Don't look back 

Photographer documents the melancholy of China's vanishing past

The skyline decorated with cranes looks familiar. The skeletal shells of buildings under construction are a common feature of our own radically changing Atlanta landscape.

It's not hard to see the similarity between artist Sze Tsung Leong's History Images on view at Kiang Gallery, which document the rapid, dramatic development of Chinese cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Chongqing, and the similar industrious buzz of our own clattering metropolis, defined by the pings of metal hitting metal and the latticework of orange barrier fences winding through the landscape.

But something is dramatically different, too.

In Leong's 72-by-87-inch photographs, the skies are an ashy, misty white, a pale soup of fog and pollution. And the new apartment buildings seem to go on forever, their endless windows and balconies testifying to thousands and thousands of unseen residents.

Rather than the chaotic jumble of American cities, these landscapes in transition give off waves of Fahrenheit 451 anxiety, of future world sterility, and an imposed, controlled design. The overriding whiteness of the images -- the chalky sky, earth and concrete buildings -- is only occasionally broken up by the office buildings sheathed in jade green plastic or the orange and yellow cranes. But by and large, boneyard white predominates.

People are rarely present, except as construction workers laboring in the maze-like catacombs of building foundations. The world Leong renders has the presence of a tabletop architectural model with people as little pin-dots to illustrate the scale of all that "progress."

There is something strange, slightly terrifying and insect-like about human behavior observed from the distance Leung assumes when looking at the corporate skyscrapers and apartment blocks rising next to crumbling, ancient architecture. What seems rational and orderly up close becomes chilling when viewed from a distance. Leong is clearly aware of the advantage of shooting his scenes from a cool distance, a point of view that wavers between the architectural and the Godlike.

The work seems to contain an implicit critique: This brave new world has been built to house people, but without people in mind.

Leong's History Images record the toll of unchecked progress toward China's new booming capitalist economy. As the tennis courts and manicured playing fields march onward in China's upwardly mobile society, the elderly and the poor get pushed farther and farther out from the city center. Works like "No. 15 Xiangluying Fourth Lane, Chun Shu, Xuanwu District, Beijing" -- of a tile-roof cottage sitting in a pit of broken construction debris in front of two modern buildings -- attest to some of the casualties and "hold outs": residents too poor, too stubborn or too frightened to leave their homes, despite modernity breathing like a Tyrannosaurus Rex down their neck.

One of the most haunting images in the exhibition is "Tiananmen Square, Beijing," one of the few shot from a low perspective so that the square looks enormous, like an ocean of white. The people milling around it seem lost at sea, lost to history, lost to time. The sci-fi image gives the impression of a citizenry caught up in the machinery of another revolution, one day communist, the next day capitalist.

The work on display at Kiang isn't necessarily the best representation of the fading world Leong is documenting. Missing are the particularly striking images Leong has shot of unfinished highways jutting into space or skyscrapers half-completed. A slang word, "lanweilou," has even arisen to describe these icons of rapid industrialization and wildfire capitalism, which are abandoned when the money runs out and the developer skulks away.

In History Images, Leong assumes the vantage of a number of other photographers who have documented the industrial landscape: Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Struth and especially Edward Burtynsky, who has also treated Chinese industry and development in a similar vein.

But where Burtynsky's views are clear-eyed, Leong's are misty-eyed and poignant. Leong not only records how the ancient, intimate, small-scale architecture of cities is being erased, but the melancholy of that erasure.



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