Holly Johnson Gallery, Dallas
Through March 21
by Alison Hearst
China is, for better or for worse, a hot topic. Although swiftly stepping into the future as an industrialized superpower, China still attempts to maintain an old-school aestheticism (as exhibited in the 2008 Olympics’ opening ceremonies). Moreover, these traditional displays, juxtaposed with vistas of Beijing’s shiny new skyscrapers, all seem to be part of a massive propaganda machine, generating endless images of a fully historically rooted yet fully modernized (and rich) society.
Beijing, this complex and contradicting present-day metropolis right before the 2008 Olympics, is the subject of Mike Osborne’s exhibition, On Location Beijing, at the Holly Johnson Gallery in Dallas. Osborne’s lusciously colored photographs are bright and theatrical, yet have an off-the-cuff documentary sensibility in their often quotidian subject matter. Like their subjects, the photographs mediate between the grand and staged and the intimate and unplanned. This twofold approach in portraying Beijing cleverly captures its uneasy growing pains and the incongruities that comprise this city.
Although visually stunning, Osborne’s photographs are not of the picturesque. Television Cultural Center (2008) shows the building as we’re not meant to see it: in a stage of vulnerable, unspectacular infancy. The state-of-the-art architecture sits rather uneasily within an apocalyptic-looking construction site and surrounding shanties. Scaffolding and a littered, un-landscaped dirt pile eclipse the intended grandeur of the building. Further diluting the spectacle, the photograph hones in on one lone worker on break. This intimate, everyday scene is an unexpected—and welcome—alternative to the presumed hubbub of the urban development. Exposed here is China’s often hasty and unsafe approach towards modernity, viewed from an angle normally obscured by the Chinese government.
Last month, when the Television Cultural Center accidentally burned down one of its new buildings (which was not finished as planned in time for the Olympics anyway, and was as yet unoccupied) in a fireworks display celebrating the Chinese New Year, the event compounded the impact of Osborne’s photograph of the adjacent building in its early stages. The Chinese government swept photographs and reports of the fire under the rug, allowing only its own official statement—and no images whatsoever—to circulate. Thus CCTV, the very mouthpiece of government propaganda, became the subject of its own censorship.
Qianmen (2008) also illustrates, quite literally, the contradictory worlds found in present-day Beijing. Here, Qianmen—a gate into Beijing’s ancient Inner City—is closed-off and mostly obscured by rickety metal fencing that appears to be constructed from salvaged dumpster parts. A canvas printed with an image of the ancient city is haphazardly draped over the ramshackle fence—an attempt to mask the modern atrocity with a simulated historical vista. Three photo-happy tourists are seen capturing Qianmen through the fence, expunging the actual lackluster environment from their photographic records and reminding us of the many untruths in our carefully edited photographs. Just as Quianmen seems to capture these tourists in an unsuspecting and honest moment, so too all Osborne’s photographs seem to capture the city itself unawares.
Like many of his subjects, Osborne is also a tourist documenting his travels. Yet unlike the tourists in Qianmen, Osborne doesn’t forgo the gritty, under-construction sights for untainted, exotic views of a past or present world. Perhaps it is Osborne’s presentation of the intimate and conflicting moments—within a city striving for the spectacular and the flawless—that make these works much more substantial than any tourist photograph; they reveal the candid and contradictory moments avoided by the tourist in search of the picturesque and, also, by the Chinese government in search of an unblemished self-image.
Alison Hearst received her M.A. in Art History from Texas Christian University and is a freelance writer living in Fort Worth.