They intended to document the aftermath of China’s Cultural Revolution. Instead their records show not only a nation in transition, but also two people who were transitioning from daily lives in America to outsiders in a reconstructed China. This is the transformation photojournalist Inge Morath and her husband, playwright Arthur Miller, underwent on their first trip to China in 1978. From now until March 23, the University of Michigan Museum of Art Off/Site will offer a glimpse of their memories and experiences in the exhibit “China.”

“Here, then, is a bit of how it was for two people, well-disposed and trying to see and listen, at the particular moment when the dust of the temple began to settle,” University alum Miller wrote in the introduction to “Chinese Encounters,” a book on the pair’s visit. Indeed, Morath’s and Miller’s interpretations aren’t records of the conflicts themselves but, rather, an illustration of how the invulnerability of the human spirit allows people to face these conflicts.

With the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Mao Zedong launched a plan to erase the country’s traditional artistic influences and to use China’s youth in his Red Army. What followed this tortuous era was a desperate need to rebuild the country.

Two stories are simultaneously told in the exhibit: one of China’s struggle to cope with this cultural change, and one of Morath and Miller’s attempt to understand how deeply this change ran in the lives of the people they met and photographed.

Miller approached China’s Cultural Revolution with a curiosity about the sociopolitical atmosphere, and Morath, who was also a linguist, was primarily concerned with Chinese literature and history. Both interests form what John Jacob, curator of the exhibit and director of The Inge Morath Foundation in New York, calls in his introduction to the exhibit “two sides of the same coin.”

“All of Morath’s major bodies of work have a consistent theme, which is examining the struggle of modernity with tradition and looking at what people do in the face of that struggle,” Jacob said in an interview. “There’s no conclusion, only an awareness.”

Excerpts from Morath’s and Miller’s journals complement the artwork. The visual and textual forms function cooperatively in that both speak for the other when one couldn’t effectively convey what the two were experiencing.

For Morath, writing became a tool through which she expressed the energy and momentum of China when a camera could only capture still life. Similarly, the camera provided Morath with a language she couldn’t always speak through writing. In the midst of learning of China’s struggles, Morath was discovering her own. The frustration of being an outsider is something she confessed in her journal entries, and in a sense, this is expressed in many of her photographs – her visual perspective is that of the outsider looking in. Morath’s photographs show how windows and doors sometimes inhibited her interactions with her subjects. Alienation is also expressed in photos where large distances stand between her camera and her object of interest. On the other hand, we see Morath’s attempt to become fully immersed in her subject as a successful one, sharing a view with the people she is surrounded by.

Morath gives us intimate stories about life within villages and cities. We see the civilian in the village of Meijiawu and the cities of Beijing and Shanghai, in schools, on side streets, in courtyards, tea houses and factories and, sometimes, we see the absence of people within these scenes. Perhaps the most common images are communities and human interactions formed by small groups. It is as if we are gaining access to the lives of people who are just now finding shelter after being caught in a thunderstorm that went on for 10 years.

“Morath had a humanistic approach to an encounter with the world,” Jacob said. “Her photographs aren’t so much about the Chinese as much as they are about her encounter with them.”

Morath’s vivid honesty brings color to her primarily black and white photographs. Telling a story about a post-Mao age in China is challenging, but sharing it through the perspective of someone who is admittedly insecure about being on the outside allows the viewer to realize a commonality between herself and the photographer

The cause and aftermath of what Miller called “China’s contradiction,” as well as Morath’s struggle to overcome her status as an outsider, may be unresolved in the exhibit’s story. However, it’s evident that a nation as well as an individual must work courageously in order to uplift the restraints that isolate them from the areas outside the places in which they are confined.

Inge Morath and Arthur Miller: China


Through March 23

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