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Image Utopia

Author: Zhang Hong 2004

Compared with modern high-rises and busy commercial and amusement buildings, places where Shanghai people live tell more about their daily life. Exterior grandness and prosperity please visitors' eyes while coziness and warmth are what Shanghai people really need. Homes are very private places for Shanghainese: they seldom invite people to visit them at home; and they always make home a tidy and cozy place, sometimes even resplendent and magnificent, though very often it may look shabby outside. Homes are interior secret spaces where Shanghainese lead their lives and Shanghai builds its characters.

In fact, no city in China could be more concerned about and more sensitive to the concept of private space than Shanghai is. Shanghai people regard home as an ego-world that is always on the alert. It helps foster their prissiness and preciseness, which will consequently turn the city into a mature living community and modern metropolis. On the other hand, Shanghai people are well classified by their social status. Class consciousness has been deeply rooted in their minds since China was reduced to a semi-colonial society, and housing conditions, districts and environment are the three most telling symbols of a 'social identity'. Although great efforts have been made since 1949 to eliminate the class differences, class consciousness has taken root among Shanghai people and become their inveterate unconsciousness. Diverse life styles are signs of their social status and indicate different social identities.

Therefore, Shanghai is rather an 'interior' city. Only by plunging deep into the interiority - Shanghai people's homes – can we truly know this city's spiritual life, while photography art helps achieve this. Most photographers take pictures of public cultural signs such as skyscrapers in Lujiazui Finance and Trade Zone, the architecture complex on the Bund, Shikumen houses at Xintiandi and other stylish modern visual images that show not the interior authentic life of Shanghainese but the exterior flashy and superficial cosmopolitism of Shanghai.

With a view to disclose Shanghai people's authentic daily lives, Hu Yang's Shanghai Living distinguishes itself from other photograph works. For several years, he has devoted himself to visiting different Shanghai families and taking pictures of their daily lives, through which we can see a multifarious and ever-changing Shanghai.

Hu Yang's panoramic image series consisting of different 'Shanghai families' may not be mentioned in the same breath with Balzac's La Comdie Humaine, it deserves the name of a present image documentary of Shanghai. In Hu Yang's eyes, 'families' are cells that constitute this modern city and units into which we dissect this society. Just like commodities constructed the capitalist society, families compose a modern city life. Hu Yang is just like a 'city physiologist' who took physiological sections of this city's histological structure by which we can get into the inner world of this society. His work is a precise sample of Shanghai people's daily life. A city is first where people live, then where people carry on different activities. So-called 'poetic dwelling' is just feeding on illusions.

However, Hu Yang is not just a recorder of Shanghai people's daily life. All through the years, many photographers either intentionally or unintentionally have taken pictures of diverse families in Shanghai for newspapers or reports, whose significance fades away with the time.

Hu Yang is one of the few photographers who have unique image language and photography concepts. His pictures are contradictions: stillness reveals a drastically changing vanity fair; silence tells the hurly burly and restlessness of the exterior world; and spatial extensity reflects the history. His pictures can help us break away from the actual rip-roaring society and calm down into quiet inner world for auto criticism. Pictures declare internal conflicts of verbal and visual images. With these pictures, Hu Yang critically calls in question the present world, which cannot be achieved by cursory shade and shadow technology.

Only by regarding Hu Yang's pictures as a whole can we comprehend what they actually imply. Diverse Shanghai families are not direct records of the exterior world, people with different social status, age and feature, race, nationality and gender live in Hu's camera world. Either capacious or narrow, either luxurious or simple, either magnificent or cozy, these families compose the multiplicity of Shanghai's city life. Various families display diverse innate characters and essential aspects that help to compose this distinctive society. Hu focused on the interactive relation between 'people' and 'families' of this metropolis. Through Hu's camera, people relate their living conditions and testify the life style of an age.
Therefore, Hu Yang has a special power in connecting isolated families into serial images that are seeming talking to each other. All these families once confronted the same camera and answered the same questions, and their pictures were developed in the same darkroom. No matter which family they come from, they are now presented in pictures of the same size. In Hu Yang's image world, people from different social classes are equally treated and valued. With his photography art, Hu Yang reconstructed Shanghai's social relations.

This might be Hu Yang's subconscious photography ideal: to create an 'Image Utopia' of Shanghai. People with different social identities become citizens of his Utopian world where they can enjoy equal rights. With these symbolistic images, Hu Yang reveals his art ideal of equality and realism.

Zhang Hong (Professor of Tongji University)

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