China’s contemporary photography festival has problems but lots of potential, say participants.

The fifth annual Dali International Photography Exhibition took place from 1 to 5 August 2013 in China’s Yunnan Province. Though the festival’s continued existence is proof of an increase in public and government awareness of contemporary photography in China, the festival and the contemporary photography field itself on the mainland are often plagued by growing pains.

Birdhead, 'Untitled', 2011, cellulose black and white print.

Birdhead, ‘Untitled’, 2011, cellulose black and white print.

A festival in picturesque surrounds

Hedged in by the sprawling Erhai Lake to its East and the Cangshan Mountains to its West, the “old town” of Dali – once the capital of two independent kingdoms – is one of Yunnan Province’s most popular tourist destinations. Small cobblestone streets wind between stone ramparts and gatehouses marking the ancient city limits, swelling to maximum capacity in the summer months. Between August 1 and 5 this year, the city also played host to the Dali International Photography Exhibition (DIPE), drawing a diverse crowd of photography enthusiasts from both the mainland and further afield.

Approximately 500 photographers exhibited upwards of 4,000 works over the five-day period. The city, not designed to accommodate such an influx of art, made use of unconventional exhibition spaces scattered around town, such as an elementary school abandoned for the summer and a district full of unfinished luxury housing, where framed works hung next to exposed plumbing. Exhibitions were divided into those from invited artists, those from invited galleries, and those from artists who applied for inclusion.

Wang Guofeng, 'North Korea No.5', 2012. Image courtesy Schoeni Art Gallery.

Wang Guofeng, ‘North Korea No.5’, 2012. Image courtesy Schoeni Art Gallery.

The festival, though not yet well known abroad despite the “international” moniker, is already in its fifth year. The Dali local government and the Yunnan Cultural Bureau both play a large role in its organisation and they, along with a slew of private banks and corporations, provide its funding. Given the government’s commitment to its success – a resolve that stems in part from a desire to promote Dali as one of the nation’s premiere tourism hotspots – the Dali festival is likely one of China’s up-and-coming events for contemporary photography.

Dali: a provincial town with potential

Shanghai’s M97 Gallery participates annually in international festivals such as Amsterdam’s Unseen Photo Fair and New York’s AIPAD Photography Show, but came to Dali for the first time this year as one of the fifteen or so galleries attending by invitation. Gallery Manager Joanne Kim notes a difference between this and the other international events:

In China, collecting photography – contemporary photography, especially – has just begun. This time [in Dali], so far, I think I’ve seen that people have started to enjoy collecting, and are interested in seeing the photography that they haven’t had much exposure to, like contemporary works. So this has a lot of possibility compared to other photography festivals.

Art provincial, but with potential

Beijing-based curator and photographer Wu Shunan, who this year curated the exhibition “The Ode of Happiness” featuring photographer Ao Guoxing‘s works in Dali, is also conscious of southwest China’s simultaneous provincialism and potential.

Of course the market for art is better in bigger cities. The market in Beijing is of course better than in Dali. But because of the festival a lot of people important to the industry will gather here at the same time. I knew there was a definite market here, so I decided to attend.

Dali is far from China’s more westernised and cosmopolitan metropolises such as Shanghai and Beijing, where the chance to see contemporary art is more common, so this “definite market” remains dictated by local tastes that tend towards the more conventional. Kim admits that M97 Gallery was concerned about the public’s reaction to the offerings at the festival.

We’re only exhibiting contemporary works – no vintage works at all, unlike other galleries. We were really worried that no one was going to be interested because it’s not vintage, small and delicate. Many Chinese collectors are more interested in vintage works, because when you start collecting, it’s easy, kind of safe. Contemporary is bigger – you don’t know if it really works or not.

Sales figures and public feedback for the gallery ended up being encouraging, however. “Things are getting better and better,” says Kim.

Zhang Xiao, 'Coastline14', 2009.

Zhang Xiao, ‘Coastline14’, 2009.

“A bit of a mixed bag”

A photography festival is more than sales figures, however. Though a number of participants remained pleased with the festival’s execution, others such as Wu were less enchanted with the overall quality of its artistic offerings.

The festival is a bit of a mixed bag – there’s good shows and bad ones. There’s a bit of a problem with curatorial standards, a bit of a sense that they’ve thrown everything in. The problem is that they don’t have an overarching theme. They haven’t decided if they’re focusing on fine art photography or commercial photography or photojournalism – they’ve included it all.

Being overly inclusive is a tactic perhaps useful for an event still finding its bearings and making a name for itself, but problematic if the festival’s goal is to eventually find a place on the world stage and attract attention from international artists and organisations beyond those specifically invited to attend.

Even impressively curated shows still suffered at times from poor quality prints, since making museum or gallery-quality prints outside the major Chinese cities is often not possible. Many, Wu included, chose to ship in prints made elsewhere at much greater expense than have works printed closer to the festival itself.

Rising standards, but room for improvement 

Lin Tianfu, President of the Taipei Art Photo Show, has brought a delegation of Taiwanese artists to the Dali festival since 2009 and feels that he has seen the festival’s standards rise over the years. Even so, the difference in printing quality between Taiwan and the maindland stands out as an issue where there remains room for improvement.

Sometimes, the way of doing things on both coasts is just not the same. Photography in Taiwan has developed for a longer time comparatively. We frame everything in Taiwan, because in matters of detail our requirements are higher. We follow the museum standards of framing, whereas on the mainland they sometimes won’t consider these things. Even though you spend a lot of money, they won’t get the details right.

Rong Rong. East Village, Beijing, No. 81. 1994. Gelatin silver print. MoMA

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

Grassroots initiative for improvement

Wu claims he voices a common sentiment among the photographers in his circle when he says, “Pretty much after every photography festival, everyone’s always disappointed.” Sales for his delegation were not particularly remarkable, and he was discouraged by the fact that those who attended shows in his area were mostly people already part of the existing photography in-groups, with very few new or unexpected faces. However, he is stoically hopeful for the future of the festival.

Because we love photography, we keep coming and we keep hoping that the next year, it’ll improve. Really, there’s never any change, but we keep hoping there will be. We keep hoping that through the strength of our exhibitions, we can help these festivals improve. We keep hoping.

Becky Davis


Related Topics: Chinese artists, festivals, photography

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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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