Last Saturday, Shanghaiist was invited to attend the unveiling of Shanghai’s newest gallery space, m97. Once we negotiated the tricky shared building entrance, we made our way to the second floor and was immediately impressed by the physical space and airy nature of the gallery. The grand opening featured an exhibition of by emerging Beijing photographer and artist Jiang Zhi titled “Things Would Turn Simpler Once They Happened“. Immediately we had diametrically opposing thoughts. “How were these photos taken?“, and “I don’t quite get it…“. We wished that our interpretation of the photographic exhibition was as simple as the exhibition’s title, but we assume this is the art part of the exhibition. Here’s a little about Jiang Zhe (pictured below) and his exhibit from information posted by m97.
Jiang’s series of large-scale photographs entitled “Things Would Turn Simpler Once They Happened” speak of the individual’s hopes that something unexpected and beyond their control would come and bring change to their otherwise ordinary life.
“In this age of changes, people expect something to happen to them,” says artist Jiang Zhi, “something that throws light on them like a spotlight. Everything then will become simpler, more beautiful and endurable. They are waiting for their lives to be changed by this ‘something’ permanently. Religion, love, wealth, opportunity, whatever should fall upon us is welcomed, as long as it can rescue us from the ordinary repetition of daily life.”
So what were our thoughts on the m97 gallery and Jiang Zhi exhibition? Personally when comparing this information and the images, we weren’t so clear about the artist’s motivation behind this series of photographs and the message he was trying to communicate. We could appreciate the concept of the Cinderella effect, where something out of the ordinary transforms the life of someone waiting for salvation or change. However, we couldn’t really connect with the use of blinding lights to portray this. Some of the imagery resembled beautiful alien abduction scenes. Was the artist’s representation of blinding light an outward display of internal thoughts or emotions?
Now, before this little Shanghaiist is accused of being too snarky or rhetorical for your liking, I would like to point out that we’re naturally inclined to approach subject matter from a particular angle, and might be accused of non-free-form-thinking. However, birds of a feather do flock together, so friends of Shanghaiist who also attended this evening were also looking for answers.
Shanghaiist later approached m97 gallery founder Steven Harris to help answer some of the questions we had about the exhibition, and to learn a little more about m97.
The photographs themselves are really impressive, the sizes are massive. But there’s some confusion on how these photographs were captured and processed. Was there a lot of post-processing using labs or Photoshop, or were there a lot of props involved?
Steven Harris: Contrary to what one might think when viewing the prints, all of these photographs were produced and photographed just as you see them. There is nearly zero post-production digital enhancing or editing done to the photographs. The artist and a team of around 10 individuals produced the various photographs with lighting technicians, using cranes and hoisting technicians for the elevated people shots for example. The artist used film to capture the image and then the film was digitally scanned and then enlarged on a Lambda colour print machine with Kodak paper and chemicals. The only digital correction/post-processing done was in the three photographs entitled Things would turn unbelievable once they happened, where the individual is suspended in mid-air. The person was suspended with cables and cranes – the same sort of gear that’s used in Kung Fu movies where people fly and jump through the air, and the cables were then removed in Photoshop to make them either less obvious or removed completely. That’s the extent of the digital retouching.
Who’s involved in m97 and what are their backgrounds?
Steven Harris: The gallery was founded by me, Steven Harris. I’m 33 and I am from the US. I grew up in the Boston area. I’ve worked as a professional editorial and commercial photographer for the past eight years. I’ve photographed for clients such as New York Times Magazine, the Discovery Channel, The World Bank, National Geographic Society, Newsweek magazine for example. I first came to China in 1998 to study Chinese in Beijing on an abroad program in college. I later moved back to Beijing in 2000 and have lived in China in all about five years, I’ve been in Shanghai for three of those five. We have three other part-time gallery staff members with art or photography backgrounds.
Why did you choose to open a gallery?
Steven Harris: The gallery is something I’ve been thinking about doing since 2003 when I was living in the US and would spend a lot of time in galleries looking at photography shows in Chelsea, New York. At that time I was working as a freelance editorial/commercial photographer in China shooting for magazines, corporations and various other organizations, working on everything from reportage projects to commercial advertising/marketing shoots. But my main interest in photography ever since I began shooting was in conceptual and fine art photography. That is to say, non-commercial work where the photographer is working on a personal project with some sort of creative, artistic vision one is trying to realize. I started working on some very simple personal projects, but usually didn’t have the time, focus, or energy to execute any of these ideas very effectively because I’d be too tired running around making a living by shooting client’s projects/assignments. But I knew and decided then that opening a photography gallery was something that I wanted to do. There is something about a gallery, regardless if it’s showing photography or what not, that brings a sort of reverence to the work that is being shown in the space. It’s as if the outside world can come to a standstill and you can just focus on the vision and work of the artist. To me, this is the most amazing aspect of a gallery. Not only do we get to live and work surrounded by such beautiful work on a daily basis, but we get to show them to others and discuss the various interesting aspects of different artist’s work.
What is the aim of the gallery?
Steven Harris: m97’s main goal is to provide the best platform for photographers or other visual artists working with photography to show their work in Shanghai. There are lots of great galleries in Shanghai that also show contemporary and/or fine art photography, but hopefully by choosing to exclusively show only contemporary/fine art photography we can carve out a niche that will not only attract some of the most interesting artists and work, but also to help people begin to appreciate photography work as art. This is a real challenge sometimes for photography and other ‘new media’ in contemporary art such as video. There is still sometimes a stigma (with some people) that photography is not really a ‘fine art’. While art critics can debate about this for hours, I choose to skip the whole debate and just exhibit photography work that I find interesting, meaningful as well as being visually powerful. Sometimes people will say, ”Well, is photography really art?” to which I would respond, “If you don’t think so, then I guess to you it’s not.“, but that does not mean that photography as a whole is not art. In my opinion, photography is one of the most progressive and important mediums in contemporary art. If someone is coming from a more traditional mindset or background to viewing art, then I’m sure they would have the same problem with video as art. I’m not out to convince everyone in Shanghai that owns a digital camera and an inkjet printer that photography is art, I think that just by showing interesting, challenging photography exhibitions that will speak for itself.
Why did you choose the Moganshan Road area?
Steven Harris: Initially I was not looking in the Moganshan Road area for gallery space, I was looking more downtown and in the French Concession area trying to find an interesting house or gem of an old factory building to set up in. But in the end, I grew to like the fact that there was a like-minded community of galleries and art enthusiasts that is concentrated in the Moganshan area. Also, developers, landlords and real estate companies and entrepreneurs are making it more and more difficult for galleries and art-related spaces to move into downtown with rents in some areas rivaling New York or other big cities. What gallery wants to pay USD$1 per square meter per day to be in the French Concession? I’d love to have had a smaller space downtown, but these days you either have to get very lucky in your search or find a landlord that’s not out to get top dollar.
How often will you rotate in exhibitions and events?
Steven Harris: Exhibitions in the main room will change usually every four to six weeks depending on the exhibition. The back viewing rooms will open at the same time as the opening of the second show that commences on April 14th. The first small show we’ll have in the viewing rooms will be a selection of very new work by Nadav Kander, a fantastic London-based photographer that’s currently photographing a body of work documenting the Yangste River. In the main space, a solo exhibition by Hong Kong-based German photographer Michael Wolf will show some of his other bodies of work that have not yet been exhibited in China. Three of his series in particular will make up the show: 100 x 100, Copy Artist, and The Real Toy Story. I’m hoping to do two or three shows a year with the works of international photographers that have done bodies of work in China while the majority will be exhibitions by Chinese artists and photographers.
The Shanghai Daily ran an article in which it stated that you believe m97 “… is Shanghai’s only large major gallery devoted solely to photography“. Do you want to comment on that?
Steven Harris: In the Shanghai Daily article, I was quoted as saying we’re the “only major gallery” in Shanghai that exclusively shows photography. That’s not quite what I said or meant to say. I was implying the size and space of the gallery (300 square metres) probably makes us the largest space in Shanghai that is focused on exhibiting only photography-related work. I do not want that to be misinterpreted to say that other people and galleries and studios in Shanghai are not showing interesting photography or are not showing good quality work. There are several galleries that consistently show great photography work. m97 is just hoping to provide a bigger platform for more China-related photography work to be shown.
Overall, we that this exhibition is worth a look, but any visit should be a part of a bigger exploration of the Moganshan Road art district. We’ll be keeping an eye on what’s happening at m97 too.
Jiang Zhi’s exhibition titled “Things Would Turn Simpler Once They Happened” is currently showing at the m97 gallery and will run until April 13th 2007. The m97 gallery is located on the second floor of 97 Moganshan Road (上海，莫干山路97号2楼) and is open from 10:30am to 6:30pm Tuesday to Sunday. Prints of the images are available for purchase by contacting m97 via telephone or email (+86 21 6266 1597 and info[ at ]m97gallery.com). Interested in photographer Jiang Zhi? Check out his website.
Photos reproduced with permission from m97 Gallery.