We are in the midst of an unseasonable rainy season, which has pleasantly cooled the city, but also taught me the desirability of an indoor studio. Yesterday, I played with my found objects on the balcony, deliberately arranging them instead of posing them in different parts of the city. I’m not pleased with the images and (in a moment of irrepresible personification) suspect that the objects themselves felt awkward.
To date, I have gleaned the following objects from rubbish heaps (in chronological order): Teapot, Claypot, Bicycle Tire, Umbrella, and The Gloves. I was given Bench. I found Teapot while wandering around the Houhai land reclamation area. Claypot had been left behind an old (and soon to be razed) village. I found Bicycle Tire next to a bridge and Umbrella had been stuffed into an advertising billboard in Dongmen. The Gloves had been abandoned on granite rocks at the subway construction site, just next to Diwang. Bench came from Zhuhai, the Special Economic Zone on the western banks of the Pearl River Delta, just north of Macau.
Until I began collecting discarded objects and photographing them throughout the city, I had contented myself with photographing the city. Photographing the city was both a moral-aesthetic and documentary practice. On the one hand, I have enjoyed reframing the city; Shenzhen is not a conventionally beautiful city (no elegantly classic ruins, no early modern architecture, and a penchant for razing mountains and filling in coastline). Consequently, it has taken me time to learn how to see it, without immediately turning from its more obvious problems. This aesthetic repugnance embodied (and continues to embody) a moral position; my refusal to look, to recognize how the city materializes the daily lives of its inhabitants has constituted a refusal to witness those lives. A refusal, in other words, to acknowledge the value of those lives simply because I don’t like the way the city looks.
(It would be fascinating to track forms of disdain for Shenzhen to specify how refusing to witness Shenzhen enables folks—anthropologists, businessmen, migrant workers—to variously use but not inhabit the city, increasing the levels of alienation that most seem to feel here. The most common refusals to acknowledge Shenzhen that I have heard are “Shenzhen isn’t China” or “Shenzhen doesn’t have any history/culture”. However, it also takes the form of apologetics for “the cost of progress”, or a reduction of this history to theoretical abstractions. I am fluent in all of these dialects, but in my scholarly work have demonstrated a preference to use theoretical abstractions to obscure unacknowledged disdain.)
On the other hand, the speed of transformation has eluded my attempts to write this history and photography has provided a form of documentary shorthand. There is a saying in Shenzhen, “Plans don’t keep up with change (计划跟不上变化)”. Various interpretations of this phrase are possible. Things got built here before the city plan was approved (so plans come into being already obsolete); positioning for short-term economic advantage, rather than consideration for long-term growth have fueled these changes (so ad-hoc improvisation, rather than deliberate follow-through tends to characterize decision-making); intensifying production (low pay, long working days, and keeping things running 24-hours a day by maintaining multiple shifts) has continuously increased the speed of economic growth (so the city has to handle increasing amounts of objects); migration to the city has exceeded efforts to build the city (so there is constant adaptation of places and things for unplanned uses).
The phrase “plans don’t keep up with change” points to Shenzhen’s ephemeral nature; this really isn’t the same city it was twenty years ago, or ten years ago, or even six months ago, for that matter. As Marx warned us, all that is solid melts into air. After ten years of attempting to write an ethnography about Shenzhen, I have instead started to examine the process of my own intellectual obsolescence. Photographs provide a means of grappling with these changes; I return to a site, retrace my steps, and click. (This is not the same as saying that photographs resolve the problem of representing change. I’m grappling, remember.)
The process of photographing these Found Objects (and scanning an area for interesting rubbish) has rearticulated my moral-aesthetic and documentary concerns. Suddenly, I have been able to engage simultaneously both fragments of everyday life and the changing landscape. Moreover, these common objects have helped me to witness Shenzhen, and I am often surprised by how beautiful the city can look, if only momentarily. Placing an object requires me to engage what I have learned to overlook. I have also found that placing an object makes details more apparent. When photographing the city, I have tended to look at representative architecture and the organization of space. In contrast, the Found Objects set off details, activating the spaces between as much as the elements of the built environment. In future posts, I will take up each of the objects in turn. I’m still wondering if I should highlight the object (a series of photographs of Teapot, for example, throughout the city), or the place (a series of different objects photographed at one place, like the Houhai land reclamation area).
Perhaps skies will clear in the afternoon and I will be able to take The Gloves out on a shoot. The Gloves suit both ethical and methodological considerations. In addition to directly representing those who have built and maintained the city as inhabitable spaces, the gloves don’t weigh all that much. This characteristic opens all sorts of possibilities; I can take out The Gloves with any other object without considering getting on and off the bus (no added bulk), organizing my backpack (no danger of cracking a porcelain object), or putting them safely away after each shoot (can be stuffed into jeans pockets).
The Gloves’ charms become apparent in comparison to Bench. This past week, when not dodging raindrops, I have been telling myself that Bench really isn’t heavy, and that carrying him on a two-hour walk under a brutal sun will result in satisfying images. I expect I shall succumb to these exhortations sometime after I return from England, where I will be leading a two-week study trip. In the meantime, however, I have enjoyed whipping Gloves out of my packback and not fearing that I shall harm them in any irreparable way. Teapot fell off a pedestrian overpass about ten days ago, and I still miss her.
Found Object portraits online.