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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..


Leo Hsu essay

Exhibition essay

In the Air, in the Forest, at the Bottom of the Ocean

by Leo Hsu

The Pacific forests that Chris Bennett visits are not places of comfort. Among the mossy trunks and stumps, alongside crumbling shale and racing waters, surrounded by an impenetrable haze where the end of the day stolidly advances, time and light recede from Bennett’s intrusion. In one image, Untitled 19, a figure in the distance appears; as Bennett describes it, this figure represents a threat, blocking his path, forcing him to retreat further back into the dark woods, alone.

Bennett’s Darkwood photographs appear alongside work by Jon Wyatt and Eamon Mac Mahon in Apprehensions, at Circuit Gallery. The exhibition, curated by Claire Sykes, speaks to a long western historical engagement with, and anxiety about humanity’s tentative relationship to nature. Apprehensions proposes that our grasp of nature is limited: each of the three bodies of work on display is driven by the artist’s desire to visualize nature’s order and mystery, at the same time a reminder that we cannot know nature’s own logics.

The works of the three photographers in Apprehensions vary in their formal strategies and in the worlds that they invoke. Bennett’s Darkwood, first luminous, then obscured, feels like a first person narrative. Through his visual telling, we smell the cool loamy forest floor, and feel the chill and moisture of the air. The restlessness provoked by the dark forest conjures the horror we associate with the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, or with H.P. Lovecraft’s stories of the supernatural. It’s the feeling that, at night in the woods, the reassurances that our fabricated world provide—our regulated time and mapped out space and our provisions for safety—all fall away. What remains is something much, older, more profound, and more powerful than us.

If Darkwood conveys a subjective experience of dread, Jon Wyatt’s Fault Line presents a metaphor, describing the overwhelming power of a tsunami through his depictions of an implacably-growing, all-consuming invasive vine. Of the work on display, the vegetation in Wyatt’s series feels the most conspicuously alien. Wyatt’s images reveal an act of violence taking place on the timetable of plant growth: on Samoa, as on many Pacific islands, Merremia Peltata smothers everything in its path under a heavy blanket of leaves, a slow-moving but inescapable wave of strangulation. In Fault Line XIII two palms are surrounded by the vine, its imminent victims. The leaves are countless and repetitious, and Wyatt draws attention to the way that they reflect the sunlight, forming a shield between the sky and everything over which they have grown. With the vines Wyatt references the 2009 tsunami that washed over Samoa, caused by a tectonic fault eleven miles below the surface of the ocean. “The vines surge over the landscape in the shape of a vast breaking wave,” writes Wyatt, “an inundation of vegetation and a striking echo of the tsunami.” A digital effect visually links the geologic features represented on a bathymetric map with the detail in the images of the vine. The clouds appear almost to be embossed; such is the strange energy with which Wyatt’s prints are imbued that they look as though they might break apart, like the ocean floor.

Eamon Mac Mahon’s aerial photographs offer a god’s-eye view of terrain that appears untouched by people. Such a high-level view should, one imagines, offer some degree of ownership over the land below. But unlike the traditional landscape vista, these landscapes have no edges and no centers; there is no hierarchy of space, and no privileging of position. This is not to say that these landscapes are not articulated, but that their contours do not lead to resolutions. These are not views that we know and they confirm nothing. Unlike Timothy O’Sullivan or Carleton Watkins’ survey photographs of the American west, where a terrain was transformed into a view and where features became landmarks, the ground that Mac Mahon’s camera shows us is only part of an enormous terrestrial corpus over which his small plane skims. In Barren Ground Caribou three caribou make their way across an endless snowfield, tiny figures on an expanse. They know where to go, but to our eyes all space is equal; the land just goes on and on. We look over Mac Mahon’s shoulder in Wildfire, Northwest Territories, the air smudged with smoke. Natural processes take place in a land that seems remote from human influence, except that it is not; his ability—and by extension, ours—to look on this territory suggests that it might be transformed by our extended regard.

The disquiet that Apprehensions elicits is continuous with the aesthetic of the sublime evoked in 19th century landscape painting, where artists grappled with the relationship between modern ideas of civilization, progress, and nature. In the emerging context of modernity and industrialization, nature was set in opposition to civilization even as modern science fed technological innovation. These tensions were expressed in art and literature that recognized both nature’s otherness and our own claim to it. Painting that directly confronted this relationship between progress and nature was energized by the sublime.

Thomas Cole’s series The Course of Empire (1833-1836) describes the permanence of a landscape that would outlast human society. The sequence of five paintings corresponds with the early modern model of unilineal social evolution that justified empire and the domination of peoples: it moves from the so-called primitive, where “savages” live in harmony with nature; to the pastoral, agrarian, local; to the consummation of the state, a golden age of a thriving society; to that state’s collapse in war and destruction; and ending in desolation, the crumbled city reclaimed by ivy, a folly on a grand scale, ruined by pride. The work served as a memento mori, a reminder both that nature will outlast and reclaim the greatest civilizations, and that a civilization is defined by its progress.

The power of nature as sublime—terrifying, unforgiving, spectacular—is probably most closely associated today with the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. By the mid 19th century Turner’s paintings, such as Snow Storm – Steam Boat off of Harbor’s Mouth (1842) and Rain, Steam and Speed, the Great Western Railway (1848), had achieved an almost abstract expressivity that would form an enormous influence on art movements to follow. In Turner’s paintings, trains and ships provide scale for the strength of storms. Where The Course of Empire measures the relative brevity and smallness of human endeavor against geologic patience and endurance, Turner’s paintings describe nature as elemental, violent, uncontrollable, undeniable. But in Turner’s work we also see technology, having harnessed nature’s force, surviving its fury.

Where Cole and Turner offered their cautions to societies that were rapaciously enlarging their appetites, Bennett, Wyatt, and Mac Mahon’s works are made at a moment when we question our ability to expand indefinitely, transforming the world as we consume it. While these three contemporary artists may not have sought to engage with these circumstances explicitly, their works nonetheless address it, and with less surety of the outcome than their 19th century antecedents. While artists of both moments seek to instill a sense of humility in their audiences, the work of the 21st century is less about edification, and more apprehensive.

Our current anxieties about nature turn around the possibility that we have broken our planet beyond repair. With climate change and previously unknown scales of pollution, not only are we driving ourselves to an early extinction, we are taking the world, as we know it, with us. 19th century critiques of industrialization raised concerns for our moral obligations to one another as human beings; the 21st century ecological threat deals with our moral obligations to future generations, yes, but also to other living beings and to the planet that will outlast us.

What, then, do our apprehensions achieve? Do they allow us to comfort ourselves by naming our fears? Do they instill a necessary sense of humility? The strength of the combination of works in Apprehensions is that they might do both. These projects, and this exhibition, create an opportunity to reflect on our relationship with the natural world, recognizing how we are part of it and how we are not. If humans were to disappear from the earth tomorrow, nature would continue on its own course. But the marks that we leave would shape that course even as they would eventually cease to be discernible. Wyatt’s vine is not only nature reclaiming civilization, it is also nature consuming nature, this is what nature is, and does. The fear evoked by Darkwood is not only a fear of destruction under nature’s power, but also a fear brought on by a feeling of helplessness. A similar effect may be elicited by Mac Mahon’s photographs, a recognition of our own insignificance.

Collectively, Apprehensions presents a critique that evokes broader questions about what we, as humans, owe the world, and what the world might extract from us without regard for our own accounting. Apprehensions shows us nature as pitiless and inexorable, so far from human experience that we cannot really call it cruel, even as its foreign-ness cannot but cause unease. We may be enthralled by nature’s patterns and persistence, but while the works shown here are perfectly legible, what the images describe resists easy comprehension. We must recognize how alien nature’s logic is in order to give it its due. There are landscapes that we love because they confirm our place in relation to them. And then there is the world—the land and its life—that doesn’t care about us.

Leo Hsu, November 2015
©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. He has taught on the history of photography and documentary photography at Carnegie Mellon University and collaborated with the Silver Eye Center for Photography on several exhibitions, most recently A World Imagined: Kelli Connell and Sara Macel.