29th September 2021 | Guest Writer: Camilla Fatticcioni
Chinese Millennials are under the spotlight as they are a representative sample of a new leading upper class: they are rich, educated, and savvy about the world. Portraying such generation in between firm traditional Chinese boundaries and the fast economic growth of a country is not an easy task. The young generation grew with the internet and new media that are shaping our society today. Social networks are portraying life under filters and beauty cams. In a world dominated by unattainable beauty standards, some photographers stand out to show the real face of the young Chinese generation.
Ren Hang and the Snapshot Photography
Ren Hang, Untitled, 2016
Ren Hang's photographs caused a sensation because they bared a face of today's Chinese youth that many see but few observe. In Ren Hang's celebrated and provocative nude portraits of Beijing youth, the human form becomes a sculptural site of play, exploration, and freedom.
During his brief lifetime, the Chinese photographer captured his sitters in intricate entanglements with plants, animals, and one another. Ren Hang worked only with a simple Minolta analogue camera, easy to use and [to] carry. He said he wanted to take pictures freely by pressing a single button and capturing the naturalness of a moment in the hundreds of shots in succession. That's why he is considered one of the masters of "snap photography", a style popular in Asia. A snapshot is a photograph that is "shot" spontaneously and quickly, most often without artistic or journalistic intent and usually made with a relatively cheap and compact camera.
This spontaneity helped Ren Hang to create beautiful and representative images: without assistants or artificial lighting. Instead, his photographs were fragments of life, captured in the moment of the explosion.
He is the most famous young Chinese photographer, but many other Chinese artists have followed his footsteps and style.
Lou Yang Seeking Beauty
Luo Yang, from GIRLS series (2008-2017)
The rough and grainy visual impact of analogue photography is a constant in these artists, who seem to avoid digital perfection by seeking beauty in flaws. Luo Yang is part of this circle of artists who seek to restore aesthetic standards with an eye for the beauty of imperfections.
In the GIRLS photographic series, which began in 2008 and ended in 2017, Luo Yang explores the female universe of her generation, girls born in the 1980s. Among the most powerful images in this series, we see portraits of different women with shaved heads, acne-scarred faces, scars, and other imperfections that make them unique. The idea of beauty has increasingly become a point of discussion prevalent in China.
The aesthetics captured by Luo Yang goes beyond the canons imposed by the big names in fashion and influencers: the artist underlines the flaws, enlarges them making them a strong point.
In her most recent works, Luo has continued to explore the fluidity of gender roles and the complex uniqueness of female voices in a rapidly changing Chinese society. In the YOUTH photography series, Luo explores the generation of the 90s, talking about a distant world. from his own and that the artist admits still having difficulty understanding. That immortalised youth is more Sex and Rock' n Roll than K-pop and in stark contrast to the sophisticated and aseptic image conveyed by the pop stars adored by young people in China today. With tattoos and penetrating gazes, the subjects in front of the lens are aware of their appearance. They are provocative and, at the same time, fragile.
The Curious Case of Lao Xie xie
Lao Xie Xie, Tan Tan, 2017
Lao Xie Xie hides behind an Olympus analogue camera and a fictitious name. He is a photographer who prefers not to be described as such. He's not even Chinese, but he pretends to be. An Italian is hiding behind the mysterious identity of Lao Xie Xie. Lao Xie Xie is a deception to escape censorship and strip Shanghai's generation Y with images juxtaposing symbols of Chinese clichés with explicit nudity and eroticism.
The protagonist of Lao Xie Xie's shots is a provocative and vulnerable youth: in his intent, the artist portrays young consumers belonging to an increasingly bored generation. The use of props explicitly belonging to the Chinese tradition (red paper lamps, crow's feet, and instant noodles) underlines the generational contrasts experienced by young Chinese today, [characterised by] cultural heritage and globalisation.
One of his most famous photographs is "Tantan", a portrait from above of a naked girl inside a supermarket trolley. Tantan is the name of a famous Chinese dating app where people are looking for a partner or just someone to spend the night with as fast as buying something in the supermarket, throwing it into the shopping cart.
Lin Zhipeng and His Fight Against Censorship
Lin Zhipeng, Flowers and Fruits series, 2019
Lao Xie Xie is not the only one to defy strict Chinese censorship. Lin Zhipeng uses the analogue camera as a magnifying glass on the intimate daily life of his and his friends. Zhipeng's lens focuses on details, accentuated by strong colour contrasts and daring shots. The artist creates a series of spontaneous photos that he collects in a diary that he describes as "not so private". The generation immortalised in these shots is not only naked but is stripped of social prejudices.
Themes related to homosexuality and gender play a central role in Zhipeng's photographs. The photographic subjects approach with a playful hedonism: naked bodies collide, caress, and interact with flowers and fruits, symbols of the transience of youth. Flowering time can be concise. Flowers and fruits with that fleeting beauty have the same consistency as the youth portrayed by Zhipeng.
Qiumao's Provocative Photography
The artist's role is to ignite souls; to open the viewer's eyes to reality under other lenses, which are often those of the camera.
Indeed Qiumao, an LGBTQ + artist originally from Chongqing, portrays the gay community of his city in provocative shots. The photographer led young men engaged in the most unusual and sexual activities, with the intent of breaking taboos and breaking down stereotypes built around Chinese masculinity. A recurring motif in Qiumao's artistic production is men in suits, with white shirts and well-ironed collars: the classic stereotype of the office employee and his conventional way of life but distorted by the explicit sexual meanings of the portraits taken by Qiumao.
The artist usually photographs friends or acquaintances made online. In an interview for RADII China magazine, the artist stated that many are still afraid to participate in his projects because they are too bold and far from what society expects to see in a young Chinese boy.
Underground Chinese youth is hermetic and at the same time explosive. It's flashy but hard to see. Often influenced by the trends proposed by social networks, but at the same time it is independent by them. It is distinctly Chinese and cosmopolitan: it embodies all the contradictions of an entire generation that grew up after the internet. Determined and against the tide, the portrait of generation Y is aware of its fragility in the face of future uncertainties.
About the Writer
Camilla is a sinologist and photographer passionate about Chinese contemporary art and culture. She received her BA in Chinese from the University Ca' Foscari in Venice, Italy and an MA in Chinese Art History from the China Academy of Art, China. Camilla is the author of the blog perquelchenesoio.com.
"Literally 'as far as I know', Per quel che ne so io is my dream to describe Asia with my own words through art and culture. I am a traveller, a China observer and a contemporary art lover. This blog was initially a mere diary of my first experience in China, but now is a key to understanding Asia from another perspective."
Join Our Newsletter!
Enter your email below to receive our Artist Tips, News & Opportunities!