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the Chinese dream of modernisation

September 5, 2007

Sze Tsung Leong’s latest work, History Images, offers a photographic record of China’s architectural response to capitalism and urbanisation, the need to provide living and work space for its millions of people in the changing economic and social order. This is an ongoing process of massive scale, whereby Chinese urban planners enforce their own version of modernisation by erasing the past, its physical history, and by erecting from the start their own, urban dream of ‘beautiful city’ .

Sze Tsung Leong_Beijing2004_443.jpg

At one level, these photographs are poetic records of change and destruction, as Nigel Warburton writes in the latest issue of Portfolio (No.45 June 2007).

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Sze Tsung Leong describes his photographs (in his statement) as images of histories, in the form of cities, which at this particular moment are either being destroyed or created. They are, the artist goes on, images of the absence of histories as well, since the erasure is so complete that the past would not be known in the future.

Sze Tsung Leong_Beijing2004_2_443.jpg

China’s relationship with history is changing as much as its urban landscapes, according to Sze Tsung Leong. From a stable reality during imperial China, and an entity in need of re-writing after the Communist Revolution, now in today’s China history -as urban form- has acquired two contradictory meanings: a “proof of China’s accomplishments” and an “inconvenience to urban modernization.”

Sze Tsung Leong_Shanghai2004_443.jpg

History Images presents the destruction of the physical past and the rising of the new tower blocks as an ominous and threatening process. Only in the last photograph of the same-titled book, a picture of Tiananmen Square (see below), human beings become dominant subjects over architecture. Leong states that this square “its symbolic significance and history suggest that the greatest and most valued power of the state is the authority to erase.”

Sze Tsung Leong_Beijing2002

I would agree with N.Warburton’s final comments in Portfolio, that through Leong’s view China appears a place which George Orwell would have recognised. And a place which echoes the Big Brother’s party slogan in Nineteen-Eighty Four: “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

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