A Clinical Report on Contemporary Society
— On Zi Bai’s photo
By Luo Fei
In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.
-Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle
In modern society, there are no longer any isolated landscapes. Even in the most remote places, one comes across distressing scenes like the one that occurred just a few days ago in the Artic, where the melting of sea ice due to global warming caused a number of polar bears to starve to death, leaving behind a scattering of blanket-like bodies. All natural spaces in the modern era have been transformed into sites of interchange between the natural, cultural and social spheres. Given this situation, we can use French theorist and film director Guy Debord’s term of “spectacle” to describe all that we see.
In his 1967 work “Society of the Spectacle,” Debord uses the concept of “spectacle” to explain that both the public and private domains of daily life have experienced a sort of existential crisis due to the development of capitalism in Europe. He believes that in the “society of the spectacle,” relationships between people and commodities have replaced those between people. Because in societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles – a perversion of what ought to be the case. In a mediatized age, mere appearances become our most authentic reality – people come to live for them. The “society of the spectacle” makes people’s lives barren and devoid of authenticity; it gradually causes people’s critical thinking abilities to wither away.
This more sociological conception of “spectacle” (景观) has also affected the way artists have come to think and speak about landscapes (which in Chinese are now even referred to with the same term, 景观). The idea of “landscape” has come to include not just natural scenery, but also man-made wonders. Particularly since the 1960s, this understanding of “景观 (spectacle/landscape)” has expanded the range of techniques and subject matter used by landscape photographers by prompting artists to reconsider their views on the way man relates to nature, to the urban environment, and to his fellow man.
Zi Bai’s photography presents us with just such a virtual yet nonetheless real landscape, echoing the society consisting of an immense accumulation of spectacles described by Debord.
Since 2007, Zi Bai has taken a great number of photos of the refuse in garbage collecting stations, first in his hometown of Xishuangbanna and later in Kunming, Shanghai and other cities. He worked for many years in an advertising agency, and his outstanding Photoshop design and editing skills provide an excellent technical background for his creative works. In these hundreds of photographs of collected materials, impressive, nearly suffocating scenes emerge from the densely piled accumulations of our spectacular society.
In his “City Series 01,” under a dim sweep of thick clouds, billions of scarlet cans are heaped upon Tiananmen Square like the passionate masses that swarmed there during the Cultural Revolution era, waiting for their leader to appear. Here, what people cheer and worship is called “consumption,” and what they shout is: “Long live consumerism! Long live the Great Unity of consumers!” Zi Bai has created a scene of heathen idolatry; a fetishistic movement is on the rise, and in it brews the ecstasy and tumult of consumption.
“City Series 2,” “City Series 3,” and “City Series 4” are, respectively, images of the river below Shanghai – the Pearl of the Orient – filled with plastic water bottles, of roaring waves of beer cans swarming the feet of the American Statue of Liberty, and of drink cans piled high as mountains around the islands of Southeast Asia. In the equally inspiring piece “Men are Higher than Mountains,” discarded drink bottles are stacked like Himalayan peaks. Zi Bai uses these iconic scenes and landmarks to make the garbage seem even more vast, imposing and able to shock viewers, as well as to imbue his landscape photography with a Neo-Romantic character.
In his “More? Less? (How Much?)” Series, Zi Bai uses a panning overhead shot to photograph densely packed bottle caps, drink bottles, cans or syringes, creating images that look like beautifully colored wallpaper. Among them two photographs are of bullets and grenades used during the Vietnam War when the Americans tried to block North Vietnamese and Chinese supply lines to South Vietnam by dropping massive quantities of explosives on the mysterious Ho Chi Minh Trail. Later on, these areas became sites for tourism, attracting large numbers of people who came to collect fallen ammunition. It’s said that every year there were people who died doing this. In 2008 and 2009, Zi Bai went to local recycling centers in those regions to photograph these discarded munitions.
Aesthetically speaking, Zi Bai tends to showcase his propensity for the shocking yet delicate. Admiring his works from a certain distance, they always arouse a feeling of delight. But behind this attractive exterior lies a brutal reality – billions of piles of garbage and the crushed carcasses of road kill (“Disappearing Landscape” series). These works are in fact composed out of human greed and vanity, and function as visual evidence of our inability to act as proper stewards of the earth.
According to recent survey data from the Department of Housing, more than a third of Chinese cities are now completely encircled by garbage, which has even begun to spread into the countryside. These “garbage-besieged cities” have also led to the rise of increasing numbers of cancer villages.
Zi Bai’s manner of critiquing our social condition is in some ways similar to the technique of clinical analysis. Society in his eyes is like a diseased behemoth that needs to consume and excrete in alarming quantities. In order to diagnose this behemoth’s condition, Zi Bai attentively wades through and examines its excrement, documenting, using photography as this monster’s lab test results: a clinical report on the condition of contemporary society. He helps us begin to notice that the bottles and plastic bags in our own hands and our concept of consumption are working together to further the spectacle of the garbage that surrounds our cities in ever-increasing piles.
Art, as visual documentation of an era, asks people to look beyond the world of appearances to the reality that exists below, and glimpse people’s greed. Art is a prophecy for this generation, calling on people to realize that if we don’t make any changes to our patterns of consumption or our manner of waste disposal, it will be the end of our world as we know it. Art is an expression of the human spirit: behind the billions of drink bottles there are billions of human beings with dry throats and dry souls. This is what I learned from Zi Bai’s clinical report on the state of contemporary society, of our horrifying society of the spectacle.
August 11, 2013
Translated by Becky Davis