GreenHill exhibit sheds light on China

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For many Americans there are two Chinas.

One China is ancient and mythical. It’s the familiar cinematic China with the dulcet sound of a flute rising from the mist of a mountain. The people who inhabit this China are full of words like “Zen” and “wisdom,” and they dutifully maintain traditionally practices in everyday life.

There is another, more modern China, that symbolizes the perceived threat that some Americans feel when they see images of crowded cities with skyscrapers that rise faster than a NASA rocket.

This is the China of communism superpower, and a new photography exhibit at GreenHill gallery in Greensboro plays with the stereotypes surrounded both this newer China, and the older perception of what was once known as the Orient.

The exhibit features the works of five different North Carolina photographers taken during individual trips to China. The Photographers featured in “Light on China” are Jerome De Perlinghi, Joe Lipka, Bill McAllister, David M. Spear and Barbara Tyroler. Curator Edie Carpenter wanted to showcase how each photographic collection represents the view of China from a different lens.

“They all tell a different story of each photographer’s journey,” said Carpenter.

A common theme among the photographs is a contrast between new and old. Images depict modern buildings emerging from previously rural landscapes, and barefoot workers carrying the raw materials needed to create cutting-edge technological devices. A household is photographed with clothes hanging on a traditional drying rack around a huge satellite dish. The subjects in the photos are often dressed in Western clothes, even while laboring on farms.

“There’s always this anachronism,” said Carpenter. The oldest photographs in the collection were taken in the late 1980s, and the progression of time up until recent years seems to record the rapid amount of change that has taken place in the last 30 years.

The photographs play with the tradition of landscape photography to convey this change. An image of a steep mountainside appears at first glance to be a typical nature scene, until you notice that steps have been built on the rock face. Where are these steps going? How did someone manage to build these? The questions elicited from the viewer play with the notion of how even the most remote places cannot claim to be untouched by modernity.

Even in photos without people, the human presence can be felt. In a scene with a small, solitary old house being dwarfed by the towering piles of a bridge in construction, the viewer can feel the sense of impending change that must consume the family who lives there.

“One of the overriding things you take away from [the exhibit] is a sense of humanity,” said Carpenter.

The promise of a new China is reflected in the faces of the children in the photographs, while the old China can be seen in the weathered hands of the adult workers.

The photos put a human face, and a human story, to the often-intimidating narrative around China’s economic growth. This country of 1.3 billion people on the other side of the world is often misunderstood, despite its prominence on the world stage. Is it a construction powerhouse that threatens the environment? Is it a modern economic power that threatens its own rich history? The photos in “Light on China” may not have answers, but they do offer an intimate view into the life of real and everyday individuals. Viewers are able to look past China as a massive superpower, and see the recognizable signs of universal emotions and struggles in human life. !


“Light on China” will be on display at GreenHill Gallery until September 6. GreenHill is located at 200 North Davie Street in downtown Greensboro. The gallery is free and open to the public on Tuesday -Saturday from 10am to 5pm.