China: A Photographic Portrait & Bond Bound, Edinburgh Art Festival review

China: A Photographic Portrait is a huge exhibition which decorates every wall of the top three floors of the City Art Centre, with framed photographs. Bond Bound is somewhat smaller, and occupies a comparably modest space on the first floor, but is still packed full of material. £5 gains you entry to both exhibitions and, despite the less than welcoming staff on the ticket desk, it represents excellent value for money.

China A Photographic Portrait & Bond Bound programme cover

Most of the photographs in China: A Photographic Portrait are black and white, although a few colour images are included. Almost 600 photographs are present, the viewing of which can prove quite enduring in the uncomfortable heat of the City Art Centre. The exhibition debuted in 2003, which explains why there are no recent images of the Olympics’ impact on people or other recent developments in the life of China’s people. With the Chinese ownership and sole Chinese contributors, it’s obvious why Tiananmen Square 1989, other protests, the demolition of Beijing’s Hutongs, etc. are not represented. This can never be a true picture of China’s development. In fairness, given China’s huge size picking a representative set of photos would always be a difficult task. Many photographs will stay in the mind or raise a smile - the swarm of people gathering to buy state lottery tickets, women having perms on the street, school children crossing a rope bridge to school, train passengers being offered food via huge rods and a leper taking a swim.

If the going gets tough take a seat in the ‘mini-cinema’ on level two, where a seemingly endless reel of short films about individuals in China plays. We watched a short about a factory worker who lost his hand because his boss would not pay for the limb to be re-attached. A successful legal challenge ensued.

China: A Photographic Portrait intends to show the impact ’social upheaval has had on the individual’ and ‘tracks their journey over five decades to recover a sense of individual self-worth’. I’m not so sure it achieves this. The exhibition seems a little short on depth and lacked the impact I expected. While individual images tell a great story, the whole exhibition failed to convey a coherent message.

Judging by the low number of James Bond posters left in the City Art Centre’s shop, August must have been a strong month for sales: unsurprising given the mass market appeal of Ian Fleming’s Bond. ‘Bond Bound’ is a delightful exhibition which displays a plethora of James Bond books, book cover art, foreign movie posters, commemorative stamps, portraits/sculptures of Fleming and family, original manuscripts and letters to/from Mr Fleming himself.

Personally I’d forgotten Ian Fleming, in later life, was the author of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ . The beginning of Bond Bound has a section dedicated to this, including John Burningham’s original illustrations. My favourite sections were the posters, especially the art work for the Casino Royale book and movie; the latter including a Japanese version. ‘Bond Bound’ is enjoyable, fun and enlightening. A great exhibition to celebrate 100 years since Ian Fleming’s birth.

China: A Photographic Portrait and Bond Bound are showing at The City Art Centre, 2 Market St, Edinburgh until 14th September 2008.

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