In the early 1980s, while he was serving in the aviation unit of the Chinese Navy in Beijing, Xiao Quan would spend his monthly allowance on photography publications. That’s how he first encountered the genres of street photography and portrait photography through the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Yousuf Karsh, among others. After retiring from military service to his hometown of Chengdu in 1984, Xiao began documenting the street scenes and people around him, capturing a city on the cusp of large-scale demolition and new modern construction that would change the landscape of the entire country. Xiao and his camera became witnesses to China’s first decade of economic reform.
This hometown retrospective of his works, curated by Lu Peng and entitled ‘Our Generation: The Context and Portraits of History’, opened with a series of cityscapes and portraits of ordinary people primarily taken in Chengdu, but also in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Sanya and Beijing in the late ’80s through the 1990s. The images capture several landmark cultural events Xiao experienced during this period, including the China Star Poetry Festival in 1986 and the Chinese rocker Cui Jian’s concert in 1990, both in Chengdu. He also documented the first and only Guangzhou Art Biennale in 1992, which introduced the art market as a device for legitimizing the existence of contemporary art in China. Xiao’s behind-the-scenes photographs are lively, candid and intimate portraits of important figures and events that signalled the arrival of a non-official and contemporary cultural scene in China.
The show’s curator described this collection of works as ‘Historical Context’, which served as a backdrop for ‘Portraits of History’, a considerable group of Xiao’s portrait photographs picturing poets, writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians and dancers who were active during the ’90s. The photographs were taken at a time when almost all of these figures were emerging as icons in their respective fields. Some of the images were commissioned by Modern Photography, a critical magazine that supported and published a new generation of documentary photographers emerging in South China, for which Xiao worked as an in-house photographer in the ’90s. Others were commissioned by the organizers of the events, or the subjects themselves. In the exhibition’s publication, Xiao related the circumstances and artistic decisions behind each photograph, describing his interactions with his subjects – some of them long-time friends and others new acquaintances. In his photograph of the Beijing conceptual art group New Measurement, he described how his minimalist image of the three artists in white blouses sitting on a bed in his basement was made in close discussion with the group; it was lit with a 40-volt light bulb and photographed from a second bed across from his subjects.
In 1993, Xiao assisted the French photographer Marc Riboud during one of his trips to China. He describes Riboud as his role model – always ready to raise the camera and capture anything that should not be missed. It was with this same urgency and intimacy that Xiao approached his photographic practice, providing us with pictures of numerous cultural figures born in the 1950s, who were contemporaries of both the photographer and the curator of this exhibition. Yet the urge to claim these images as a comprehensive depiction of ‘Our Generation’, coupled with the curator’s overuse of the term ‘history’, was, to a certain extent, symptomatic of many members of this generation, reflecting the urge to form a grand narrative of recent Chinese history – one that consolidates and recognizes a singular historical account at the expense of so many other storylines and perspectives.