EXHIBIT REVIEW Concealed Ancestry in Modern China
MIT’s Wolk Gallery Presents a Photo Exhibition on China’s ‘Hutongs’
Photographs by Júlio de Matos
MIT School of Architecture and Planning
The Wolk Gallery, Room 7-338
Sept. 16 to Dec. 19
Today’s photographer is often faced with the challenge of either maintaining the purity of black and white photography, or embracing the current culture of digital practices. Julio de Matos, in his exhibit entitled Fading Hutongs, at times seems to have inadvertently exempted himself from this rigid classification. While deep inspection of his digital color prints clearly reveals his medium, his subject matter lends a black and white feel to any casual observer.
A hutong is literally an alley, or narrow passage. In Beijing, hutongs preserve the only remains of traditional housing. As the city industrializes and modernizes around these cultural and historical pockets, they are increasingly threatened.
The exhibit, which opened this week in the Wolk Gallery at MIT, consists of three main categories of images: perspectives down the alleys, building facades, and portraits.
Matos successfully conveys the tight and narrow nature of a hutong by standing at one end and employing a focal length that captures even the smallest details of the far end of the alley. Each shot is slightly biased to one side, exaggerating the actual distance of a given alley. His images were taken during the winter, when a small layer of snow still lined the streets. What one notices immediately is the contrast between the white snow, and the somber grey houses lining the street.
A handful of the images could very well be black and white, but are actual representations of the true color. One such image is placed beside an aerial view of a row of hutongs. The image is framed such that the colorful high-rises of Beijing surround the periphery, and down below, the symmetric, black roofs of traditional Chinese houses crowd together.
Matos clearly defines the difference between his subject and the rest of Beijing in the first few pieces. His portraits, towards the end of the exhibit, do much more to convey the rhythm of life in an intimate hutong community.
A series of portraits along one wall demands the viewer to question the demographic makeup of Beijing, and its authenticity. Matos captured what might be considered a more honest representation of Beijing in his personal portraits: an old Chinese man smoking a cigarette as snow collects on his fur cap, an elderly woman posing against a backdrop of laundry hanging on a clothesline, and a young mother and her daughter relaxing on a bed while a television is on in the background. These traditional houses, while outwardly nostalgic, also harbor a modern personality and range of attitudes. The breadth of time contained within a hutong is apparent in one particular image: a mother pushes her child in a handmade wooden carousel, while three men gather around a motorcycle to gossip.
Various items recur as thematic elements, including bicycles and power lines. Due to the short stature of the houses, power lines tower over them. Some images are also cleverly (or maybe accidentally) framed by power lines that run down from particular poles. The thick, black lines tighten the image space even more, trapping the chosen figures into a small area. Bicycles are in almost every image, as they are the vehicle of choice for most hutong dwellers. Only a few times are they used as a juxtaposing element against a car or motorcycle.
Matos’s subject matter is in fact unique, but the majority of the images are not completely technically sound. Certain angles and framing decisions don’t deliver lasting impressions.
His one failed image is of the façade of what seems to be a religious building. This is the only image he actually converted to black and white using digital software. While the juxtaposition of the color photograph and the real black and white photograph is eloquent, Matos ruined the effect by selectively revealing the color of a door in the black and white image.
Though the individual images aren’t strong, together they actually do represent something greater, which is that these hutongs are fading away. Matos might argue that what’s fading with them is a vibrant subculture of modern individuals, who have adapted to live in history.