Michael Wolf: Sitting in China Review

Michael Wolf: Sitting in China
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Michael Wolf: Sitting in China ReviewFrom the San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 15, 2002, by Kenneth Baker:
The Art of Finding the Right Book: ...Nothing else in the annual holiday-season spate of photography books compares with Michael Wolf's "Sitting in China." Wolf, a German born photographer educated in the Bay Area, now lives in Hongkong and works mostly for Stern Magazine. Traveling in China, he noticed and decided to document a remarkable variety of makeshift seating. In the books single page of text, Wolf tells how his interest in scavenged, ramshackle chairs was mistaken for a foreigner's condensation. Anyone who leafs through "Sitting in China" will recognize his images as portraits, not forensic studies - snapshots of folk resourcefulness rapidly giving ground to the official ethos that sees only embarassing signs of backwardness in down-home know-how. Anyone without ideological investment will find "Sitting in China" the most improbable and humanly alert book of travel photography to appear in years.
From The Saturday Telegraph Magazine, London, November 2002, by David Rennie:
Good communist do not sit around. They march to and from heroic acts of labour, following a billowing red flag, and singing. They stand in massed ranks listening to improving oratory. They sit in neat rows, studying the party line in little books. But they do not lounge. They must not loll. Chairman Mao Tse-tung, a clever as well as evil man, launched his muderous revolution with the cry, "The people of China have stood up." Once they were up, he understood that his greatest enemy was inertia - the capacity of peasants to endure endless hunger and poverty by hunkering down, squatting by the roadside and waiting, like so many beasts in a field, for the storm to pass. Chairman Mao wanted perpetual revolution. Instead, he achieved perpetual motion, setting a whole nation in pointless, destructive movement, like a giant poking an ant's nest. The educated were ordered to the countryside to labour alongside peasants. The peasants were formed into brigades to dig canals that would soon run dry, damms that quickly broke, and carve out wheatfields from hillsides which quickly lost their soil. Millions of Red Guards - Mao's fanatical young followers - were granted free travel across the nation, quickly bringing train and bus networks to their knees. Then it stopped. Mao, the old psychopath, finally died - not a moment too soon. Now, a quarter of a century on, the Chinese can sit around. Their freedom to sit defines a new era of economic liberty, an era in which the state increasingly leaves them alone - for good or for ill. For some, sitting means pure leisure. Michael Wolf, the German photographer behind a strange and wonderful book, "Sitting in China" shows us pensioners meditating in a park. There is a baby, content on a bamboo mat. He is seemingly uninerested in China's new rich, for whom sitting means status; the fat cats who have swapped bicycle saddles for limousine seats. The new rich slouch in armchairs (always a symbol of status), ordering XO brandy, or crooning at a karaoke screen. Their childrens bottoms know what the chairs at McDonald's feel like - the meanness of the padding, the chill of air-conditioned plastic on bare summer legs. In Michael Wolf's book, there are few armchairs. There are plenty of stools, worn smooth by years of use, patched or pathetically padded, uncomfortable - the seats of those who live just a few inches above the dust of the ground. His Chinese workers sleep, exhausted, at their factory benches. Others are laid off factory workers, or migrant peasants - now scraping a living in the city as self-employed artisians. There is the carpender, the bicycle mender. There are gangs of men - labourers waiting for a day's work, perched on a traffic barrier like crows on a telegraph wire, a line of wary eyed cobblers. In the countryside, his poorest peasants squat: a flat-footed, folded-leg crouch that Western muscles cannot hold for more than a few moments. Working Chinese will sleep anywhere, any time, conserving energy, killing time - the enforced idleness of poverty. Chairman Mao would not have tolerated it. But his successors, attempting a transition to something like a free market, have washed their hands of these people. And so the unwanted masses sit, oddly beautiful through Wolf's respectful lens. To Chinese eyes, this is an offensive book, without a doubt. They are not proud of inaction, of shabby lives lived in the street. To his credit, Wolf admits his offence at the beginning of his book - it is the only writing in the volume. Photographing a broken chair in a Beijing street, he is surrounded by an angry crowd. "you are a foreigner who is trying to show how backward the Chinese are," an old woman hisses. Wolf defends himself, explaining that to her the chair is not ugly but timeworn. The crowd is not convinced. The police are summoned, and smash the chair as a thing of shame. His accusers are half -right. Wolf says that he is interested in the "beauty inherent in used objects."
If that were all he wre trying to do, this would be a loathsome book. But it is not. Wolf is trying to show how the Chinese are. He has chosen a strange angle. But he is on to something.Michael Wolf: Sitting in China Overview

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