Exhibition: Vertical Cities
Documenting Hong Kong and Vancouver
Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
July 21 – August 22, 1999
The Rhetoric of the Visual in Vancouver and Hong Kong Photography
By Trevor Boddy | Published by Charles H. Scott Gallery
The ocean between them is not reason enough to think of Hong Kong and Vancouver as anything but sister cities. Unusual among world cities, both urban centres are artificial creations of the 19th century, rather than organic continuations of settlements many centuries older. Hong Kong was created as a British mercantile enclave out of an archipelago of pirate-ridden islands and tiny fishing villages as a part of the negotiations that ended the Opium War. Vancouver was invented as a land development scheme by the Canadian Pacific Railway Lands Department in the late 1870s in order to maximize returns on their peninsular location of a western terminus for their line-courtesy of a gift of extensive government lands -rather than share speculative profit with existing land owners in such older, established towns as New Westminster or Port Moody.
The very names of each city are somewhat problematic, revealing the contingencies of their invention, nor evolution. Hong Kong means “fragrant harbour” in Chinese, a double-baited marketing hook not unlike the Chinese characters meaning “golden mountain” ascribed identically to California, Australia, British Columbia and elsewhere to help expedite emigration of Chinese gold prospectors and railroad labourers. For the 19m-century flow of labour that anticipated today’s borderless flows of capital, the actual differences between these employment destinations mattered little. The CPR Lands Department and government officials insisted on calling their new creation “Vancouver” for its sentimental appeal to potential property investors in Britain and Eastern Canada, who had become unsettled over the previous two decades during which the British Pacific colonies had repeatedly threatened to join the United States. They did this knowing full well that a thriving and much older town with the same name existed 300 miles away in Washington State, a town founded, in fact, by Canadians when it was an outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
If the common names for these two Pacific cities can be thought of as masks, this is doubly true of the sentimental and marketing handles developed by each decades later. These speak to the provisional, threatened, artificial qualities of each city. The sobriquet “borrowed place, borrowed time” grew more popular in Hong Kong through the 1980s and 1990s as its industrious and talented citizens paused in their hectic lives to remember that their home was a temporary concession from the Chinese government, one with a prominent and non-repealable “return by” date. “Terminal City” was first promoted by the Vancouver Board of Trade just before the First World War to trade on its status as railhead and port. This same phrase has taken on other, unintended meanings more recently as Canadians flocked here to change their lifestyles, laid-off resources workers gathered on the Downtown Eastside to idle through their final decades, high-tech firms conglomerated here to take advantage of a technically talented workforce, and finally, in every sense, this became the endgame location of choice for junkies and crackheads.
Geography and economics have combined to forge other similarities between Vancouver and Hong Kong. Both cities occupy delimited sites between mountains and the same Pacific Ocean. Hong Kong’s Kowloon and Central and Vancouver’s downtown peninsula share status as some of the most intensely developed areas of any First World city. Our citizens share a fanatical quest for views, and, in consequence, are jointly responsible for some of the world’s most over-priced residential real estate. While the magnificent natural ports in both places continue to thrive, entrepot and traditional manufacturing industries in each have been priced out of existence, and the future of both cities is predicated on building knowledge and technology-based industries, along with an efficient service sector and investment in tourism.
The life of the two cities is now linked as never before. Vancouverites increasingly live in small floor-plate high rise towers – a la Hong Kong – built by Hong Kong developers and financiers, and partially filled – temporarily, permanently or periodically – with Hong Kongers seeking a new home. For the first time in its history, Vancouver has seen its most recent immigrants – new arrivals from Hong Kong and Taiwan since 1986 – emerge as the richest, not poorest, sector of its society, a shift that has been accomplished surprisingly smoothly. In turn, Hong Kong families with friends and relatives in Canada feel the tug and influence of our educational, health-care and political systems, especially now when the agreed terms of the “One Country, Two Systems” Hong Kong Basic Law seem subject to negotiation; in Hong Konger’s lives “going B.C.” has come to mean valuing something other than constant work and material accumulation; and by no means least in this obsessive ‘gastronopolis,’ Hong Kong restaurants list “Vancouver” crab and oysters at the top of their best menus.
These are mainly verbal forms of urban masks – in Barthes’ take on Calvino – but what of the visual? Are there broader and recurring photographic ideas, frequently used visual masks artists employ as they work in Vancouver and Hong Kong? Urban photography is one of the most useful art forms to investigate the visual culture of a city, and the rest of this essay will explore how contemporary art photography in Hong Kong and Vancouver is an exemplar of existing visual culture while also being a catalytic force in its reinvention. In coming to understand the visual cultures of cities like these, one must start with their visual rhetoric; recurring communicative devices and conventions relied on time and again. This visual rhetoric provides structure to artists as they build arguments – consciously or not – about the location of their creative activities. I will list a number of the more obvious devices of visual rhetoric in the work collected here, and clearly there are many more. Moreover, visual rhetoric about the city is not held out as the only or even primary axis of interpretation of these works; clearly there are many other useful ways of looking at them: theoretical, political, material, economic and so on. In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes writes of the unique relationship of photography to reality: ” … Photography’s Referent is not the same as the referent of other systems of representation. [It is] not the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers, but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph. Painting can feign reality without having seen it.” The ‘necessary realness’ of the urban environments of these two Pacific cities is inevitably revealed in the work of any photographer who does non-studio work there, whether this is their avowed subject or not. Walter Benjamin’s famous dictum that “architecture is best appreciated in a state of distraction” can be restructured to describe the sometimes inadvertent metropolitan verity that art photographers compile as a by-product of their work in cities: “urban visual culture is best revealed in a state of distraction.”
In Barthes’ elliptical definition of the unique qualities of photography, the ability of painting to “feign reality” is joined by cinema’s emphatically engaging illusionism: “Do I add to the images in movies? I don’t think so; I don’t have time: in front of the screen, I am not free to shut my eyes; otherwise in opening them again, I would not discover the same image; I am constrained to a continuous voracity; a host of other qualities, but not pensiveness; whence the interest, for me, of the photogram.” The pensiveness that only photography permits means that topography, vegetation, architecture, and urban patterns of cities imprint themselves on viewers; they are the ocular matrix of this art. In the contemplative space of pensiveness, urban visual culture can emerge as announced subject, necessary framing device, subliminal distraction, or un-acknowledged latent theme. I am most drawn to the last of these, as a horizontal slice through the work collected in this show plus companion works reveals much about these two cities, often inadvertently. What follows is less a critique of the work in the show than an exposition of some issues around it, grouped into four latent themes.
Nature versus New Nature
In presence or absence, a dialogue about nature is implicit in nearly all landscape art, even in its uptown cousin, urban photography. For two cities set on verdant mountains next to oceans, as are Vancouver and Hong Kong, such a dialogue is nearly inevitable. I have split the more common but now too global concept of “landscape” into two complementary concepts: “Nature” and “New Nature.” Landscape, as conventionally understood as a set of aesthetic conventions – largely emerging in both cities’ visual cultures out of 19th-century British traditions – is dealt with by the next of my critical categories “The Picturesque.” By Nature I mean the topographic and geological underlays of cities, along with water and vegetation, whether in large expanses or isolated samples. New Nature is a concept that has developed in the literature of architecture over the past decade, referring to the layered collection of buildings, roadways, bridges, and electronic communications that agglomerate to form an artificial environment as pervasive and powerful as the pre-existing natural one. Defined this way, nearly every image in this catalogue and exhibition can be seen as a dialogue of Nature with New Nature. However, the relative balance of the two speaks of broader issues of the predispositions of visual culture in each place.
Interpretations of the dialogue of Nature with New Nature are fundamental to the work of Vancouver’s most interesting photographers and photo-based artists over the past two decades. More, I believe, than any other thematic device or theoretical concern, a continuing obsession with the colliding frames of Nature and New Nature is fundamental to the work of Jeff Wall and Roy Arden. Nature and architecture — often in collaged or intercut juxtaposition – are recurring concerns in the photo-based work of Vikky Alexander. These interests date back to some of the earliest exhibitions of these artists, and was also apparent in the early works of Ian Wallace and can be found in the work of a number of younger photographers, including Arni Haraldsson, discussed below. These artists, along with other colleagues, are often called the “Vancouver School” outside of Vancouver, but here the artists prefer to emphasize their differences. Arden and Wall have been particularly drawn to the suburban edges of the Lower Mainland – Steveston, Langley, Coquitlam – where the process of the consumption of Nature into New Nature is most evident. Architecture is not a subject but a trope in these artworks. as their interests are more with the broader forces of modernity and urbanization, in which buildings are the means not the end.
Roy Arden’s Soil Compactor. Richmond B.C., 1992 is an exemplar of this work, showing the urban development process underway in a flat southern suburb of Vancouver. There is the ever-present monster house, as much a constant marker of urban life to the Vancouver photographers as shuttered Parisian shopfronts were to Atget. The flat treeless plain could be the outskirts of Regina, and the detritus-strewn, highly processed soil in the foreground is a kind of marker of Nature become New Nature. Centre image is the rusting bulk of a soil compactor, its forms and colours rather demonic, appropriate to its task as the last of the series of infernal machines that have taken a tidal flat and marshland and rendered it into a “subdivision.” an appropriately Cartesian word for such a triumph of ratio and geometry over the cyclic processes of river and delta.
The tension between Nature and New Nature is also evident in much of the Hong Kong work selected for this show by curator Greg Bellerby. It is less apparent that this particular sample represents the same broader interest in this theme by other Hong Kong photo-based artists as it does for the Vancouverites. Hong Kong remains without a contemporary art school in the Western sense, though there are traditional Chinese arts training institutes and photographic technical training at the Polytechnic University, where some of the artists in this show first learned their craft. The Hong Kong photographers collected here are more likely to work as photojournalists or commercial photographers than teach at art colleges or sell their work through international galleries, but perhaps indicative of things to come, Hong Kong now has a fine commercial art gallery specializing in photography.
In some ways the Hong Kong photographers approach the Nature versus New Nature dichotomy from the other side; they are drawn to images of incredibly dense constructions that achieve the scale and complexity of geological and zoological structures. Though since demolished – in typical Hong Kong fashion – to make way for new urban development, Kowloon’s Walled City has attained a mythic status among architects as an exemplar of New Nature. Like a perverse condensation of megastructures such as Montreal’s Place Bonaventure (ARCOP Architects), Edmonton’s HUB Mall (Diamond and Myers Architects) and Paolo Soleri’s ‘arcologies’ (massive but unbuilt “architectural ecologies” seen in the opening sequences of the film Blade Runner) with the most fetid of 19th-century Dickensian slums, this organic hive of human activity demonstrates the formal convergence of Nature with New Nature. After being published in the West by architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas, city planner Peter Hall, and other architectural writers, there was even a brief, if ultimately unsuccessful movement to retain the Walled City as a permanent memorial to the adaptability of human life to extremely high densities of occupation. Even more so than Vancouver, Hong Kong has almost no interest, desire, or legislation to protect physical reminders of its past.
Wong Kan Tai’s images of the astonishing Walled City in Kowloon’s Hunghom district is at the conceptual centre – a kind of icon image – of the Scott Gallery’s Vertical Cities exhibition. The Walled City is also a startling concatenation of architecture-as-New-Nature, with almost inconceivable densities, arrayed by building codes and conventions of concrete construction into a kind of inhabited wall of vital humanity. On this wall each human resident is given visual expression by wash drying outside their windows; below is a fetid street, barely visible in the eternal urban darkness. The image is the epitome of Rem Koolhaas’ idea of “the culture of congestion” and is indeed one of the scenes that first inspired the phrase.
The Hong Kong urban neighbourhoods constructed in the 1980s and 1990s have little of the organicism of the Walled City and thus are less the subject of romantic curiosity by western commentators, despite having nearly the same densities of human habitation. One example of these is the Sha Tin City project by Wong and Ouyang Architects, with its regularly aligned platoon of small floor-plate, high-rise towers, all at the same height, me maximum allowed under municipal building regulations. Sha Tin is a vertical city as well, but one in which repetition and rationalism predominate. While it was a superior project for its time – with significant recreational, educational and commercial amenities in mid-project for residents – its regulated forms are offensive to Anglo-Canadian eyes inculcated with the aesthetics of the Picturesque (see next section). Tellingly, Vancouver’s Concord Pacific Place has densities approaching those of Sha Tin, but the Canadian towers are the products of a number of different architects, and cladding and detailing have been selected to emphasize slight marketing differences between them, rather than the emphatic unity of the Hong Kong project. As the last few Concord towers are finished over the next few years, the north shore of False Creek will, ironically, increasingly take on me generalized appearance of Kowloon’s now-departed Walled City. This may well serve as creative fodder for a new generation of photographers, perhaps Hong Kongers, who will recognize this high density New Nature as a direct descendent of their own patterns of city building and living.
In sharing their original formation as British colonial outposts of the 19th-century, both Vancouver and Hong Kong also share an ongoing dialogue with the most important aesthetic theory of the time of their creation, the Picturesque. Emerging out of an 18th-century literature of the “Sublime and the Terrible,” Picturesque aesthetics were intrinsic to the conception and promotion of both cities. While large natural harbours were the fundamental draws for both, the proscenium backdrops and physical beauty of each urban site were nearly as important to the success of both places, these being cities mat were made, selected, rather than former villages that made it, and therefore much more subject to wilful aesthetic formulations and predispositions. Every generation of Vancouverites and Hong Kongers discovers their city’s beauty anew, as if none before had noticed it, little realizing that it is the pictorial power of these conjunctions of mountain, water, rocks and forest that have acted as crucial draws to immigrants and investors over the past 130 years, a period when visual culture has increasingly predominated and when cities have increasingly competed for people and capital. It is aesthetics–every bit as much as politics or economics – that has created these two great cities.
Victoria harbour in Hong Kong is its enduring iconic urban image, from the linoprints and early photographs of the 1860s to the present, a space of framing mountains, a perch of exploding buildings, a foreground of churning seawater, and nearly always, that requisite Picturesque foreground object, usually a sampan or the Star Ferry. Pictorially, Victoria harbour is the great visual space, the zone of frantic floating activity, with both buildings and hills acting as needed framing devices. Gretchen So’s image at the beginning of this essay shows land reclaimed from the ocean as part of the railway, road and new neighbourhood infrastructure at Tai Kwok Tsui, part of the preparations for the new airport on Lantau Island. This is New Nature of the surest sort: the South China Sea remade as urban development plot. So opts for the figural, with some red-painted pile-driving and reclamation equipment occupying the foreground centre of the pictorial space of this image, a brightly coloured umbrella nearby with someone enjoying this artificial urban beach. The urban views of many of the Vancouver photographers mentioned previously tend to leave their foregrounds open, and in doing so imply the Derridean “sense de l’absence,” be it missing authenticity, urbanity, First Nations or unbridled nature itself. Gretchen So’s occupation of that crucial zone by a set of machines and people speaks of questions about the identity of place where contemporary activity counts more than a sense of missing presence, that nearby but elusive ghost, however defined. The instrumental, economic exploitation of urban space is assumed by Hong Kongers — even its art photographers – whereas Vancouverites – photo-based artists prime among them – look for the presence of nature in any such place, and speculate about what is not present as much as that which is, maximum economic use of land more a subject of criticism for them than accepted inevitability.
Arni Haraldsson has an enduring interest in the juncture of landscape with built form, and a residue of the visual rhetoric of the Picturesque haunts his work like a spectre. Architecture is more of an avowed subject in Haraldsson’s work than it is in any of the other photographers collected in this exhibition. As were Jeff Wall and Roy Arden before him, Haraldsson is drawn to marginal sites-whether suburban or forgotten zones of the centre city – where the social and aesthetic transformations of a rapidly changing metropolis are most evident. At first glance Cypress Park Estates, West Vancouver – an image of some just-finished monster houses, monstrous less for their size than for their ungainly sense of being stitched together from other, not quite-dead domestic creatures – seems almost an homage to the suburban transformation images of Wall and Arden. Pictorially, however, other things are happening.
This West Vancouver locale is as interesting for its siteworks as for its architectural content, with extensive retaining walls, terraces and walls out of a local stone visible in a hill cut to the right of the image. The foreground location of a regularly planted row of shrubs set off with acute shadows points to the arcadian ambitions of its developer’s instant attempt at a prestige address. Here and elsewhere, Haraldsson’s photography looks for arcadia, then finds it lost. Architecture, siteworks and plantings combine to accentuate the lack of focus and authenticity to this bit of forest-edged New Nature. The same effect is achieved in Haraldsson’s second image in the catalogue, 7th and Ash, Vancouver by means of conscious framing of a three quarter view of a decrepit but heritage-listed house in a mid-town area. The crusty textures of this house advanced in the process of returning to a natural state (New Nature devolving to Nature) is accentuated by the inclusion to its rear of a reflectively-clad contemporary office building, a blandly modern mirror revealing the character of this domestic face. The same effect is then internalized by Haraldsson by including a series of faded posters stapled at eye level on the decaying surfaces of the house, these contrasting forms further questioning its seeming authenticity. As with many of the other artists in the show, Haraldsson reconfigures Picturesque concepts of landscape, along the way prompting metaphysical queries on the nature of place and time.
In his series The City Swallowed, Tse Chi Tak uses the conventions of urban photography to visually interrogate open spaces in Hong Kong, which are nearly always hard-surfaced schoolyards, plazas, parking lots or industrial zones, green parks being extremely rare because of the high land cost/low tax regime of the former city state. This series of images demonstrates Tse Chi Tak’s training and ongoing profession as a photojournalist, as the photos are fine views of the ordinary, visual slices of urban life. The subtlety of the editorializing in these images, and their willingness to let urban elements tell their own stories, directly connects this series with late 19m-century European urban photography more than the advanced photo practices of the last three decades. The placidity of these scenes may well be their point: the anticipation and fear preceding the “swallowing” of Hong Kong by China in 1997 has been replaced over the two years since with a sense of ordinariness as the former colony loses some of its hustle, colour, extremes of wealth and ambition, and starts to take on the blander qualities of mother China.
Vancouver artist and Or Gallery curator Reid Shier has created a storyboard for a video installation that confronts Picturesque aesthetics and concepts of space with postmodernist modes of quick cuts and appropriation. Shier starts by borrowing a short segment of the Jackie Chan action film Rumble in the Bronx, one of countless movies and television series in which Vancouver demonstrates its chameleon-like ability to stand as a passive double for a surprising number of the world’s other great cities. Shier’s invention is to insert a leisurely 360-degree panorama of Vancouver harbour at the exact place depicted in this scene of the Chan movie, then continues after its conclusion, the whole installed as an endless tape loop. By use of a completely different photographic device – the panorama – Shier interrogates the consumption of urban space in this and countless other films and TV shows, not to mention in the minds of its visual artists. Panoramas were one of the most prominent and popular of late 19th-century photographic types, and their illusionistic insertion of viewers into dramatic urban and rural landscapes is an enduring legacy of Picturesque aesthetics.
The very camera movement that Shier uses – the pan – is a contraction of the name of the photographic image type first created in non-moving images with it – “panorama.” Ironically, commercial film and TV producers use very different lenses -the narrower visual range of longer focal length optics to edit distracting mountains and ocean out of productions shot in Vancouver, as these are too revealing of place to serve their investors’ and producers’ need for generic product credentialized by appearing to be well-known metropoles. There is an implicit politics of place in Shier’s choices here, a placidly paced re-assertion of the inclusive wholeness of the landscape centred on the viewer, as a necessary compensation and corrective for the quick edited appropriations of always micro, never macro, Vancouver ‘atmo’ for imported productions.
The Culture of Congestion
As a former filmmaker and London-based unbuilt “paper architect,” Rem Koolhaas spent a year in the early 1970s at Peter Eisenman’s Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies researching, writing and painting his responses to New York City. As only a fresh-eyed European could, Koolhaas took inventory of those special qualities of Manhattan that constitute a new kind of urban living and with it a new kind of urban architecture. Koolhaas was particularly intrigued by the high-rise accumulation of many different human activities on the same site (he was particularly taken with a high rise boxing club from the 1930s), and the new and unpredicted positive qualities of high urban densities, which he calls “the culture of congestion.” These ideas took final form in the book Delirious New York, one of the most influential architectural books of the 1970s. In a more recent book co-produced with Toronto graphic designer Bruce Mau entitled SMLXL, Koolhaas cites Singapore, Hong Kong, and the new Chinese cities currently being crafted in their image as the true inheritors of “the culture of congestion.” If there was a North American addition to this list it would surely be Vancouver, as large portions of the downtown peninsula now have higher population densities than Manhattan.
Bobby K.H. Sham uses a simple pinhole camera to take a series of flared and layered views of interior spaces in Hong Kong, including the two views in this catalogue East Meets West Restaurant #9, 1998 and Here and There #2. The pinhole camera evokes the earliest years of photography, when its passionate amateur credentials were still intact. It is beguiling to see this rough-and-ready technology in the hands of an artist with so advanced a sense of composition and space but beholden to its accidents of creation. The crudeness and unpredictability of the device is its strength, revealing implicit visual order where none was thought to exist, especially questions of how lights and windows structure interior space, with the ghostly internal reflections in these photographs amplifying their effects. Sham’s images are particularly evocative of the Culture of Congestion of Hong Kong. With the multiplicity of choices, constancy of distracting noise, the inevitability of movement, and compression of time that denotes life in Hong Kong, these photographs are powerful exemplars of the unpredicted synergies of living at extreme densities.
Gretchen So’s pair of images in the catalogue demonstrate her unique position as a Hong Kong artist trained in Western Canada, and thereby inevitably subject to the influence, positive and negative, of the renown contemporary photographers from Vancouver. It is no accident that hers are some of the most open, wide-angled and airy of all the images produced by Hong Kong photographers in this show. Clearly Canadian aesthetic predispositions both selfconscious/stylistic and sub-conscious/subliminal have entered her work. Untitled (Tai 0) shows a New Territories fishing village captured at that last moment of the bucolic in its final transformation into the urban, a process and time so often a subject for the Vancouver group. The visual rhetoric implicit in this choice of recurring subject promotes the idea that the advance of New Nature is so powerful that we come to read it as a natural force, in much the same way as we read the hyper-dense Walled City as organic.
It is a very different nature that Gretchen So depicts in the New Territories muddy saltflats and scrub-covered bluffs have none of the powerful resistence provided by the Lower Mainland’s mountains, forests and rivers that are an inevitable constant when doing urban photography here. There is a kind of fatalism in this image that the phalanx of new towers in the background will march up to and through the site of the fishing village, and moreover, little will be lost in the process. The romantic nostalgia permeating much of British Columbia art right from its beginnings is missing in Hong Kong, and with the shift back to China, it is less likely now than ever that it will emerge. So’s Untitled (Western District) shows another battle of urban ecological succession, where large billboard images on a construction hoarding for a new high-rise residential complex frame to the point of totally dominating the tiny, incidental urban street on which they are located, like a lengthy obituary written in the middle of a modest life. The Culture of Congestion that Hong Kong exemplifies without naming it so helps blanch the surrealism out of such a conjunction at one incidental place, making it seem almost inevitable.
Where is Here?
Toronto literary critic Northrop Frye characterized the implicit question in much Canadian literature and painting as the collective plaint “Where is here?” Hong Kong’s relation to China has obvious correspondences to Canada’s dealings with the United States, and establishes an obvious parallel, as the questions our visual artists ask are often relational: who or what are we in relation to geography, time, the European tradition, American pop culture, and so on? Judging by the sample in this exhibition, Hong Kong artists are even more interested in such questions of identity after their reunification with China. Images recur of figures, hands, faces interposed and layered on the dense New Nature of Hong Kong’s urban environment, as if in showing these juxtapositions broader questions of identity can be cogently posed, if not solved. This is particularly evident in the textured images of So Hing Keung. In one of these, an open hand, palm towards the lens, seems to question the urban street scene lurking behind it. The same texturing of both foreground and background links them – both being creatures of broad urban forces – while firmly retaining a figural presence of the hand, which seems to say “I am open, I have nothing, so why am I here?” “So (Hing Keung) why are you here?” seems the unresolved question of his other image, in which a typical Hong Kong high-rise public housing building of the 1960s is the figural presence.
Christos Dikeakos’ interrogations of Vancouver’s urban landscapes are attempts to place them in time as much as space. The layering of texts and diagrams onto wide-angled, wide-formatted urban views is a Dikeakos trademark, often used as a means to open up the implicit meanings of his landscapes while avoiding initial, stand-pat readings. In addition to these, Dikeakos also often employs the conventions of 19th-century museum displays, with carefully constructed artefact boxes brimming with titles, maps, photos-as-objects, field notes, and ancillary information such as is to be found in the engaging Sites and Place Names installation in this exhibition. With these the artist can assemble many bucolic scenes of nature or industrial landscapes and icons, but re-present them at urban densities of thought, using Victorian conventions of classification and contextualization against type – -sometimes literally; text-based “type” against type. The same storage/transport box recalls those for surveyor’s transits, and Dikeakos’ collection is a kind of reverse survey; a collection of images and information produced from the landscape outside, but which are, in turn, tools of its critical reinterpretation. The artist reveals the Victorian metaphysics and aesthetics at the core of our treatment of landscapes in British Columbia, by simultaneously working within and against their pictorial conventions, most evident in the two photographs from the Paydirt series in the catalogue plus the one used as preface to this essay.
Jim Breukelman takes photographs of eastside Vancouver shopfronts, carefully selected and composed, to ask questions about the natural and the national. The window display of Steve Kulash Taxidermy contains several stuffed animals arrayed in a manner that is anything but natural: one has the classic pose of the stag on a bluff, Nature trumped at its most triumphant; the flanking cow looks forlornly at the camera in mid-stride, but the effect of movement captured is undercut by her being shoved against her supposed mate. The most marvellous feature of this slightly perverse diorama is in the detail of leaving the shop door open, adding to the sense of ephemerality about the arrangement, New Nature at its newest. The other image shows a number of sun-discoloured posters for Philippino action, romance and soft-core erotic movies mounted between the metal bars and glass of a shopfront. Breukelman frames the signage on this shopfront carefully so that only the first word of the shop’s name “Filipinas” appears as a bold title at top, this conjunction providing an ironic internal commentary on the contents of the window below. Thus the Manilla-based actors and actresses below become a sample that introduce “Philippinos” to this Vancouver street. A variant on this is the female gender of “Filipinas” in the sign above, which draws attention to the love triangles and passive womanhood portrayed on many of the posters below, echoing the analogous political issues implied by the choice of mainly English-language titles chosen for these films in Tagalog.
Karin Geiger’s work is the most difficult to ‘place’ of all the work in the show, and that may well be reason enough for its inclusion. In a three-year project entitled In Between, Geiger repeatedly visited a public co-ed high school in East Vancouver and a private Catholic girls’ school in West Vancouver, gaining the trust of staff and students in order to document how young women construct space, a marker for how they construct their gender and lives. Geiger is drawn to spaces used and defined by Asian teenaged girls – the shrine-like stuffed-animal and pop-star displays of their bedrooms, their social interactions around classrooms and hallways, their occupation of schoolgrounds and other zones for hanging out. There is little in these photographs to indicate whether they are shot in Vancouver or Hong Kong, in large part because Geiger has intentionally chosen to shoot with long lenses downwards, thus editing out distracting context in order that attention can be placed on the worlds-within-worlds created by the girls. Framed by the other work in the exhibition, this choice prompts difficult questions about the interchangeability of Hong Kong and Vancouver, and implicitly bout the girls’ lives depicted therein. Unavoidable despite its status as a nationalist shibboleth, “Where is Here” is answered by the German-born and trained Geiger with “simultaneously everywhere and nowhere,” leaving more urgent questions to be asked and answered.
Since the Photograph is pure contingency and can be nothing else (it is always something that is represented) – contrary to the text which, by the sudden action of a single word, can shift a sentence from description to reflection.
Barthes’ writerly reaction to the photograph as an object and creative ‘text’ undercuts its own analysis; surely the photographer’s substitution of any of countless tiny details, the choice of a slightly different angle of composition, or reregulation of light by an f-stop or two can completely alter the impact of an image, change its emotional tone, and shift “from description to reflection.” But Barthes’ emphasis on the contingency of the photograph is well placed, especially in the late 1970s when Camera Lucida was written, a time when photographic theorists and critics labored –often fruitlessly – to establish the discipline’s wilfulness, a search for validation through the properties of fine arts, a conflation of the myth of the romantic painter onto photographers, who despite these efforts, can never sever their editing of the moments of a world in flux.
Photographers are borrowers, and what they borrow are places and times, real or imagined, at any scale. To “document,” “interpret,” and “appropriate” are all too active verbforms for the task of the photographer and all too wilful to account for the serendipity that is one of their essential creative devices. To “borrow” seems more apt for me, with its sense of temporary possession and the possibility of return, actuated or not. Borrowers are close to collectors, as both tend to order their acquisitions into visual and thematic patterns, what I have called “visual rhetoric” in this essay. Borrowing is also an apt description of viewing and internalizing photographic images, a continuation by the public of the same strategem.
It is apparent to me that the visual rhetoric of these works is inspired to a remarkable degree by the two remarkable cities in which these photographers chose to practice. As I indicated at the beginning of this essay, Hong Kong and Vancouver are new and highly artificial cities, and we are just starting to understand their conceptual deep structures and submerged influences on visual culture. I believe the internalized ideas and approaches to urban dwelling in each city are at least as important to the final images in this exhibition as stylistic or technical models from our contemporary culture of photography. Rhetoric makes communication possible, but its own powerful conventions are often forgotten in the Babel of daily life. Only photographers as talented as those collected here can foreground the repeating patterns out of the white noise of urban existence.