As the opening of Zooming into Focus: Contemporary Chinese Photography and Video from the Haudenschild Collection at its final venue—the National Gallery in Beijing—draws near, it is time to pause and reflect on the exhibition’s significance. Since its inaugural showing in 2003, at the University Art Gallery, the San Diego State University (U.S.A.), the exhibition has travelled to the Shanghai Art Museum (China), the Centro Cultural Tijuana (Mexico), the Institute of Contemporary Arts (Singapore) and, now, the National Gallery in Beijing (China). During these two years, interest in contemporary Chinese photography and video has mushroomed. When Eloisa and Chris Haudenschild began collecting, only specialists in the field had heard of the young artists whose works so fascinated the Haudenschilds. Now, many of those same artists are in very high demand for international exhibitions and important collections. The Haudenschilds were prescient in their focus, driven by Eloisa’s enthusiasm, and guided by Lorenz Helbling, director of Shanghart Gallery in Shanghai.
Two years ago, Chinese photography and video was poised on the brink, its sheer energy, mass and quality readying it for launch into an international presence. Just last year, the major exhibition, Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China (2004), did much to promote Chinese photography and video, with a touring schedule that includes New York, Chicago, Seattle, Berlin, and Santa Barbara. Yang Fudong’s nomination for a Hugo Boss Prize in 2004 signified that the international art arena was ready to seriously consider new media artists from China. In 2005, Oxford University Press added entries on three Chinese video artists to the online reference work, Grove Art Online. Clearly, Chinese photography and video has come of age since Zooming into Focus first opened in 2003.
As the exhibition of a private collection, Zooming into Focus has had a certain nimbleness and allure. Representing a personal vision, it has not been expected to present a complete or historic view of the field. Nevertheless, it has captured a major slice of Chinese photography and video, representative of a signal moment. Private collections are well suited to capturing the life of a vibrant art movement, driven as they are by passion, unencumbered by institutional impedimenta. The Haudenschilds’ enthusiasm for the field extends beyond collecting: as part of the overall Zooming into Focus program, they have commissioned new works (not necessarily collectible), have sponsored lectures and video screenings, and have supported two symposia focusing on contemporary Chinese photography and video, in San Diego and Hangzhou.
Because Zooming into Focus has been exhibited in diverse parts of the globe, its significance shifting with place and time, I have asked people close to the collection and to the exhibition for their thoughts on what Zooming into Focus has meant.
ON THE COLLECTION:
Lorenz Helbling, Director of Shanghart Gallery: The collection is a very “open” collection. “Open” may be a strange word here; I mean different things. It a collection of works of artists who are themselves very open, exploring new ways, asking more questions than giving answers, artists also who are still developing. It doesn't aim to fix images people should have of China, or to transmit stereotypes of China. It is not about “signature works” or “trophy pieces”—it's more about a spirit, about involvement. It is an open cooperation between a special collector, artists, curators and a gallery. It is not an overview, it is an entrance.
Eugene Tan, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore: The Haudenschild collection is, for me, exemplary of good art collecting practices. It is not only impressive for the way the Haudenschilds have built up such a significant and focused collection during a short period of time, it is also exemplary for the attitude they have adopted in their support of the artists whose work they collect. By exhibiting their collection in Singapore, it was also my intention to draw attention to the way the Haudenschilds go about their collecting activities, and raise awareness of the role and responsibilities of collectors.
Tina Yapelli, Director of the University Art Gallery, San Diego State University: The Haudenschild Collection consisted of approximately a dozen pieces when I first proposed the project to Eloisa. In part because of my interest in exhibiting the work at San Diego State University, Eloisa was inspired and encouraged to both broaden and deepen the collection, which is now the most important collection of contemporary Chinese photography and video in the world.
ON THE EXHIBITION:
Eugene Tan: As the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore is committed to showcasing significant trends as well as the best examples of contemporary art practice, Zooming into Focus was an ideal exhibition for us to organise at the gallery. Not only does the exhibition highlight a major trend among contemporary Chinese artists towards the use of video and photography, many of the artists in the exhibition are also internationally renowned, thereby providing audiences in Singapore a rare opportunity to see their works. . . . [It] was also a ‘first’ for Singapore to have an exhibition of this kind, a major exhibition of contemporary Chinese photography and video.
Tina Yapelli: Working with Eloisa Haudenschild to organize the exhibition allowed me an invaluable opportunity to bring to San Diego (and to southern California) work that would not otherwise be shown in the region. The project was groundbreaking, as it was the first exhibition to feature the current generation of Chinese photographers and videographers, whose work had been featured in Europe and elsewhere, but not in the United States.
Teresa Vicencio Alvarez, General Director of the CECUT: . . . Zooming into Focus was the first contemporary Chinese photography exhibition that took place in the Centro Cultural Tijuana. The fast growth that has characterized our city is also one of the characteristics of the society in which these fourteen Chinese artists have lived, being this a generator of the wide interest from the artistic community, art and design students of the state, as well as an important amount of articles in the local press.
Li Xu, Curator, Shanghai Art Museum: This exhibition was the first time for the Shanghai Art Museum to exhibit a collection of Chinese contemporary art from the United States, and the first time for a special group show of Chinese video and photography in this museum (although some of the artists or works had been shown here in some other exhibitions).
The audience and media were very excited about the exhibition. It seemed as if they had discovered some kind of new cultural environment in one night, but these artists and works had already been in Mainland China for a long time!
The importance of the exhibition is in no doubt: it showed some truth of Chinese contemporary art to the public and to the cultural circle, and it prodded the Chinese art museum circle to realize it would be very important to start collecting video and photography works.
Lorenz Helbling: The most important thing is, of course, that this collection could happen. But it is also very important that such prominent museums here in China were ready to show this kind of art.
Eugene Tan: [Zooming into Focus was] an important exhibition for highlighting and raising the level of discourse of photography and video in Singapore. Photography and video are still, as yet, relatively new mediums in art practice in Singapore. It was therefore useful for artists and the public to see how widely used these media are and also the interesting and innovative ways in which Chinese artists are using them.
Tina Yapelli: The artists' residencies were extremely significant for the University, as they provided students the incredible experience of working with two of the artists (Yang Zhenzhong and Shi Yong). In the case of Yang, students were involved in the creation of a new work commissioned by the Haudenschild Collection, which premiered at the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego. They also assisted him in the continuation of his ongoing project "I Will Die."
Another reason the project was important was because it created a network of collaboration with institutions in San Diego and Tijuana: the San Diego Museum of Art; the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego; the Centro Cultural Tijuana, Mexico; El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, Tijuana, Mexico; and the San Diego Chinese Historical Society and Museum.
There is the general sense that everywhere, the exhibition was breaking new ground, supporting the development of the field, sparking the interest of local artists, and forging new institutional alliances. The San Diego, Tijuana, and Singapore venues had not previously exhibited Chinese art of this kind; in China the museums had not shown a comprehensive exhibition of photography and video. Perhaps in the latter case, the fact that the exhibition was drawn from a foreign collection gave it a certain attraction, even imprimatur. As Lorenz Helbling commented, “It is an entrance.” Zooming into Focus has served as an exemplary entrée en matière, with lasting repercussions.