It just happens to be in China – Memories of the Future


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In 1998 I travelled to China for the first time, from Beijing along the Yellow River to Kashgar in the northwest of the country. Three more sojourns would follow, most recently in 2018. And it was over that arc of time spanning twenty years that I took my photographs, analogue initially, then digital. And it was over that arc of time spanning twenty years that I took my photographs, analogue initially, then digital. It is an arc that also encompassed the revolutionary developments in photographic technology and the rapid change in society’s restructuring. Both had a huge impact on my perceptions and my conceptions of images. On my first trips, the vistas of panoramic landscapes in a multi-national and predominantly agricultural state and the quotidian scenes in urban and rural settings reminded me of pre-modern times in our way of life in the West. These were aspects I felt I was familiar with from historical depictions and portrayals, aspects where socio-political and economic trends have proceeded apace – compared with a single lifetime – over centuries, accompanied by war, political violence and exploitation, population growth and diminishing poverty.

During my subsequent stays in China it occurred to me that it must somehow be possible to capture in the dimension of a lifetime that which is at the mercy of the accelerating and expanding world if it is not to lose all significance for the individual life itself. There I perceived the unrelenting eradication of experiences and the spaces they occupy more as a sudden occurrence than would have been possible in such a stunning way in my immediate surroundings. An odd situation, as if time was more alive in me than I was in time. World-time and life-time intersect in an unusual way. Hence the astonishment, and the wonderment. And the assumption that the life awareness of people with a much older, far more distant culture must today be a profoundly different one in terms of their experiences.

The concurrent juxtaposition of the seemingly untimely with the timeliness of a mere extension of the present had such a profoundly disconcerting and disquieting effect that I began – at least in outline – to capture in images the restructuring of a society characterized by the ever more, the ever larger, and the ever faster. It included new mass construction schemes, the remains of ancient residential quarters, the changes in infrastructure, the circumstances of internal migration, the uprooting and the digitization of daily life, the surveillance and the social credit system. Image by image, that which was disparate yet somehow coherently connected through visual correlation began to occupy a space all of its own. These are projections from the past and from the present. And perhaps also from a future in which autonomy and privacy are not perceived as mere illusion, a future in which perhaps something approximating order and distance are brought to the fore. A narrative that deserves to be told. One day.


© Rosemarie Zens