Who goes to a photography exhibit at the San Francisco City Hall on a Friday afternoon? Hmm, probably not many. But when the work is Mark Leong's, you might as well endure parking nightmares or public transportation just to get a glimpse. In the absence of a conventional gallery setting, Leong's photography creates one. Beginning in late December, and continuing until March 23. his exhibit is a part of a wider photography showcase entitled China Today, with the Fremont, Ca-based Chinese Artist Network.
In this collection of photographs, The Heaviness of Consumption, Leong documents the growing market economy of China, and its effects on the rural and urban populations of the country. The photographs reveal an ongoing process of globalization, urbanization, and the overall commodification of people into sellable entities.
As a black and white film enthusiast; the kind who prefers the dark room to the Walgreen's photo counter or internet uploading, digital photography has a long way to go before it impresses me. But Leong's digital prints did. I had never seen the digital format capture tones and contrasts so well. It was as if the action in the photographs was happening in front of me. One image, Thirteen year-old with Gameboy and Braces shows a young man named Gu Zhou Xin Yu smiling while his braces gleam, as slight outlines of veins pop out of his temples. He stares in amazement at his newly purchased Gameboy. He is in his own digital world; bright red, orange, and green signs provide the context for his activities. The young man's attire is decorated with American brand names. The caption notes that the Gameboy cost 1000 yuan and his braces, 9000 yuan, all purchased by his single mother.
Another photograph entitled Massage Parlor shows a horizontal line of rosy-cheeked Chinese woman standing in white uniforms with name tags, smiling sheepishly as one man points at them, identifying their massage services for the other man sitting beside him. Some of their expressions reveal a shielded awkwardness; they are essentially being purchased. On the wall above them hangs a European renaissance painting of two nude white women. The message here is subtle, showing the link between global exploitation of women as well as the Eurocentric ideal of beauty that is found in communities throughout the world.
Though I know it was a Friday and people probably don't venture to galleries when they could be shopping at the new San Francisco mall, it saddened me to see the destitute atmosphere at the exhibit. Other than me, no other patron entered the gallery, unless they were employed in City Hall, and once they stopped and noticed the visual audacity of Leong, they were caught in his photographic rapture.
The show left me with an unfinished feeling. While the photographs are aesthetically pleasing, the social dynamics that make them possible, are unsettling. Landfill provides a grotesque, yet consequential end to the trail of photographs of consumption and globalization. Slightly blurry, the picture captures a huge portion of a landfill, complete with wet garbage, coke cans, leftover food, and strips of clothes, as a tractor pushes the mass toward the camera. I wondered how Leong managed to get the shot. Yet I admired his ability to frame the exhibit in reality. I left the exhibit wanting more and feeling that a show like this should be packed. Visit City Hall on any afternoon; this show is a definite gem.
Mark Leong: The Heaviness of Consumption is at San Francisco City Hall through March 23, 2007.