The surreal potential of the everyday draws me toward that uncertain edge of what a photograph can or can’t reveal. Our world dances between light and shadow, splendor and decay, individual and collective. Blending into the City: I wait for that instant where both familiar and evolving backdrops frame a stage for unlikely urban theatre. Within each moment, candid encounters reveal some-kind-of-truth that reads part fiction, part reality.
The act of making pictures allows momentary footing within an uncontrollable existence. It’s the power to create a pause in a world – where we are all vital participants. This pause is followed by the undetermined life of a print; then a chance to understand our place in the grandness of this chaotic scheme.
The urban moment is fiercely short-lived.
I’m trying to make it stop.
Only the camera can accomplish this with absolute certainty.
Proving that everything you see exists
in that one chance encounter,
in that one time and place.
The rest is uncertainty
-Daniel Lee Postaer
Exhibition Introduction by Mark Van Proyen
This photograph might prompt us think of the fluctuating shifts between multiple vectors of observation similar to those found in paintings such as Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (1434) or Diego Velasquez’s Las Meninas (1656), but the temporal and geographic distances surrounding it differ sharply from those earlier works, prompting additional considerations. What arrangement of newly emergent social forces does this photograph’s game of who-owns-the-gaze reveal? And why in Shanghai? And even more importantly, why the second decade of the 21st Century?
Postaer’s ongoing series of photographs titled Motherland provides us with trenchant and poetic answers to these questions. The above-cited photograph is part of that series, which now numbers well over one hundred distinct images taken in or near many of China’s larger cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, and Chongqing. Each is a crystalline glimpse into the recently fractured spaces located between the ghostly vestiges of still-persistent tradition and the overheated and radically a-historical economies of the hyper-new, revealing telltale evidence of how the crush of these opposing forces shape the surprisingly complex and diverse ways that their human inhabitants adopt to them. There is no better place to witness such instances than contemporary China, because, at this point in time, that is the place where those forces are most clearly revealed in the starkest, freshest and most timely relief. Sixty years ago, Los Angeles would have been the place to witness similar disruptions of the everyday, and 125 years ago it would have been Paris. But since the decade prior to the devastating Sichuan earthquake, it is China that has most dramatically reshaped itself and the way that it’s citizens live. In so doing, China has also lead the world in a far-reaching economic and cultural transformation that has done and will continue to do so much to give visible shape to the new century.
Since 2014, Postaer has been pursuing his Motherland project with a keen eye attuned to the identification and juxtaposition of strange anomalies lurking in plain view, overlaid with an inquiry into the relations of duty and possibility at the human interstices between that which has happened and that which is about to happen. In many cases, the photographs focus on the workers who are doing the heavy and oft-times poorly rewarded work to effect those transformations. For example, in Chongqing II (2015), we see a quintet of construction workers walking toward the camera triumphantly celebrating the end of their workday. In attitude, body language and countenance, they resemble a boy band-style singing group from the early 1990s much more so than any post-Revolutionary period idealization of heroic workers. In Suzhou I (2016) we see a perfectly balanced composition of static architectural elements gracefully enlivened by the calmly focused efforts of the image’s sole human subject viewed through a window, which is made visually analogous to the growth of bamboo plants behind her. In Bejing (no. tbd) (2016), we receive another through the window view of a very different kind of worker, as is indicated by their uniform looking business attire. What we are seeing here is a morning meeting of middle managers at a real estate office, who by virtue of their standing at attention with hands clasped behind them, all seem to be receiving some type of instructional briefing. Or are they just waiting their turn for service at a coffee shop? It is hard to tell for sure, although the latter conclusion is reinforced by the presence of a table and two chairs next to the window. As is often the case with Postaer’s photographs, the presence of the window may be understood as a visual metaphor for the way that the photographic gaze creates separation from its subjects, but in this case, the separation is comically shattered by the visible cell phone tightly clutched in the hands of the central figure.
Many of Postaer’s images take solitary individuals as their subjects, most of which are pictured in a rare moment of solitude in spaces where the crowds are elsewhere, at least for the precious moment captured in the photograph. Perhaps the most captivating of these is Chongqing III (2015). It is a beautifully composed image taken at night, showing us a solitary woman sitting in the dark looking at her cell phone. But her solitude only captures the part of the scene, as the camera also reveals the bright neon lights of an illuminated bridge over a river several stories below. Another classically conceived image titled Changzhou I (2014) shows us a woman practicing a piece of piano music in a modest room at night. The combination of the camera’s sympathy for its subject, the gauzy, sumptuous lighting and the classically organized composition all confer a Vermeer-like quality to this arresting image that charms and beguiles the viewer.
Yet another sub-group of the Motherland is a fairly extensive series of images that explores the built environment while giving little or no indication of the people who have either constructed or de-constructed it. A good example is a photograph titled Bejing, (no. tbd) (2015), in which chaotic piles of yet-to-be repurposed materials seem to have been strewn about. This appearance is contradicted by a more careful glance, which reveals that they have been subjected to a canny system of classification. In Where’s Waldo fashion, we see a solitary woman proudly standing amidst the piles as the ruler of this expansive domain, sporting a very colorful summertime dress. In Shanghai, (no. tbd) (2016) we get a double glimpse of a major demolition project, one from inside of a dilapidated building and another through a gaping hole in the wall that gazes out upon a large, debris-covered yard. Across the yard, we see other small buildings that are intact for the time being, but we are also led to wonder how long they might have before they are replaced by something much larger and more spectacular. A similar question is posed by an image taken in twilight titled Shanghai (no. tbd) (2016), revealing a background of over a dozen high-rise apartments blotting the horizon, while in the foreground we see stacks of windows and doors salvaged from older buildings. Or is it an odd, makeshift structure that serves as an improvised dwelling? Indeed, there seems to be multitudes of high-rise apartment buildings through out these photographs, and one featuring a lonely goat in the foreground titled Shanghai VIII (2016) catches the eye. The animal seems to have wandered aimlessly into an evacuated townscape, but close examination of the trees that line the empty street tells us that they have been freshly planted, indicating that the tall buildings are also new, perhaps awaiting habitation.
Even though Postaer has traveled and photographed extensively throughout all of China, the center of gravity for his Motherland series remains Shanghai. Owing to the fact that Shanghai was the original gateway for foreign intrusions into the affairs of the late Qing Dynasty, it reveals more layers of haunted history than do other parts of the country, which are more fully under the sway of the central government bureaucracy. But insofar as the Motherland photographs are concerned, it should also be stated that Postaer’s interest in Shanghai is deeply familial. His mother’s name was Lingling Lee, and she was born in that city in 1948. Three years later, she and her parents departed for Hong Kong, leaving her one year-old sister behind as a way of insuring to the new revolutionary government that they would return. They never did, although the two sisters were finally re-united in 1985. In 1964, Lingling and her parents immigrated to Toledo, Ohio. Some years later Lingling became Lillian and moved to Chicago and became a flight attendant, eventually meeting Larry Postaer, whom she would marry in 1972, six years before Daniel was born. In 1981, the Postaer family moved to Los Angeles, where Daniel grew up to attend the University of Southern California, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science in 2000. He is still an avid supporter of that University’s football team.
Postaer also lived in Shanghai from 2004 to 2008 running a sports marketing division for a growing entertainment conglomerate, and later, in his capacity as Vice President for international business for that company, he returned there often from 2008 to 2012. His mother came to visit him in Shanghai in 2005, which was her first return to her native country. Needless to say, it was a very different place than the one from which she departed five decades earlier. The scope of that difference had to be staggering, for, no major city in the world had ever been so thoroughly and so visibly transformed in so short a time. Even more staggering would have been the flood of memories triggered by her visit, no doubt exerting a powerful and complicated effect on Daniel, at once deeply emotional and also a source for an almost obsessive creative curiosity.
Motherland: Day I
Exhibition Introduction by Andrew Ananda Voogel
“Daniel Lee Postaer’s inheritance lies in one question:
What is China?
Born in Chicago, and raised in Los Angeles, Postaer inherited China through his Shanghainese mother, and her absence from it. In anticipation of the Cultural Revolution, Daniel’s mother escaped to the United States, via Hong Kong. Forced to leave her young sister, as an insurance policy for the government that she and her family would one day return. Eventually, two sisters were reunited. But, Daniel’s mother never returned to her homeland, until her son found himself deep in the heart of it.
Every five years, China reaches the end of a new era. Time in this land of exponential social, cultural and economic growth is not without its cost. The price of speed, of unhindered expansion leaves daily vestiges, both profound and tragic. Postaer grants us unfettered access into many worlds, characters and structures; both formal and coincidental. Each a tableau coming into the light, as if for the first time.
Postaer’s pictures bring to mind a collection of poems by Chilean Poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda. Residencia en la Tierra, translated from Spanish to mean Residence on Earth is a profound and brief collection of works that define the truth hidden within the everyday moment. Neruda sculpts the minute, hour and day spent on this planet in words, the same way Postaer uses light, time and shadow to construct his pictures. Both Neruda and Postaer make works at a point that situate themselves somewhere between exile and art.
The curtain is lifted, and the traveller, the wanderer, those with knowledge that the world is a stage of many acts; find themselves peering upon the savage sublime. This peripheral edge allows us to peer at time on the macro and the micro. The sun begins to rise, and with it strained shadows fight to define themselves amidst a new world where mountains are perishing and the future stretches far beyond the sky.”