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Book Review: Nail Houses or the Destruction Of Lower Shanghai


Book Review Nail Houses or the Destruction Of Lower Shanghai By Peter Bialobrzeski Reviewed by Christopher J Johnson Those of us who muse day after day upon photography often enjoy those musings in plush armchairs or upon nice couches or over fresh hot coffee in a clean café; in other words, we do so from a lap of luxury – even if that lap is a shoebox apartment in a questionable part of New York City, Los Angeles or Berlin. I know this because it doesn’t take much to be known.

Nail Houses or the Destruction Of Lower Shanghai.
By Peter Bialobrzeski. Hajte Cantz, 2014.
 
Nail Houses or the Destruction Of Lower Shanghai
Reviewed by Christopher J. Johnson

Nail Houses or the Destruction Of Lower Shanghai
Photographs by Peter Bialobrzeski
Hatje Cantz, 2014. 116 pp., 64 color illustrations, 8x11¾".

Those of us who muse day after day upon photography often enjoy those musings in plush armchairs or upon nice couches or over fresh hot coffee in a clean café; in other words, we do so from a lap of luxury — even if that lap is a shoebox apartment in a questionable part of New York City, Los Angeles or Berlin.

I know this because it doesn’t take much to be known.

We are blessed to have time for these thoughts because we don’t have too much on our shoulders; sure, we may have personal issues, arguments, ill friends and relatives, or an occasional longing, but we’ve got it good and that goodness can be difficult to transcend. The fact is that those who pursue fine art in a globalized world are fortunate. However, photography has also historically been quite effective in showing us the other side of this reality, helping us transcend and by doing so, understand the state of others, people unable to pause from their days to contemplate the landscapes of Nadav Kander or the street photographs of Viviane Meier.

Nail Houses or the Destruction Of Lower ShanghaiBy Peter Bialobrzeski. Hajte Cantz, 2014.

Peter Bialobrzeski is a global zeitgeist for the necessity of these kinds of images, images of the otherness that we do not know. Sure there are many directions within this scale; there are soldiers, criminals, foreign people, places and styles, there are drug addicts, but for me the most effective images are always of the daily life of those who have little in regards to what we consider comfort, property, and happiness.

Bialobrzeski’s photographs have frequently captured this reality and they stand, to me, as a reminder of our shared human sameness. Most of us want a nice place to live, a place to sleep and a little something to eat; constantly Bialobrzeski shows us this is commonplace, but through a world of extreme dilapidation and poverty.

Nail Houses or the Destruction Of Lower ShanghaiBy Peter Bialobrzeski. Hajte Cantz, 2014.

Nail Houses or the Destruction of Lower Shanghai is a look at homes that will not be abandoned. Some of the houses are half fallen into ruin, as if torn away from their initial structure by some kind of war, severe weather or god; other houses are made of castoff materials like corrugated sheets of steel and cardboard, but all of the houses are inhabited.

These are house that have been slated for demolition in order to make way for new construction. Only recently, in 2007, was legislation passed to protect homeowners from forced removal if their property was on land slated for renovation. These nail houses are offspring of that legislation. Despite being protected these homes and neighborhoods are not municipally treated equally; all that surrounds them falls into ruin. The reason the hangers on hang on is habit and, though it may be rapidly decaying, a convenience of lifestyle.

Nail Houses or the Destruction Of Lower ShanghaiBy Peter Bialobrzeski. Hajte Cantz, 2014.

Bialobrzeski gives us these homes and centers of meeting (because they are centers too, a neighborhood that is lively and lived in like any other) in his typical washed out color palate. In his other recent book Cairo Diary this effect of softened and drab color added to a sense of the desert and quietude, but in Nail Houses the effect is one of poverty, exposure, and neglect; not neglect by those who inhabit the houses, but neglect by a government — these are parts of Shanghai that see little to no government upkeep and that neglect shows.

Nail Houses or the Destruction Of Lower ShanghaiBy Peter Bialobrzeski. Hajte Cantz, 2014.

What can be difficult in these images is that they are beautiful. Presented by the photographer’s camera these street views suddenly become something to desire, where as if the photographs represented the view from one’s cushy apartment balcony it would be the opposite of desirable. But Bialobrzeski packages these underprivileged places so that they become works of art, something for the walls of our finest homes and public meeting places.

The trick becomes recognizing their significance as something more than beautiful; to transcend the image and realize that what makes the images in Nail Houses a work of art is that they take us from our place of comfort, our level of class and put us right into the streets of these neighborhoods where people live, laugh and make their daily lives. It is the shared humanness of all existence that, for me, shines through and it doesn’t elevate or knock down, but equalizes our sense of what it is to be a person, to have a home and a community.—CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON

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CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON is an artist, radio host, and poet living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His reviews, interviews, and essays on poetry can be read in the Philadelphia Review of Books. Johnson also hosts the radio program Collected Words on 101.5 KVSF, where he interviews authors, poets and artists.

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1 comment:

  1. Not the most prestigious episode of Shangai's history. They should have protected and restored the entire neighborhood (not so big) which as the commentator writes, was one of the rare "human" places of Shangai where you could find and see people actually sharing their lives, contrasting with the hundred kilometers of gloomy, silent, boring and cheap low-rise building bars everywhere else around, one of the saddest urban environment I ever contemplated in my life. I wonder what they are going to offer as lodging substitutes to the "poor" people who used to live there. Maybe I'm too romantic in my interpretation of the facts (well, there was some slums), but the sure fact is that the old streets, for most of their parts, were extremely soulful, lively and architecturally rich and compelling.

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