“When I first set foot on this magical land in 1999,” writes Feng Jian Guo (馮建國) of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, “I was deeply impressed by its magnificent nature and rich religious culture.” Other than one paragraph in his introduction to this solo exhibition of photographic portraits of Tibetans, however, the photographer doesn’t do much else to define and explain the power referred to in the exhibition’s title: The Power of Plateaus – Tibetan Portraits: 2007-2010. Feng’s engagement is less with the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau itself – there are no landscapes on display here – than with the Tibetans who call it home, and while The Power of Plateaus is an evocative name for this exhibition, the plateau’s presence is only felt second-hand, hinted at in, and refracted through, the details of these portraits – the flecks of snow and frost covering a herder’s hat, or the nest of wrinkles criss-crossing an old woman’s face.
Currently an associate professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University’s Academy of Art & Design, Feng’s portraiture flirts dangerously with some very romantic (and patronising) Tibetan stereotypes. Thus the artist states that he has “tried to use a pure white background to take portraits for the people living on the the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau…to show the unsophisticated and pious Tibetan people.” Comments like this perhaps reveal more about the naivety of the observer than the observed, and this tense power relationship between the photographer and his subjects certainly adds an interesting dynamic to the exhibition as a whole. Indeed, many of the characters staring back at us through Feng’s camera lens do so with a tangible sense of pride, of defiance, and of aloofness, in the face of this artist’s attempts to represent them through such simple means as a photograph.
This is Feng Jian Guo’s third solo exhibition in Taipei, and his second in three years at the intimate 1839 Contemporary Gallery (1839當代藝廊), and although The Power of Plateaus consists of only 24 photos in all, the overall effect is very powerful. Tibet and its people are an emotive photographic subject, as well as being players in one of the most sensitive political and religious issues confronting modern China. Over the last seventy years Tibetan society has been put under immense pressure by its increasing integration with, and repression by, the government in Beijing. Feng’s beautiful portraits are implicitly political therefore, portraying the clash between tradition and modernity that has left few parts of China untouched in recent decades, but which is arguably magnified in its ethnic borderlands. In one portrait, a teenage boy stares at us, boldly, confidently, while speaking to someone on his mobile phone. The phone is as much a status symbol as the heavy metal chain he wears around his neck. Inside his traditional robe he wears a t-shirt printed with a stylised picture of the Potala Palace and ‘Tibet’ written in English underneath. If any of these photos could be said to summarise the cultural pressures and contradictions faced by young Tibetans today, this is portrait is it. In a masterful example of arrangement by 1839′s curator, Edward Chiu ( 邱奕堅 ), the phone-wielding teenager’s portrait is placed between those of two old ladies in traditional costume, fingering their prayer beads and wielding large prayer wheels, creating a contrast that is both stark and provocative.
There is much more that could be said about Feng’s work, but there is one historical parallel which warrants comment. In 1907, the Amercian photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis wrote in the introduction to his first volume of The North American Indian that “the information that is to be gathered … respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.” Many of Feng Jian Guo’s portraits are – intentionally or not – photographed in a style very similar to those of Curtis, and one wonders whether the impulse which drove Curtis to record the Native Americans’ disappearing way of life is not the same as the one driving Feng. Over one hundred years on from the publication of Curtis’ magnum opus, and an ocean away, Feng’s Tibetan Portraits succeed in highlighting many of the same issues, and for that reason alone, this exhibition deserves to be seen.
By Matt Bowden for Love Taipei
The Power of Plateaus – Tibetan Portraits: 2007-2010 by Feng Jian Guo is on show at 1839 Contemporary Gallery until Sunday, December 16th.Address: B1, No.120 Yanji Street, Da’an District, Taipei MRT: Zhongxiao Dunhua Entry: Free Open: Tuesday – Sunday, 11.00 am – 8.00 pm. Tel: (02)27788458 Web: www.1839cg.com