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Book Review: Oasis Hotel


Book Review Oasis Hotel By Nicolo Degiorgis Reviewed by Colin Pantall Every weekend I go and eat an ice-cream in the square outside the abbey in my hometown of Bath. I sit with the tourists and watch the world go by. My favourite thing is to watch the Falun Gong lady. She stands against the walls of the abbey in a yellow t-shirt against a backdrop of Chinese language posters detailing how followers of Falun Gong have been beaten, tortured and had their organs harvested.

Oasis Hotel. By Nicolo Degiorgis.
Rorhof, 2014.
 
Oasis Hotel
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

Oasis Hotel
By Nicolo Degiorgis
Rorhof, 2014. 92 pp., 176 color illustrations, 9½x6¼". 


Every weekend I go and eat an ice-cream in the square outside the abbey in my hometown of Bath. I sit with the tourists and watch the world go by. My favourite thing is to watch the Falun Gong lady. She stands against the walls of the abbey in a yellow t-shirt against a backdrop of Chinese language posters detailing how followers of Falun Gong have been beaten, tortured and had their organs harvested.

Every few minutes or so, a cluster of Chinese tourists wander past the posters. You can see them taking in the Chinese characters, absorbing the information for a few seconds, and then suddenly snapping out of it, their eyes facing dead ahead, shutting out all the information that they don’t want to see. It may be propaganda, but they know it’s true propaganda, especially when they find out that the lady’s sister was killed in a Chinese prison for refusing to renounce her Falun Gong beliefs. The Falun Gong lady is showing them a history that is hidden from them by their governments. It doesn’t matter that the people she is showing her history to will ignore it and hide it in turn. Showing is the important thing

Oasis Hotel. By Nicolo Degiorgis. Rorhof, 2014.

In Oasis Hotel, Nicolo Degiorgis is also showing a Chinese history that is hidden, the history of the Chinese West. Oasis Hotel is a road trip in which Degiorgis hitchhikes through the truck stops of China’s Cross-Desert Highway in Xinjiang Province. It’s a road to nowhere with nowhere along the way to distract you from desert sand. It’s a three-hundred mile service road for the Province’s oil industry. But for all that there’s nothing there, Degiorgis finds plenty to photograph; he encounters prejudice, prostitution and addiction. There are fights, fleapits and some of the nastiest toilets you’ll find on the northern side of the Himalaya.

Oasis Hotel. By Nicolo Degiorgis. Rorhof, 2014.

The book is sequenced on a line defined by the time in the day. It starts in the morning and moves into the evening. This is the West of China, an impoverished region where the suppression of the local Uighur identity is enforced through mass migration of Han Chinese and the oil industry. It’s a desert region where the dunes loom high, and the rubbish remains where it is dropped; there is little rain to wash it away. This is the flipside of China’s economic miracle, this is the flipside of any economic miracle. This is the miracle.

Oasis Hotel is an accordion book held together with a string of leather so you can view it in normal page-turning form. But take the leather out and it becomes an exhibition in itself; a long view of China that is sharply at odds with the glossy high-growth China that we know and love. And though the book is ostensibly about China, it might as well be about any country where development and growth are aims in themselves, aims that often come at the expense of the people they are supposed to benefit.

Oasis Hotel. By Nicolo Degiorgis. Rorhof, 2014.

We see a fight between Uighur and Han Chinese in a four picture sequence spread across one page. There’s a wide view, a bystander’s view and views from both the Han and the Uighur side; though you know where Degiorgis’s sympathies lie, he’s not taking sides here. It’s the system he’s against.

Even though the book follows the Cross-Desert Highway, Degiorgis uses the Oasis Hotel as a visual metaphor for all his journey. “I interpreted the highway as a hotel itself,” he says, “where people live with no deep roots. The more you enter the night the more you go into physical rooms. The whole projects starts in the cold desert and finishes inside the Oasis Hotel (a hotel right in the middle of the desert) and part of this very small village composed mainly of brothels. So it goes from outside to inside, from cold to warm, from blue to red, from the desert to the 'oasis'.”

Oasis Hotel. By Nicolo Degiorgis. Rorhof, 2014.

We see the Oasis Hotel sign and then we are into a series of a dog being slaughtered. The sky darkens and night descends; opium comes out, fires are lit and the trucks pull up for the night. Red-jacketed oil workers descend on the ‘Oasis’ and the entertainment begins, the red lights of the brothels not quite blanking out the smoke stains, the piles of dust and the debris of disposable living. These are sad pictures of perfunctory lives seeking perfunctory pleasures in a barren landscape that is there only to be exploited and used. Everything and everyone is there only to be exploited and used. But it shouldn’t be that way. That is the point that Degiorgis is making.

Oasis Hotel was published at the same time as Degiorgis’s heavily praised Hidden Islam, but it is a very different book made at a very different stage in Degiorgis’s career. It doesn’t have the focus or neatness of Hidden Islam, but in some ways it is all the better for it. It’s a rambling series that has been wonderfully edited into a beautiful series of images, all laid out four to a page. But because it sticks to that highway and time sequencing, the chaos is made readable through a road-trip narrative.

Oasis Hotel. By Nicolo Degiorgis. Rorhof, 2014.

“I like how differently the projects unfolded into books,” says Degiorgis.” Oasis Hotel was shot in one month, but took me about 5 years to structure and edit it. Hidden Islam developed in exactly the opposite way, by shooting it over 5 years and becoming a book in about a month.”

“I feel my way of working to be very spontaneous, at times chaotic, but I also see there is a certain pattern in it. Oasis Hotel uses a photographic language which is much more instinctive than Hidden Islam. It was my first attempt to tell a story in book format. But than I edited and edited and edited, going down from the initial 11.000 to 170 images. So I think it started in a very spontaneous way but became very structured.”

“There is a beautiful naiveness in it which is gone. And perhaps this means I moved further away from my heart, but I was 23 when I shot it, and you somehow grow up, or simply get influenced. The goal is just to slow down this process as much as possible.”—COLIN PANTALL


COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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