Photographs by Michael Wolf. Text by Natasha Egan, Dr. Ernest Chui, Lee Ho Yin, Lynne D. DiStefano.
Asia One Books/Peperoni Books, , 2009. Hardbound. 352 pp., 205 color illustrations in two volumes, 12x9-1/4".
Hong Kong Inside Outside Photographs by Michael Wolf. Text by Natasha Egan, Dr. Ernest Chui, Lee Ho Yin, Lynne D. DiStefano. Published by Asia One Books/Peperoni Books, 2009.
I must admit, Michael Wolf's two-volume portrayal of urban planning run amok had me running in circles for a while. I was stymied by the duality, by the muteness of interior and exterior, intimacy and mass, specific and abstract -- there seemed to be no reconciling the two until I realized that I could use an old saw to cleave the knot. You know, the one about books and their covers? In this case, it's not true.
In fact, judging Wolf's project here depends on three cover readings: the plastic slipcase enclosing the books, and the four images selected to adorn front and back of the two books. The slipcase is a familiar translucent plastic, pliable and sufficiently rigid, that holds the volumes snugly together and almost reveals all the details of the covers inside. Almost -- the veil is a crucial trope. There are veils throughout the books -- on the exteriors of impossibly large buildings, and in the lives of residents of an antiquated apartment complex. Density is a veil. Language is a veil; from the slipcover to the massive exterior tarps to the interior chaos, Chinese characters mingle with English letters in scrims of partial legibility.
Wolf throws a typological curve at us. His mission, from the opening of Inside: "A single image doesn't tell you much, but seen as a collection, a pattern emerges to form a meaningful narrative." There's a presumption of the whole seen from its parts, of an infinite series extending from both inside Hong Kong's dwellings and from the exterior aggregate. Will the latter keep expanding to accommodate the former? Wait until the end of Outside.
One key part of the cover equation appears on Inside; its front depicts an elderly couple in the midst of their hypnotically dense living space, roughly 120 square feet that functions simultaneously as kitchen, bedroom, pantry, den, and dressing room. The back cover shows a comparable space, without its inhabitant; number 100 in the series of 100 rooms, the occupant "did not wish to be interviewed" to provide the caption material that attaches to most of the other 99 spaces. It almost doesn't matter; the room is so much like the others. The calendar shows 25, while the front cover calendar is 24. Another day, another cubic encounter.
Outside is vertiginous and surreal. The veil disguises comprehension and prompts so many questions. Who let these buildings be built? What do they look like, inside, if what they replaced is as claustrophobic as Inside suggests? How many floors and how much breadth can Wolf's lens contain without the frame finding the edges? How did he gain access to so many of these constrained perspectives (without, as he points out, speaking Cantonese)? Perhaps the most disturbing picture in Outside or Inside is another unpopulated one, the last in Outside, which does show building's edges, and an empty white plastic chair atop a scraggly hill, overlooking a cluster of the mega-structures seen in the preceding pages. There's a lot of undeveloped space around them to be filled. Take a seat and watch.
George Slade is the program manager and curator at the Photographic Resource Center in Boston, and the editor of the PRC’s magazine Loupe. He maintains an on-line presence at the PRC’s blog, here on photo-eye, and at re:photographica. Occasionally his writing even appears in print.