Embroidered Bodies,” which explores tattoo culture in China.
Speaking after the awards ceremony, Hébel confirmed that Les Rencontres d’Arles had agreed to extend its original three-year agreement with PhotoSpring and will once again be its partner in 2014, all but guaranteeing at least one more edition of the festival.
Photo: Zhang Jin, Entry (2010), silver gelatin print, 50.8 x 60 cm. From the series “A Season on the Silk Road” (2010–2011)