There is not really much to say about Wu Yinxian’s early Communist-era series of photographs of the Great Hall of the People and the Beijing Hotel. Things were simpler back then, and the photos reflect this simplicity. As far as I know, similar records exist for almost all significant Chinese buildings going back to the introduction of photography in this country. This includes the Nationalist-era architectural complex at Sun Yat-sen’s tomb, Mao Zedong’s late-seventies memorial, and other far-flung commemorative and public structures—detailed plans and images of which are all readily available in the archives. Besides Wu’s Great Hall, the remaining nine of the “Ten Great Buildings” (built to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic) of late 1950s Beijing all enjoy a complete photographic record that captures them in all their magnificent spectacle. One finds no real difference between these photographs and Wu’s work on any essential level.
But in recent years, busybodies have unearthed more and more of the early architectural portrait work of photographers like Wu Yinxian for exhibition. This probably has something to do with the fashion of the last decade for artists to produce similar photographs themselves: auditoriums built during the Cultural Revolution, exclusive building complexes from the seventies, even new attempts at the Great Hall of the People. These structures, filled with the violence of nationalist ideology, serve as displays of Party power following its takeover of the country; photographing them naturally carries a sense of historic reappraisal. Looking back from this angle, the Great Hall that Wu photographed was not only part of the era’s urban landscape, but also the new landscape of power and bureaucracy that formed in the wake of the founding of the People’s Republic.
This approach, based on a present set of viewpoints and analysis, consists essentially of appropriating historical images to speak about contemporary problems. In my view the most valuable aspect of this approach does not lie in the retrospective but rather in contemporary photography as a practice undertaken by many photographers in order to address the chaotic and rapid urbanization of the present. Their sober examinations and visual articulations of the cruel realities brought about by collaborations between political power and commercial capital lend their work a practical, individual concern for the public domain. The artists’ personal politics, moral courage and spirit of critique are revealed, as well as their sensitivity toward the immediate practical problems with society.
From the internal angle of landscape photography, the rediscovery and display of these two sets of Wu Yinxian photographs find continuing cause with the current Chinese practice of photographing historical and urban landscapes. On the other hand, these photographs carry a hint of the archaeological from the perspective of practical political observation and social criticism. If one can, through these photographs, understand the logic of grand architectural scenes like those of the Great Hall, then one knows why monumentally ugly architecture such as the National Theater, the new CCTV building, Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower and other examples across the country have emerged in endless succession.
This is all fine as a pretext. But all we ever want to talk about are the landscapes in these photographs and their relationship to different weighty topics, largely taking the approach of pan-cultural criticism. Very seldom do we ever discuss the relationship of the photographer to the landscape—in the art criticism of the past twenty years such textual analysis has been largely left oversimplified at the level of media studies. Returning to the show at hand, just how did Wu Yinxian understand his goal as a photographer of one of the ten celebratory new structures honoring the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic, an important symbol of the great success of the socialist New China, in this propagandistic project of collecting photographs? How is this goal expressed through the control of image and the use of visual language in the photographic process? And how would Wu himself view and critique this process of image manipulation and its value? Unfortunately, these topics have not fallen under the purview of this show’s curator. Liu Shuyong