A city such as London or Edinburgh has grown organically. Even where urban planning is extensive, as in the London Docklands or the Georgian New Town in Edinburgh, the old sits alongside the new. Recent additions to the city in London surrounding St Paul’s cathedral and Tate Modern is an example of how modern architecture can inhabit an older building and transform it. The spirit of the city’s past seeps into our consciousness from medieval street names, Wren churches, older buildings absorbed into modern redevelopments, or an ancient wall overshadowed by a glass and steel post-modern tower.
“Unplanned beauty emerges out of an organic process of growth where a city or town reaches a state of aesthetic and structural harmony, not through any wilful design, but through the slow accretions of time.” (Leong from ‘The Authority of Beauty’)
In today’s China, in contrast, urban planners usually begin with a blank sheet of paper and a blueprint vision of ‘the beautiful city’. They have the power to erase the haphazard city developments of the past and replace them with structured realisations of modernist dreams, and this is what they are now doing on an unprecedented scale. This is the Chinese version of modernisation, and it leaves little room for the accretions of the past. The building machine rolls onwards like a huge mechanical glacier. China is responding architecturally to capitalism and to the need to provide living and office space for the millions of its inhabitants who are drawn to the cities. The result is the systematic annihilation of the physical history of cities to make way for new ones built on the ruins of the old.
Sze Tsung Leong’s ‘History Images’ are at one level poetic records of this process of change and the destruction it involves. From 2002 to 2005 he photographed these sites in transition using a large-format view camera with a wide-angle lens. He has visited most of the major cities in China including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Chongqing. The accumulated effect is haunting. Tower blocks emerge from the rubble of a newly destroyed past, always seen from a distance; low-rise horizontal sprawl gives way to the planned vertical future. Where human figures are in frame, as in Jialing Gongyuan, Jiangbei District, Chongquing, 2003 [page 19 of History Images], they are so distant as to appear as impersonal markers of scale, like a geologist’s hammer alongside a fossil...
At first glance images such as ‘Wangjing Xin Cheng, Chaoyang District, Beijing, 2003’ [page 55 of History Images] or the image on the cover of this issue of Portfolio, Tiangtong Xiyuan Third District (North) Changping District, Beijing, 2004 [page 103 of History Images] are photographic exercises in form, symmetry and repetition. But in the context of the series, they are also records of the expression of power and the destruction of past accretions now no longer visible.
“One of the things I have hoped to convey in ‘History Images’ is the effect of this imposition of a single order by a single ideology, and the narrowing effects this has.” (Sze Tsung Leong, email to the author, March 2007).
Leong exploits the haze of grey-white skies and muted colours to imply a mood of melancholy. Although ostensibly cityscapes, they invite metaphorical interpretation: accumulated history is being systematically overwritten with a new version of the present. As Leong puts it:
“Present-day China seems to be simultaneously playing out its versions of Haussmannization, the Industrial Revolution, wartime destruction and post-war reconstruction, all within a very compressed period of time. It's these relationships to other places and other points in history that to a large extent informed my work.”(Sze Tsung Leong, email to the author, March 2007)
The repetition within the frame of buildings with minor or no variation between them suggests a regime that values the collective above the individual. Most cities have memories apparent in the fabric of their architecture, some more legible than others; but this may not always be so in China. Without its physical presence some aspects of the past life of a city may vanish. In Xinjiekou, Xuanwu District, Nanjing (p.127), two phases of China’s history represented by crumbling houses from the imperial era and pre-fabricated concrete housing blocks from the communist period, are next in turn for obliteration, already surrounded and overshadowed by office and residential tower blocks of the present capitalist phase.
The erasure of history is not a situation unique to China. Most authoritarian regimes rewrite the past. Leong’s eloquent written statements make clear that he interprets the building sites of China as expressions of political power:
“The motivation for erasing history is ultimately rooted in the drive to shape and manage society. A principal tool of this drive is the design of cities – an activity that involves demolition as much as construction.” (from ‘A History of Erasure’ p.139).
Such urban erasure long predates China’s seduction by capitalism. Leong describes a Chinese tradition of demolition and large-scale restructuring. He identifies its three main features in this tradition:
“…large scale destruction and replacement of urban fabrics to inaugurate changes of emperors or dynasties; massive relocations of populations; and highly planned urban configurations enabled by centralized and unchallenged forms of authority.” (‘The Traditions of Chinese Cities’, 32 Magazine, Winter 2004).
So, paradoxically, the current wave of site-clearing and redevelopment which results in the removal of historical accretions, has deep traditional roots in China. There is a cyclical history of those in power replacing the physical past with their visions of the present and the future.
The high human cost of this process is invisible at a distance, the families uprooted and re-located, the traditions lost, the memories set free from the places that might have re-evoked them. Only very rarely have residents resisted the property developers. In Chonquing in southwest China, one couple, Yang Wu and Wu Ping have for three years refused to yield, spurning offers of relocation or financial compensation. The authorities have dubbed Wu Ping ‘the stubborn nail’ for her resistance. Meanwhile, the bulldozers have excavated the area around their two-storey property, leaving it stranded as an island in a pit and no longer inhabitable. This brave and symbolic act of defiance is doomed to fail. Elsewhere residents see no choice but to succumb and to begin their lives anew somewhere else, never to return to the villages and suburbs they know so well.
Leong is aware of the personal stories, but keeps his camera at a distance that allows us to see the larger movement of history:
“When an area is developed, it is almost always cleared of all traces of the past: buildings, streets, residents. The result is an absence of history, within which the components of China’s new cities are built out of nothing: luxury apartments, shopping centres, supermarkets, widened roads, tennis courts, office blocks, parking lots.” (Leong ‘A History of Erasure’, p.139)
Yet perhaps this large-scale and brutal reorganisation is a pre-requisite of China’s survival in its new free market role. If services and transport to cities are inadequate, how else can China sustain such rapid industrial and economic change? The victims in this process, though, are the poor and the disadvantaged who are forced to leave their family homes for an uncertain future at the edge of the new city, or else to uproot and attempt a completely different lifestyle in a new place. The wealthy elite inhabit the new, more or less interchangeable cities with their modern services and, presumably, flourish. The poor, as ever, are marginalised, physically and economically.
Born in Mexico in 1970 to parents from England and Malaysia, with Chinese ancestry, and now living in New York City, Sze Tsung Leong is more of an outsider to China than his name might imply (he first visited China in 1994 and worked on History Images over a three-year period from 2002, living in China for much of that time. He has, though, an artist’s instinct for avoiding closing down interpretations of his photography:
“I want my work to be read in as open a way as possible, and I tend to be wary of defining things in a way that might limit the reading of the work.” (Leong, email to the author, March 2007)
The themes of power, history and erasure are not confined to China’s present and very recent past: they are universal. Nor should Leong’s ‘History Images’ be seen simply as interpretations of what has happened in a particular place at a particular time, although many critics, perhaps overawed by the scale and speed of Chinese urban development, have read them as such. The photographs have a dual aspect. Each image is a trace of an extended moment in a specific place that becomes a symbol for the transformation that is happening across China, the part standing for a wider whole. At the same time what is happening in China is itself an instance of the more general expression of power through destruction and erasure and the re-making of people’s lives through the built environment. These poetic aspects of Leong’s work emerge through the cumulative effect of the series with its repetitions and recurrent motifs.
There are many photographic parallels between Leong’s approach and those of other photographers of cities, such as Andreas Gursky, Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore and particularly Thomas Struth. The rectilinear centrally composed shots; the use of a large-format camera and the inclusion of focussed detail throughout the image are familiar devices in contemporary city photography as is the systematic repetition with variation. Yet many of the photographers Leong admires and whom he mentions enthusiastically as influences are from the nineteenth century. He has, for example, found inspiration in the work of the early war photographers Matthew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, Roger Fenton and Felice Beato. Unable to record movement effectively because of the limitations of film speed, these photographers represented battle through landscapes that contained the traces of action. In Roger Fenton’s ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’ the Crimean battlefield is littered with cannon balls; in Timothy O’Sullivan’s photographs after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, the landscape is strewn with corpses, the ‘Human Harvest’. Felice Beato, who was probably the first photographer to visit China, also made images of the aftermath of skirmishes during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Like Leong, these earlier photographers recorded the fragments and debris left behind in the wake of powerful forces at turning points in history. Momentous events have occurred before the arrival of the photographer with his tripod.
In ‘History Images’ the legible remnants of architectural destruction have a monumental stillness and a sense of foreboding. The new blocks that grow out of the rubble of the past are ominous. The book of History Images ends with photograph of Tiananmen Square taken in 2002 [page 131 of History Images]. Here for the first time human beings, though still in the distance, take precedence over architecture. For Leong this square, cut into the centre of the former Imperial City, is an expression of state power:
“How the square was created its symbolic significance, and its history suggest that the greatest and most valued power of the state is the authority to erase.” (Leong ‘A History of Erasure’ p.141)
China viewed through Leong’s lens is a place that George Orwell would have recognised and for which Big Brother’s party slogan might have been written:
“Who controls the past, controls the future:
who controls the present controls the past.”
(George Orwell, Nineteen-Eighty Four, Penguin edition, 1948, p.37)
Sze Tsung Leong: History Images is published by Steidl, with the essay ‘A History of Erasure’ by Sze Tsung Leong, and the essay ‘Photography and Architecture’ by Stephen Shore, is published by Steidl (ISBN 3-86521-274-3)
Copyright Nigel Warburton 2007.