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BLOWING SMOKE AND SEAHORSES   Dominic van den Boogerd

Wandering along the streets of China's ever expanding cities, along the vast construction sites, the dirty sweatshops, the shopping malls, the markets and the provisional dwellings of migrants in the cellars of enormous apartment blocks, Aram Tanis focuses on aspects of daily urban life that often escape the eye.

 

China as mapped by Aram Tanis stands in strong opposition to the image of China advocated by commercial advertising. If the enormous billboards speak of happy shiny family life, these photographs are about solitude, misery and loss. Tanis pictures do not reflect the glamour of success that came along with the 2008 Olympics, but the greyish light of the dirty skies over a harsh metropolis.

 

The seahorse mentioned in the title is a figure that may symbolize the spirit of this remarkable collection of photos. The seahorse has little enemies, as its bony body is hard to digest. Yet, along the coasts of China, the animal is under severe threat of extinction, as in traditional medicines the dried seahorse is believed to be a strong stimulant for the libido. As many as twenty million seahorses may be caught and sold for this purpose every year. The capacity of this little fish to adapt to the colours of its surroundings seems to be of little protection. It is a known symbol of grace and faith (the seahorse is a monogamous animal) and due to the nature of its own virtues endures as a perilous species. This makes it a perfect metaphor for this series by Aram Tanis, an artist known for his sixth sense for the wry side of life.

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What do you photograph in a country where you see a lot and understand little? What do you document while travelling through vast and unknown cities, strange as it is incomprehensible? Knowledge of the world implies an attack on its compactness, an open eye for what is small and volatile. We see images of gaps and voids. The melancholic image of a stripped duck in a shop window is among pictures of animals which could function as indicators of the rigorous if not cruel ways the Chinese organize their society. The photographs of high rise blocks are devoid of human presence. Women, glorified and idolized in commercial photography that is abundant in China's streets and highways, are a mere mirage in Tanis’ works. China’s abundance of photographic imagery dissolves into oblivion. All that is left are feelings of alienation, disorientation and discomfort. This is what Aram Tanis captures with precision: memorable images that embody these unnameable, formless emotions. Precisely this quality sets them apart from the everyday they document.

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