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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Art and life in China blur for photographer Mo Yi

July 1, 2010

By Francois Bougon
June 29, 2010

BEIJING -- Mo Yi was born and raised in Tibet,
the son of a man who had followed the Chinese
Communist Party's call to bring the socialist
revolution to the Himalayan region.

But today he is part of a creative explosion in
Chinese artistic photography characterised by its
powerful political commentary which takes an
often harsh look at the party and the social effects of its policies.

"I am not an ethnic Tibetan, but in the 1950s my
father followed the call of the Communist Party,
so I was born there," said Mo, a sage-like figure
with his bald cranium and salt-and-pepper beard.

It is difficult to picture the frail,
chain-smoking Mo, now 52, as a professional
athlete, but for eight years he played football
for a regional team based in the Tibetan capital Lhasa.

Eventually, however, photography got into his
blood and today his workshop is in an old
conservatory near Caochangdi, an artists' village
in eastern Beijing now under threat from the
bulldozers amid plans to redevelop the area.

Galleries in Caochangdi are hosting until the end
of June an exhibit on Chinese artistic
photographers like Mo for "Arles in Beijing" -- a
variation on the famous photography festival held
annually in Arles in the south of France.

While his intial works had a link with Tibet,
Mo's later photos focus more on the Chinese
cities he has lived in since, particularly Tianjin, a port close to Beijing.

Working in black and white, Mo often uses a
blurred focus to symbolise the head-spinning
social changes China has seen in more than 30
years of spectacular economic growth, often putting himself into the scene.

He also conceives installations, mixing his
photographs with props as witnesses of an age
gone by. One such display used the beds where
workers slept during the mass collectivisation campaigns of Mao Zedong.

The most recent individual exhibition of his
works, called "Me and My Surroundings", focused
on the often wrenching economic and social
changes in China since it began its gradual
reopening to the world three decades ago.

The enigmatic black and white images typically
show urban landscapes such as Beijing's Tiananmen
Square, their human subjects blurred.

The photos are viewed by some as a depiction of a
perceived lack of direction in the nation's
transformation, and its human impact.

"Arles in Beijing" throws a spotlight on artists
fuelling today's lively Chinese art photography
scene, exhibition director Berenice Angremy said.

They include artists such as the Gao brothers,
who are known, particularly overseas, for their
large-format works or use of digital technology,
"working on the imaginary and magical," she said.

Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang, whose father was killed
during the chaos of the radical Cultural
Revolution unleashed by Mao Zedong, often
critically portray Mao and other Communist figures.

In one of their works, Mao is shown consorting
amiably with Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and other tyrannical figures.

Other artists, perhaps less well-known outside
China, include those from photojournalism or
commercial photography backgrounds, such as Mo,
who worked for a time as a photographer for a children's hospital.

"In China, where expression is more complicated,
there is a very political photography, more so
than in India, for example," said Francois Hebel,
director of the original Arles festival in France.

But for Mo, who lost his hospital job after
taking part in the 1989 democracy movement
centering on Tiananmen, his photos are about more than just politics.

"For me, there is a contradiction in the cities.
On the one hand, it is civilised, with cars and
computers. But on the other hand, there is the
pollution, the rubbish," he said.

"I don't know how to express it, so I blur the images.

"But my goal is not to criticise or attack. But
because of the policies in China, the rapid
changes in society and my character, they can be regarded as that."
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