Critics’ Picks

Ambroise Tezenas, Theatre of the People #03, 2006, aluminum print, 25 3/16 x 31 1/2".

Ambroise Tezenas, Theatre of the People #03, 2006, aluminum print, 25 3/16 x 31 1/2".


Ambroise Tezenas

Catherine Schubert Gallery
11 Yen Akard Soi 3 Yennawa
June 17–August 30, 2009

Ambroise Tezenas’s photographs of Beijing’s rapidly disappearing hutongs (traditional residential streets) offer a notable adjunct to all the artworks that decry the effects of modernization and modernity on Asia. Tezenas’s vision of a passing era is resolutely melancholy, and he documents the wear and tear of these working-class local neighborhoods without nostalgia or politics.

The photographs were taken at night or dusk, and their use of chiaroscuro lends the views an artificial, staged quality. No people are depicted outright: only traces of their presence, in bicycles, a spotlighted grocery shop, an incongruous car, and a clothesline. Tezenas also notes climate and season changes with snow-covered roads and puddles of rain.

Each of the photographs is named with a number and the title of the exhibition: “Theatre of the People.” This is a curious device, given that the individual photographs resist the sense of indifferent documentation suggested by Tezenas’s nomenclature. The glimpses of glass-fronted skyscrapers and modernist buildings in the backgrounds hint at a commentary about old versus new Beijing, but each of the photographs emerges as much more. There is an old-fashioned gorgeousness to the shadow-soaked alleys and side streets, with illuminated windows that signal the unseen existence of the modest quarters’ occupants. Dreamlike and romantic, the works encourage contemplation rather than interpretation as such. In its typical usage, melancholia specifies no object of “mourning.” If Tezenas’s object is a sense of loss and encroaching change in Beijing, this remains tacit or barely visible. Instead, the impact of his photographs stems from his idiosyncratic interest in crumbling facades, vernacular design, and a spirit of community that Beijing might now almost lack.

Of course, “Theatre of the People” risks sentimentality. Moreover, some might conclude that Tezenas’s high production values gloss over more provocative accounts of changes in contemporary Chinese history and culture. Ultimately, however, his photographs exchange the sociological for the aesthetic.