Kickstart the New Year with a Review on 2023

PHOTOFAIRS Shanghai has made it a tradition to kick off a new year with a comprehensive review of the photography world. Stepping into 2024, we have once again reached out to eminent figures within the photography industry to share their insights on their favorite artists, exhibitions, and publications from the past year.

Cathy Fan
Editor-in-Chief, Artnet News China

Artist of the Year

In 2023, curator and art critic Haijie became an artist himself, venturing into the innovative world of AI-generated images. He held his solo exhibition, /haijie’s prompt, at the Hangzhou Gaofan Photography Museum, making it the first institutional solo exhibition of AI images. The show featured a collection of images created through Midjourney. In addition, he also took part in a roundtable discussion alongside science fiction writer Chen Qiufan, featured in Artnet News China’s new AI Special Series. Their conversation delved into the current impact of AI on creators and its future possibilities.

© Haijie, A Girl Surrounded by Sheep, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Exhibition of the Year
The Enduring Present: A Retrospective of Stephen Shore 
November 07, 2023 – December 31, 2023
Lishui Art Museum

Curated by Jiang Rong, The Enduring Present: A Retrospective of Stephen Shore took the spotlight at the 2023 Lishui Photography Festival. It was the first-ever visit to China for the esteemed 76-year-old photographer. The exhibition showcased 335 pieces, featuring Shore’s iconic works from four acclaimed series: American Surfaces, Uncommon Places, Elements, and Topographies. Shore was personally involved in the curation, including the photo selection and production, and it stood as his most significant global showcase since the 2017 grand retrospective at MoMA.

© Installation View of The Enduring Present: A Retrospective of Stephen Shore, 2023.

Book of the Year
Archive by Sofia Coppola
Publisher: MACK

As international travel resumed, I didn’t get to buy many photography books this year. The only exception was Archive, Sofia Coppola’s first book, published by my favorite publisher, MACK. This exceptional book offers a visual odyssey through Coppola’s entire cinematic journey and was personally edited and annotated by the artist herself. It also introduces her creative process and features some of her past interviews.

Archive by Sofia Coppola

Michael Guo
Co-founder of te magazine, Young Collector, Curator

Artist of the Year
Chen Zhe

In my eyes, ‘Artist of the Year’ should be someone who achieved a breakthrough, not so much in terms of external accomplishments, but rather of an internal transformation.

In the late summer of 2023, Chen Zhe unveiled her long-anticipated solo exhibition, As Precise As Fever, at White Space (Beijing). The featured sculpture series, Celestial-cranial Instrument, explored the intricate relationships between human bodies, worldly laws, and celestial texts. It infused elements of astrology and cosmology with a personal touch, prompting a pressing question: how should we, as individuals, approach the concept of fate?

Chen Zhe’s photography and sculpture works draw inspiration from her personal exploration and experiences of various journeys, as well as her ongoing passion for astronomy and numerology. In addition to this exhibition, she later collaborated with sound artist Anita Pan for a captivating performance in an old Shanghai building. To me, Chen’s creative journey reflected a transition from resistance to gradual reconciliation, in which one could witness moments of illumination and struggle. Undoubtedly, her works are maturing gracefully in both medium and language.

© Chen Zhe, External Ephemera: Portal, 2023. Courtesy of White Space (Beijing)
© Chen Zhe, External Ephemera: Under the Moon, 2023. Courtesy of White Space (Beijing)

Exhibition of the Year
Thailand Biennale
December 09, 2023 – April 30, 2024
Chiang Rai

The Thailand Biennale, in its tradition of exploring diverse corners of Thailand, has set its latest edition in the small northern border town of Chiang Rai. Rirkrit Tiravanija is one of the main curators, and it’s my first time seeing him operate within a context that he is intimately familiar with. Notably, the other curators are also of Thai origin. This composition signals that this exhibition is not a western art experience transplanted into Thailand; instead, it presents a unique exploration of how western concepts subtly weave into the Southeast Asian context and what significance they bring for the region.

The lineup of artists is comparable to major biennales worldwide, showcasing works from established artists such as Haegue Yang, Sarah Sze, and Pierre Huyghe. It also features creations from up-and-coming artists, such as Tcheu Siong’s knitted works. Tcheu, who was born in the Miao tribe in Luang Prabang, previously sold her handicrafts at night markets, finding inspiration from the ghosts in her dreams. I’ve come to know that during the preparation phase, the organizers invited all the artists to Chiang Rai for a research trip, allowing them to better select the sites they wanted to respond to. So the final presentation is deeply rooted in the local context, effortlessly blending in with the rural landscapes of Chiang Rai. As viewers travel to different venues, they can explore more of Chiang Rai’s history and environment. You may notice some seemingly mismatched combinations, yet they offer a breath of fresh air—a departure from the confinements of western art, offering an entirely different artistic experience.

In the satellite exhibition in Chiang Saen, in the Golden Triangle region, artist Hsu Chia-Wei chose a local community computer room. Inside, his creation unfolds and features a Kuomintang veteran and pastor sharing his story with local orphans, whose parents all died due to drug trafficking. The twist lies in the fact that it was the children themselves who operated the cameras. The exhibition is set on the bank of the Mekong River, where you can see Myanmar and Laos on the other side. The integration of real-life settings adds another layer to the piece, creating a more impactful experience.

© Sarah Sze, Pictures at an Exhibition, 2023. Courtesy of the artist
© Hsu Chia-Wei, The Actor from Golden Triangle, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Book of the Year
Catastrophe Time! Edited by Gary Zhexi Zhang
Publisher: Strange Attractor Press

I would like to recommend a book that I have not finished yet, which is Catastrophe Time!, edited by Gary Zhexi Zhang. This book brings together a diverse group of artists, researchers, and interdisciplinary practitioners, focusing on the conditions of speculative knowledge on an increasingly volatile planet. Traversing a gray zone between rigorous research and operative science fictions, its contributors question how practices of speculation may transform, undermine, and at times exceed, the worlds they set out to model. I have always appreciated Gary’s sharp insights into the art world. He consistently adopts a “medium” perspective, skillfully putting together elements of current capital, technology, and ideology. The book’s editing is not limited by contemporary art, forming a cohesive and appealing narrative that is more than just a lengthy art critique. Perhaps it can help us make sense of the turbulent times we live in. 

Catastrophe Time! Edited by Gary Zhexi Zhang

Matthew Liu
Owner of Matthew Liu Fine Arts (Shanghai)

Artist of the Year
Candida Höfer

Candida Höfer, with her unique perspective and contributions, stands out in the contemporary photography world. Epic Gaze, her recent exhibition at the Macau Museum of Art, highlighted her profound understanding of architecture and space and her reflection on how these spaces continue to shape and influence human culture. Her creations go beyond visual excellence, inviting the audience to reflect on the concepts of space, time, and history. Candida Höfer’s work has garnered widespread acclaim in the international photography community and holds profound significance on contemporary culture and art.

© Candida Höfer, Iglesia de San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya I, 2015. Courtesy of the artist

Exhibition of the Year
Seeing Is Believing: Lee Miller and Friends 
November 11, 2023 – December 22, 2023
Gagosian, New York

The recent exhibition Seeing Is Believing: Lee Miller and Friends, held at Gagosian (New York), showcased Lee Miller’s distinctive photography along with thoughtful selections from Miller and her husband Penrose’s art collection. It also included works by artists in their extended network, including prominent figures like Picasso and Man Ray. The featured photographs, paintings, and personal letters allowed the viewer to dive into a history of interconnected lives and relationships. Miller’s works were more than art expression; they acted as unique witnesses to historical moments, unveiling the diversity and openness of the art world.

© Installation View of Seeing Is Believing: Lee Miller and Friends, 2023. Courtesy of Gagosian

Book of the Year
Life’s Pathways by Flor Garduño
Publisher: Veritas Editions

Life’s Pathways is more than just a compilation of Garduño’s photographic work; it is an in-depth retrospective of her 45-year career. As a female Mexican photographer, Garduño is celebrated for her exploration of fantasy, mythology, magic, nude portraiture, indigenous people, and their culture. Her monochromatic photography not only captures traditional Mexican symbols and folklore, but also delicately presents the strength and beauty of the female body. Through her lens, we can see her intimate connection with Mexican indigenous culture and her deep respect for the diverse cultures and people of Central and South America.

Life’s Pathways by Flor Garduño 

Dr. Shen Qilan
Writer, Art Critic, Curator

Artist of the Year
Antoni Muntadas

In 2023, under the invitation of Ms. Tan Zhuo, the Art Innovation Ambassador of the Beijing International Film Festival, I curated Poesie of Illusions—Master’s Image Display in the new Movement Section of the Festival. I had the privilege of inviting Antoni Muntadas and Song Dong, two artists with distinct perspectives on videos and images, to respond to concerns regarding artificial intelligence in photography and video production. The two artists, who knew each other previously, coincidentally had their exhibition spaces connected at Beijing’s UCCA Lab.

Antoni Muntadas’s creation tied creativity and critical thinking with poetic language. His featured works, La Siesta / The Nap / Dutje and Dérive Veneziane gracefully illustrated the subtle interplay between imagery and dreams. In an era when the impact of AI is at the heart of public debate, it is worth revisiting his reflections on video and photography. Years ago, he was the pioneer in exploring this new medium and communication system brought by the emergence of video art. His findings continue to hold significance even today, as short videos dominate our visual world. Muntadas has consistently warned us that “Perception Requires Involvement”, and encourages us to focus on the public’s power to transform perception into meaning. These perspectives are worth a re-evaluation in our current context. 

© Antoni Muntadas, La Siesta / The Nap / Dutje, 1995. Courtesy of Vanguard Gallery (Shanghai)

Artist of the Year
Song Dong

Song Dong’s works emanate a human warmth derived from everyday life while delving into profound philosophical contemplation. During the preparation, Song faced a challenge with his piece Father and Song Looking into the Mirror. This elaborated installation was supposed to feature two large mirrors, but only one was produced. Song Dong made a decisive move on the spot, replacing the missing mirror with mirrored paper. Remarkably, the final presentation more closely matched his initial idea, all because of his ingenious quick-thinking derived from years of exploring the concept of “mirror”. He even reassured everyone onsite, stating, “I understand everyone wants to do things well, but these moments are where artistic innovation comes to shine.” His creation, attitude, and wisdom when facing crises shed light on what AI cannot achieve.

I have learned a lot from this exhibition. The communication with the artists and the collaborative efforts with the initiator, Tan Zhuo, deeply moved me.

Illusion is the artists’ ability to bring their perception of the world into images, creating a new time and space where, once entered, a new kind of power is bestowed upon the audience, allowing us to remove the barrier of life from inside out and helping us understand memories, destiny, and life’s choices. Like a bird trying to find a shoulder to rest on, imagination can be witnessed in exceptional artworks and exhibitions. All the greatest modern artworks and films derive from this particular power of the imagination.

© Song Dong, Father and Song Looking into the Mirror, 2001. Courtesy of the artist & PACE Gallery

Exhibition of the Year
June 22, 2023 – October 08, 2023
Miguel De Cervantes Library, Shanghai

The most impressive exhibition for me in 2023 was Picasso retratado, Picasso enmascarado at the Miguel De Cervantes Library in Shanghai. Marking the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death, it featured photographs of the artist taken by five of his contemporaries as a way to tell his story. As the world is currently reassessing Picasso and his legacy, this show has managed to provide fresh insights, uncovering how the painter, amidst his towering fame, purposefully engaged with mass media and actively shaped his role as a public icon.

The curator of this remarkable exhibition was José Lebrero Stals, the director of the Picasso Museum in Malaga. I had the privilege of engaging in a conversation with him. “Face” and “mask” serve as the essential keywords for interpreting Picasso. He drew inspiration from masks in Africa and Oceania and redefined the way the painter constructs and views faces. “The most entertaining surface in the world is the human face,” said Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Masks and humanity are intricately connected. There are masks within human nature, and vice versa.

This exhibition offered a fresh way to understand Picasso, inviting the audience to reconsider how we create the myth around an artist. “He is a god. He must understand that constant disguise is necessary for success, so he wore every mask to move forward… What is he like, under all these masks?” This was how the renowned Spanish novelist Pío Baroja described Picasso. The photographs on the wall weren’t just creations of photographers; they were Picasso’s active shaping of his own image through others’ cameras and media channels. These images not only provide insights into Picasso’s life but also serve as a mirror, reflecting the life of an artist in the era of mass media, striving to maintain attention and cultivate his own myth.

While his paintings were missing from the exhibition, it offered viewers a unique “Picasso” experience.

© Installation View of Picasso retratado, Picasso enmascarado, 2023. Courtesy of Miguel De Cervantes Library, Shanghai

Xu Guanyu

Artist of the Year
An-My Lê

I was thrilled to see An-My Lê’s touring solo exhibition at the Milwaukee Museum of Art in 2022. Her solo exhibition at MoMA in 2023 received the recognition she has long deserved.

For 30 years, her photography has engaged the complex fictions that inform how we justify, represent, and mythologize warfare and other forms of conflict. Lê does not take a straightforward photojournalistic approach to depicting combat. Rather, with poetic attention to politics and landscape, she meditates on the meaning of perpetual violence, war’s environmental impact, and the significance of diaspora. 

“Being a landscape photographer,” she says, “means creating a relationship between various categories—the individual within a larger construct such as the military, history, and culture.” An-My Lê: Between Two Rivers/Giữa hai giòng sông/Entre deux rivières is the first exhibition to present Lê’s powerful photographs alongside her forays into film, video, textiles, and sculpture. It explores the relationship between mass media, gender, labor, and violence. And an immersive installation created especially for the exhibition attested to the artist’s long-standing consideration of the cinematic dimensions of photography and war.

© An-My Lê, High School Students Protesting Gun Violence, Washington Square Park, New York City, 2018. Courtesy of the artist

Exhibition of the Year
Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined
March 02, 2023 – June 04, 2023
New Museum, New York

Wangechi Mutu’s solo exhibition at the New Museum showcased the full breadth of her practice, encompassing painting, collage, drawing, sculpture, film, and performance, which immersed viewers in the world she created. I was most impressed by her early collage work, which offered me plenty to learn from. Mutu first gained acclaim for her collage-based practice exploring camouflage, transformation, and mutation. She extended these strategies to her work across various media, developing hybrid, fantastical forms that fused mythical and folkloric narratives with layered sociohistorical references. Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined traced connections between recent developments in the artist’s sculptural practice and her decades-long exploration of the legacies of colonialism, globalization, and African and diasporic cultural traditions. At once culturally specific and transnational in scope, Mutu’s work grapples with contemporary realities, while proffering new models for a radically changed future informed by feminism, afrofuturism, and interspecies symbiosis.

© Installation View of Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined, 2023. Photo: Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of New Museum

Book of the Year
Sarah Sze: Paintings by Mark Godfrey, Tina Pang, Madeleine Grynsztejn
Publisher: Paidon

I got my hands on the newly published monograph by Sarah Sze. While I am not a painter, Sze’s installation pieces have deeply influenced me. Her work always allows me to see through the lens of an image-maker, as if bridging the two-dimensional and three-dimensional worlds. Sarah Sze challenges the static nature of art with a dynamic body of work spanning sculpture, painting, drawing, printmaking, video and installation. Comprising constellations of painted and collaged elements, her expansive abstract landscapes depict a visual world that is constantly evolving, degrading, and generating new ways of seeing.

Sarah Sze: Paintings by Mark Godfrey, Tina Pang, Madeleine Grynsztejn