Art and life in China blur for photographer Mo Yi

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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