How to tell visual stories when reality is increasingly made up of propaganda and sanctioned spectacles? In China, for example, progress is often synonymous with a particular vision of urban modernity. An evidence of this is the prevalence of urban billboards and hoardings that promise a utopian future with spectacular skyscrapers and happy citizens. Yet, this desire of having a harmonic and dreamlike future collides constantly with the precarious conditions and dystopian reality that have become a common sight in China and elsewhere. Therefore, it may be a romantic cliché to imagine that each flickering window of the urban skyline has a hidden story, and yet, amid the darkness, there is no room for fiction— literally or metaphorically—in this Chinese urban enclave aside from the sanctioned narrative. As soon as an apartment is vacated, all its window frames and even some exterior walls will be removed by demolition workers even though part of the building is still being occupied. This practice is to prevent squatters as well as to maximize pressure on resisting owners and residents.
Instead of simply documenting the urban landscape, this project explores the possibilities of an aesthetics of resistance by not only capturing China’s uneven urban development, but also by projecting images of the urban enclave’s everyday life onto its ruins at night in order to ask the classic question of figure and ground in the context of urbanization and gentrification. By casting light literally on the city’s spatial ruptures using common darkroom techniques such as dodging, burning, and masking, I put the practice of photographic manipulation in dialogue with the spectacle created by the state and capital. And I suggest that in societies where state-sanctioned facts are inseparable from spectacle, critically constructed fictional images may in the end come closer to revealing the truth. Finally, since light boxes are frequently used to display real estate commercials in Chinese public spaces, the final products of this project are light box installations that “advertise” the unreal estate of this enclave’s dystopian present.