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Getting to Three Shadows, China’s first and only privately run, non-profit center devoted to photography and video art, is a trip through the recent history of both Chinese art and Beijing real estate.

Only a distance of a mile and a half (2 km) on the Fifth Ring Road separates Dashanzi, the internationally known art district in northeastern Beijing from Caochangdi. Dashanzi, a.k.a. 798, started off as an off-the-beaten-path bastion of the avant-garde where artists lived, created and showed their work; then this unique neighborhood inevitably morphed into a mix of galleries—many of them big, as are the works of art in them— shops with goods ranging from high end to touristy souvenirs and trendy eateries. Caochangdi is funkier and far less commercial, though it’s becoming increasingly populated, visited and hip. Galleries—some backed by Europeans, Americans, and non-Chinese Asians—continue to move in, more artists are claiming space for studios, and property values keep escalating. An abrupt right turn off the big main road and a brief drive up a recently paved small one leads to the relative quiet oasis of the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre.

Three Shadows’ construction pays homage to Beijing’s increasingly diminishing architectural past. Like traditional Beijing structures, it has a low elevation that harmonizes with rather than dwarfs its site; the walls, of recycled gray bricks from demolished old Beijing buildings, surround a large, peaceful inner courtyard filled with pomegranate and persimmon trees. Three Shadows looks and feels like a quadrangle in a progressive college, and in many ways it functions like one.

Courtyard, Three Shadows Photography Art CentreCourtyard, Three Shadows Photography Art Centre© Abby Robinson
Its goals are largely educational: establishing the study of photography as an academic endeavor in China; increasing the quality of photo education along with establishing and exploring China’s unique photo history raising the bar for exhibition standards, showcasing, influencing and facilitating contemporary Chinese photography and fostering discussion and dialogue in China itself as well as encouraging international dialogue.

Context is everything in China with ambition running a close second. To understand and appreciate the significance of Three Shadows, it helps to examine its pedigree and place in the continuum of recent Chinese art history. In 2008, when Three Shadows opened, Christopher Phillips, a curator at New York City’s International Center for Photography and a member of Three Shadows’ Advisory Board, offered his impressions of recent goings-on in China:

“The world has discovered Chinese contemporary art, and the resulting changes have come almost too quickly to believe. There are artists who were living in near-poverty when I met them in 1999 who are now very, very wealthy, and who employ dozens of assistants to help produce their works. However, the flood of money that is washing through the Chinese contemporary art scene has not really yielded better or more interesting art, only glossier production values. I find it disheartening when I visit artists today and hear very little talk about artistic questions, only endless recitals of the latest auction results and gossip about whose work is or is not being purchased by mega-collectors like Charles Saatchi. If you’re not directly involved in the market, this kind of talk is just mind-numbingly boring.

“Here’s the way I see the current state of things. In the past ten years Chinese experimental artists fought a long, hard battle for national and international recognition. They won that battle—triumphed completely. During the next ten years, I think the major artistic struggle in China will shift to another area, to the desperate need to establish stable, long-term institutions that can support contemporary art...”[1]

Three Shadows is the inspired and idealistic brainchild of two internationally prominent photographer founders who stepped up to that challenge: RongRong, originally from Fujian province, and his Japanese wife inri. Their vision—to create a place where people could come, see, talk and read about, and live photography—not surprisingly grew out of the arc of their own careers. Their relationship informs their conviction that photographs are a lingua franca made visual and in their case one with a vocabulary of passion, collaboration, community and globalization.

Chinese artists, isolated by political circumstances from 1949-1979, had, by the late 1980’s, reconnected with what artists were doing in the rest of the world. They assimilated new and available information from the West at a breakneck pace and busily created their own praxis, where the boundaries between photography, painting, sculpture, installation and performance were plastic and porous. Art writer and contributing editor of ARTnews Barbara Pollack emphasized that, “with the introduction of digital photography and high-tech printing facilities in China in the 1990s, a new generation of artists immediately embraced photo-based media as the perfect means for expressing the changes taking place around them.”[2] For artists in a hurry, photography, with its speed and flexibility, was a particularly apt tool for dealing with China’s rapid growth and transformation.

Artists employed the photographic medium, ever receptive to new visual technologies and practices, to make work addressing first-person expression and self-identity. The University of Chicago’s Wu Hung identified this as a momentous shift from collectivity to individuality, writing that those making this change “were ‘experimental artists’ precisely because each one reacted differently to a set of common questions and problems, resulting in creation and innovation in terms of form, style, and visual language.”[3]

Christopher Phillips, adding socio-political perspective, theorized that, “The steady erosion of the prestige of such formerly all-embracing institutions as the family and the Communist Party; the promotion of the private entrepreneurial values demanded by a market-driven economy; the precipitous arrival of a global consumer culture that recognizes only individual satisfactions—all of these factors have created in China an unprecedented space in which to test the possibilities of personal autonomy.”[4]

Now, not only could Chinese photographers travel in a cyberspace, they also had unprecedented freedom and opportunities to roam in the real world. RongRong, a pioneer participant in the post-Tiananmen Square experimental phase of Chinese photo history, traveled to Japan for an exhibition of his work in 1999. There, he met inri. She spoke no Chinese and he no Japanese; with photography their only shared language, they communicated initially through pictures and picture-making. Zhang Li, RongRong’s friend and Three Shadows’ founding curator, shed additional light on their initial interactions, saying that, although they couldn’t communicate in words, “RongRong made numerous calls to Tokyo just to hear inri’s voice.”[5]

The Past Conflates with the Future

RongRong, having studied painting at the Fujian Industrial Art Institute, moved to Beijing in 1992, planning to study photography at the Central Industrial Art Institute. Instead he wound up kick-starting his career in Beijing’s East Village, a now vanished and almost mythic place where new, vibrant Chinese art began and flourished. Literally a dump—as in a garbage collection site—where migrant workers lived, the village’s cheap rents attracted young artists, many of whom have since become major art stars in their own country and abroad. Baptized the East Village, its new inhabitants inaugurated the name change by putting up a sign. It stayed up for a day and then promptly removed by the police.

RongRong, in the right place at the right time, photographing with a documentary zeal comparable to Araki’s in Japan and Nan Goldin’s in the U.S., the creative life around him as well as vanguard performances by his friends Zhang Huan and Ma Liuming; these photos now have historical import and considerable monetary value. According to Gu Zheng, writer, critic, and Professor of Photography at Shanghai’s Fudan University, “The recreation and appropriation of performance art broke the boundary between documentation and representation—this kind of photography not only documents but becomes its own visual representation. Through the space shared with the performance artist, a common atmosphere is created. The photographer participates in the definition and search of the performer’s body from the photographer’s own perspective.”[6]

The East Village scene didn’t last long; by mid-1994, police harassment caused its inhabitants to scatter and the village was razed to make way for luxury apartments. With their unerring talent for creating the next hot spot, RongRong and other East Village refugees settled in Liulitun (Six Mile Village) in 1995. RongRong’s work changed with the move; in his Wedding Gown series he enacted his own performances in front of his camera.

Meanwhile, Inri was employed as a portrait photographer for Asahi Shinbum, the most respected newspaper in Japanese, from 1994-1997, but left her job to concentrate on her own work. Even before they met, RongRong and inri’s photography shared sensibilities. She too was concerned with autobiographical expression, and initially made her pictures in collaborative circumstances. From 1997-1999, she was immersed in two series: the first, Maximax documented a performance where a model dressed in white in a white room progressively stains herself and her environment with bright red paint; in the second, 1999, Tokyo she recorded another model’s journey through the city’s backstreets, focusing on her body parts.

The Founding of Three Shadows

In 2000, a year after her initial encounter with RongRong, inri moved to Liulitun. While the social life in this new venue retained the East Village communal flavor, making art did not. For the artists who lived there it now became an individualized pursuit. RongRong and inri were no exception; their work turned inward as they collaborated, their dreamy, surreal pictures depicting the tenuousness of their environment. Their one-story, traditionally built brick house, however, continued to serve as the community meeting place and their courtyard became a cherished space where friends came to eat, drink, debate, polish post-modern art theories and perform—exactly the type of camaraderie for which Three Shadow’s courtyard was designed.

Demolition in Liulitun began in 2002, yet another victim of Beijing’s rampant and rapacious urban sprawl. Once RongRong and inri’s house came down in 2003, the couple touched down now and again in Wangjing, a fringe area close to the nascent art district Dashanzi. But mostly they traveled in Europe showing their work, visiting other artists, and checking out various art communities and facilities. After they married, in 2003, their joint photos became increasingly poetic, the imagery becoming a well-recognized personal mythology.

Despite their peripatetic existence, the couple acquired photo books, and in 2005 they began to envision a library for housing and sharing them. It would be the first facility of its kind in their country, open to the public and available for research and education. They considered locating it in 798 but, said RongRong, it was “like a big supermarket”[7]. Inri clarifying their intentions stated “we wanted to create a venue where people could look at and think about (rather than just buy) art.”[8] Instead, they rented a site, previously home to a car repair center, in then remote Caochangdi (Chinese law apparently prohibits them from buying the land but does allow them to build on it). Discussions followed with Ai Weiwei, a fellow East Villager whom the New York Times recently described as “probably China’s most famous living artist.”[9] Besides being a conceptual artist known for his iconoclasm and political activism, he’s also an architect (in 2008 he collaborated on the Beijing National Stadium for the Olympics with the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron). Construction in China is dazzlingly swift. Building began in fall 2006 and Three Shadows was up and running by July 2007.

Three Shadows Today

Just as Chinese art works kept getting bigger, so too has the project. From RongRong and inri’s collection of 1000 books, the 700-square-foot library has swelled through donations from individuals and foundations. There are currently more than 3500+ volumes, along with photo and video art-related journals and catalogs. The project has expanded further to include 12,000 square feet of gallery space, a video editing and production center, a lecture hall, two professional darkrooms, a digital facility for producing professional quality ink jet prints, a store, and a café—all open to the public. Space was allotted for Three Shadows’ growing archive of prints by well-known and up-and-coming younger Chinese photographers as well as foreign ones. Plus, there are accommodations for participants in the artist-in-residency program.

Gallery, Three Shadows Photography Art CentreGallery, Three Shadows Photography Art Centre© Abby Robinson

The center’s name, managing director Isabelle Holden explains, was chosen “because three represents the three colors of black and white photography—black, white and gray—and RongRong wanted to incorporate the Taoist concept that one leads to two which leads to three which is the perfect number. And why shadows? Because, ‘photography’ in Chinese is a pretty direct translation of ‘fixing shadows’"[10]

While managing to bridge past/present and collective/individual polarities and establish itself as a landmark in China’s new photography culture, the center remains a very hands-on project. “Every penny for running the centre comes from selling our work,” explained RongRong. “We hope the money can eventually go into a public foundation so Three Shadows becomes a fully independent institution.”[11] Because the idea that those who have enjoyed success should ‘give back’ to the community is so novel in China many assume the idealism masks some hidden commercial agenda.

The Center’s first four shows wind up being perfect indicators of its priorities: reclaiming history, discovering and launching new talent, a keenness to retaining, rather than sacrificing, older analog techniques; and dedication to international collaboration, and broadening photography’s appreciation within China itself.

The groundbreaking inaugural exhibition, New Photo—Ten Years, ran from June 2007 through the summer. The title referenced the now iconic, independently published counterculture journal that RongRong put out between 1996-1998 with fellow photographer Liu Zheng. With Beijing's sole color photocopier requiring unattainable permission to use, New Photo’s erratic publication schedule was dependent on its editors' ability to scrape up enough money for black and white photocopying. Despite these challenges, the journal contained cutting-edge work by a burgeoning community of experimental photographers; a number of whom—Zhuang Hui, Yan Lei, Zhao Liang, Han Lei, Qiu Zhijie, Hong Lei, and Zheng Guogu—subsequently became leading practitioners in their field. Nearly all of the works first published in the journal New Photo were included in the exhibition, providing a comprehensive overview detailing the gradual transition from photojournalism (which in China often served propagandistic purposes) to experimental photography. The impetus of the show grew out of co-curators Zhang Li and Wu Hung’s belief that a substantive historical perspective was required for the mid-1990’s experimental period. Wu Hung felt that “China moves so fast that the artists don’t always think—they have instinct and ambition, but they need to think about what is Chinese contemporary photography.”[12]

As Three Shadows wends its idiosyncratic way into the future, it also champions developments at a remove from the technology that catapulted recent Chinese photography onto the world stage and into a global economy. RongRong thinks Chinese photographers “know something, but it comes from the web. They lack contact with original works and other artists, which I think is very important. Looking at prints and original work is very different....Of course they can find a lot of information online, but they lack real experience. Three Shadows can provide this. Society is based more and more on the virtual, but I feel real experience is still very important.”[13] The ability to provide intimate contact with prints was one of inri and RongRong’s primary rationales for the allocation of so much square footage for gallery space, along with their dynamic exhibition schedule.

Show number two, 1979-1989: Chinese Opera Calendar Photography, traced the bumpy history of this photo genus: once so highly regarded that it shared commensurate status with ink painting, oil painting, and prints, banned during the Cultural Revolution, then back into vogue with reform only to disappear again with China’s recent economic and cultural surges.

Given its mission to “rediscover important photographic works from the past and give them the place they deserve in the history of photography in China,”[14] the Center saw the necessity of preventing the calendars’ slide into oblivion especially since this genre’s theatricality and staginess positioned it as unsung progenitor of much contemporary photography. Featured artist Wang Binglong made significant innovations. Instead of using stage and sets, he placed opera performers in natural environments. Not only that, he played the roles of producer, director, photographer, and writer all in one. These calendar pictures, an important resource for Chinese opera research, have been a treasure trove for RongRong, inri, their experimental colleagues and modern day image-makers involved with performance art, installations, video and staged photography.

Convection, the third show in 2007, displayed works from the permanent collection. With participants from France, Japan, America and China, the exhibition illustrated RongRong and inri’s long-held conviction that photography was a language that enabled dialogue among photographers from different nations and cultures. That there even was such a thing as a permanent collection was already an innovative concept.

According to Zhang Li, Outward Expressions, Inward Reflections: Young Photographers Group Show, initiated an exhibition schedule whereby the first show each year—usually in April after China’s spring festival—would be dedicated to new, young talent. This premiere show exhibited prints by four newcomers whose work displayed a form of first-person expression, what RongRong and inri viewed as a connection between the work and the spirit of the photographer. Zhang Li admitted that although the computer was a very important tool in ferreting out new work, he was “not as good on the web and websites as young people.”[15] He, along with RongRong, inri, some board members and dedicated friends, using old fashioned footwork, traveled throughout the country seeking little or unknown photographers of merit. “It’s very exciting to find someone new,” Zhang Li professed, “and Adou was an example of a very good one. I found him at a photo festival north of Guangdong province. He wasn’t part of the festival but was showing his work on the ground in front of the exhibition.”[16]

Adou’s photographs of the Yi ethnic minority in western Sichuan province read on the surface as documentary yet have a distinctive interiority. As Adou saw it, "There is no difference between taking a picture of others and myself. The camera may be pointed outward, but whether you like it or not, it always reveals you."[17]

Adou originally shot with out-of-date film and printed digitally. RongRong convinced him to print his black and whites the traditional analog way instead. Here again RongRong’s knowledge of and commitment to the past and his deployment of older photo practices proved farsighted. The adamant inclusion of a darkroom at Three Shadows—which can be rented for a small fee—is another, related example of the founders’ faith in the importance of including, rather than rejecting, photography’s cornerstone techniques. Under RongRong’s tutelage, Adou developed a distinctive printing style—that included bubbles, smudges, streaks, and scratches because he tended to use expired film—and has since had a solo show at the prestigious Pace/MacGill gallery in New York. The other photographers in this debut group show have successful careers as well.

Contemporaneously, Three Shadows launched its first Three Shadows Photography Award with Adou as its first recipient. The yearly competition, open to any artist of Chinese descent regardless of age or citizenship, is juried by a selection committee of international photo experts. Along with the Three Shadows award for newcomer of the year, additional honors were added in 2009: the Shiseido Prize for Best Female Photographer and The Tierney Fellowship. Prizes come with remuneration, media exposure and possible exhibition and/or publishing opportunities. The Three Shadows Award winner is offered a one-to-two-month artist-in-residency package either at Three Shadows or with an international partner organization. While prizes and competitions are popular and widespread in China, the most interesting and unique element here is Three Shadows’ keenness to foster long-term relationships with the prizewinners.

There were three more shows in 2008 and the following year the number had increased to seven. The scheduling continued to mix the traditional with the new in Chinese photography and the content expanded to include video as well as work by Canadian photographers, a Chinese-American doing photo-etchings, a Dutch photographer’s photos made in China and a Dutch-Chinese collaboration. The initial 2010 exhibition is “Still Life," a show that Three Shadows curated for the Belgium Europalia China exhibition held in Brussels.

Roughly 35% of the Center’s hundred or so visitors are foreign and 65% of them Chinese of which about 80% are student. Aside from exhibitions, guests attend outdoor summer concerts and film screenings or participate in seminars and lectures. RongRong and inri attend or oversee some of these activities; familiarity with their photographs make the duo easy to spot in the crowd. There are some photo classes and children’s pinhole workshops; the center’s tight budget, however, has limited the expansion of these community-based programs.

But other forms of outreach continue to grow. The big news is that Three Shadows is bringing the Arles Photo festival to Beijing this spring. There will be exhibitions by Pierre Gonnord from Spain, Julien Clergue from France, and Naoya Hatakeyama and Nobuyoshi Araki from Japan. The work of the winners of the Arles Photo Prize 2009 will be there too, nicely dovetailing with the Center’s own Photo Award. Now add in symposia, portfolio reviews and nighttime slide shows. And in this formidable endeavor, Three Shadows is not going it alone; 20 other galleries in Caochangdi are involved in what’s been titled Caochangdi PhotoSpring, Arles in Beijing.

Even though RongRong and inri’s prints sell for high prices in Hong Kong, the U.S. and Europe, which allows them to continue to fund this project, they ultimately want the center to exist independently of them. So other sources of revenue are sought. Government funding isn’t available and even if it were, it would be problematic to accept for fear of interference. A part of Three Shadows actually does operates like a gallery, selling work by the artists it represents: RongRong & inri, naturally, Adou, Zhao Liang, Xiong Wenyun, Liu Heung Shing, Mo Yi, Qiu, Ling Hua, Lu Yanpeng, Jiang Pengyi, Cai Weidong, and Ai Weiwei (though only for the photos that were included in his New York Photographs 1983-1993 exhibition). Some income comes via the sale of the six books printed by Three Shadows Press. Three are catalogues of shows; one is a compilation of the center’s lectures and symposia; and two are expensive limited edition box sets. In addition, the facility is occasionally rented out for meetings and parties.

Clearly RongRong and inri’s romanticism resulted in their dreaming up, building, funding and running something on the scale of Three Shadows. Their personal mythology helps foster and maintain it. Even with its impressive Advisory Board—made up of multinational scholars, curators, critics, and artists—and a staff that includes a managing director, a publisher, international and domestic affairs liaisons, an office manager, librarian, production head, photo and image preservationist, a café and store manager, two guards and two ayis (housekeepers), Three Shadows still tends to be thought of as RongRong and inri’s baby.

RongRong, Three Shadows Cafe/BookstoreRongRong, Three Shadows Cafe/Bookstore© Abby Robinson

Still, it’s understandable that 37-year old inri and 42-year old RongRong want to return to making their own photographs fulltime. They still continue to make new work—though not at the same pace as before—while juggling the running of Three Shadows and the raising of their three children (ages 1 ½, 3 ½ and 5). Their most recent work which is inextricably tied to the development of the center appeared in their three-month long, 2009 Three Shadows exhibition From Six Mile Village to Three Shadows.

“After 10 years in Beijing, I was enough establishment and there was no reason to stick to the status quo,“ the seemingly relaxed and continually cheerful RongRong says. “Three Shadows was never a whole comprehensive idea; it came in steps. I never planned it to be this way. A seed has been planted, but I don’t know how big a tree will grow.” While most people would be daunted, if not exhausted, by all that he’s done, taken on, and tweaked, RongRong has retained a healthy sense of humor. “But you know,” he divulges with a laugh, “as hard as doing this entire space was, the hardest thing of all was coming up with a logo.”[18]


Abby Robinson’s photographic work has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and numerous other publications and is in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among other museums. Her articles have been published in the New York Times, Newsday and Asian Art News. She teaches photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Notes

1. Lynn Zhang,“Christopher Phillips: Impressions of Chinese Art,” Artzine 2008, Artzinechina, Inc, http://www.artzinechina.comreturn to text

2. Barbara Pollack, “Chinese Photography: Beyond Stereotypes,” ARTnews.com, February 2004 http://artnews.com return to text

3. Wu Hung, “The Liu Li Tun Moment,” Liu Li Tun, RongRong & inri, Three Shadows Art Centre, Three Shadows Photography Art Centre (Beijing) and Chambers Fine Art (New York), 2006return to text

4. Christopher Phillips, “The Great Transition: Artists’ Photography and Video in China,” Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China, Wu Hung and Christopher Phillips, Smart Museum of Art (University of Chicago) and International Center of Photography (New York), 2004, p. 46return to text

5. Zhang Li, interview held at Three Shadows, Beijing, China, July 13, 2008return to text

6. Gu Zheng, “From Propaganda to Post-Photography: Chinese Photography in the Last Three Quarters of a Century,” Photography from China 1934-2008, FotoFest, Inc, Houston, TX, 2008, p. 33return to text

7. Dan Edwards, “The Nurturing of Chinese Photography: RongRong Interview,” Real Time, Issue #92, August-September 2009, http://www.realtimearts.netreturn to text

8. Edan Corkill, “Not in Beijing for the Chinese,”, The Japan Times Online, November 15, 2007, http://www.japantimes.co.jpreturn to text

9. ”$100,000 Art Prize,” Arts in Brief compiled by Randy Kennedy, The New York Times, January 20, 2010, p. C2 return to text

10. Isabelle Holden, personal communication: emails January 8 and 13, 2010return to text

11. Dan Edwards, “The Nurturing of Chinese Photography: RongRong Interview,” Real Time, Issue#92, August-September 2009, http://www.realtimearts.netreturn to text

12. Sheila Melvin, “Photography as art comes into its own in China,” International Herald Tribune Online, Monday, August 6, 2007, <http://www.nytimes.com>return to text

13. Dan Edwards, “The Nurturing of Chinese Photography: RongRong Interview,” Real Time, Issue #92, August-September 2009, http://www.realtimearts.netreturn to text

14. Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, Mission Statement, http://www.threeshadows.cn/en/about_us.htmlreturn to text

15. Zhang Li, interview held at Three Shadows, Beijing, China, July 13, 2008.return to text

16. Zhang Li, interview held at Three Shadows, Beijing, China, July 13, 2008.return to text

17. Fredrik Skott, “http://gruppof.blogspot.com/2008/09/invited-photographer-adou.htmlinvited photographer: Adou,” The F Blog by Gruppo F, September, 20, 2008, <http://gruppof.blogspot.comreturn to text

18. RongRong, interview held at Three Shadows,Beijing, China, July 27, 2008return to text