Author Archives: tonglam

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life welcomes you to the new year of living even more dangerously, as we are locked in a path of 1.5°C warming, economic disparity, political division, and rising nationalism.

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Lianzhou Update

Le Monde, the Paris-based daily, reports on the censorship problems in this year’s Lianzhou Foto Festival. They estimiate that at least 10% of the approximately 2,000 photographs were censored in the exhibition: Festival de photographie : en Chine, l’art mystérieux de la censure

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The 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.

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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…”

 

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After Modernism

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

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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.

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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.

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Film Barn

A film barn in southern Ontario

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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.

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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.

 

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