China is a country standing at a crossroads. While the Middle Kingdom of today is often hailed as boasting one of the oldest advanced civilizations on earth, it is, for all practical purposes, still a developing nation that finds itself at a critical junction in its long and diverse history. Following the great reset of the Cultural Revolution a mere seventy years ago, the novel Republic’s fervent jostling for prime position among the world’s leading economic players has seen many of its past values, traditions and philosophies systematically sacrificed for an exalted vision of a brave new tomorrow.
Being wholly subjected to totalitarian and technocratic rule, softened to a large extent only by the excesses of unchecked consumerism popularised by a rapidly expanding nouveau riche middle class, China’s 1.4 billion people are currently faced with the precarious fusion of an established communist past and an obscure neo-capitalist future. Little seems to remain sacred in the wake of this newfound materialism, along with searing economic ambition and an ambiguous populist ideology that seems bent on disparaging as well as imitating the West. With all these dynamics intersecting, China appears to be wavering in the no man’s land of a national identity that is ultimately at odds with itself.
Using the sprawling pedestrian crossings of the city I’ve come to call home as a backdrop, this series aims to act as a visual metaphor for the complex socio-political juncture that is currently set to reshape the country’s cultural landscape and the place of ordinary people in it.
Poised on the verge of both a concrete and symbolic divide, the inadvertent body language of everyday citizens – waiting obediently to be swept into a pseudo-futuristic realm of gaudy skyscrapers and industrial clamour – seems to reveal a range of pertinent emotions in the face of vital transition. As they stare into the distance we see glimmers of hope, trepidation, defiance, resignation and resolve, all of which perfectly reflect the underlying sentiments of a nation in flux.
The splintered mirror being held up here, however, faces two ways. Even though the throng of rush hour crowds and countless CCTV cameras flashing overhead has enabled me to work mostly undetected, I can in no way claim to have been an impartial observer. To date, my time in China has been spent in a dubious state of idiosyncratic exile, and my own way forward, to reprieve or ruin, seems all but clear.