Look Photo Biennial: Chapter 1

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  • Forest, Yan Wang Preston
  • Shanghai Sacred, Liz Hingley & Chen Hangfeng
Birkenhead Priory / Victoria Gallery & Museum

Can you feel sorry for inanimate objects? Weird objectophilia documentaries aside, most of us are continuously affected by the objects in our everyday environment, whether consciously or not. Standing in front of a photograph of a twisted, ancient tree in its new, megalopolis home of Guanyinquai Shopping District, Chongqing, I can’t help but feel sad for it. Its limbs have been sawn off and huge steel crutches support its trunk, splaying out like an unruly Zimmer frame. If this tree had eyes it would be waking up in a haze, looking around bewildered, wondering, “Where the fuck am I? How did I get here?”

Forest, an eight-year-long monograph by photographer-come-ecologist YAN WANG PRESTON chronicles the re-rooting of some of China’s oldest indigenous trees in the paradoxical attempts by developers to create a feeling of authenticity in the rapidly growing megacities across western China. Part of the first of two main chapters of Look Photo Biennial 2019, this open-air exhibition features six photographs from Preston’s series, the canvas for which is the ancient chapter house of Birkenhead Priory. The Benedictine monastery – built circa 1150 – is the oldest standing building in Merseyside, and walking along its crumbling sandstone walls to view large scale photographs in metal lightboxes, the theme of combining the old with the new is instantly communicated.

In cities where buildings outgrow the organic, saplings in tubes just don’t cut it. Ready grown, established trees are heavily sought after by developers as they can hike up the value of surrounding real estate; the bigger the tree, the heftier the price tag – some selling for up to £40k . Here, the images tell a more optimistic story than others in Preston’s series – with little known about delicate microclimates, not all trees survive their big moving day.

LOOK Photo Biennial: Chapter 1 Image 3

Preston’s large format photography lends the viewer plenty of detail. Leafy Ginkgo trees stand in the foreground of the vertiginous cement pillars of a tram station, an older tree propped up behind them with wooden stilts. A steel bus stop in Yangjiaping shopping district is shaded by a pair of Bauhinias, green stems sprouting from their stumps once severed for transportation. Each image depicts trees sensitively as if they were a person, unearthing the complex undertones of reforestation. Is aesthetic propelling environmentalism, or is it the other way around?

Not only has China surged in structural growth, it has also seen a major religious revival in recent decades. In Shanghai Sacred at the Victoria Gallery & Museum, photographer and anthropologist LIZ HINGLEY explores the human rituals – occurring in private, public and unofficial forms – that comprise the religious identities of the city, from Daoism to Christianity, Islam to Hinduism.

“Each image depicts trees sensitively, as if they were a person, unearthing the complex undertones of reforestation”

Photographs hang from a network of bamboo scaffolds made by CHEN HANGFENG reminiscent of a construction site, creating an air of transition and impermanence. A clever curatorial decision has arranged the images in two concentric squares making viewing the exhibition, in itself, somewhat ritualistic. Photographs alternate from intimate family scenes to mass devotional gatherings. In one image an American-Jewish woman celebrates Shabbat with her Chinese husband and their children. In another, an outdoor congregation bow towards each other, between them plastic boxes and bin liners of fish are lined up to be released back into the river in the Buddhist practice of liberating captive animals to gain good karma.

Perhaps the most beautiful image featured is of a Sanskrit reading class led by Indian Hindus, set in someone’s living room (with views) in a high rise building in the Shimao Riviera compound. The Huangpu River paves through a swath  of skyscrapers and cranes, the warm evening light cast on the back wall accentuates the spirituality in the room. In all images, the search for meaning and togetherness seems to be driven by Shanghai’s forces of growth, economy and displacement; fantasising an affinity between the real and the inanimate.


Gina Schwarz / @gsschwarz

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