In May 2018, The Shanghai Literary Review (TSLR) published a special edition book titled Concrete, which included essays and photographs on Chinese cities. This month, our visual editor Alex Gobin extended it into an exhibition called Concrete China—Réalités Urbaines en Chine Contemporaine. The show is being held at Raibaudi Wang Gallery and features the work of Zeng Han, Aurélien Maréchal, Luo Yongjin, Han Qian, and Deng Jiayun. Based in Paris, France, the gallery is run by Alexandre Raibaudi and Wang Xiaokun. TSLR's associate visual editor Jady Liu interviewed Gobin to tell us more about the show, which ran from May 5–19, 2019.
Jady Liu: Tell us about yourself and the gallery.
Alex Gobin: I’m Alex Gobin, 31, from France. I studied history and art management applied to contemporary art. I spent a big part of my adult life in China, from 2012 to 2018. Now I live in Paris and I am the visual editor of The Shanghai Literary Review.
Raibaudi Wang Gallery, which was founded last year, is run by Alexandre Raibaudi and Wang Xiaokun. The gallery is in Place des Vosges in Paris, which is really a beautiful location. Although the gallery is young, Raibaudi and Wang are very actively engaged in the Paris contemporary art scene and they support very interesting French and Chinese artists. Some of them are emerging artists; others a lot more established, like Li Chevalier.
JL: How did you get involved with the exhibition?
AG: I had it in the back of my mind to set up this exhibition when the artists and I were making the book Concrete with TSLR Editor in Chief Juli Min. I wanted to show the works of the photographers featured in the book and I initially thought it would be great to do an exhibition in Shanghai. It turned out that I moved back to France, so I looked around for a gallery to partner with for the event in Paris. I met Alexandre Raibaudi and Wang Xiaokun and from then we got the ball rolling. Other photographers were brought in along the way, which added strength to the project.
JL: What’s the exhibition about?
AG: The exhibition features the work of five artists interested in China’s urban development. These artists, of course, are working with different perspectives, but there are very evident similarities between their works. They share this idea that today's massive development of China’s landscape, this great reshaping of the territory, is resulting in something very profound: a reshaping of the way that people experience reality. It’s redefining relationships, social life and culture at large.
The artists are trying to get a grip on this new reality and trying to find the right tools to talk about it, which to me is the most interesting part. Zeng Han talks about “hyperreality,” a concept he borrows from Baudrillard. It’s difficult to find appropriate words because we’re in uncharted territory and too deep within it to have any critical distance. I like to say that in photography, China is a futuristic genre. In a lot of photography from China today, you sense a situation that’s forthcoming, something that’s not fully born yet and at the same time you know it’s a situation that has no precedent.
JL: How does the show fit into the larger concerns of the gallery and your own curatorial curiosities?
AG: I spent a great deal of my time in China interviewing artists and writing about the Chinese art scene. And I came to realize that because China has been going through such extreme changes in the last decades, Chinese artists have important things to say about a wide range of questions, especially questions related to culture, collective structures and what it does to people to live in a context of accelerating modernity.
I met Luo Yongjin a few years back for an interview and I was particularly interested in what he had to say about these questions. I also came across the work of photographer Zhang Xiao (who isn’t in the exhibition), which was a bit of an epiphany for me: it made me understand a few things. Or rather, it made me realize there was a lot that needed to be understood about China’s contemporary development, not just to learn about China but to gain insight on what it is to be a human being today, to gain insight on what it is to be defined by culture in a time when there is uncertainty about what culture really means.
JL: The artists are quite diverse. In your mind, what tales do they tell in their own unique perspectives and how are you going to curate them?
AG: Of course the works of these artists have unique qualities, but I wouldn't say that this exhibition stands out for its diversity. It features photographers influenced by the same context, drawn to the same questions. Visually I think the works show a lot of connections too.
One exception is Han Qian. She's up to something different. With her, it's a reflection on time, and how to represent change. The blurry aspect of her photographs is a metaphor of our mental blur when one considers objects in relation to time. I think her work fits very well between Luo Yongjin, whose photo represents a landscape at different moments, in different seasons, as a way to assign temporality to it, and the works of Aurélien Maréchal, Zeng Han and Deng Jiayun that are also on the problematic of change, but from the angle of society. Han Qian brings an interesting extra layer to the exhibition.
JL: Can you talk a bit about the title Concrete China?
AG: It was Min’s idea to name the TSLR book Concrete. I thought of translating it into French but then the polysemy of the word would be lost, so I kept it in English for the exhibition, adding “China” because I wanted people to get an idea right away of what the exhibition is about. Also, I like the fact that the title is somewhat upfront, to resonate with the “upfrontness” of the works exhibited. Because basically, it’s an exhibition where you’re looking at walls, facades and blocks of concrete.
The word concrete is tied to a certain notion of objectivity. It makes you think of something very definite, very static and tangible. It’s not something you would normally say about a country, especially contemporary China. We say something is concrete because it’s objectively there for everyone to see. And of course, there is no ground for objectivity when you comment on a given society at a given time, because where would you even stand to make that claim? To name the exhibition Concrete China is, if not a paradox, at least a slight provocation.
JL: You were involved in publishing TSLR’s book Concrete. How does its focus compare to the focus of the exhibition?
AG: In the book, I wanted shifts in perspectives, close-ups and larger angles. Generally, I wanted different styles of photography to coexist. I had in mind that, by superimposition, a possible portrait of Chinese cities would emerge. With the exhibition, however, the accent is much more on large scales, landscapes and architecture. There is very little human presence and little depiction of daily life. For the exhibition, it was best to sharpen our focus.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Geoff Mino has contributed to the editorial and reporting for this article.
Below are some images from the opening of the exhibition Concrete China: Réalités Urbaines en Chine Contemporaine, which ran from May 5-19th 2019 at Raibaudi Wang Gallery in Paris.
Jady Liu is the PR of Artexb.com and reseacher intern of media art at Center for Visual Studies Peking University. His articles and photos have been published on RadiiChina, SupChina, FTChinese and WSJ. He is also the founder of The Living Room, a project to connect creative minds and Beijing Hutong Team, a loose collective to document changes of historic alleyways in Beijing.