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Book Review: The Way to the Golden Mountain


Book Review The Way to the Golden Mountain By Xiaoxiao Xu Reviewed by Janelle Lynch Photographer Xiaoxiao Xu was born in the village of Gangtou and raised in the nearby city of Wenzhou. In 1999, when Xu was 15 years old, she and her family moved to The Netherlands. Ten years later, after finishing her studies at Amsterdam’s Fotoacademie, she returned to China for the first time.

STRUM & DRANG, 2014.
 
The Way to the Golden Mountain
Reviewed by Janelle Lynch

The Way to the Golden Mountain
By Xiaoxiao Xu
STURM & DRANG, 2014. 104 pp., 49 color illustrations, 8¾x8½".


Photographer Xiaoxiao Xu was born in the village of Gangtou and raised in the nearby city of Wenzhou. In 1999, when Xu was 15 years old, she and her family moved to The Netherlands. Ten years later, after finishing her studies at Amsterdam’s Fotoacademie, she returned to China for the first time. The Way to the Golden Mountain, her second book, includes images she made during her month-long stay in Wenzhou and those she made four years later during her month-long stay in Gangtou.

The Wenzhou region in China’s eastern Zhejiang Province is known for its emigrants, like Xu’s parents, who are lured from their homeland by the hope of greater prosperity abroad. Their dream is most commonly pursued in the United States and Europe as retailers and restaurateurs, where they labor intensively for the means to build better lives and a “golden mountain” back home for the families they left behind. Xu’s journey, depicted in The Way to the Golden Mountain, wasn’t a quest for wealth or material comforts, however. It was a search for a deeper understanding of her identity and the places and cultures that shaped it.

The Way to the Golden Mountain. By Xiaoxiao Xu. STRUM & DRANG, 2014.

Limited to an edition of 600, the book is square, hardbound, and covered in light blue cloth. It includes 50 photographs, Xu’s statement, and comes with a choice of three tipped-in cover images, including one of a twin seat tricycle-stroller combination. Pink, yellow, blue, red, and diagonally parked on a dirt floor, it vacillates between being sweet and sad, but is decidedly poetic.

Xu is familiar with the feeling of being in between. First as a non-Westerner who experienced a radical cultural assimilation during her formative years, then as an adult emigrant returning home after a decade abroad, she has been challenged by questions of belonging. Through the process of making the images in The Way to the Golden Mountain she said that she sought to find “a state of equilibrium about [her] position between two worlds.” She says,“Because of the isolation I have experienced, I have a need to express myself and tell my story.”

The Way to the Golden Mountain. By Xiaoxiao Xu. STRUM & DRANG, 2014.

Emotive still lifes, landscapes, and portraits of people and animals make up Xu’s visual narrative. Their poignancy is reinforced by her soft palate, use of natural light, and the structure of her compositions. Often the subject is isolated in the center of the frame. One photograph shows a plastic red colander of wilted dandelion greens that has been placed outside on a step to dry. Water has seeped out into the concrete forming beautiful abstract shapes. Even they are expressive. Another image shows a row of plastic and glass containers on a ledge. Some of them hold one goldfish; others hold two or more, plus a bamboo stalk. Cultural symbols, like these, of joy and success are found throughout the book; those themes, however, are not otherwise reflected in the subjects of Xu’s photographs.

Hiding and confinement are other recurring themes that Xu explores with an empathetic gaze. A portrait shows a young girl wearing red, eyes downcast, with her hands behind her back. Other images show a row of tall plants obscured by gray fabric; a Chow Chow puppy wearing a blue sweater in a small pink cage; brown bears in the Wenzhou Zoo surrounded by parkland but enclosed within a cement wall of painted trees; and a young man looking directly at the camera with one eye but covering the other half of his face.

The Way to the Golden Mountain. By Xiaoxiao Xu. STRUM & DRANG, 2014.

All of the people Xu photographed were strangers, except for one; her aunt who raised her is shown in stern profile on a bed’s edge. Unfinished skyscrapers make up the backdrop through the windows and dense smog. Otherwise, Xu said she usually allowed herself to “be guided by [her] intuition to roam around in the city and take pictures of people [she] came across on the street.” The Hasselblad she uses is an asset to her intuitive approach. “I like the square format, the waist-level viewfinder, the clear matte glass, and looking and working slowly, in a concentrated way.”

The Way to the Golden Mountain. By Xiaoxiao Xu. STRUM & DRANG, 2014.

The Way to the Golden Mountain could have benefitted from a tighter edit. Some images of objects in interior spaces and outdoors are redundant or confusing because they are too distant or decontextualized to be grasped. At the end of the book, there is a dated 35 mm photograph. It appears to be of Xu as a young girl being held by a woman who is standing on a precipice overlooking the sea. It is unnecessarily included, as Xu successfully conveys its melancholy with her own images. Her statement, in which she dedicated the project to her hometown, could have been more developed.

Nevertheless, the book contains a lovely depiction of a young artist’s journey to address long-standing personal concerns. It’s an admirable endeavor. About her experience, Xu said, “Going back to Wenzhou was like taking a walk back through my vague memory. I was full of surprise and awe… I can give things a place and understand myself more. I can view it with a different perspective.” Ideally, then, acceptance and reconciliation will follow, which is far more valuable than a mountain of gold.—JANELLE LYNCH

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JANELLE LYNCH is a photographer, teacher, and freelance writer based in New York City. She was a 2012-2013 Fellow at the Writers’ Institute, CUNY Graduate Center. Her second monograph, Barcelona, was published by Radius Books in 2013. www.janellelynch.net

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