I’m not very good at sitting still. I never have been and never will be…so writing a PhD has become quite an interesting journey where the only way it seems to “happen” as such is to have a constant change of scenery and surroundings. I use many corners of the UK, of cafés, libraries and public transport (I’m on the train to Northampton right now) and, in the process, I come across so many firsts and new discoveries…some good, some bad, some revelatory, some very indifferent.
Last week, when I was working from The University of Northampton’s Avenue Campus library, I walked into the building’s foyer to discover a Chinese documentary photography exhibition called ‘Journey into Ancient Naxi’. Whenever I stumble across an exhibition of Chinese culture by chance, it always makes me smile contently…this is my world at the moment and it’s everywhere, people just don’t realise it. It definitely is China’s century.
‘Journey into Ancient Naxi’ is a collaborative, partnership project between students from the Communication University of China and The University of Northampton on show at The University of Northampton’s Avenue Campus, in the building’s foyer and in the adjoining Avenue Gallery. It was on show from the 30 April to the 30 May 2014 so it’s literally just finished. At the moment, I’m keep on hearing about many collaborative exchange projects between the UK and China (a forthcoming one between Chelsea School of Art and Shanghai Institute of Visual Art that I must follow-up with a colleague), which is further indicative that it really is China’s century and, that from a research perspective, focus is now shifting from the artists and artworks of China, to the educational infrastructures and teachings that are cultivating these artists and artworks…in my opinion, vastly different to their UK or Western counterparts but that’s a whole other conversation.
The exhibition ‘documents the students’ experiences of the Dongba culture of the Naxi people in Lijiang City in Yunnan Province, South-West China, driven by a shared passion and interest in protecting and sharing these precious and endangered cultures and traditions.’ Although a somewhat ahistorical presentation of China, of “Chineseness” and a very specific Chinese history, and very much documentary rather than fine art photography, the exhibition did what it needed to for the creatives involved and the audience, that is to inform and educate about an unknown corner of the world, a specific culture of China that the audience may never get to see but that I know for those involved with the project will never, ever forget. Also, it raises the question of documentation in China, how arts and culture practice, and socio-economic contexts, do not get recorded as meticulously as they do in the UK or West. This is something that China is slowly starting to realise due to voids and gaps in its cultural history, however it is difficult to keep up with as a process due to the rapid pace of change within the nation.
“The logic we came up with reads as follows: Variety of species and diversity of cultures are essential to the evolution of the mankind and development of society. Lijiang nurtures the social ecology with different nationalities and multiple cultures; therefore Lijiang is beneficial to humanity improvement and social development. We need to strive to preserve such ecology.
You will see the recordings of a young generations. In 20 days, they immerse themselves to experience the Dongba Manuscripts as part of World Memory Engineering, the Parallel Three Rivers as World Natural Heritage and Dayan Ancient Town as World Cultural Heritage. Shocked by a variety of the World Heritages, they are not knocked down. Instead, they select their view, their angle, color code and frame shape to best express their understanding of Lijiang.
You will hear the heart beats of a young generation. In 20 days, they listen to and observe the practice of the Dongba culture by peoples of Naxi, Bai, Han etc. and expectaton for the Dongba cultural economics. They compose their melody with their selection of pitches and chords to best spell out their feelings of Dongba culture.” – Yan Junqi, Professor of Communication, University of China.
What hit me as soon as I saw the exhibition in the foyer was its innovative exhibition design, the multiple formats in which is displayed and showcased the images, and also how the works were or were not categorised by a theme. The foyer space is constructed of a series of vertical, digital format screens set on individual pillars (as shown in the images below) that I believe are a permanent fixture so cannot be altered in any way. The works were shown in titled grouped or categories, scrolling collections on each screen including ‘The Passengers’, ‘The Forgotten Rhythm’, ‘Mystery’, ‘The Lost Horizon’, ‘Meditation’, ‘The Time Traveller, ‘Faith’, ‘Inside and Outside’ et al. This I felt gave a certain curatorial flexibility.
The foyer space leads off into the Avenue Gallery corridor where the walls were lined with large format framed prints, more traditional in terms of presentation and content, though again, a few more contemporary insights. Overall, the show was visually balanced as the photographers are seen to work with different generations, shifts in generations, to translate different understandings of what China is now, a future China and what this future holds for each individual photographed, very much with a sense of positive hope and vision. I’m going to get in touch with the curator of the show to discuss the experience more, as you know, I’m all about “connecting the dots that people can’t see”.
“We sincerely hope your heart beats resonate with theirs when you stop by their works, and come on board to contribute to the preservation of the typical ecology where echoes the vital condition for the development of human civilisation.” – Yan Junqi, Professor of Communication, University of China.