This collection of large-format pictures of Chinese cities, works on many levels: artistically, aesthetically, architecturally and politically. The artist, H.G. Esch states that he had no intention of judging the society that created those cities, but one cannot but sense the post apocalyptic feeling they send forth. Regardless of the creator’s intention not to patronise the viewer his very personal point of view does come across even if it is subtly stated and not shouted.
The photos are uniquely angled as the photographer seems to hover in the air and the actual images although they have not been manipulated, truly have an out-of-this-world quality. The exhibit reminded me of ‘Brazil’ the 1985 Terry Gilliam retro-futuristic film where the audience is not sure if what is depicted is happening in the past or in the future. In ‘Brazil’ the protagonist has a dream that he is flying over the countryside and suddenly, high-rises come out of the earth and speed-grow explosively. (see the dream here) Similar to the film in these photos, out of scale buildings, high beyond belief, extend as far as the eye can see almost like living organisms, like a jungle. The horizon disappears in the mist and the new and the old juxtapose violently.
‘Cities unknown’ are Chinese cities, products of a unique political and economic situation. The intense urbanization that the country has undergone during the last decades exceeds any foreseen official plan and the status of a large part of the population has changed dramatically overnight from simple farmer to middle class urban dweller.
The size of the cities is also tied to the fact that land is owned by the state while farmers and collectives merely have usage rights. Local authorities’ ambitious and oversized projects get funding and nothing stands in the way of their completion because organized criticism from the public is yet in its infancy. The lack of participation of the public in the decision-making along with the intense urbanization imposed by the state are the reasons for the post-apocalyptic sense that these images send forth. Most of the buildings seem run down, old, sad and scary. According to Eckhart Ribbeck quoted from his ‘Better City, Better life, Urban development by investors in China’ essay (which is included in a collection of articles in the extended program of the exhibition) these cities are ‘socially divided and spatially fragmented ‘. Urbanization is faster than the economy’s growth and the gap between local authorities’ ability to erect these megastructures and the state’s inability to provide basic services is more than obvious in the buildings’ bleak appearance. Historic centres are demolished having turned into slums and are replaced by new high-rise soon-to-be-slums in an infinite vicious circle. The paradox of the co-existence of capitalism and chinese socialism is documented in HG Esch’s pictures.
What is even more paradoxical is the fact that the exhibition takes place in KPF’s London offices ground-floor gallery . KPF is a multi-national architectural firm that is responsible for many high-rises all over the world and especially in China and Honk Kong.
see more Cities Unknown at HG Esch’s website