Action-Camera: Beijing Performance Photography

by Stella Hsu

Action-Camera: Beijing Performance Photography was an exhibition curated by Keith Wallace in 2009 at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. The exhibition featured the works of fifteen Chinese artists, such as Ai Weiwei, Ma Liuming and He Chengyao, who work primarily in Beijing and have contributed to the emergence of Chinese contemporary art in the international art community. Unfortunately, I have never walked through the exhibition and have missed the opportunity of experiencing it.  I only became aware  of the catalogue recently because it stood out from a well curated collection of books in the Satellite Gallery Bookstore. Its black cover page drew me in and made me wonder what was inside.

An installation shot of Action-Camera: Beijing Performance Photography (

Because the catalogue shares the same name as the exhibition, it not only functions as documentation but also as a work existing beyond the exhibit. The first half of the catalogue contains the works of Beijing artists who use photography as a form of documentation in relation to performance; the latter half of the book consists of essays by Keith Wallace, Thomas J. Berghuis and Maya Kovskaya which examine the notion of performance photography in China, and specifically, in Beijing. In many ways, photography has the ability to reflect as well as to transform a given reality.

Li Wei, 29 Levels of Freedom, July 24, 2003, 2003.Li Wei, 29 Levels of Freedom, July 24, 2003

An image which caught my attention is Li Wei’s 29 Levels of Freedom (2003), a photograph depicting the artist reaching out from the window of a high-rise building. The busy roads that overlay one another suggest that the image was taken in a highly developed city. Within the image, Li Wei appears to be levitating as more than half of his body is suspended in mid-air. Behind him are two or three individuals either reaching out with the artist or towards him.

From the catalogue, curator Keith Wallace writes, “An interesting challenge with exhibitions such as this one is that they pose questions about the ways that meaning is translated or mistranslated in its displacement from one culture to another.” How should images, such as Li Wei’s 29 Levels of Freedom, be read in correlation to the social and political issues present in China? How does this image play with the notion of reality and representation? Evidently, to acknowledge the difficulty in answering these questions is to understand that to translate a work from one culture to another is already a mistranslation. Although the role of these images functions differently in the context of Vancouver, it is through these mistranslations that new meaning is created.


Action-Camera: Beijing Performance Photography is available at Satellite Gallery Bookstore and Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery

Action-Camera: Beijing Performance Photography. Exhibition Catalogue. 112 pages, colour and b/w images. Hard cover. Essays/Writings by
Keith Wallace, Thomas J. Berghuis and Maya Kovskaya. $30.00.
ISBN# 978-0-88865-801-2

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