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. The range of subjects include a dying pot plant, a discarded stained mattress and a gas tank. 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 Olympic Games, 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. A dried fish split open with a stick, exposing the emptiness of its insides. 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 Tanis captures with precision: memorable images that embody these unnameable, formless emotions. Precisely this quality sets them apart from the everyday they document.
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 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 Beijing series Blowing Smoke and Seahorses, outcome of a half year residence program, is now exhibiting in Europe. Blowing smoke is no surprising phenomenon for Beijing. 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' Beijing is different from what we see, and precious in its own rights.
Abitare How do you "see", if "seeing" is the foundational mechanism of Photography?
Aram When I photograph I search for details, people, animals and objects that others often ignore. I am drawn to those who don't fit in. What I'm interested in are the smaller everyday things that are happening and surrounding us. The beggar ignored by people in their fancy clothing, the woman wearing a weird costume while giving a tour, the commercials that we are so used to, that we sometimes 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 feels to beg for money while people try hard not to see you.
Abitare How do you suppose you audience "sees" your work?
Aram For an audience my work can sometimes be confronting. Some people choose not to look at some of my images because it makes them feel uncomfortable. I think a work should make you feel something and that can also be an "uncomfortable" emotion. The more urgent question for me is why someone feels what she or he feels. I think it is important 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 negative ones. I realize this says something about me, but also how Chinese society works. My experiences in Beijing are completely different that the ones 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 will see more and get a better understanding.
Abitare Isn't it true that everywhere society is 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, Twitter, Instagram and other social media. If we want to look critical and open minded it takes time and a real effort to do so.
Abitare What is then a critical attitude of looking at the society?
Aram I am from South-Korea and live in The Netherlands. I know I see things from a Western point of view. But I also read books, watch documentaries and talk to Chinese people to get a better understanding of the Chinese society and her people. This way I try to form an opinion about all kinds of subjects. I realize China is changing faster than the mindset of people and keeping up with the changes is nearly impossible, this will take time. Realizing all of this doesn't mean however that we should be blind to the fact Chinese society is tough and groups of people are treated poorly.
Abitare Why Black and White?
Aram With black-&-white you focus on the object I photograph. When colour doesn't provide any important information I won't use it. I am not a great believer in colour just because it makes an image pretty. The series I shot in colour are stronger because of it. In this work I don't feel it's important.
Abitare What is between real and fictional in photography? How does one judge?
Aram Jacolijn Verhoef, a Dutch artist, wrote an essay about the thin line between documentary and fiction and how the line between those two have become blurry. For me there is a clear line. When I don't stage or manipulate anything to get a certain image it is real, the work in Blowing Smoke an Seahorses is real.
Abitare What is the consideration of the layout of the book?
Aram The design makes the story I want to tell stronger. In this case the cover is loose and can be replaced by another one. On the inside of each page is a different cover, and each page can carefully be taken out of the book. The reason why the designer and I did this, is because Chinese society is one you don't understand that quickly, it also takes time. Blowing Smoke and Seahorses is also my personal view on China, this is why the publication comes with a thin white elastic, same colour as the paper. This way, when you take out covers, the book will stay together, it gives a more personal feeling to the publication.
Blowing Smoke and Seahorses
During his residency in China, Tanis wandered the streets of Chinas ever-expanding cities; its vast construction sites, dirty sweatshops, shopping malls, markets and provisional migrant dwellings in the cellars of enormous apartment blocks. Tanis has a sixth sense for the wry side of life, which is communicated in the books design. Besides the range of 22 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.
Blind Dogs, Fallen Men
Café Royal Books
Wandering along the streets of China’s ever expanding cities, 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
Blowing Smoke and Seahorses has been exhibited among others at Korean Cultural Center New York (New York / USA), MIA Fair (Milan / IT), Kunstverein Düsseldorf (Düsseldorf / DE), Timezone 8 - 798 Art District (Beijing / CN), Incubate Festival (Tilburg / NL), Athens Photo Festival (Athens / GR), Argument (Tilburg / NL), Ginza Graphic Gallery (Tokyo / JP), The Gallery Club (Amsterdam / NL), Gare de Strasbourg (Strasbourg / FR), College of Southern Idaho (Idaho / USA), Misulsegye Gallery (Seoul / KR), Moscow City Hall Gallery (Idaho / USA) and The Twin Falls Center for The Arts (Idaho / USA).