History Images

By Leong, Sze Tsung | Art Journal, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

History Images


Leong, Sze Tsung, Art Journal


Artist Statement

These photographs are of histories, in the form of cities in China, being either destroyed or created at this juncture in time. They are of past histories, in the form of traditional buildings and neighborhoods, urban fabrics, and natural landscapes, in the process of being erased. They are of the absence of histories, in the form of construction sites, built upon an erasure of the past so complete that one would never know a past had ever existed. And they are of the anticipation of future histories, yet to unfold, in the form of newly built cities.

Cities are the largest, most enduring, and most encompassing documents of history, uniquely recording the variations and residues of time. Substantial urban change is generally expected to span prolonged periods: decades, generations, centuries. The evidence of these changes is usually gradual and cumulative; residues of history are slowly left in built form, giving physical shape to the accretions of time. Some moments in history, however, accelerate the rate of urban change: times of warfare, changes of regime, transformations of social structure, economic prosperity. These moments force a society to evaluate its relationship to its own history and its attitude to its future, in turn affecting its relationship to its environment. China presently finds itself in one of these moments, as its recent transformations in politics, society, and economics have triggered changes to its cities to a degree not previously seen in its contemporary history.

As much as China's cities are presently changing, so has China's relationship with history. In Imperial China, history was a stable, unchanging reality that gave order and uniformity to society and, in turn, to its urban spaces. After the Communist Revolution, history was seen as an enemy in need of dismantling, as summarized in the popular Cultural Revolution slogan, "Smash the Old World, Build the New World." Presently in China, history as urban form is seen in contradictory terms: as proof of China's accomplishments and contributions to civilization, yet more often as an inconvenience to urban modernization. Ironically, China's current economic revolution is facilitating the physical destruction of history that was called for during the Cultural Revolution. …

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