In Shenyang and Chengdu, The Strange Aesthetic of “Flat-Pack” City
Massive urban growth is one of the global features of our time. Working as a photographer since 2000 I’ve been lucky to have photographed in the regions at the forefront of this growth; the Middle East, India and China.
In this project I take a particular look at two Chinese city centres that I was able to spend some extended time in. My wife’s family are from Shenyang and having visited there many times since 2004 I have watched the city change dramatically. Vast areas of Communist era low-rise buildings that clustered around the central square where being demolished neighbourhood by neighbourhood. On each visit another neighbourhood would be gone or in the process of being demolished. With the areas being cleared for shopping malls and new apartments, they were then lined with advertising hoardings displaying luxury products, idealised lifestyles, extravagant cityscapes and often just random, positive slogans and colours.
Watching this unfold over a number of visits I began to photograph the changes. With the project kickstarted in Shenyang, on another family visit to Chengdu I noticed the same wholesale changes happening and spent the week walking the streets adding to the series.
I’ve visited many growing cities in China and photographed their striking features – skylines, extravagant architecture and forests of new high-rise housing. However, spending time in Shenyang and Chengdu with people who lived in these areas all their life, I felt I was beginning to get a glimpse from the inside. I was noticing not just the cities growth but their radical remodelling into hubs of commerce.
Developing an aspirational consumerism and tapping into the wealth of newly affluent urban population has been a key feature of China’s economic development. This was abundantly evident on the streets. The ubiquitous advertising hoardings, with their bright consumerist aesthetic of malls, lifestyles and products were announcing a new way of life that was unfurling itself over the past. Viewing the hoardings as borders between one way of life of life and another, I started to take two sets of photographs exploring what was in front and what was behind.
The work is displayed here as diptychs capturing a significant time of change for these two cities. One set of photographs peek through the gaps in the hoardings, mixing the bright foreground detail with the reality of the sites behind. Distance, scale and detail are packed into tight compositions that capture the punchy and vivid impact of change. The wider street views show the front public space with city inhabitants going about their business in an unsettling, often chaotic, limbo space. The temporary mess of the streets and infrastructure emphasising the upheaval of the inhabitants homes, workplace and way of life.
Some works from this series will be shown in the second Chapter of ‘Look’ Photo Biennial, Liverpool in Oct 2019.
Shenyang & Chengdu