The Museum of Modern Art New York (MoMA) has included recent acquisitions of photographic work by Chinese artists Ai Weiwei, Rong Rong and Huang Yan in their exhibition “Staging Action: Performance in Photography since 1960”.

Click here to read more about “Staging Action: Performance in Photography since 1960” on the MoMA website.

Art Radar Asia interviews Eva Respini – Associate Curator, Department of Photography, MoMA – to discuss the exhibition, the relationship between photography and performance and the museum’s views on contemporary Chinese photography.

Eva Respini on: Performance photography as art

Eva Respini, Associate Curator, Department of Photography, MoMA. Image courtesy MoMA.

Eva Respini, Associate Curator, Department of Photography, MoMA. Image courtesy MoMA.

Photography is often used to document performance art, but this exhibition shows photographs conceived as independent and expressive works of art, which are performative in nature. They often stage an action and seem to capture a sense of immediacy. Can you elaborate on the aims of this exhibition?

While some photographs do relate to live performances, most of the time the artists construct performances for the camera, sometimes with an audience, sometimes alone. The camera itself is conceived as an audience, so there is a single point-of-view. This endeavour is ephemeral and time-based, and these photographs capture a moment and extend that moment.

How does the dynamic change when the performer and the photographer are not the same person? For example, in Rong Rong’s “East Village, Beijing” series he took photographs of experimental artists performing.

In those cases, it is really a collaboration between the performer and the photographer, including the staging and consideration of point-of-view. So the photographer is not merely documenting, but taking part in how the performance unfolds for the camera.

If a photograph can function independently in this context is it possible that it could undermine the performance in any way? How do artists negotiate between the two actions, performing and taking photographs?

I think [the photographs] do not undermine the performance at all; they are just [two] different methodologies of working. In the case of Rong Rong, he is absolutely a key player in conceiving how the photographs are made and as an important collaborator.

In the absence of audience, which is the case for many works, how does performance art differ?

The main difference is the time. Performance for a live audience is a time-based medium, with the quality of duration, which is not the case for photographs, which are instant, one moment is captured and memorialised in one image. The ephemeral quality of performance is replaced by a calculated point-of-view, a staging for the camera. Also, when performances happen in a live encounter, artists do not have control over the audience. In staging for photographs, artists have full control over the situation and the way in which the works are experienced by the viewers.

Rong Rong, 'East Village, Beijing, No. 81.', 1994, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy MoMA.

Rong Rong, 'East Village, Beijing, No. 81.', 1994, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy MoMA.

Eva Respini on: Curation of “Staging Action”

Video can also be used to document performance art. Can it be seen as an independent medium that is able to present the staging of a performance as art? Was any video work considered for the exhibition?

Absolutely. There are a lot of video works that deal with performative action. We decided not to include , first due to size considerations and, second, we were quite interested in exploring photography in relation to performance. Video works have a time element, in the same way that performance [art] does, but photography captures one instantaneous moment.

Why did MoMA conceive this exhibition now? Have you noticed an increase in academic interest in the medium of photography and performance? Is this part of a series of re-stagings of MoMA’s permanent collection?

Both. The museum recently established a department of performance, and there have been a lot of live performances [held] in the museum. In light of the museum’s commitment to performance we decided to present an exhibition to show this different kind of engagement with performance in conjunction with other exhibitions in the museum, for example, the Marina Abramović exhibition last year [2010]. In the photography department we do reconsider our collection thematically for new ways to look at [the works], [which] come from a wide range of time periods and geographies.

Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective - White House. 1995-2003. Gelatin silver print. MoMA

Ai Weiwei, 'Study of Perspective – White House', 1995-2003, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy MoMA.

Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective - Eiffel Tower, 1995-2003. Gelatin silver print. MoMA

Ai Weiwei, 'Study of Perspective – Eiffel Tower', 1995-2003, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy MoMA.

So one of the aims of “Staging Action” is to showcase new acquisitions in a meaningful context?

Yes. In fact, half of the works shown in this exhibition are recently acquired [works] that haven’t [yet] been on view.

Is the pace of acquisition the same across all of MoMA’s curatorial departments?

It’s the same. We have the same number of acquisition meetings across all departments.

We are intrigued by the cross-disciplinary nature of performance art. You mentioned the establishment of a performance department for MoMA. Where is video art placed and how does the photography department work with the performance department?

Video and [new] media, encompassing sound installation, together with performance art, form the media and performance art department. While there are different curatorial departments, interest goes across the mediums for any curator.

Eva Respini on: Chinese artists in “Staging Action”

Were there other Chinese artists considered for the exhibition, but not shown?

It happens for all the exhibitions. We [acquired] a group of Chinese contemporary photographers’ works, twelve in total, about two years ago. It is an area that we are interested in and are actively pursuing acquisitions in. We will continue to look at the works and hang them in our collection in different installations.

Writer’s note: While MoMA has never officially disclosed the artists whose works were collected during the acquisition period mentioned above, The Art Newspaper reported in 2008 that works by Ai Weiwei, Rong Rong, Huang Yan and Sheng Qi were acquired. Blog Holding Forth also noted the acquisition of work by Zhang Dali.

In this group of work by Chinese artists, do you notice any characteristics unique to Chinese photography, be it photographic language, representation, or the concerns explored?

I do think there is a strong performance-based practice to this group of work by Chinese artists. Partly because … in the early 1990s, in Beijing’s East Village, a lot of performances were happening, so photography fit in naturally with that. Not all of the works we have are performance-based, but a lot [of photographs] from that time period were engaging with that [medium]. These are more radical gestures, responding to the established painting and sculpture worlds. Photography was a new language for the avant-garde.

Huang Yan, Chinese Landscape - Tattoo, 1999. Chromogenic colour print. MoMA

Huang Yan, 'Chinese Landscape – Tattoo', 1999, chromogenic colour print. Image courtesy MoMA.

What about the performance practice of these Chinese artists? Do they tend to look to Western avant-garde artists for inspiration or do they have their own devices and language?

I would say they really have their own distinct tradition: a lot of them were very political in nature and were working against the system, the commodified art world and the [art] academies that were stressing mastery of painting and copying. Performance, an act that can happen at any time and in any situation, was a kind of political act, even [if it was] without a political statement.

Eva Respini on: Chinese contemporary photography

Can we further explore MoMA’s acquisition decisions regarding these Chinese contemporary artists? Were their works chosen because of the artists track record or because of their future potential?

With any acquisition, MoMA is looking to acquire significant works that have made an impact and are important works of their time. When we were looking to acquire works from China, we did lots of research but didn’t acquire so much at the time. We only acquired works from the 80s, 90s and early 2000s several years ago. This is because we needed the time to look, to research and to understand who were significant and why. We needed to wait for the history to unfold over the last few decades [and], as the history of contemporary photography is relatively short, we were not in a rush to buy the ‘hottest’ works.

So the works we have today do reflect the major figures that made a significant contribution to [international] photography…. Rong Rong is an excellent example, a figure extremely important to Chinese photography, reflected by his “East Village” portfolio and the important work he is now doing at Three Shadows [Photography Art Centre].

Rong Rong. East Village, Beijing, No. 8. 1995. Gelatin silver print. Series of 4, MoMA

Rong Rong, 'East Village, Beijing, No. 8.', 1995, gelatin silver print, series of 4. Image courtesy MoMA.

For MoMA, does the familiarity of the western cultural context make it easier to decide which western works are significant in their time, in contrast to, say, Chinese works?

We do have more familiarity [with western works], but our curators travel to China frequently. In fact, one of us is currently at Caochangdi Photospring 2011, for which I was on the jury last year. So by travelling we see, discover and meet [the artists] in person. That is how we are able to make acquisitions and gain access to the works.

Lastly, do you feel that Chinese contemporary photography can strike a more universal, human chord, or is much of it read through a political angle, with the recent Ai Weiwei situation only reinforcing this reading?

I don’t think one can make a very broad statement about Chinese contemporary photography, but unfortunately it has been categorised through one lens. In fact, the practitioners work very differently from one another. Some are much more political, some are more concerned with philosophies or ideas of the body, some [work with] digital manipulation of photography. So I see contemporary Chinese photography inhabiting so many ideas and faces that it is impossible to say it is one thing or another.

One thing I can say, though, is that an incredible energy has been building up [in China] since the late 80s, with a great art market and support for artists that has resulted in a robust history of photography in China. This is a place where we will keep looking and discovering. Hopefully, the work won’t just be read through the political lens [as] that would be narrow, and the [artists’] intentions [aren’t always political].

People have a tendency to take a piece of work and twist it in their own way, which is beyond the control of the artist.

Yes, the work has a life outside of the artist’s intention and exists in its own right, especially when there are issues in the translation [of the work], not just [translation of] language, but also cultural [translation].


Related Topics: photography, performance art, Chinese artists, interviews

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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