Details of the Metropolis: On Hong Hao's Recent Works
Source:Artintern Author:Chaos Y. Chen Date: 2008-08-06 Size:
Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks - Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida.


After driving through an area in Beijing with some of the worst evening traffic congestion, and passing all those "cloned" apartment buildings, I double checked the numbered gate. I pushed the doorbell, twice. Hong Hao greeted me at his apartment on the East Third Ring Road, holding hand scrolls of photography that he took out to show me, one-by-one, each from its own satin-covered box, stacked in piles against his apartment walls.

"I titled this series Qingming Shanghe Tu," said Hong Hao, as he started to open a scroll. However, the work I was viewing was in fact a reproduction of the masterpiece hand scroll, Song dynasty painting by Zhang Zeduan of the same name, which original work I have only seen twice in my life on display at the Palace Museum. Hong's art work used a very good reproduction indeed, and one faithful to the original's scale. Reproducing well the ancient ink-wash, with pale shades of color on a brownish background of aged silk. Somewhat abruptly, however, Hong Hao's new work now affixes here and there same-scale color figures, collage-like, on to the surface of the famous painting.

The original painting was completed in the early twelfth century, when the artist Zhang Zeduan served as an imperial painter in the emperor's court. It depicts the splendid panorama of Bianliang, the capital of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127 A.D.) On this 24.8cm high, 527.8cm long hand scroll, Zhang Zeduan meticulously recorded the ancient cityscape, capturing the complexity of all of its various elements, actively involved in then-urban life: Men and women, monks and merchants, peasants and soldiers, etc. are shown working and traveling to the downtown area along a route which then ran along the Bianhe River. The origins of the title, "Qingming", is relatively ambiguous. Literally meaning "pure brightness", it can also refer to the specific date which normally falls on April 5th of the Lunar Calendar; a day when all Chinese traditionally pay their respects to their ancestors. Some researchers point out that one of the landmarks of Bianliang was Qingming Fang (a gate called Qingming). Yet, the most eloquent explanation of the title reference is that Qingming indicates the very well functioned and regulated government administration of the time.

First taking this hand scroll as a ready-made, as earlier undertaken by Western modernists since Marcel Duchamp, Hong Hao then selected some typical urban characters, from photos he shot himself or images he collected from pop magazines, and also pornography. These juxtaposed images fit neatly into the classical scene and begin to create new dialogues and means of communicating with the ancient painting itself. Now, the "painting" of Hong Hao creates a greater contrast between urban and suburban subjects; people who are clearly not natives of the capital city are seen strolling on its streets, and colorful modern vehicles now mark a high speed route, much faster than the boats' leisurely course as depicted in the original painting.

Hong Hao knows well that the hand scroll format is perfectly suited to meet the objectives of a panoramic perspective, without losing the pleasure of visual exploration. He then develops this traditional format further with wide-angle photographic views along two ideological and geometric lines: The central axis and Chang An Avenue (The Avenue of Eternal Peace). In fact, the old and the new city capitals have almost the same, latitudinal and longitudinal cross-sections. Local Beijingers are quite familiar with the city's central axis which is traditionally described as Long Mai (backbone of dragon). Hence, the rationale for first constructing The Forbidden City along this axis. Drawing an imaginary longitudinal north-south line in Beijing, one may also find the Bell and Drum Towers, representing and dissecting a new sense of urban time. In more recent years, at the time of the second anniversary of New China (1951), by moving the ornamental columns at the entrance of The Forbidden City inward some ten meters, a whole new avenue was built: Chang An Avenue which stretches from the Urban-Suburban Trade Center at the west end of Beijing to the China World Trade Center at the east. With Tiananmen as its center. Today, the mirror opposite of the Zhongnanhai leadership compound located just west of Tiananmen is the Oriental Plaza at the east, developed by Hong Kong's most powerful real estate investor. Mapping once again the latest shifts of power.

The mapping and re-mapping that Hong Hao has interpreted so well in his earlier silk-screen works make even more sense now at the turn of the next century. Although, his ironic sense of humour is less obvious here than in his earlier works, Hong Hao has now created another cross-section of his world as depicted on a global scale. In his Qianli Jiangshan Tu, photography hand scroll titled after another Northern Song painting by Zhao Boju, he combined a series of snapshots from PRC inbound flights from Euro-American countries. Several other large prints of photography, in which Hong Hao performs as tour guide in front of Tiananmen and The Great Wall are also included in this exhibition of Hong's recent works. Hong Hao has commented, "Tourism and cultural exchanges: Ideologically, they are accomplices. The tour site selection of the host is made to match the expectation and judgment of the guests." Hong Hao once experienced a similar kind of tourism / cultural exchange, when he accompanied seven leading art curators from North America and Western Europe on a visit to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. However, knowing the critical power of contemporary art works, the group of curators smiled and declined to be included as subjects in Hong Hao's "tourism" works.

Such panoramic surveys of cityscapes along symbolic streets reminds me of another street where I once worked for a year: Park Avenue in New York City. This is a major thoroughfare which runs through wealthy Midtown and elite Upper East Side neighborhoods. However, few would walk all the way to its most northern end. There, the street begins to narrow. Children run out of dilapidated grocery stores chasing each other around much poorer city street corners. Such areas are often described as those of "The Third World in the First World". Such seemingly dramatic shifts from one point in a city landscape to another actually reveal some truths which lay just behind the bright city lights and the seeming "fruits" of urbanization, globalization, immigration, etc. Beijing is certainly not free from such universally felt urban anxieties. And perhaps, Hong Hao's new works haven't sufficiently addressed these anxieties. The artist, I expect, would tell me that such anxieties are the stuff of a whole new series of art works which he may or may not choose to undertake.

[Editor] Mark Lee