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The Timeless Faces of a Generation in China, by Xiao Quan

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Chinese photographer Xiao Quan’s portraits, recently displayed at Palazzo Pisani Revedin in Venice, offered a glimpse into the long journey China has made in the last decades. “Faces of Our Generation,” the name of his exhibition in Venice, has captured the soul of a nation that was changing dramatically. Anyone from the 1970s would be unable to recognize China today. The black and white of his photographs contributes to highlighting what is essentially, which is especially welcome in an age of visual noise and distraction.

It is not hard to see why he has become the most prominent photographer of his generation in China. Born in Chengdu, Sichuan, in 1959, the photographer embarked on a journey of visual exploration that transcended mere documentation. After he enlisted in the military in 1978, his four-year tenure as a flight crew member within a naval aviation unit gave him a profound sense of temporal and spatial metamorphosis, thus giving birth to a distinctive perspective through which to observe the world.

Inspired by the evocative compositions of American poet Ezra Pound’s photographs, he embarked on a mission to capture the essence of China’s burgeoning cultural renaissance by immortalizing its youthful vanguards.
It was during the mid-1990s, whilst apprenticing under the tutelage of renowned photographer Mark Riboud, that he became imbued with the spirit of Magnum photojournalism, its ethos resonating deeply within his artistic ethos. His oeuvre spans a multitude of published works, each a testament to his unwavering dedication to the craft.

From the ethereal imagery of “Birds of Paradise: San Mao’s Photography and Poetry Collection” to the introspective chronicles of “Our Generation,” his lens serves as a conduit for narratives that illuminate the human condition. “In China When It All Began” (the global edition of “Our Generation”), published by Rizzoli, has found its place among the shelves of major art institutions worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.
Throughout the years, his artistic pilgrimage has been marked by a series of exhibitions both domestic and abroad, each a testament to the universality of his vision. Currently, as a member of the International Foundation for the Promotion of Culture (IFPC) under UNESCO, he continues to document the zeitgeist through his ongoing project, “Portraits of the Era,” encapsulating the essence of contemporary China.

Indeed, his magnum opus, “Our Generation,” stands as a chronicle of a decade-long odyssey, a “Who’s Who” of China’s cultural renaissance during the pivotal years of the 1980s and 1990s. Through his lens, figures such as Jiang Wen, Gong Li, and Cui Jian are captured in a timeless dimension, their innermost essence laid bare amidst the canvas of his artistry.

Similarly, “Portraits of the Era” serves as a poignant testament to the aspirations of ordinary citizens, captured in a fleeting moment of anticipation for the future. With meticulous precision, each frame preserves the hopes and dreams of a nation poised on the cusp of transformation, a visual time capsule entrusted to the archives of the United Nations. For over a decade, his photographic odyssey has traversed the length and breadth of China, from the bustling streets of Beijing to the verdant landscapes of Kunming, leaving an indelible imprint upon the collective memory of a nation in flux.

While in Venice, Xiao Quan discussed his work and vision.

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“When I was a child, I really liked to draw. When I went to military service, I carried my drawing kit on my back and I saw a lot of beautiful things. At that time, however, my drawings were not enough to express what I saw and what I thought.  Later, I discovered photography, which allowed me to express myself more fully. When one day my father bought me a Seagull camera, I knew that making images was my calling.

“I served in the naval aviation and I flew for four years. That made me more sensitive to the beauty of the world from the air and I was touched by the landscape and the views of nature. One afternoon, as I was having a meal as I served in the army in Qingdao, I saw an incredible sunset, with a very big and very red sun descending on the sea, and it was so moving, that I felt it intensely.  So, I pretended to have a stomach ache and asked for a leave, then I ran like hell to the beach to capture that moment.

“Flying—moving on an airplane through the clouds at very high speed—gave me a different view about time and space. When you fly, you learn to see the world in a unique way compared to what people study in college.”
A key moment for him came when he saw a photo of Ezra Pound by Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh.
“When I first saw the photo of Ezra Pound was in 1988, it was in an underground publication Xiang Wang, which was established by a Chinese poet Zhong Ming.  The photo was accompanied by a quote from Pound’s later years: ‘Understanding came too late. Everything was so hard, so futile, I didn’t work anymore, I didn’t want to do anything.’ This photo had a decisive impact on me: deep, complex, lonely, a typical intellectual figure, full of history.  I think Chinese literary and art artists should have photos like Pound’s.”

This idea lasted less than ten seconds, but Xiao Quan spent a whole decade to fulfill it.  That was Xiao Quan’s noted large-scale portrait, Our Generation, which published in 1996.  In China When It All Began, the international edition of Our Generation, was published by RIZZOLI in 2019 and shared with readers in the world’s important bookstores, the American Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in 2020.

One portrait by Xiao Quan shows a barefoot woman with an intense stare, which projects both anger and sadness. It’s artist San Mao.

“When she was in school, San Mao got unfairly picked on by students and teachers, and she told her parents, with a traditional Chinese mentality, who were very serious about education, that she didn’t want to go to school anymore,” Xiao Quan said. “After she quit school, she mingled with people from different walks of life and met a lot of artists, dancers, painters and learned painting from them. But after a while, she felt life was becoming boring and then she decided to carry her bag and travel alone around the world. She wrote a book about her travels, which she published in Taiwan. This book had a great influence on people who spoke Chinese at the time. Back then, the gates of China were closed. People didn’t know what was happening in the outside world, and she was the one to go out and reveal it.”  Yet in the end the pain was too much for her. San Mao died by suicide.

Xiao Quan then talked about Cui Jian, a Chinese rock star who once performed in Chengdu in 1990 and how the young generation who went to the concert at that time were blown away by his music.  It was Cui Jian who made young people realize that they could be free, they could be brave enough to pursue the truth, looking up in the sky and trying to walk their own path and liberate themselves, in scenes from a different era of joy and wonder that were captured by Xiao Quan’s camera.

There’s a profound sense of solitude in some of his portraits of Chinese people. They look like unsung heroes.
“They’re struggling every day, but they just can’t give themselves up, they have hope. The Chinese are kind of proud or, rather, they are aware of their big and prestigious past. So, they know that what they are doing is fighting for the future. I think this is something that comes from the awareness of their past and the great challenges they went through in history.”