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Turning Points: Contemporary Photography in China

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Photography
Wordcount: 2318 words Published: 18th May 2020

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The exhibition, Turning Points, is an extensive display of contemporary photography from China, procured by the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) over the past 15 years. The array of works explores the themes of individuality and identity, cultural change, the transformation of Chinese cities, and the impact of consumerism and globalisation on contemporary society.

From the 1990’s onwards, the use of contemporary photography has thrived within China. Artists, such as Wang Qinsong, Zhan Huang and Wang Jinsong, used photography to not only document their lives but to question and challenge the status quo. Older artists examined how the Cultural Revolution impacted society, and their families’ personal experiences. The next generation of photographers bring a very different life experience where they are actively engaged with the global community in ways that were not possible in previous decades.

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With over 30 works on show, a large display room is dedicated to the NGV exhibition. The unifying factor in the exhibition is the demonstration of Chinese culture and the ‘Turning Point’ for the artists who have struggled against the limitations imposed by the Chinese state. The normalness of the photography is accentuated by the stark installation area that shows evidence of wear on the white walls and wooden floors from the large numbers of people flowing in and out of the space.

On entering the exhibition, the audience is exposed to Another battle no. 3 by Wang Qinsong, portraying a hurt soldier taking cover from gunfire. The man is caught between wires cluttered with soft-drink cans, which globally are one of the most littered items discarded. The cans represent popular culture and are heavily contrasted with the deadly reality of war depicted in the image. Qinsong’s images express consumerism in society, and the affect that this has on them and others in their life. 

Wang Qingsong

Chinese 1966–

Another battle no. 3 2001

type C photograph ed. 1/20

Shanghai Family Tree, by Zhan Huang, is nine photographs dedicated to a large portion of the display wall. With other adjoining works on a wall much smaller in comparison to Huang’s, the collection is a clear standout. The piece depicts two young men and one young woman. Their bodies are used as blank canvases, having Chinese words painted onto their faces. The words progress in each photograph, overlapping until each face becomes fully covered with the Chinese characters. In the final photograph, they are standing in front of a new housing development in Shanghai. Their faces are totally masked; suggesting the loss of personal identity is linked to the rapid development of the city. In Zhang Huan’s words, “More culture is slowly smothering us and turning our faces black”.

Zhang Huan

Chinese 1965–

Shanghai family tree


type C photographs

ed. 25/25

The two photographs from the series One hundred Signs of Demolition show the Chinese character ‘chai’, meaning ‘demolition’, commonly painted on the walls of buildings earmarked for destruction. For Wang Jinsong it has become a symbol of the inevitable push for urban reconstruction. In his photograph’s ‘chai’ reprsented the loss of the ancient city and communal space, and their replacement with more socially isolating multi-storey tower blocks. Wang Jinsong’s photograph shows aspects of the architecture and history of Beijing, drawing attention to the abandonment of traditional homes and ways of living.


Wang Jinsong

Chinese 1963-

One hundred signs of demolition #1980, 1998

type C photograph ed. 22/30.

This exhibition has helped me to explore my own personal journey, investigating my relationship with society and my Maori heritage. Although I was born in Australia, my father’s family are from New Zealand with strong cultural ties.  Every symbol in Maori culture has a different meaning and they represent the spiritual connection of man with nature. My artwork draws on this symbolism and depicts the Maori Koru design, inspired by the New Zealand fern frond unfurling as it grows. It is associated with new life and harmony or starting on a new phase of life, much like the experience of leaving high school and moving into adult life. I have also incorporated the contemporary symbolism of the more traditional fern, which in modern society is identified as uniquely New Zealand. The exhibition reinforces the importance of this culture and how we need to hold on to the connection with the past to be able to understand ourselves. 

The collection is evidence of the massive generational change in Chinese society, culture and contemporary art experienced in the past decades. One of the central themes that Qinsong, Huang and Jinsong question through their work is identity and what it means to exist in a changing society. Their artworks reconnect with their cultural history and examine the anxieties of the nation impacted by consumerism and urban reconstruction. Their photography does not merely record reality, but also demonstrates the artist’s response to societal changes.








National Gallery of Victoria

1 Mar 19 – 14 Jul 19

A review by Ella Knox


From a rare collection of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s iconic little black dresses to legendary Dior 1950s ball gowns descending a sweeping staircase, The Krystyna Campbell-Pretty Fashion Gift exhibition showcases more than 150 superb garments from Parisian haute couture fashion houses.

Donated to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) by Krystyna Campbell-Pretty, the exhibition explores the evolution of fashion from the 1890’s to present day through a diverse range of garments, against a backdrop of global fine art. Haute couture garments showcased reflect the major social and economic shifts in society, and in particular highlight the way in which women’s roles have evolved. The staging of the exhibition is presented in an inventive way and is something that you will never see again.

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Whilst some people might question if dresses belong in an art gallery, the exhibition demonstrates a clear connection between both art and fashion design, almost intertwining the two. The exhibition features designers from the late nineteenth century to the twenty-first century, including Dior, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, Christian Lacroix, Alexander McQueen, Madame Grès and Charles Frederick Worth. The binding of art and dressmaking was cleverly reflected into the exhibition, staging complimentary art and design (paintings, furniture, ceramics, etc) from the age of modernism. The exhibition allows visitors to visualise how the history of fashion relates to the history of the fine arts, allowing both to occupy the same display space. As visitors walk through the exhibition, they will experience a complete change of attitude to women and their clothes throughout the decades. 

The exhibition is a testament to the wide range of experiences that women have had. Cleverly displayed throughout the historical high ceiling ‘grand gallery’, the exhibition meandered through five large rooms. The exhibition steered clear of the white walled approach, with the works being displayed on different coloured walls and emphasized many of its features. The installations often surprised the viewer, with mannequins’ propped up on platforms jutting out half-way up a wall, in between priceless artworks. In comparison, some areas only focused on one dress, set amongst furniture and ceramics that would have been prevalent at the time the dress was made. This is a deliberate attempt by the curator to draw attention to a focal point, helping to convey thematic ideas. 

The over-arching premise of the exhibition records cultural changes reflecting the growing positive views of women in society over time. The exhibition is full of pivotal fashion moments, such as ‘Le Smoking’ by Yves Saint Laurent and the “Little Black Dress” by Coco Chanel.

In 1967, when women wearing pants was bohemian and daring, Yves Saint Laurent introduced ‘Le Smoking’, a women’s tuxedo. The suit was the first of its kind to earn attention in the fashion world and in popular culture. Never before had any couturier presented trousers as an option for eveningwear, and women wearing it were refused entry by some restaurants. The designer took bits and pieces from both men’s suit and women’s clothing and combined it with new ideas.

Le Smoking Suit


Yves Saint Laurent (designer)

Another feature of the exhibition is a rare suite of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s ‘Little Black Dress’ (LBD) in a number of styles. Being a woman in the early 1900s wasn’t always the easiest and Coco Chanel changed this with her abolition of the corset. She wanted to inspire women to be women, and to allow them to live comfortably and freely. The ‘Little Black Dress’ made a bold statement both because it was black, linked with the clothing of servants or people in mourning and because it was simple. This style is still in fashion today, as most fashion girls will own at least one LBD, and it is an icon that documents cultural changes. The male-inspired clothing they wore may have been a reflection of the newfound power and independence they felt. Krystyna Campbell-Pretty states “For me, fashion is also visual and social history, reflecting the role, perception and lives of women in society”.

A rare suite of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s iconic little black dresses on show at the National Gallery of Victoria

New photo??

Being able to stand up close and personal to the garments in order to study the brilliant hand craftsmanship and decoration is a real privilege. The unique way the exhibition was displayed had a huge impact on me, making me question the ‘normal’ way we display art, and it encourages art students to push the boundaries. The collection confirms that fashion is all about an attitude and the way we live our life. This inspirational exhibition came about through the determination of one woman, who had worked on the collection for 4 years, never before exhibited in Australia.

Fashion — as it is defined — occurs when a society at large agrees to a style that is popular for a period of time. Consequently, it is a useful marker of time reflected in research of society and people. This exhibition is an arresting view of the world’s best fashion, highlighting societal changes displayed through ground-breaking designs.


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