Last night I had the pleasure of seeing the new exhibition at the Hartlepool Art Gallery. Patrick Zachmann’s “Eye of the Long Nose” is on display for the first time in the UK as part of the Tees Valley Photography Festival.
Based in Paris, Patrick Zachmann has been a freelance photographer since 1976 and focuses on “long-term projects on the cultural identity, memory and immigration of different communities.” The exhibition at the Hartlepool Art Gallery focuses on China from within and in its diaspora.
There are larger, moody, black and white photographs inspired by Chinese cinema of the 30s. There are also smaller postcard-like color photos full of smiles. As he described it last night, one set (the black and white) exposes the seedier face of China that which they do not want shown. The mafia, prostitutes and drug dealers, protesters in 1989 Tiananmen Square all feature in eye-opening, visually stunning photographs. The other set (color photos) feature the public face of China and it’s communities in the diaspora. These are glossy photos of proud moments and cultural celebrations. They are his vision as a “Long Nose” an old nickname for Westerners in the region.
He seemed pleased and somewhat bemused that the exhibition was hung in a (former) church. His work deals with reality and illusions and facades and he felt it appropriate to the setting.
He shared that he worked on this project from 1987-1995. He spent 6 years shooting the photographs and 2 years working on the book of the exhibition and the show. It was shown in 10 countries in Asia, though not in China.
He traveled to China for the first time as a journalist wanting to write a story on 1930s Chinese cinema. During that visit his interest in the region grew. He was determined to return through unofficial channels in a private exploration of what lay to the side of the spotlight the country shines on it’s achievements and was able to do so with the assistance of a man with underworld ties whom he refers to as W.
I asked him if he ever felt in danger while taking some of the photos. At first he responded in the negative but after giving it a few moments of consideration could think of at least 4 or 5 dicey situations he had been in that should be classed as dangerous. The resulting photos are an amazing document.
He is currently working on another project dealing with China called Chinese Confusions. He feels that people feel lost at this moment. Older people feel lost as older districts are razed to make way for modernity. Younger people feel lost as society moves so very quickly, and while feeling an attraction toward Western models, still maintaining a Chinese identity and a duty to their traditions.
Ying Zhu, Ph.D describes the cinema that intrigued him initially as follows, “If China today is in the midst of a massive and massively ambivalent transformation, it is not the first time. In the 1920s and 30s, China was similarly engaged in a great identity crisis, and Shanghai was at its forefront. Shanghai was the city where Western influences were most keenly felt even as anti-Western (anti-imperialist) nationalism also thrived, and where China’s richest and poorest people lived side by side…Shanghai came to symbolize the allure of modernity and cosmopolism [sic]… Shanghai ushered in Chinese cinema’s first golden era, producing many of the Chinese classics, including Goddess (1934), Song of the Fishermen (1934), Street Angel (1937), and New Women (1934). The Shanghai depicted in these films was corrupt and promising at the same time.”
The China and Chinese depicted in Patrick Zachmann’s photographs can be described similarly.
I asked him what he thought of the Olympics. He was very against China hosting the Olympics. It seems to him like China has won in every respect. Not only is China an economic superpower the Olympics has allowed them to win hearts and minds in the international community. Additionally, with support from Asia Societies in the U.S. many schools, from elementary schools to universities, are now teaching Chinese in language curricula (1, 2, 3) Also see this Beijing Evening News summary of a NY Times article on the Olympics. As the blogger who did the side-by-side comparisons of the article puts it, “every single statement that could possibly be seen as negative – and thereâ€™s quite a lot – has been expunged from the Beijing Evening News article, and almost every nuanced phrase that carries any negative connotations has been turned into one of unqualified praise.” It would be the equivalent of looking at only the glossy photos in Patrick Zachmann’s exhibition.
While walking through the exhibit my overwhelming sense was of the universality of the issues he is dealing with in his photography. Migration, wanting to build better lives for families and how we are perceived as individuals and communities are struggles common to the human endeavor. If you are in the Northeast this exhibition is definitely worth a special trip.
Patrick Zachmann‘s Eye of the Long Nose is on at the Hartlepool Art Gallery 13 September – 9 November, 2008.