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Ottinger captured thousands of unguarded moments like these in various parts of China in the 1980s and 1990s. This work is titled Train.

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Exile Shanghai shows the details of everyday life. Ottinger feels images like these are fleeting as China rushes towards urbanisation.

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Ottinger is fascinated with the traditional aspects of China, such as Kun Opera.

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Ottinger, 74, has created a large body of work that includes films, photos, magazine illustrations, postcards and other media.

Postcards from China's past

The films and photographs of pioneering German artist Ulrike Ottinger show the country before its economic boom.
May 26, 2017 5:50 AM

WHEN Ulrike Ottinger decided to go to China in the 1980s to shoot photographs, films and documentaries, she had to wait two years before she could get the green light.

"I wrote and wrote to the authorities, but heard nothing from them. I finally got hold of the cultural attache of the Chinese embassy in Germany. I explained carefully what I wanted to do, and the kind, smiling man, an intellectual no doubt, granted me permission."

With that, off Ottinger went with a 35mm movie camera and a skeletal crew, traipsing around China and Mongolia to capture intimate, unguarded moments of the people, which were later distilled into a handful of documentaries as well as thousands of photographs.

They include an eight-hour documentary on Mongolia and its nomadic tribes, as well as gorgeous snapshots of everyday life in Beijing, Sichuan Province and Yunnan Province, now on display in a new exhibition at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA) in Gillman Barracks.

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Curated by Ute Meta Bauer and Khim Ong, the works show in particular a side of China that is fast disappearing as the country rushes towards superpower status.

Rapid changes

Ottinger says: "One of the places I went to was this village near Dali City, in Yunnan Province. I had the impression that even though people didn't have very much, they were happy and fulfilled. Their culture, traditions and craft were flourishing.

"But when I revisited the village some years later, the place had changed so much. A lot of the young men were working in construction. The young women were not in good jobs. I think the change is too fast, and I think there has been a tremendous loss of culture and identity."

Formally, the works also explore the relationship between still life photography and the moving image (cinema). The photographs and the documentaries shown next to each other sometimes contain similar images. But Ottinger says she did not extract stills from the documentaries to make the photographs. And in some ways, the still photographs convey more precisely what she hopes to capture of a place and time.

Ottinger, 74, is an artistic pioneer in Germany. She spent her early 20s in Paris, attending lectures on ethnography and religion at the University of Paris-Sorbonne.

She went on to create an impressively large body of work that includes films, photos, magazine illustrations, postcards and other media.

Her film practice is significant. Her feminist narratives influenced many cinephiles, including curator Bauer in her youth, and offered a different perspective from the reigning male auteurs of her time such as Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Ottinger recalls: "When my films first appeared, there was a big shock because there were so unusual. I had so many critics and detractors. Thirty years later, however, these same people sang a different tune - they began to praise these very same works."

Mongolian magic

One of her feature films, Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia, is playing at the exhibition. Dubbed the "female Lawrence of Arabia", the 165-minute films tells the story of seven Western women travelling on the Trans-Siberian Express when the train is ambushed by a band of Mongol horsewomen.

The seven women are abducted and taken on a camel ride across the Mongolian countryside, during which the viewer is treated to stunning shots of the Gobi desert and rich evocations of Mongolian traditions, costumes and rituals.

The exhibition, which runs till mid-August, is accompanied by a comprehensive public programme. There will be film screenings, lectures, discussions and a dance performance by Arts Fission responding to Ottinger's work.

For more information, visit ntu.ccasingapore.org