‘The Port and the Image’ – Xu Hao: When Objects Become Language
‘The Port and the Image: Documenting China’s Harbor Cities’ is a photographic project focused on documenting China’s ports and the cities that surround them, curated by He Yining. The goal of this project is to use art to explore the current situation of China’s port cities, and the issues that have arisen during their development in an increasingly integrated global economy. The first phase of this project involves eight photographers from different backgrounds and different fields. Each of them are paired up with a city and a port to focus on – Ningbo, Quanzhou, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Dalian, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Today we explore Shanghai through Xu Hao’s work on old collected and photographed objects.
“Goods, Decades, and Sense Shift” is a meticulously planned study into typology. When Shanghai first opened as a treaty port in 1843, directly after the Opium Wars, power dynamics changed and business began to shift. Globalization divided the workforce and lifestyles were altered as urbanization began to creep in. This history is written in the stories of these everyday objects. A surplus of mass produced products, piling up and spreading out to the edge of existence until they fall apart. Going through these objects is a reminder that those who lived here through that time have a shared experience –a past that is now mixed together with the present in typewriters, snuff bottles, and leather attaché’s. Their story is defined by these parts: objects that provide an unbiased record of events that collide to create contemplations on culture.
In “Objects, Decades and Sense Shift”, artist Xu Hao went to the giant secondhand furniture market on the outskirts of Pudong to photograph objects that have been left behind. Getting to know a city through its secondhand market is a fragmentized way of looking at its memories, past trends and the transformations it has undergone. Items found at secondhand markets in a harbor city are also indirect portrayals of the history of foreign trade and cultural assimilation.
In his work, Xu Hao takes forgotten objects out of their original contexts in order to collect, categorize and process them typologically. The old-fashioned, the classic, the foreign-made, the excessive…everything was spread out evenly on a common surface, forming a diagram where each individual occupies a spot within its own history and time. Like the process of combining what we see with its deeper significance, we are then able to go back to the symbols manifested on the surface of an object from this mysterious structure.
Here, what gets one’s attention is not the way an object is identified (e.g. through its craftsmanship, color, shape or period, etc.), but the way the object becomes a subjective language itself instead of remaining an object waiting to be described. As Foucault wrote in The Order of Things (1966), “it [language] has been set down in the world and forms a part of it, both because things themselves hide and manifest their own enigma like a language and because words offer themselves to men as things to be deciphered.” In other words, Xu Hao’s work approaches the history of Shanghai in an indirect but ever-nearing way.