Bolder even than the starkly declarative title selected by Sze Tsung Leong is the broad, incisive and archaeological sensibility that underpins this work. History Images sets itself the task of unearthing and articulating photographically some of the truly vast forces propelling China – and, by extension, developing Asia – toward a drastically realigned map of the world in this relatively new century. That the book, published by Steidl and widely available in Western Europe and North America, is likely to remain the preserve principally of a ‘First World’ audience underscores both photographer’s angle of attack (as a British American citizen, but also a member of the Chinese diaspora) and also the timing and relevance of Leong’s work.
Integral to the effort that underscores History Images is a prolonged attempt to articulate the manner in which an artificial, uniform and entirely new cultural reality has risen up seemingly in simultaneity (in the form of new architectural norms), and has in fact sought programmatically to cast a shroud over all the peculiar varieties of accumulated history beneath it. This photographic effort is not that of an attempted rescue, since photographs of a long history in the midst of rapid erosion cannot reconstitute that which has been lost. However the work can and does, nevertheless, seek to succeed in giving expression to the process of transition from one period of gradual continuity to the cusp of another, and to thereby retrieve the sense of disjuncture this massive transition has created.
Viewed from a historiographical perspective, Leong’s work is concerned with the differing physical (and, by extension cultural) impacts wrought upon the Chinese urban landscape by the intersecting forces of “a powerful government ruling with almost limitless authority, seeking to realize its vision of an urban order” and “an abrupt change in the economy having substantial repercussions on the environment as land is transformed into a means for profit”(i). Through wholly photographic means, through the elegant and pointed juxtaposition within and between photographic images, the artist is concerned with articulating “the sweeping destruction of historic urban areas on a scale and suddenness equal to warfare” (ii). Using the frankness of a series of frontal landscape views in which differing urban architectures are conjoined or set into opposition, the photographs illustrate the process by which urban fabrics are being systemically remapped, all the while ensuring – through a consistently unobtrusive aesthetic – that the scale of geographic disruption occurring in each locality retains its primacy over the form in which it is rendered.
As Stephen Shore states in his coda to the work, “a camera can only deal with the visible. A photographer trying to communicate his or her perception of the currents below the surface of things has to find instances where these currents are visibly manifest” (iii). History Images is characterised by its recognition of the fact that photography can address the interstices between time, and, beyond this, that photography can set out an “understanding of architecture as the visible face of forces shaping a culture” (iv). Thus the terms of the title address themselves to questions of historicity in the urban landscape, to question of the authenticity of those histories being crafted and experienced in the photographs, and to the virtue and place of images in an understanding of the passage of time in a particular place – early 21st century China.
In a similar fashion to Paul Strand’s Blind Woman, which prefigures and arguably opens the ground for the Roosevelt era Farm Service Authority photographs, History Images is likely to prove a proleptic work – one which lays a rich foundation for the subsequent photographic discovery of 21st century China. Photography has, after all, been an integral part of the mechanism with which we understand 20th century history – most notably the geopolitics of our recent past. It seems inevitable that whatever the course of this new century, the evolution of China as a world power will play an integral role. Consonant with the notion that a photographic recording of history can partially articulate the significance of events, this work explores and gives a vivid illustration of the types of transitions already underway within China as the forces of communism and capitalism intertwine to drive the development of a huge nation. Sze Tsung Leong’s work can thus legitimately be conceived of as occupying an interstice of very real significance – his effort to chart a compelling photographic examination of a history soon to be erased by the unrestrained momentum of Chinese modernisation is of salient importance.
“Nowhere else is the double-edged nature of power so clearly represented as the capacity to summon, almost out of thin air, an entirely new order and scale of architecture, and as the capacity to erase and obliterate, to rewrite history according to the perspective of the (present) victors.” – Norman Bryson (v)
First and foremost History Images is a work of documentary and analytic image-making, a collection of photographic views that articulate a profound recognition of the nature of urban transformation as it relates to China in its passage from The Cultural Revolution, via globalisation into the 21st century. Its subject is, as the artist suggests in his essay, the urban environment conceived of as a living history, the erasure of that history, the imaging of histories and the physical expression of the political and socio-economic forces that endeavour to reconstitute history. As a series of photographic records, the book illustrates through architectural form a process of aesthetic recodification of urban China so expansive and so extreme that a whole segment of cultural memory will likely be abolished within a generation, along with the ageing masonry of China’s reconstructed cities.
The photographs “are of past histories, in the form of traditional buildings and neighbourhoods, urban fabrics, and natural landscapes, in the process of being erased. They are of the absence of histories, in the form of construction sites, built upon an erasure of the past so complete that one would never know a past had ever existed. And they are of the anticipation of future histories, yet to unfold, in the form of newly built cities” – Sze Tsung Leong (vi)
Taken in the period from 2002 to 2005, in Chinese cities ranging from Guangzhou in the southeast of the country to Shanghai, to Chongqing in central China and Beijing in the far north, they collectively represent a detailed account of the temporary conjunction of vernacular Chinese urban forms with the rapid ascendancy of the high-rise architecture of globalisation, which is swiftly eroding all traces of local history. All of the images are shot in slightly monochromatic colour on a view camera, in a consistently frontal landscape perspective. The images take as their recurrent subject the disappearing dynastic architecture of hutongs (alleyways of conjoining courtyard houses), documenting their disrepair, their varied architectural styles, their idiosyncratic interrelations one to another, and the anachronism made plain in their coincidence with a uniform national project of urban regeneration.
The book begins with a view of the Shanxi province in which we see a subtle conjunction of modern and ancient elements, with a classically recognisable form of ancient Chinese architecture set beneath a heavy film of pervasive smog – the product of China’s expansive modern industrial complex. The question of the extent to which there is a disjuncture between ancient and modern is foregrounded within this image, in the interplay between the deep brown classical architecture and the solitary distant satellite dish set upon a rooftop. This interplay represents a sort of narrative and thematic device – the anomalous satellite dish atop a ceremonial structure hinting at the tension between dynastic and contemporary histories, ancient and modern Chinas. An otherwise archetypal view of ancient urban China is blemished by a scattered trace of modernity and, further to the left, of construction. As an opening gambit, the image brings two central histories into a subtle reconciliation, and in so doing, establishes a ground from which the subsequent photographic elaboration of historical revisionism and architectural form can be articulated.
Leong goes on to introduce images of structures that take a sharp departure in architectural terms from the classically vernacular opening view – objects of a more contemporary function emerge in plenty: satellite dishes, radio masts shouldering over the tiled roofs of houses similar in style to parts of South Africa, or indeed Southend-on-sea. What we see in great number is a stream of different residences, some apparently more ceremonial or antiquated, others evidently more mundane. What is continually striking in the sequence is the abundant emptiness of these residential structures. China looms large in Western consciousness as a vast and incredibly populous nation, characterised by tremendous growth and activity. Yet in these early images China seems to be an almost abandoned mausoleum of sky-rise housing complexes waiting in anticipation of its citizenry.
Leong continually intermingles rude, crumbling low-rise houses and hutongs both with the obstinate grey concrete tower blocks of the 1960s, and the sparse disappearing traces of nature often given in the form of lopsided solitary trees. In this way, the photographer insistently points up the praxis of erasure and the history of erasure that has shaped this changing landscape. From the zealous reconstitution of the urban area in the latter part of the 20th century through to the homogenising vocabulary of China’s adopted mode of capitalism, a sequence of deliberate revisions is made clear.
“…there’s the other type of history that is recorded in the fabric of cities (…) it has to do with the history of quotidian things (…) the layers of history that have slowly accumulated. The loss of this fabric – the spaces and histories particular to different cities – means that the particular cultural value and artistic qualities they contain are lost” – Sze Tsung Leong (vii)
Thematically, the insistent narrow repetition of high-rise architectural forms within the images, when illustrated across such a breadth of urban localities, seems almost to represent an apotheosis of Communist ideals – seems almost to form a visual expression of the notion that all land can be made the same, equal, unitary and indistinguishable.
In this, History Images deploys a narrative device that alludes to the communist ideal that all things must be made clean for progress, and thereby denuded of their history. This enterprise of urban reconstitution, taken to its logical conclusion, can be understood to imply that as the industrialisation and urbanisation of China proceeds there will be a commonality of space and form so extensive, and so standardised, that the visible instances of capitalism would be identical with the Communist project. This is to say that without variation, without some residual patina of local history, without a range of differing expressions of social and economic developments, the processes and visible interactions that flow from the meeting of one history with another will be merged into meaningless equivalence.
Put differently, if we accept Sartre’s premise that “a city is a material and social organisation which derives its reality from the ubiquity of its absence”, if we accept that a city “is present in each of its streets in so far as it’s always elsewhere”, then it seems logically to follow that any ‘elsewhere’ in such a reconstituted urban China will be equivalent, and that the nation could thus be remade whole and everywhere identical. Leong notes that “China’s recurring cycles of erasure and rewriting have produced a history that is not an accumulation of diverse histories, but is a single history, always in the present” (viii). One cumulative effect of this image sequence is a burgeoning recognition of the way that China’s methods of modernisation seek to reformulate the grounds of national history in an environment of aesthetic anonymity and equivalence.
Stylistically speaking this notion of equivalence, which is the corollary of historical erasure and programmatic urban reconstruction, is everywhere reflected in the pervasive sheen of fog that permeates each image. Equivalence is established both in the indistinguishable range of revisionist urban forms and, at the same time, in the inescapable canopy of pollution that frames each image. All things and people are made equal under an indistinct sky.
Where there are human figures, we see these mainly at thinly manned sites of construction, destruction or transit – the much fêted double-digit Chinese economic boom is differently imaged here. Perhaps this is because that particular history has been so well attended, while this sweeping revision of personal and urban history is so widely overlooked? Perhaps because this is an elegiac work and not a celebratory one? It is difficult to resist the notion that the work is mournful, all the more so from the vantage point of 2011, where we stand in the wake of a monumentally constructed Chinese Olympic celebration. Where in all the scaffolding is Herzog de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest?
Leong proceeds from an obverse view: not the monument but the mortar, not the symbol but the sediment, not the triumphal but the transitory.
In recalling Michel Foucault’s argument about the history of concepts, we should note that “the history of a concept is not wholly and entirely that of its progressive refinement, its continuously increasing rationality, its abstraction gradient, but that of its various fields of constitution and validity, that of its successive rules of use, that of the many theoretical contexts in which it is developed and matured” (ix). If all urban localities are identical and all are modernised elements of the Communist project, cast in the form of globalised capitalist urban structures, then in fact China is equivalent to modernity and capitalism is equivalent to the Communist project. In this way Leong’s imaging of this transition interrogates the notion of modern Chinese identity.
On the question of style, Leong’s repeated use of a frontal landscape view enables the sequencing of images more closely to resemble a cinematic narrative, each rectangular frame laid serially along a reel. This effect is exacerbated both by the presentation of plates only on the facing page, and by the recurrence of the horizon around the mid-point of the frame – which produces a sort of structural continuity within the image sequence. To the extent that the objective here is to immerse the viewer in time – which is itself intimately bound up with the pace of change in China, and with the nature of erasure and history – this approach is highly effective. Moreover Leong’s use of a view camera throughout lends a monumentality to the scenes he photographs, something that is regularly enhanced both by the consistent use of small apertures to record greater sharpness of detail, and by the recognisably frontal structuring of the frame. With the horizon so often at or near eye level, the scale of the view and the dynamics of the composition are made all the more immersive to the eye.
In character the images are overwhelmingly quiet – sorrowing almost – both bleak and stark, sensitive to the vastness of the landscape and to the rendering of the mechanism of transformation that is irrevocably changing that landscape, but nevertheless everywhere shrouded in an impenetrable half light, cast in a muted palette of colour.
Leong repeatedly changes the depth of field, altering the proportions of the frame occupied by foreground and middle distance, the proximity of towering high-rises, the visibility of these cities’ inhabitants. This has the effect of lending a sense of motion to the narrative, giving visual expression to a sense of change. This device, this method of articulation, is therefore best encountered in a serial viewing of the images. The benefit of this type of modulation of view and subject is that it lays bare the organisational intensity and breadth of the Communist project of urban reconstruction. In a cumulative fashion the images leave a strong sensation of the sudden violence with which newer modern globalised forms of architecture are extruding into older vernacular Chinese environments.
While repetitions of architectural form and variations of depth of field amplify the experience and the conditions of the photographic work, Leong also deploys thematic oppositions to ‘find instances where the currents below the surface of things are visibly manifest’.
Older more vernacular buildings can be seen to have been either abandoned to gradual disrepair or subject to the programme of widespread reconstruction. These are shown, from the street level, to be continually dwarfed by looming new high-rises, or isolated, tucked away along a neglected hutong. It is relatively early into the sequence of plates that Leong begins to articulate a dialectic of ancient and modern architectural forms, counterposing hutongs – which represent the precinct, or smallest administrative urban unit – with tower blocks, themselves constituted of identikit individual units. This interplay resurfaces throughout the book, first as the rearing verticality of high-rise estates is counterposed with the dilapidation of older vernacular buildings, then later still when the bulldozed interior of a condemned low-rise house in Nanjing is dramatically set against the gleaming concrete interior of a vacant tower block. Thus while the object of erasure is made plain, the imaging of history is – at the same time – problematized: which is the history to be imaged, the ancient network of hutongs or the modern spectre of the sky-rise, the community of narrow courtyards or the map of towering high-rises?
Taking as a cue the notion expressed by Raymond Williams, that “art (…) can succeed in articulating not just the imposed or constitutive social or intellectual system, but at once this and an experience of it, its lived consequence” (x), it is noteworthy the extent to which the closing sequence of plates conveys the sharp disconnect between that which is to be gained in China’s rebuilding, and the sparse neglected anachronistic spaces that retain some element of that which has been lost
Leong weaves a passage through narrowing derelict alleys, past the anachronism of imperial urban forms hemmed in by featureless 1960s housing to neglected open spaces, behind walls we imagine will shortly be razed. We are taken from the gleaming empty grids of north Beijing to the devastations of the Yangtze Dam, from the evacuated interior of old houses (complete with abandoned family photos) to the forlorn clustered ruins of imperial architecture and socialist tower blocks. Everything ancient or ageing is seemingly belted in by the neon high-rises of the coming modernity.
The two closing images strike a sorrowing and ambivalent note. In the penultimate plate we see a handful of seemingly aimless citizens atop the final bricks of a district razed thoroughly to the ground, beyond whom, sheathed in smog, rear the vertiginous precincts of a fully modernised urban China, each building largely indistinguishable from the next – a dividing river stretching the space between. In the closing image, with a Spartan cleanliness that points up the dereliction that preceded it, we see the ordered ceremonial expanse of Tiananmen Square – rich with all the attendant symbolism of violent erasure, forced revolution and the spectre of an inevitable return that is brought to the fore by the resemblance of the distant palace to the disappearing imperial forms that have preceded it. As Leong himself notes in his text, Revolutionary China sought to erase all traces of Imperial China, and now, some 50 years later, is attaining that wish everywhere else but here – in Tiananmen Square. The narrative, in this final conjunction, suggests that all prior eradications of history shown in every previous plate have only brought China back to this point, to this square in which the bloody traces of a long imperial history somehow continue to reside.
It is evident that the very existence of these photographs ensures that something of both histories will have been preserved, even as the continuing examination of this moment of transition begs questions as to what will be the nature and experience of these burgeoning concrete forests, questions as to the grounds of their common histories. By throwing these urban forms in relief, in isolation and in conjunction, against a consistently featureless sky, Leong frames a clear image of a moment of transition set within a very particular group of localities at a point where it is apparent that great change is underfoot and yet no predictable consequence can be discerned. In their presentation however, in the metric precision with which these vast scenes have been carefully rendered, the photographs are both discursive and compelling, vivid and yet mystifying, visceral and urbane.
Unsurprisingly, these images have found a welcome in architecturally themed exhibitions, most likely as a consequence of the rarity and lucidity of the architectural record they offer to history. However in the context of historicity and of a faithful timely recording of the passage of change, the images are equally the progeny of the early 20th century documentary tradition of Walker Evans, and later still, of Robert Frank. This is not to suggest a stylistic resonance, nor necessarily a thematic common ground, but rather to point to the way in which History Images matches a historical moment with a receptive and sympathetic method well suited to giving that moment full expression.
Evans’ frontal portraiture of Depression-era sharecroppers – beneficiary in part of the earlier work of Paul Strand (notably Blind Woman) – met a moment of national devastation with a lucid, simple and respectful photographic response. Equally Frank’s dynamic, sweeping record of seemingly haphazard excerpts from a lengthy road trip continues to accurately embody the racial, economic and ideological tensions of a post-war Beatnik 1950s. Both were definitively historical instances of major transition: the former from exuberance of 1920s to the sobriety and despair of the 1930s; the latter from the common resolve of World War II to the sudden intermingling of race, creed, colour and ideals in the post-war 1950s. It is arguably in this context that History Images should be understood – which is not to lay claim to its already ‘timeless’ standing, but instead to point to the significance of the historical instance in which work of this quality has emerged.
Printed initially in 2005, on the cusp of what we now know to have been a period of economic devastation and viewed now in the midst of a significant re-basing of world power, these images of an urban China in transition toward capitalism seem likely to form part of a unique record of that nation’s development in this century.
i. Sze Tsung Leong “A History of Erasure” from “History Images”, Steidl
iii. Stephen Shore “Photography and Architecture” from “History Images”
v. Art Review: “Sze Tsung Leong” (Special Focus: Art Photography) by Norman Bryson (October 2006), p. 69.
vi. “History Images” published in Art Journal (Winter 2004, p. 19-20), www.szetsungleong.com
vii. Taken from “Unintelligent Design – An Interview with Sze Tsung Leong” in Guernica, January 2007
viii. Sze Tsung Leong “A History of Erasure” from “History Images”, Steidl
ix. Michel Foucault “The Archaeology of Knowledge”, Routledge
x. Raymond Williams “Problems in Materialism and Culture” from “Literature and Sociology”