JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 large scale color photographs, framed in brown wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in a series of three connected gallery spaces. All of the prints are chromogenic color prints made between 2006 and 2009. The prints are available in three sizes: 38×48 (in editions of 5), 48×59 (in editions of 5), and 59×69 (in editions of 3). A monograph of this body of work was published in 2011 by Hatje Cantz (here). (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: China’s rapid economic and cultural transformations over the past few decades have provided a rich vein raw material that countless artists and photographers have continued to mine. The most common underlying narrative follows a nearly endless set of clashes and contradictions: West and East, modern and traditional, urban and rural, new and old, uneasy dichotomies and unlikely juxtapositions seemingly everywhere one might look. Nadav Kander’s three year exploration of life along the Yangtze River explores this same terrain, centering on the dizzying cycle of destruction and construction that has wholly remade both the physical landscape and the day to day existence of millions of people along the river. But this isn’t a Three Gorges Dam story exactly, nor is it a documentary study of displaced families or overlooked individuals; Kander has instead stepped back to take an outsider’s wider view, creating images that revel in extreme contrasts of scale and outlook.
Printed large and bathed in the glow of a soft, foggy palette, Kander’s photographs bring a contemporary sensibility to the grandeur of 19th Romantic painting. The rugged mountains, wide vistas, and turbulent storms of nature have been replaced by massive, often unfinished, man made structures. Soaring bridges, concrete spans, support pillars, and industrial smokestacks anchor many of the pictures, dwarfing everything around them in their sleek newness. Tiny figures are evidence of the immensity of the scale, their insignificance made obvious by the enormous physical size of these infrastructure projects. Paltry human activities like having a drink, washing a motorcycle, fishing with an old style net, or swimming in the river become almost wistfully comic when set against these manifestations of power, a few of these ominous scale mismatches bordering on something out of a science fiction novel.
Kander hits the underbelly of this forward looking, aspirational future with images that highlight both the disconnect between old and new and the messy, unfinished nature of the changes taking place. A Vegas-style hotel complete with a pirate lagoon stands like an oversized concrete hulk, while old school bamboo scaffolding holds up an immense flyover and rebar spikes are covered by incoming tidal sand. Rickety, rusted barges still do the work of the river, and entirely new cities explode in chaotic sprawls just across the river from now abandoned wastelands. Once again, tiny people look on, alternately forlorn and awestruck by the metamorphosis – it’s impossible not to gawk at the pace and the scale of the activity, even if it means the only world you have ever known is disappearing.
I think the success in these pictures is found in their calm balance. They pepper the formally majestic and the atmospherically sublime with undercurrents of intimidated, vulnerable respect. They astonish and amaze with their can-do achievements, while never straying too far from the gritty realities of everyday life. And the emotions of personal anxiety and apprehension are quietly matched by national wonder and pride. It’s an impressive photographic mix, smartly charting the complex character of China’s modern personality.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced in ratcheting editions, starting at $6500 (38×48), $10500 (48×59) or $16000 (59×69) based on size; prices range all the way up to $48000, and many of the images are NFS or sold out in certain sizes. Kander’s work has just begun to enter the secondary markets in the past few years. That said, not enough lots have changed hands to generate any kind of auction pricing pattern, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.