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 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.
Dominic van den Boogerd
New York Trilogy by the American writer Paul Auster and After Dark by the Japanese author Haruki Murakami are novels that deal with characters who are engulfed by a city and whose identity gradually crumbles. The atmosphere evoked by these novels is so strong that it can awake a sensation of alienation in the reader that will keep on working even after the book is put away.
Those who view the photographs of the South Korean artist Aram Tanis in Blowing Smoke and Seahorses can be surprised by similar emotions. Black and white images of China are arranged in an associative way on thick white paper. You see a boy in a tree in the middle of the city. A balloon against the background of an apartment building. Ladies legs on advertising posters. Dogs that sleep in a transparent bag. Everything is recognizable but at the same time there is something elusive in every image. Tanis' work is reminiscent of the dark city photographs of the Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama or of the mysterious images of the Japanese photographer Ishiuchi Miyako. But the photos of Tanis are, in all their desolation, especially modest. With this he has created his own story of the city.
Rosan Hollak / NRC Next
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 people to get to know more about the country and the Chinese society. This way I try to get a better understanding and form 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 time. 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: For this work I wanted to use black-&-white so the focus lies on the objects I photographed. Colour doesn't provide any relevant information so I decided to leave it out.
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. 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.
Tanis has a sixth sense for the wry side of life, which is communicated in the books design. Besides the range of different covers, there also seems to be a trick to seeing the images that are locked between the pages. It is precisely this delayed gratification that gives the book its extra value; for knowledge of the world implies an attack on its compactness and seeming logic.
Aram Tanis focuses on aspects of daily urban life that often escape the eye. China as mapped by 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 and loss.
Café Royal Books
Smoke Bath is a collection of photographs and art work loosely based on the theme of nature and exploring.
The goal of Smoke Bath is to showcase the work of artists that are inspired by nature and raise money for freshair.org in the process. The Fresh Air Fund is an independent, not-for-profit agency that provides free summer vacations to New York City children from low-income communities.