Author Archives: tonglam

Theater of War

My solo exhibtion The Theater of War will open on December 1 as part of the 2018 Lianzhou Foto Festival. The exhibition draws on my ongoing investigation of the relation between aesthetics and military violence, nuclear fallout, and Cold War ruins.

In his treatise On War published nearly two centuries ago, the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz deploys the idea of the “Theater of War” to analyze warfare. By the twentieth century, this concept has emerged as a common Western military expression. However, the idea of the theater of war is also an accurate description of war preparation, drills, and even civil defense. From the Cold War arms race to the Gulf Wars, the two military superpowers–the United States and the Soviet Union–often used their restricted military zones to simulate the enemy territories for training and weapon testing. Meanwhile, dramatic scenes of devastation by the enemy were also used in civil defense. In other words, even without a real war, the hostile landscape associated with the enemy had already arrived in one’s own territory. Moreover, these fictional scenes tended to normalize the anxiety, fear, and violence brought about by war, and hence greatly increased the possibility of disasters. Thus, even if the war of mutual annihilation did not occur, many military bases and cities built for war preparation had already become victims. Today, the sense of ruination and desolation is evident in these still active simulated battlefields, abandoned weapons testing sites and related military bases, as well as cities and farmlands destroyed in the process. As if the worst nightmare of war has indeed come true, these devastated scenes resemble that of the post-apocalyptic world.

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Portable and Precarious

In the latest issue of Radical History Review that focuses on Photography and Work, my extended photo-essay, “Portable and Precarious: Life and Spectacle in China’s Construction Camps,” explores the relations betwen mobile cinema and the portable life of migrant workers inside China’s construction compounds. “[W]hereas shipping containers are transported between seaports and other logistic centers that are mostly devoid of humans, dormitory containers are packed with migrant bodies to be disciplined, exploited, and recuperated. In short, far from being the abstract imagery of capital, these are palpable and yet hidden landscapes of extraction…”

 

Posted in China, Publication, Exhibition & Media Tagged , , , , |

After Modernism

Let’s take a break from Cold War ruins and check out these abandoned factories from the post-socialist era.

Posted in China, Ruins Tagged , , |

Life Goes On

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is hardly a dead zone or time capsule. For these self-settlers who have moved back to their villages inside the zone illegally, life has to go on. Still, aside from their contaminated farmlands, memories of a better time are what they really cherished.

Posted in Ruins Tagged , , , , , |

Here and Now

Oftentimes, after I’ve posted an image on social media, people would ask me about its location, even though they did not necessarily have the desire to go there. Somehow, I suspect that that curiorsity is driven by our desire to place a scene to a specific place and therefore insulate it from “our” world. But the truth is that these scenes are all coming from a place called the Planet Earth. My images of ruins and ruination may have rendered certain things more visible, but they are not about elsewhere.

Posted in China, Ruins Tagged , , |

Film Barn

A film barn in southern Ontario

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged , , |

Foxy and Radioactive

On that fateful morning of April 26, 1986, the supposedly state-of-the art Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant exploded during an experiment, releasing 400 times as much radiation material into the environment as that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. The accident ultimately led to the downfall the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, but not necessarily for the better. Today, the fallout of Chernobyl, nuclear or otherwise, continues to be felt in the region and beyond. Meanwhile, more than three decades after the accident, this cute little fox is posing in front of my camera with Reactor 4 and then the unfinished Reactor 5 as the backdrop. He seems to be indicting us for our cancerous existence, and that our history is all about destruction, debris, and incompleteness.

Posted in Ruins Tagged , , , , , , |

History’s Sinkhole

This sinkhole has swallowed its own history. All we know is that the drilling rig and equipment used by Soviet engineers collapsed as this giant sinkhole emerged in around 1971 or perhaps even as early as the 1950s. It is also unclear whether the engineers set the natural gas crater on fire intentionally, hoping that would exhaust all the natural gas in a few weeks, or that the fire started mysteriously in later years. In any case, this crater has been on fire for almost half of a century. Nicknamed the Door to Hell, the burning crater in Darvaza, Turkmenistan actually looks extraterrestrial at night. Depending on the season, hundreds of birds may sing and dance around the crater before dawn, waiting for their turn to “dive.” These little “angels of history” will not be able to redeem the irreversible destruction that we have inflicted on the planet, but it is surely a heavenly scene in an otherwise hellish landscape.

 

Posted in Ruins Tagged , , , |

Postsocialism without Shores

The May 9 Victory Day parades in the former Soviet republics are strong reminders that many aspects of WWII have been overlooked in Western historiography. In Kazakhstan alone, for example, nearly 2 millions of Kazakhs participated in the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union, defending Moscow and resisting Nazi Germany and its allies. And over 600,000 Kazakhs lost their lives in the process. Yet, those spontaneously organized parades taking place along with the official ones across Kazakhstan seem to point to an even more complex phenomena that demands some attention. Started only a few years ago, this growing popular movement is not so much about anti-fascism or just commemorating the loss. Rather, there is a strong sense of nostalgia that seems to respond to the unease caused by neoliberalism, globalization, corruption, and the failure of democracy. Among other things, these powerful scenes of people holding photos of their ancestors who died in the war seem to reveal a desire for some stable historical references at a moment of profound anxiety and uncertainty. Therefore, in some basic ways at least, isn’t this emerging phenomena not connected to the rise of similar discontents in many liberal democracies today? It remains to be seen how this politics of unease will unfold in the coming years.

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged , |

The Final Cut

Two years ago, the National Gallery of Canada, the Globe and Mail, and the Archive of Modern Conflict staged an exhibition called Cutline to interrogate the question of changing media technology, photojournalism, and archive in the (pre)digital age. Since then the Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest national newspaper, has moved to a new location within Toronto as planned. Its old facility, along with the public installation of the exhibition, has been demolished in order to make room for residential and commercial developments. Like other media outlets, the Globe and Mail has also long ceased to use film for image gathering. The final cutting down of its massive former Press Hall built in and for the analog era was therefore a profoundly symbolic moment.

Posted in Ruins Tagged , , , |