China’s first contemporary photography museum is putting local artists in focus

China’s first contemporary photography museum is putting local artists in focus

One might expect a striking new art museum to pop up in Beijing or Shanghai – but not a small mountain city in northern China. The Lianzhou Museum of Photography (LMP), which opened in December, offers a window into the world of contemporary Chinese photography beyond the blockbuster names of Ai Weiwei and the late Ren Hang.

It all started in 2005, when museum director Duan Yuting first formed the Lianzhou Foto Festival. ‘From the early years of the photography festival, scholars, experts and curators from the photography, art and intellectual communities advocated the establishment of a photography archive in Lianzhou,’ explains Yuting of the initiative, which has grown exponentially over the past 13 years. ‘The original intention was that, in addition to presenting photographs at the festival, we should build an archive.’

Qilian Range – 11, 2015, by Zhuang Hui

Designed by Chinese firm O-office Architects, the new museum launched with four solo exhibitions, including two focused on Chinese artists. Beijing photographer Zhuang Hui, a key figure in China’s New Photo movement in the 1990s, is presenting a series of landscapes and portraits. Elsewhere, there’s an intriguing display by Zhang Hai’er, whose Bad Girls portrait series subverts mainstream notions of sexuality; the Guangzhou-born artist rose to prominence in the 1980s for his experimental shooting style.

The museum also features exhibitions by New York-based Scottish photographer Albert Watson, who has captured fashion and celebrities since the 1970s – among them Steve Jobs, Kate Moss and David Bowie (a rare image from 1996 is worth a detour). French photographer Baptiste Rabichon, meanwhile, is exhibiting photo-collages of lilacs and roses alongside mysterious silhouettes.

Lianzhou Museum of Photography. Photography: Chaos Z. Courtesy of O-Office

The Lianzhou Foto Festival has previously featured California photographer Reagan Louie, who has shot extensively in Asia; Canadian conceptual artist Suzy Lake; Beijing-based Chen Wei, who documents steamy nightclubs; and Los Angeles artist Amalia Ulman, renowned for her Instagram self-portraits exploring role-playing in digital art and social media. The festival’s roster is certainly a promising sign of good things to come for the museum.

The goal of LMP is not only to draw tourists but pay homage to the locals. ‘Photography may help Lianzhou once again, giving a considerable boost to its economic and urban development,’ says Yuting. ‘We are certain that photography will take root and flourish in this beautiful city.’