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BLOWING SMOKE AND SEAHORSES   Dominic van den Boogerd


Wandering along the streets of China's ever expanding cities, along the vast construction sites, the dirty sweatshops, the shopping malls, the markets and the provisional dwellings of migrants in the cellars of enormous apartment blocks, Aram Tanis focuses on aspects of daily urban life that often escape the eye.


China as mapped by Aram Tanis stands in strong opposition to the image of China advocated by commercial advertising. If the enormous billboards speak of happy shiny family life, these photographs are about solitude, misery and loss. Tanis pictures do not reflect the glamour of success that came along with the 2008 Olympics, but the greyish light of the dirty skies over a harsh metropolis.


The seahorse mentioned in the title is a figure that may symbolize the spirit of this remarkable collection of photos. The seahorse has little enemies, as its bony body is hard to digest. Yet, along the coasts of China, the animal is under severe threat of extinction, as in traditional medicines the dried seahorse is believed to be a strong stimulant for the libido. As many as twenty million seahorses may be caught and sold for this purpose every year. The capacity of this little fish to adapt to the colours of its surroundings seems to be of little protection. It is a known symbol of grace and faith (the seahorse is a monogamous animal) and due to the nature of its own virtues endures as a perilous species. This makes it a perfect metaphor for this series by Aram Tanis, an artist known for his sixth sense for the wry side of life.


What do you photograph in a country where you see a lot and understand little? What do you document while travelling through vast and unknown cities, strange as it is incomprehensible? Knowledge of the world implies an attack on its compactness, an open eye for what is small and volatile. We see images of gaps and voids. A vessel turned upside down. The melancholic image of a stripped duck in a shop window is among pictures of animals which could function as indicators of the rigorous if not cruel ways the Chinese organize their society. The photographs of high rise blocks are devoid of human presence. Women, glorified and idolized in commercial photography that is abundant in China's streets and highways, are a mere mirage in Tanis’ works. China’s abundance of photographic imagery dissolves into oblivion. All that is left are feelings of alienation, disorientation and discomfort. This is what Aram Tanis captures with precision: memorable images that embody these unnameable, formless emotions. Precisely this quality sets them apart from the everyday they document.

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Blowing Smoke and Seahorses

Timezone 8

Edition 500




Aram Tanis traveled to China and made a photo book. With Blowing smoke and seahorses, he shows the intimate and mysterious side of mega cities.


"Everywhere in China you see huge advertising posters on which the 'ideal life' is depicted," says photographer Aram Tanis after a six-month stay in China, which was recently completed with his new photo book Blowing Smoke and Seahorses. "The cities are very gray and covered with a thick layer of smog. Most nature you will only see on those posters. That's a bizarre contrast." Aram Tanis exhibited at galleries in Istanbul, Seoul and London. Earlier this year, he traveled to China with the support of Institute for Provocation: an art organization affiliated with the Mondriaan Fund. The Fund has a foothold in Beijing, and offers every year two Dutch artists the possibility to work there for a period of six months.


In six months Tanis made a new black and white photo series and photo book. The title Blowing Smoke and Seahorses refers to the critically endangered seahorses, which are served on every Chinese street corner as snacks to improve the potency.


"It was my plan to capture Beijing, Hong Kong and Macau, but I didn't want to photograph the clichés. Many photography about Beijing focuses for example on the large objects in the city: the enormous buildings, temples and squares. Visually all very impressive – but I wanted to avoid that picturesque image. I have tried to convey a sense of wonder about the craziness of that city. I wanted to create an intimate portrait of that great city. Because the details are part of life. "


In one of his photos he shows a close up of a frozen water drop, which in shape is reminiscent of the Peking duck, seen on the page next to it. A picture of a tiny little bird on a stick tied up is next to a picture of a floating balloon. "Those are contrasts many people look over in their haste. These are snapshots of things that disappeared soon after I took the picture. But that does not mean they did not exist. I did not want to lose all that beauty."


"China is a rugged and harsh country, and very difficult to understand," Tanis says with a mix of aversion and admiration. "The country has developed very quickly in a short period of time, but many people still have that Maoist mentality. In comparison to Japan and Korea, China is raw and 'gray', which you can see reflected my photographs."



What does a photographer photograph in a city he is strange to and given half a year to explore? Some people maintain that, when you are in a city for two weeks, you could make a book out of it. For two months, you could probably write an essay. But for two years, it may be too overwhelming to start. The same is true with photography, the art of writing in visuals. The process of looking and selecting is critical. Photographer Aram Tanis, originally Korean, now based in The Netherlands, offers a unique perspective. His series Blowing Smoke and Seahorses, outcome of a half year residence program, is now exhibiting in Europe. Blowing smoke is no surprising phenomenon for China, what about seahorses then? The artist claims, such a harmless and elegant animal is seized in vast numbers along the Chinese seashore, for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Slightly melancholic, darkly but surprisingly sharp, Aram Tanis' China is different from what we see, and precious in its own right.


Abitare How do you "see", if "seeing" is the foundational mechanism of photography?

Aram When I photograph I look at details, people, animals and objects that others often ignore. I am drawn to those who don't fit in. What I am interested in are the smaller everyday things that are happening and surrounds us. The beggar ignored by people in their fancy clothing, the woman wearing a weird costume while giving a tour, the commercials we are so used to we forget how manipulating they are. We are used to all of it, we don't see it anymore, we don't try to understand how it would be to sit on a stair and beg for money while people try hard not to see you.


Abitare How do you suppose your audience "see" your work?

Aram For an audience my work can be confronting. I think sometimes people choose not to look at my work, because it makes them feel uncomfortable. I think a work should make people feel something and that something can also be a 'negative' emotion. The more important question for me is why someone feels what she or he feels. I think it is crucial that an audience looks at my work with their heart, not just with their mind, to understand what I want to bring across.


Abitare How was your experience in China, and how does it relate to society of spectacles?

Aram My experience in China is mixed. There are always great experiences but also negatives ones. They tell something about me, but I think also how society works. My experience in Beijing is completely different than the one I had in Macau or Hong Kong. It is still China, but these cities are so different from one another. What I did a lot in Beijing is observing. Go to the same places and watch the (same) people. By observing you see more and get a better understanding of things.


Abitare Isn't it true that everywhere society are surrendering to spectacle?

Aram That is true. Everybody has a way of looking at things and 'judges' it in their own way. These days however our way of looking is influenced a lot by commercials, advertisement and what became mainstream. If we want to look critical and open minded it takes time and effort to do so.


Abitare What is then a critical attitude of looking at the society?

Aram I come from Korea and live in The Netherlands. I look at things a certain way because that is what I am used to. But I also read books, watch documentaries, talk to Chinese to get to know more about the country and the Chinese society. This way I try to get a better understanding and an opinion about subjects. I realize how fast people have to adjust to the changes the country is going through and that this is nearly impossible. The mindset of people cannot be changed that quickly, this will take more generations. Realizing all of this doesn't mean however that we cannot focus on how tough Chinese society is. By doing so people will hopefully come up with a solution to better the lives of citizens.


Abitare Why black and white?

Aram With black-&-white you focus on the objects I photograph. When colour doesn't provide any relevant information I won't use it. I am not a great believer in colour just because it makes an image pretty.


Aitare What is real and fictional in photography? How does one judge?

Aram Jacolijn Verhoef, a Dutch artist, wrote an essay that talked about the thin line between documentary and fiction and how the line between those two mediums have become blurry. By choosing the image you will show you are manipulating. For me there is a clear line. When I as a photographer don't stage anything it is real. The work in Blowing Smoke and Seahorses is in that way real.


Abitare What is the consideration of the layout of the book?

Aram For a book I try to look at what makes the story I want to tell stronger. The cover is loose and can be changed by another one. On the inside of each page is a different cover, a page can be taken out of the book and replace the existing one. The reason why we did this, is because Chinese society is one you don't understand that quickly. It takes time.


Blind Dogs, Fallen Men

Café Royal Books

Edition 100

Blowing Smoke and Seahorses has been exhibited among others at Caochangdi PhotoSpring - Arles in Beijing (Beijing / CN), Gallery Korea (New York / USA), Kunstverein für Rheinlande und Westfalen (Düsseldorf / DE),  Arts and Humanities Institute Gallery (Idaho / USA), Misulsegye Gallery (Seoul / KR), Gare de Strasbourg (Strasbourg / FR), Argument (Tilburg / NL), Ginza Graphic Gallery (Tokyo / JP), Incubate Festival (Tilburg / NL), Timezone 8 - 798 Art District (Beijing / CN), MIA fair (Milan / IT) and Vegas Gallery (London / UK).