A common space for harmonic peacemakers
Michael Wolf began his career as a photojournalist, spending over a decade working in Asia for the German magazine Stern. While shooting his final story for the magazine, “China: Factory of the World,” he discovered the seeds of his first major art project. Wolf developed the idea around plastic toys, a fascination of his since they were off limits to him as a child. In one month, he collected over twenty thousand toys “made in china,” scavenging through second-hand stores and flea markets up and down the California coast. He transformed this vast collection into an installation, The Real Toy Story, which integrates portraits of workers in China’s toy factories into a series of walls covered entirely in plastic toys of all kinds. The result is an overwhelming, immersive experience; a graphic representation of the gargantuan scale of China’s mass production and the West’s hunger for a never-ending supply of disposable products. The gazes of the factory workers humanize this anonymous ocean of toys and invite us to reflect on the reality of trade in a world of consumer-driven globalization. Many of the characteristics of Wolf’s work were already present in this first project: obsessive collecting, a recognition of the symbolic power of the vernacular, the combination of both macro and micro perspectives, and the ability to use a specific subject or focus to document the broader transformations of urban life.
In his best known series on Hong Kong’s highly compressed, often brutal architecture, Architecture of Density, Wolf uses the city’s sky-scraping tower blocks to great effect, eliminating the sky and horizon line to flatten each image and turn these façades into seemingly never-ending abstractions. Beyond the stark beauty of these compositions, Wolf’s studies of the thick concrete skin of the city make us wonder about the thousands of lives contained within each frame. Although Hong Kong is all but deserted in these images, minute signs of life creep to its surface… a shirt hanging out to dry or a silhouette behind a blind. Despite the stifling compression of this architecture, Wolf’s compositions are laced with evidence of people’s ability and need to express their individuality within these formal structures.
The formalism and deadpan approach of Architecture of Density echoes the work that emerged from the Düsseldorf school of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Like the work of Andreas Gursky or Thomas Struth, Wolf’s photographs reveal a desire to document and connect with the world around him, but with a contemporary visual approach. Contrary to the lyrical drama of ‘classic’ documentary photography, these images are coolly detached from their subject and the photographer’s presence behind the camera is barely perceptible.
This work on the architecture of Hong Kong can also be linked to the new photographic approaches that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s in the United States. The landmark 1975 exhibition, New Topographics: Photographs of a man-altered landscape, brought together a group of photographers who, in the sprawling post-industrial landscapes of the new American West, found a mirror for the transformation of the structure of American society. In the same way, Wolf found his inspiration in Hong Kong and China, places where ever-shifting cityscapes provided him with constant stimulation and the opportunity to document the many faces of this emerging superpower.
In Hong Kong Inside Outside, Wolf pairs the architectural abstractions of Architecture of Density, with 100x100, a study of one hundred interiors in one of Hong Kong’s oldest housing complexes. Titling his series 100x100 as each apartment in the complex measures exactly one hundred square feet, Wolf uses a typological approach, adopting the same vantage point for each image, once again evoking the approach of the Bechers and the New Topographics. However, in stark opposition to the distance and formalism of Wolf’s architectural photographs, these images have a quasi-journalistic style. Although the inhabitants of these spaces are present in each image, it is not so much their portraits that are striking as the extraordinarily diverse environments that they have created for themselves in these standardized spaces. Together with Hong Kong Back Door, the series highlights the ingenuity and adaptability of these citizens and their surprising strength within the confines of the city’s concrete shell.
In the series Bastard Chairs, Wolf once again makes use of a basic facet of urban life in Asia, revealing its symbolic power in relation to the life of the city. The chairs photographed in this series have been patched up, reconfigured, often repaired dozens of times. They provide a graphic illustration of China’s thriftiness and its devotion to maximizing productivity. However Wolf’s attraction to these objects is not only driven by their social significance, but also by the unintentional “beauty inherent in used objects.” His images of these chairs, created purely to meet the functional need of sitting, celebrate the intelligence of their design and the beauty of their patina. The owners of these chairs do not appear and yet their presence is palpable in this extraordinary array of customized objects, each chair reflecting some aspect of its owner’s personality.
Wolf once again explores China’s vernacular culture in the series Real Fake Art. In this series, he focuses on the multi-million dollar business that has developed in China for copying major pieces of modern art, from Francis Bacon to Andy Warhol, principally for export to the West. These photographs show ‘copy artists’ holding their ‘fakes,’ which are often indistinguishable from the original. The work deals with the phenomenon of mass production within the increasingly democratized world of modern art, raising questions about the value of art in the age of mass reproduction and, as with The Real Toy Story, evoking the cultural and commercial exchanges between China and the West. Interestingly, it is this latter series that led Wolf to undertake his first series of work outside of Asia.
With his most recent series, Wolf moves away from the ‘objective’ detachment of his early work to question the role of the photographer within the city. This is perhaps most evident in Tokyo Compression. In this series, he aims his camera at captive passengers pressed against the windows of the crammed Tokyo subway. The density is no longer architectural but human, as commuters fill every available square inch of these subway cars. As with Architecture of Density Wolf uses a ‘no exit’ photographic style, trapping the gaze of the viewer within the frame just as the passengers are unable to escape the confinement of these temporary cells. The images create a sense of discomfort as his victims attempt to squirm out of view or simply close their eyes, wishing the photographer to go away. Tokyo Compression depicts an urban hell and by hunting down these commuters with his camera, Wolf highlights their complete vulnerability to the city at its most extreme.
I can't imagine living in this kind of environnement!
Anyway, thanks for your very interesting comment, Eva.
Love and Peace for you and all Beings.
Immagine a person born in Hong Kong, always lived there and his/her home is in such a building we see on the pictures, coming suddenly to a little, calm mountain village. - Small houses - much green in the surroundings - wonderful fresh air - only a few cars pass a day - great silence at night - ...what a "culture-shock" that would be! -