Anyone who watched the Olympics' opening ceremony last summer knows China can put together a dazzling performance. It was so impressive, most of us didn't even mind when we learned that some of the fireworks lighting up Beijing were computer-generated.
Now, similar drama and, this time, admitted artifice is showing up in Body Art, a contemporary Chinese photo exhibit opening at Colorado College this week. The collection, which features 55 works incorporating the human body, combines photography, performance art and high-tech sleights of hand into a striking display of images from six Chinese artists.
"All of the works are staged or manipulated in some way," says Dr. Julie Segraves, executive director and curator of the Asian Art Coordinating Council, the organization bringing the exhibit to Colorado.
On one end of the spectrum are works by Liu Ren, whose lush photo composites including one of the artist riding a toy horse across a red-draped room are almost entirely computer-generated. At the other end are works like those of Li Wei, who stages scenes in public and captures them on film.
In one of Wei's works, his body appears to be smashing through a roadway like a missile fired into the ground. To create the photo, he suspended his body in a pothole, says Segraves. The only editing he performed on the shot was to erase the cables holding him.
"That piece is really about the quickly changing Chinese society," Segraves says. "For the average Chinese person to keep track of it and deal with [it] sometimes it's like falling into Earth from another planet."
The use of photography by artists is one of those many changes.
"Until the '90s, photography was considered a trade and wasn't taught in Chinese art schools," says Segraves. "But in the 1980s, when China opened to the West, for the first time affordable cameras and film and developing became available, and interest started to build."
Likewise, performance art is a newer phenomenon in the country.
"A few artists began performance art as early as 1987, but they were a very small, select group because performance art was outlawed," says Segraves. "When artists did start to stage performances, they often used photography to document the event so then you have the meeting of conceptual photography and performance art."
Segraves says that much of the work in Body Art is personal, and some is political. The latter is almost inevitable, considering that the challenges that Chinese artists have faced in creating their art in a changing political climate are echoed in the struggle to bring the works to audiences.
"Every time I get [the images] out of China, I'm always happy," says Segraves. "Because you never know what the customs people are going to do."
Segraves will give a gallery talk at the exhibit's opening, and she hopes to be joined by Huang Yan, one of the artists.
"As long as he can get his visa ... "