'All my work is about life in cities' declares Michael Wolf, as we stand in the middle of 'Small God, Big City,' the latest major photography exhibition at M97 Gallery. Born in Munich, Germany, educated in the US, for the past two decades Wolf has made Asia his home, and the dynamism of its mega-cities his inspiration. Featuring over 100 photographs from seven of Wolf's projects, ‘Small God, Big City’ captures perfectly his multi-faceted approach to this subject matter.
We begin by taking a look at his works from ‘Tokyo Compression’, a series of arresting photographs of commuters on the Tokyo metro. Pressed up against the glass, shrouded in condensation, the people on the train appear as eerie apparitions, each image radiating a sense of claustrophobia and unease, a feeling which anyone who has ever taken the Shanghai metro at rush hour could no doubt relate to.
'You can see all the different aspects of my work in this exhibition’ remarks Wolf. ‘Most of it is objects and architecture, but in this case I decided to go back to the human being. It’s a metaphor for how extreme this mega-city life has become. The vision before was that it was some kind of utopia, where everything is convenient and close and comfortable, but in reality it is hell.
When asked why he considers capturing people’s daily commute to be a particularly apt metaphor for this reality, he replies: ‘One is so occupied with work, with getting to work and getting back, particularly here in Asia where work is the number one activity, the number one goal, and it compromises life.’
Wolf divides his time between Paris, where his family are based, and Hong Kong, where his studio is, but he makes clear that it is in Asia where he finds his creative mojo. ‘My wife and son have lived in Paris for the past 5 years, but I don’t photograph in Paris. For me, Paris is not interesting visually, because the city hasn’t changed in more than a hundred years. It’s like a movie set. I much prefer Asia, because Asia is visually much more exciting. Every three months something is torn down and something else goes up. It’s not always a positive thing, but the speed of change is incredible.’
Wolf’s work is pre-occupied with finding human traces amidst the uniformity of the urban environment. Through recording material culture, he explores how people living in mega-cities make the most of limited space and resources. Thus, something as unassuming as a collection of gloves, or a chair comprised of recycled materials, becomes a metaphor for the tenacity and ingenuity of human beings, and our ability to make the most of any environment which we find ourselves in.
‘I’ve lived in Hong Kong for 20 years. There is very little crime, very little vandalism, so you can more or less leave your things unattended’ he explains. ‘For instance, work tools that you don’t have space for in your home, you can leave in a back alley and they’ll still be there the next day. So when you go through the back alleys of Hong Kong you find these wonderful little assemblages, people hanging up their clothes and mops, making these mobiles for drying towels.’
"Asia is visually much more exciting. Every three months something is torn down and something else goes up. It’s not always a positive thing, but the speed of change is incredible." Michael Wolf
He points enthusiastically to one photograph of washing gloves left hanging in an alleyway: ‘This is one such example. I must have recorded at least a hundred ways in which people leave their gloves out overnight. It’s a whole topology. And many of these assemblages are so beautiful: they could be put in a gallery. These are the traces that I’m talking about: People putting things outside through necessity, but in doing so actually creating something beautiful. You see it all over Asia, but especially in Hong Kong because the environment is so dense there.’
Having lived in Hong Kong for the best part of two decades, Wolf is particularly well placed to have discuss whether things have changed much since its return to Chinese rule in 1997, but surprisingly, when asked about this, he doesn’t believe that there are any dramatic differences: ‘I first moved to Hong Kong in 1994, primarily because of its proximity to China. I worked on the mainland for eight years as a contract photographer for a German magazine, so I was always going back and forth. To my mind there hasn’t been much change since the handover, it has just become more accessible from the mainland. As a result there has been an influx of mainland Chinese, but their interest is not in the city itself so much as the shopping. I don’t think Hong Kong has changed politically.’
We move on to some of Wolf’s most iconic photographs, of skyscrapers packed so densely that there is no trace of either the ground or the sky. The buildings included in these expansive landscapes could seemingly go on forever. ‘I have never been able to capture this type of image anywhere except Hong Kong’ considers Wolf. ‘In Shanghai there are gaps between skyscrapers, but in Hong Kong land is so scarce, so people have had to build close and high. The optical trick in these photographs is that you never see sky or horizon. There is no reference point.’ These photographs are epic when taken in their totality, but focusing in on any section can be equally rewarding, for in every window there is evidence of individuality. Whether it is the clothes being hung outside to dry, or the decorations inside the rooms that can be vaguely made out from outside the window, no two facades are the same. For Wolf, this is yet another instance of people crafting the small spaces that they have, leaving individual traces amidst the imposing uniformity of the skyscrapers.
Juxtaposed to the immense skyscraper photographs are more unassuming examples of these traces. Wolf is particularly enthused by his records of chairs, all comprised of recycled materials. ‘When I first came here in the 90s there were a lot of these rickety old chairs on the street, but now, at least in the first tier cities, there are less and less. I’ve been arrested in China three times, and one of those times was for photographing these chairs. Someone called the local security, and I explained that I was photographing the chairs because I found them beautiful. The guard’s response was that they were shameful, and he wanted to know why I didn’t photograph beautiful chairs in a restaurant or anywhere else. “That’s something we are proud of” he said. “We are not proud of this.” My response was that I felt this was representative of China. It says a lot about Chinese people, that they are thrifty, that they don’t throw things away. In the West as soon as something breaks you throw it away and get a new one. It’s a different mentality here, and I love it because they don’t care how it looks, the main thing is that you can sit on it and it functions, but that creates a certain aesthetic in itself. I love walking through the city and noticing these things: how people improvise and find solutions to problems.’
Perhaps most intriguing of all are the works from one of Wolf’s ongoing projects, ‘Small Gods, Big Cities’, from which this exhibition gets its name. Over the past twelve years Wolf has been recording small shrines to the Earth Gods (Tu Di Gong) that can be found throughout Hong Kong and other places with sizeable Chinese populations (though not so much on the mainland). The shrines themselves are beautiful creations, evidencing the continued importance of spirituality and superstition in a place that may at first glance appear to be devoid of anything but the most superficial forms of culture.
‘I’m always walking around photographing. Whenever I go outside I have a camera and I photograph’ reflects Wolf. ‘When I’m out and about in Hong Kong I see these shrines everywhere. I find these shrines quite wonderful because they are so unpresumptuous. It’s the gesture which counts, and it reflects this Hong Kong mentality. The main thing is that it works: they don’t care how it looks. Because they are shrines to Earth gods, they are at street level, so it’s easy to overlook them. They are ubiquitous, but no one sees them. There are tens of thousands of these little shrines throughout Hong Kong, but people are usually more pre-occupied with looking up at the tall buildings. That is where the title ‘Small God, Big City’ comes from.’
Amidst the brash grandeur of twenty first century Shanghai it can often be difficult to find these ‘Small Gods’: the human elements that endure despite the breakneck pace of urban culture. Wolf’s work encourages the viewer to look at their surroundings in a new way, and this exhibition confirms, if any more confirmation were needed, that there is a lot to be said for pausing occasionally to contemplate the quieter moments in city life.
WORDS BY ARVIN MAHANTA
IMAGES COURTESY OF MICHAEL WOLF