Hong Kong: Front Door/Back Door

by Matt Damsker


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Photographs by Michael Wolf. Texts by Kenneth Baker and Douglas Young. Published by Thames & Hudson Books, distributed by W.W. Norton, 500 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10110; ISBN No. 0-500-54304-6; 119 pages, 71 color plates; $75 clothbound. http://www.thames.wwnorton.com .

The great polarities of Michael Wolf's Hong Kong photographs are wonderfully captured in this volume, which juxtaposes his images of vast urban scale with shots of intimately viewed human evidence. Indeed, Munich-born Wolf has made Hong Kong his home since the mid-1990s, and his fascination lies with the city's remarkable solution to the challenge of housing an immense population in a small, hilly terrain. Hong Kong's verticality--the fifty-story apartment towers that dominate the landscape--are realizations, perhaps, of Le Corbusier's utopian view of modern architecture as a "machine for living," since these monoliths provide virtually all of the infrastructure required for dwelling, working, and playing.

But Wolf's camera is the objective eye, leaving us to decide how humanizing, or dehumanizing, this remarkable modernity may be. Evocative in their own way of Andreas Gursky, Wolf's large-format shots of the tower's facades are frame-filling jolts of pure visual information--the drably repetitive tiers of windows, ledges, and utilitarian detail--brightened mainly by the color of clothing hung up to dry.

In Wolf's vision, the masses that dwell here are invisible, but life nonetheless pulses through the hard fact of concrete and steel. It's vividly evoked by everything from the mops, brooms, and scavenged chairs to the shoes and houseplants that accent his close-ups of the "back door" of Hong Kong. For here is where the street-level alleys and byways are fenced and piped, wired and infrastructured, and where people have turned public spaces into utilitarian shrines. An image of dirty work gloves on a coil of barbed wire wrapped around a drainpipe becomes a tree of workaday vitality, while the stem of a plant that has threaded itself through the tight grid of a metal grate is an image of sheer adaptation.

Urban grit, grime, and decay are everywhere in these photographs, but Wolf celebrates the color and vitality that define Hong Kong above and beyond its sheer density. The bright red of a mop handle activates the gunmetal gray of a cracked, plastered wall, just as an improvised plant stand and umbrella rack fashioned from a red coat hanger testifies, wittily, to the human spirit. Wolf locates collage and decollage, found art, and Duchampian objects everywhere, it seems. And the book's cover image, of a lovely pink bedspread hung along a chain-link fence--with gray apartment towers visible in the background--is Wolf's ultimate statement of place and purpose, bridging the gap between what Hong Kong shows us and what we may see, if we look hard enough.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.