Phantom Shanghai

August 25, 2007

8 magazine

book coverGreg Girard
Magenta Publishing

Time is the essence in Canadian photographer Greg Girard’s images of a fading Shanghai. Girard’s intensely rich, and yet ghostly still lives capture a moment that will soon be over.

His scenes are of a Shanghai that has steadily been demolished under the relentless march for progress: documenting the ramshackle alleyways and crowded, chaotic housing of bricks and wood cleared for slick highrises.

His long exposures bathe in the half-lights of twilight and soak up the coloured glow from street lights, lending hues of pink, purple, green and blue to many of the images. Figures are predominantly absent, appearing often as a dark blur, most movingly in Scrap Collectors, Zhongshan Nan Lu. In a great pile of rubble, beneath a dormant digger, people rake through the pickings of another day’s demolition. In the distance are the bright lights of the modern city, as if the battle is for dominance of the night sky and what can be salvaged in the shadows.

Electricity is a current that runs throughout the book. Within the old housing, where narrow spaces are cramped with pieces of furniture, towels, flasks, brooms, fly-swats, pots, pans and baskets – the basics of living – cables run precariously up the walls, dangling and tangled into loose order. In one close-up shot, we see a spaghetti mess of wires fixed to a grubby wall, thick with grime and peeling with damp. The make-shift nature of life within these walls clearly draws Girard in; lured by the mystery and human stories that have adapted their needs to the environment with necessary inventiveness. The windows glow warmly and invitingly from the pavement.

Outside, electricity cables score against pale blue skies, running along streets, echoing the spindly branches of trees. These solutions which have served the millions living on the cusp of old and new, will soon be eradicated for efficiency and uniformity: capitalism and communism in perfect synergy.

There is a sense of loss and melancholy that permeates the pictures, something inherent in any place where people have been forcibly moved on. Think of deserted crofter cottages abandoned in the Highland clearances or the mining towns of California, left to crumble when the gold ran out. By taking the majority of images in the evocative dusk Girard takes the risk of erring on the side of romanticism or nostalgia. However, the interplay between natural and neon light serves a purpose beyond just atmosphere – it captures the transitory nature of these homes, shops and buildings on the edge of their destruction. Twilight is the very state of these communities.

Girard takes us inside to show the details of lives that constitute the buildings. In clear, crisp interior views, he frames a wooden cabinet on which stands a ghetto blaster, draped with a lace doily and topped by three souvenir koalas; a family picture hangs above where the group are dressed in Communist-style shirts. Modest possessions that represent day-to-day living and personal histories; in essence, a home.

There is an evident stubbornness – a “we shall not be moved” stance. Girard reveals structures where residents have refused to budge, despite being surrounded by rubble and their imminent demise, until the last moment when electricity is cut and the bulldozers move in. Sadly, the “benign neglect” of Communism in the latter part of the 20th century is not mirrored with any sort of benign restoration post-globalisation. Girard’s collection is an elegant document of a world that no longer holds a place in Shanghai’s heart, though it clearly does in his own and for the many people whose home it is and was.

Phantom Shanghai by Greg Girard, Magenta Publishing



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