Portfolios: Chinese cities, delusion and despair
Many portfolios have recently attracted our attention because of the quality of their images or their subjects. While approaches vary from classic photojournalism to more artistic approaches, all seem to be questioning the growth of Chinese cities, whether seriously, subtly or ironically: depleted natural resources, social margins on the outskirts of cities, urban displays, the control of public space, etc.
In 2011, 69 Chinese cities were classified by the State Council as cities with depleted or damaged natural resources. Top Depleted Cities from Caixin Online provides an overview of the most severely affected cities. Here, the photographs are especially helpful in providing an overview of the problems: falling coal and oil prices, the scarcity of certain mineral resources, the end of car production in Changchun (renamed the “Chinese Detroit”), etc. Do pay particular attention to explanations/descriptions below each picture.
Two interesting portfolios focus on the limits of Beijing and Chengdu, somewhere between wastelands, cities and countryside, and voluntary and imposed exclusions. City limits from Caixin Online focuses on the marginality of inhabitants in an outlying district of Beijing, an area which has clearly not followed China’s march of urbanization, where basic urban services are still absent. In Chengdu, Growth, from the German photographer Lukas von Rantzau, covers a developing area south of Chengdu, where high-rise residences and offices lie amid a rural agricultural backdrop.
The French photographer Tim Franco, in his project “Vertical Communism“, focuses on the gigantism of Chongqing, a city he has often frequented. His work engages the issue of the large and monumental in scale. In his urban landscape, the photographed subjects, urban and natural territories, construction projects and people, appear disproportionately large, dense, deserted, saturated – and dare we say, at times inhuman. Global Center is another work by Lukas von Rantzau, in this case focusing on the New Century Global Center. Located in Chengdu, the building, whose inauguration was widely publicized a few months ago, is said to be the largest building in the world in terms of covered surface area. Encompassing an area of 1.7 million m², the structure includes a shopping center, a skating rink, one of the largest 3D cinemas in Asia, a duplicate of a Mediterranean village complete with indoor beach and LCD screen sun, two 5-star hotels, and conference rooms and offices.
The project “Subtitles” of Eric Leleu, a French photographer based in Shanghai, focuses on the red propaganda banners of the Communist Party that punctuating all Chinese public spaces. Subtly, “Subtitles” offers a new reading of the city based on its texts. Chapter 1, “Authority” deals with propaganda messages in white text on a red background, addressed to the masses, one can usually find such message in the streets, squares, houses or in various danwei throughout the city. Eric Leleu, in Chapter 2, “Voxpopuli“, reflects on “urban clothing” as a banner where one can writes slogans about daily life in China, dealing alternately with history, cultural habits, consumption, power and/or topical issues in the most recent headlines. The relationship between writing and the photographer’s topic becomes comical when the banners contribute a “subtitle” to the photographed scenes. Chapter 3, “Silent protest“, presents blank red banners installed by the photographer in places far away from the city. From the exploitation of communist semantics emerges a poetic narration of landscape and territory, which reminds us of Bertrand Desprez’s work “Blue Leaf” in Japan (Aoba, 2004), or the more recent works by Milla-Kariina Oja with Homescape.