The ongoing long-term photographic study After the Fall, by Hin Chua, is an incisive and at the same time deeply personal rumination on our interlinked cultures and societies, on the odd and unerringly anachronistic commonalities expressed between them in the landscape, and on the way in which the expression of specific idiosyncrasies in these landscapes draws together a set of objective circumstances with a thoroughly whimsical process of personal discovery, and produces a kind of emotional index of our common inheritance. Hin’s are photographs that prefigure or anticipate change, they’re pictures in which change is either visible or immanent, pictures onto which time is inscribed or its passage can be charted against a map that is both rigorously analytic and at the same time fundamentally unmoored. Hin makes photographs where things are impending.
“Every one will agree that a city is a material and social organisation which derives its reality from the ubiquity of its absence. It is present in each of its streets in so far as it’s always elsewhere.” — Jean-Paul Sartre.
The foregoing selection of pictures from Hin’s project are in places demonstrably wide-ranging in location, they’re the product of a lengthy peripatetic study. But they express an equivocal relationship with place, they’re in the main utterly unconcerned with geography in the specific sense of longitudes and latitudes, or regional political affairs. Rather they join themselves together in an imaginative act that expresses if not the existence then the expectation of another, much more tightly integrated and much more elusive place. They pre-emptively illustrate a global city – one that, in Sartre’s words, derives its reality from the the ubiquity of its elsewhere. I say city because, even at their most rural extremes these photographs point back toward the centre – toward a density of people who are largely excluded from the frame, and thus all the more present in the mind. I say global because of the indifference with which they address the localities in which they are made, and because of the rhythmic core that ties them formally one to another – in tone, in figure, in composition, and in sensibility.
It’s something of a commonplace to speak of globalisation – yet one more yawn-inducing truism we take ourselves to already be operating some distance beyond. We are familiar with the notion of the identical faces of development, with the viral sprawl of homogeneous urbanisation in Chennai and Brisbane and Portland and Montpellier. If that were all that were in these pictures they would likely not work together to produce an atmosphere that makes their title so apt. Fortunately they contain a great deal more than mere description. They carry with them the seeds of an anxiety that has been directed outward from within onto the unfailingly beautiful points at which these exposures were made, they exhume a sometime suppressed anxiety about the hectic pace of change or the callousness of capital but retain at the same time a willingness to dream. They are beautiful even where we are fallen, and they draw us together not only in pragmatic but in expectant ways. This is, I think, in large measure due to the coherent poetry of form.
“Why is Form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us to meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning. James Dickey was right when he asked, rhetorically, “What is Heaven, anyway, but the power of dwelling among objects and actions of consequence.” “Objects of consequence” cannot be created by man alone, nor can “actions of consequence” happen in a void; they can only be found within a framework that is larger than we are, an encompassing totality invulnerable to our worst behavior and most corrosive anxieties.” — Robert Adams, Beauty in Photography.
I think that the aesthetic ground, the foundation laid out for this work originates (which is merely a way of saying owes its beginning to the beginning of another) with the New Topographics. That work represents, to me at least, a moment at which a culture’s fallen expectation was reinserted into its view of landscape, a juncture at which utility smashed up against the failing bulwark of romanticism, and the whole heroic edifice of a pristine wilderness (any by extension a pristine society) gave way. Hin’s photographs work from the basis of that realisation, and depend upon its assumptions. Thus the photographs in After The Fall are not didactic or prescriptive, and yet nevertheless retain the pulse of a critique they never seek to fully represent. The pictures are deeply personal, contemplative, spontaneous and un-programmatic, their mood by turns wistful, bemused or enchanted – they are understood to be reflections made up of something momentary, ambiguous and ephemeral.
None of this is to deny the presence in some of these pictures of what Hin calls ‘my angry internal voices’. But then one privilege of the image must be its ability to reconcile apparent contradictions. In this instance, these two things only appear to be opposed.
Something I love in these photographs is the way that they imagine and intimate (but do not prophesy) by means of a set of arbitrary singularities, a world that is recognisably our own but at one and the same time is essentially postlapsarian. They are proleptic in some sense, they are made up of figures and gestures that work like microcosms, that we know to be capable of massive replication, but that nevertheless hold an undeniable and very rhythmic charm. In this, I think, they reflect us back to ourselves. There’s a picture of the angled surface of a body of water discolouring itself so finely as to be at the same instant water and an oil slick, threatening to submerge a bobbing globe. It’s a deeply metaphorical picture, but it manages to be both a metaphor and a haiku.
It might be tempting to conclude that After The Fall is nevertheless a dystopian work, at least as it is currently taking shape. But to do so would require us to forget the hypnotic ineffable distance of blue in the water of that picture. The ‘distance of blue’ being, as Rebecca Solnit says, the eternally delayed promise of a thing toward which in reaching we never quite attain — the embodiment of an unfulfilled desire. While Hin’s photographs do address that which is decrepit in greater measure than they do that which is sublime, while they manage to picture us, as it were, not in anticipation of but from the imagined hindsight of a future his photographs somehow presage, they also illuminate with poetic clarity a sense of things coming slowly and suddenly together, of times colliding in a common necessity.
In the paragraph that immediately follows the one I quoted from Robert Adams’s essay Beauty in Photography, he draws out the singular marvel of photography’s interactions with light and form. Those words seem appropriate to these ideas, and to the effort made in Hin’s pictures – an effort to clarify without immobilising something that is at once pervasive and immanent in our living together. Adams writes:
“Art’s beauty does not lead, of course, to narrow doctrine. The Form it affirms is not neatly finished, at least to our eyes. It does not lead directly to a theology or a system of ethics (though it reminds me of the wisdom of humility and generosity). William Carlos Williams said that poets write for a single reason — to give witness to splendor (a word also used by Thomas Aquinas in defining the beautiful). It is a useful word, especially for a photographer, because it implies light — light of overwhelming intensity.The Form toward which art points is of an incontrovertible brilliance, but it is also far too intense to examine directly. We are compelled to understand Form by its fragmentary reflection in the daily objects around us; art will never fully define light.“