Strange beauty 

Surveying the global implications of a wasteful society

Xing Danwen's photographs could be little cities viewed from far overhead.

Coils of copper wires have the appearance of transportation arteries. A mass of Walkman earphones mimics a teeming crowd.

And in some respects, what Danwen documents in disCONNEXION at Kiang Gallery are stand-ins and metaphors for actual people and the massive industry that employs them.

In these sublime, formally arresting photographs, the Chinese-born artist who now travels between her birthplace and new home in New York offers us a vision of a world and mass of people far away, whose lives are as disposable and unseen as the infinite piles of broken down parts and objects we discard in our junkyards and thrift stores.

Like some folklore of elves who tidy and arrange the household while a family sleeps, the ordering and consolidating of technological clutter is the job of a secret army working in the shadow of progress. Danwen documents the emergence of a scavenger economy. In southern China's Guangdong province, it is the poorest of the poor -- more than 100,000 residents and migrant workers -- who collect and sort this technological waste, the majority of which comes from the United States. The toxicity of the process makes the recycling illegal in the United States. But as the sweatshop worker, prostitute or meatpacker assert, a desperate working class has continually proven that need generally trumps safety.

There is an eeriness -- and also a shamefulness -- to what Danwen has found; a reminder bigger than the project at hand that the individual, invisible components of our machines are replicated in the individual, invisible components of our global economy.

Danwen's photographs are of rubbish piles so large they fill the image, suggesting an endless heap of material just outside the camera's frame. In her cacophony of stuff, there are mounds of wire, gutted cell phones, computer keyboards and the plastic shells of boom boxes. Every component of the modern world has been classed and sorted. Like meets like: matte white printer components are grouped together, green circuit boards, disk drive components, white telephones. The deconstruction of these machines into minute parts seems infinite as they are meticulously arranged into the artist's control-freak trash pile. Though the formal compositions are arresting, even beautiful, it's difficult, once the origin is understood, not to also see the rigor beyond Danwen's frame and the countless hours spent dismantling, cutting and sorting to create such perfect organization.

In the most abstract but revealing terms, Danwen's work offers meaning and profound social commentary in random piles of junk. The work also suggests a subtle environmental message about the magnitude of rapid growth -- for the West, which continues to consume blindly, and China, which is beginning to deal with that dystopian legacy as its citizens and environment register the impact.

But even the ugliest of materials take on a kind of strange beauty -- both in the predominately gray tones of Danwen's photographs and in the act of sorting the objects into neat, concise groups -- that seems like a metaphor for the contradictions that emerge when two worlds collide. In Danwen's images, the controlled and orderly East and the chaotic, teeming West find equal expression.



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