Around the World in 120 Days
In the heart of the Chaoyang district, north of the city, lies the center of Beijing’s art scene. The 798 district or the Dashanzi art district is a neighborhood of seemingly endless galleries and shops offering a range of Chinese contemporary, pop, and traditional art along with graffiti, sculptures and photography exhibits. The 798 district, housing art exhibits within the skeletons of the Dashanzi factory complex, is a highly-frequented spot for tourists and Beijingers wishing to get a taste of what’s new in the Beijing art scene.
Not far from the commercialized 798 Art District lies a more hidden, less glitzy collection of studios and galleries— Caochangdi, meaning grasslands. And within Caochangdi lies the Three Shadows photography gallery. With a grassy courtyard as the centerpiece to ash-colored brick warehouses, Three Shadows houses as many as eight photography exhibits at a time.
Rong Rong and Inri, a married couple and both well-known artists, founded the Three Shadows photography art center in 2007. The pair opened the center to promote Asian photography. It was China’s first privately owned gallery with this specific focus. According to an interview with the gallery’s director, Mao Weidong, “the space was originally intended to be a library for photography. Just a library!” Designed by prominent Chinese artist, Ai Wei Wei, Three Shadows is 4600 square meters with 880 dedicated for art space. Three shadows has even housed an exhibit consisting of 200 hundred photos taken by Che Guevara on a Kodak camera. Since 2007, Inri and Rong Rong have been attracting more and more curators, aspiring and already-famous artists, and have been featured in widely circulated publications--The Beijinger, The Architectural Times, the Japan Times, the New York Times, and others.
Inri and Rong Rong use three areas of development--platform-building, education, and academia--to promote Asian photography. According to the gallery website, their mission is to “establish a new standard for photography exhibitions by exchanging shows with leading international photographers, promote the development of photography culture through the annual Three Shadows Photography Award, establish the study of photography as an academic endeavor in China through the publication of photography books and regular academic events, and to increase the quality of photography education through children's activities and independent programs in collaboration with art schools.”
Three Shadows regularly holds a range of events not limited to photography exhibitions. On Saturday, April 13, 2013, Three Shadows held its inaugural photography flea market, where 10-20 vendors set out canvases to sell a range of things: small bicycles made from wire, used books, antique cameras, post cards, secondhand photographic equipment and framed, original photographs. The market lasted two days and also featured the 2013 Three Shadows Photography Awards ceremony, the opening of a new exhibition, and the screening of “Sleepless Nights Stories,” an American short film produced and directed by Jonas Mekas, a New York native and early experimental film-maker, who created the film about his return to the states after WWII.
The largest exhibition from Saturday belonged to Artist, Feng Yan, a native to Xian. Fen Yang’s exhibit included three walls of photos. One wall consisted of a series of three photographs of a part of a polished, black automobile. On the remaining two walls were photographs with the focal point being used, everyday household items.
The American film screening coupled with the flea market and the awards show drew an international crowd consisting of American, German, French, and English visitors along with local Beijingers. Filling the lawn on Saturday afternoon were chic Chinese artists, dressed in leather, stilettos, and large sunglasses. Curators donning black-plastic framed glasses mingled through the exhibition halls, scribbling down notes and exchanging impressions with local artists. Foreign tourists with large backpacks and young Chinese students with cameras added to the lively scene.
By producing a range of avenues for photographic and visual exhibition, Three Shadows Gallery is gaining recognition on an international stage and attracting attention to the world of contemporary Asian photography.
According to Weidong, in an article featured in CRIenglish.com, “Many people in China are interested in art, but they can't paint, they can't make sculptures, they can't do printmaking. But maybe they think using a camera is easy.... Anybody can use a camera. You can buy a Leica or a Hasselblad but [these expensive cameras] can't make you into an artist. The important thing in photography is not the camera. It's not technical, [it's] in your eye, in your vision.”