Toronto specializing in contemporary photography

Leo Hsu essay on Philip Cheung

Exhibition essay

The Coast

by Leo Hsu

In The Edge, Philip Cheung visualizes the rapid growth of the United Arab Emirates in quiet, still tableaux. By taking a step back from the glamour that so frequently defines the UAE’s visual narratives, Cheung’s photographs describe the current moment as a balance of tensions. The Edge makes visible a complex dynamic between nature and human ambition, describing the scale at which people live in relation to the scale of the environments that we create, and simultaneously recognizing the coast’s permanence and the human desire to transform it.

In the ten photographs on display at Circuit Gallery, Cheung takes us to privileged and public spaces, and shows us spectacles of urban design and uncompleted construction projects. He does so with a poetic reserve; Cheung lived and worked in the United Arab Emirates for a large part of the last decade, and The Edge, his study of the coastal nation, is absorbing in part because of the way that he deploys his position as an outsider with extensive local knowledge. Cheung is neither distracted by scale nor dazzled by the splendor that he depicts. He recognizes that cities like Dubai are built to be seen in certain ways, and asks us to consider the intense activity and rapid development of the UAE at a remove. There is a beauty here, Cheung suggests, that encompasses both what is built and the coast that it’s built upon.

Cheung’s photographs draw attention to ordinary moments, elevating them. A group of men squat in a tight circle on a beach for a meal, surrounded by an expanse of sand. On another beach men on horseback converse with other men sitting atop a Jeep; both horses and automobile are immaculate and still. Tour boats in the Dubai Marina approach a city that appears to be the entirety of the world. Human figures, small in scale, are dwarfed by their proxies: the roads, machines, and structures that they have produced to create the world that they desire.

Some of the photographs are completely absent of people, with inanimate subjects nonetheless indicating aspirations, vanities, and vulnerabilities: a pair of lifeboats on the beach; the banquet hall in Khor al Maqta, its chairs dwarfed by opulent chandeliers and fixtures; the uncompleted Palm Jebel Ali bridge built on reclaimed land along the coast. The banquet hall is the only interior in this group, and the sky’s absence makes it feel almost claustrophobic, despite the height of the room’s ceilings. Apartment building rooftops, with plastic furniture and washing hung from lines, appear as though someone just moved in. Unburdened by the contours of existing infrastructure, cities and roads appear to emerge whole from the desert. Where does the city end? Such is the splendor and scale that one cannot help but ask how this room, this city, this road, came to be.

Cheung intends for his images, which capture extraordinary detail, to be viewed as large prints. The photographs recall European landscape painting of the early 18th century, when the landscape ceased being the background and became, in its own right, the subject of the painting. Those paintings often asked what the appropriate relationship between civilization and nature in a rapidly changing world might be, and Cheung’s views of the UAE pose similar questions at the beginning of the 21st century.

Nearly every one of the photographs in The Edge has three characteristic features, which, notably, are neither the sea nor the people who live by it, but are sky, earth, and elements of the built environment. The sky, almost always present, appears not as negative space, but as a rich, subtly textured presence in the frame. Clouds catch or pass the light as watercolour washes. Like the sky, the ground—whether earth, rubble, or sand—is thick with detail. The lines are complex and irregular: tire tracks, displaced dust, wind-formed contours—there are always markings. And, Cheung seems equally drawn to the design and geometries of the things we make and use: the oval lifeboats, the angular military aircraft at a defence exhibition, the neat circle of the Khor Fakkan roundabout, a quarry backhoe. Function and appearance dovetail, producing figures that seem essentially unitary. The bold lines and sharp colors of the built environment and the objects that populate it contrast with the messy logics of the patterns we see in the sky and the ground. In these patterns, the result of both natural and human circumstance, we see complexity; in the skyline we see a clean presentation of form. The texture of the earth contrasts with the smooth glass buildings and the endless patterning of the sky contrasts with the unitary totality of machines. An almost complete absence of visible text in the images helps us to focus our attention on shapes.

Cheung’s photographs are powerful because, beyond surveying, or describing, they suggest the seeming necessity of the present moment, which in his graceful compositions feels both inevitable and eternal. At the same time, they underscore the moment’s contingency—the feeling that the cultural features on display, functions of power, economics and globalization, look so specific, when seen in the context of the landscape that has made this wealth and power possible. Where nature cannot but look as it does, the built environment betrays human ambition in the way that it assumes its specific forms. The success of Cheung’s photographs is its evocation of the tension between these two imperatives.

Cheung describes a future UAE rolling out before us, shiny and seemingly perpetually new, or yet to be built. Each day the world changes a little bit, incrementally, and one day everything looks as though it’s always meant to look that way. This world is defined by its cultural material and physical infrastructure, the buildings and roads more long-lasting than the people who use and build them. The impossible-to-preserve newness of the construction contrasts with the geologic persistence of the landscape in which building takes place. The Edge suggests a dream that these cities might look like this forever, a world that has always only just realized itself, an eternal state of becoming, a destiny as undeniable as the presence of the coast from which these cities emerge.

Leo Hsu, December 2016
©Leo Hsu. All Rights Reserved.


Leo Hsu is a writer, researcher and photographer based in Toronto. He is a regular contributor to Fraction Magazine and holds a PhD in Anthropology and Certificate in Culture and Media from New York University..